Infographic: US Strikes on Pro-Govt. Forces

Under the Trump Administration, the US strategy in Syria has evolved. One of the signs of this evolution is the US and US-led Coalition’s increased willingness to use military force against pro-government forces that threaten US-led Coalition partners on the ground. The map below shows the locations and circumstances of recent US and US-led Coalition strikes […]

Siege Watch Sixth Quarterly Report, February-April 2017

The Sixth Quarterly Siege Watch Report details conditions for at least 879,320 people living in more than 35 besieged communities in Syria. The Syrian government and its allies remained responsible for the majority of existing sieges, as well as all “Watchlist” areas, where more than 1.3 million additional Syrians face the threat of intensified siege and abuse.

During the February-April 2017 reporting period, the Syrian government grew increasingly emboldened by the success of its “surrender or die” strategy. Al-Waer, Madaya, and Zabadani all capitulated in the face of increased attacks and threats. Opposition-besieged Fuaa and Kefraya signed similar forced transfer surrender agreements in parallel with Madaya and Zabadani under the “Four Towns” framework. Population transfers of both fighters and civilians commenced in all five areas during the reporting period. As a result of these transfers, Madaya reverted to government control, and Zabadani was completely emptied and removed from project monitor efforts. These violent and forced surrenders create new grievances and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

During the reporting period, the Syrian government also attacked the Damascus neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh – two “Watchlist” communities that had been relatively calm under long-term truce agreements – bringing the neighborhoods under intensified siege. Following the end of the reporting period, both neighborhoods surrendered and were subjected to forced population transfers. Muhajja, a town in Daraa governorate, was added to the “Watchlist” for the first time this quarter after government forces cut access for both goods and people earlier in the year.

While many post-surrender communities have seen improvements in civilian welfare, there are also worrying signs that they are vulnerable to fresh human rights abuses by pro-government forces. In all of the besieged and “Watchlist” areas that surrendered to the Syrian government in recent reporting periods, local governance institutions were dismantled, and civilians remaining were afraid to share information for fear of retribution. This silence from post-surrender communities should raise alarm bells for human rights monitors and those concerned with civilian protection in Syria as reports of abuses such as arrests, evictions, and harassment have already come to light.

Humanitarian conditions in besieged communities continued to deteriorate as a result of increased violence and decreased humanitarian access. The siege of Eastern Ghouta – the largest remaining besieged enclave in the country – intensified as pro-government forces worked to block key smuggling routes. There are fears of a looming offensive against the area, where nearly 420,000 people remain trapped. Deir Ezzor was upgraded to a Tier 2 intensity siege as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions since ISIS cut the enclave in two, making aid air drops more difficult. Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias continued to play a central role in enforcing Syria’s sieges, and both countries participated in local forced surrender negotiations.

The forced civilian population displacements, along with the other collective punishment tactics of the sieges, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. All signs indicate that the Syrian government – encouraged by the recent success of the “surrender or die” strategy and emboldened by the lack of international response – will continue to intensify and expand its efforts to subdue besieged communities through violence, coercion, and depopulation in the coming months.

Key Recommendations:

  • Ending Sieges: The UN Security Council must act on its commitment to enforce Resolution 2139 (2014), which called upon all parties “to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas,” and threatened further steps in the case of non-compliance.
  • Monitoring: International monitors should be immediately deployed into post-surrender communities to ensure that vulnerable civilians are not being subjected to continuing human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) violations. UN agencies should also send monitors to oversee local forced surrender agreements when requested.
  • Reporting: UN OCHA’s Damascus hub should be relieved of any role in the decision-making process on siege designation, given the close working relationship that the office must maintain with the Syrian government. Relevant data gathered by the Damascus hub should be sent to be analyzed in a more neutral environment where determinations will be less vulnerable to political pressure.
  • Accountability: War crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the framework of sieges, such as starvation and forced population transfers, must be incorporated in the accountability mechanism that will be established in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution of 21 December 2016.

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Siege Watch Fifth Quarterly Report, November 2016-January 2017

The Fifth Quarterly Siege Watch Report details conditions for at least 913,575 people living in more than 37 besieged communities in Syria. The Syrian government and its allies remained responsible for the majority of existing sieges, as well as all “Watchlist” areas, where more than 1.3 million additional Syrians face the threat of complete siege.

During the November 2016-January 2017 reporting period, the government’s “surrender or die” strategy reached new heights with the scorched earth campaign to recapture eastern Aleppo. The increased pace of forced surrender agreements in besieged and “Watchlist” communities continued, with al-Tal, Khan al-Shieh, and Wadi Barada all capitulating in the face of increased attacks and threats. Communities that surrender are forced to accept conditions that leave their residents vulnerable to further abuse and persecution, and all of the surrenders entail partial population transfers of both fighters and civilians. These forced population transfers are war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.

Since the end of the reporting period on January 31, the critically besieged neighborhood of al-Waer capitulated to government and Russian surrender terms to avoid a complete humanitarian disaster. An estimated 15,000-20,000 people, mainly civilians, will be forcibly transferred from the neighborhood under the terms of the deal over a two month implementation period that began on March 18.

Humanitarian conditions in besieged communities continued to deteriorate as a result of increased violence and decreased humanitarian access, with December and January representing two of the worst months ever for UN aid convoys. Attacks targeting civilian residential areas and critical services such as hospitals, schools, and Civil Defense centers continued at an alarming rate despite the nationwide ceasefire announced in late December 2016. Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias continued to play a central role in enforcing Syria’s sieges, and both countries participated in local forced surrender negotiations.

Although the official UN population figures for besieged areas have increased significantly since Siege Watch began monitoring in late 2015, their estimates still fall short of the reality on the ground. For the fifth quarter in a row, Siege Watch data indicates a much larger problem than the UN monthly reporting, which recognizes only 643,780 people in 13 besieged communities as of 31 January 2017. The bulk of this discrepancy is due to the fact that the UN reporting still fails to acknowledge the long-term sieges of communities in northern Homs and southern Damascus.

Key Recommendations:

  • Ending Sieges: The UN Security Council must act on its commitment to enforce Resolution 2139 (2014), which called upon all parties “to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas,” and threatened further steps in the case of non-compliance.
  • Monitoring: International monitors should be immediately deployed into post-surrender communities to ensure that vulnerable civilians are not being subjected to continuing human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) violations. UN agencies should also send monitors to oversee local forced surrender agreements when requested.
  • Reporting: Decision-making regarding UN OCHA’s besieged community designations should be moved out of the Damascus hub. Relevant data should be compiled and analyzed in a more neutral environment where it will be less vulnerable to political pressures.
  • Accountability: War crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the framework of sieges, such as starvation and forced population transfers, must be incorporated in the accountability mechanism that will be established in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution of 21 December 2016.

Download the PDF here.

No Return to Homs: A case study on demographic engineering in Syria

The Syria Institute and PAX published a new report today entitled: “No Return to Homs: A case study on demographic engineering in Syria.” No Return to Homs explores the mechanisms and impacts of state-directed population displacement in Syria through a case study of Homs city, which in 2014 became the first major urban center to succumb to the government’s siege and destroy strategy. Former residents of Homs city were interviewed to understand how the state-directed population displacement strategy was carried out in Homs city, and how it impacts the future of that city today. The ‘Homs model’ has served as a blueprint for the destruction and depopulation of other key locations such as Darayya in Rural Damascus and Eastern Aleppo today.

Between 2012 and 2014, the Syrian military and affiliated militias systematically displaced more than half of the population in Homs city. Their tactics included: detention, torture, rape, massacres, full-scale military assault with ground and air assets, siege, and the targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure. Displaced residents of Homs continued to face persecution even after their initial displacement and many are still trapped under siege in other parts of the governorate. Interviewees identified a long list of physical and administrative barriers created by the Syrian government that prevent them from returning to their homes. As a result, they are effectively excluded from rebuilding efforts undertaken by the Syrian government in cooperation with UN agencies with the support of foreign donor states.

This report shows that the government’s displacement strategy in Homs city is a form of demographic engineering, which seeks to permanently manipulate the population along sectarian lines in order to consolidate the government’s power base. Under these conditions, international support for government efforts to rebuild the Homs neighborhoods that it intentionally destroyed and depopulated may serve to incentivize similar atrocities elsewhere by paying the government “war crimes dividends,” instead of holding it accountable.

The scale, scope, and nature of forced displacements from places like Homs city present a formidable challenge to future stability in Syria. National reconciliation will be unable to move forward without addressing complex issues of repatriation and property rights. Premature rebuilding efforts in places like Homs city that fail to account for the displaced may reinforce injustices, deepen sectarian schisms, and create new grievances that will undermine progress towards a solution and lay the groundwork for future conflict.

“No Return to Homs” was a joint effort of The Syria Institute and PAX, a Dutch peace building NGO.

Download the PDF here.

Siege Watch Fourth Quarterly Report, August-October 2016

The Fourth Quarterly Siege Watch Report published today details conditions for at least 1,326,175 people living in more than 39 besieged communities in Syria. The Syrian government and its allies remain responsible for the majority of existing sieges, as well as all “Watchlist” areas, where more than 1.1 million additional Syrians face the threat of complete siege.

This reporting period was notable for the number of forcible transfers from besieged areas as the government and its allies have shifted tactics from “surrender or starve” to “surrender or die,” in an effort to neutralize besieged communities, alternating intense attacks with periods of negotiation. After the complete destruction and depopulation of Darayya in August, other communities faced increased pressure to capitulate. Local negotiating committees are being coerced through a mixture of threats, lies, warnings and ever-changing terms, pushing besieged residents to new depths of despair. Communities are forced to accept conditions that leave them vulnerable to abuse and to make concessions without any guarantees that the government side would comply. In al-Waer, the Syrian government extracted concessions and evacuated a number of fighters, but when it came time to implement its concessions and release information on 7,500 detainees, pro-government forces instead launched a new wave of attacks.

Darayya, in Rural Damascus, was completely destroyed during the reporting period and its entire population surrendered and was forcibly displaced. An additional community, Hosh Nasri in the Eastern Ghouta area of Rural Damascus, was captured in a military offensive and its entire population was displaced into other besieged communities in Eastern Ghouta. Moadamiya and the two “Watchlist” communities of Qudsaya, and al-Hameh were forced to capitulate to government truce conditions under the threat of increased violence and destruction. Some of these conditions include disarming, forced transfer of part of the population, and conscription into the Syrian army for military-aged males. In return, the communities are supposed to get the return of goods and services, normalization of civilian movement, and in some cases the release of detainees. While there is potential that these developments could lead to lasting improvements for civilians, there is also fear and concern that the conditions imposed by the government have left the population extremely vulnerable to human rights abuses.

According to Siege Watch reporting sources, Russian and Iranian intermediaries are overseeing the local negotiations. In almost all recent cases, local negotiating committees have reached out to the UN agencies in Damascus to request independent monitoring of the agreements and their requests have been ignored or denied. In some instances similar requests have been made for years without result. The UN has said that they only “get involved in evacuation operations when requested by all parties.” As a result, the deals reached in these besieged communities have been capitulations made under extreme duress, resulting in violations of international humanitarian law.

For the fourth quarter in a row, these Siege Watch data indicates a much larger problem than the UN officially recognizes, with only 974,080 people in 16 besieged communities as of 1 November. These differences are not due to methodology, as Siege Watch purposefully uses the UN OCHA criteria to designate an area as besieged. As long as the UN, which informs the actions of the international community, fails to recognize the full scope of the problem, it is unlikely that an appropriate response will be possible.

Siege Watch is a joint effort of The Syria Institute and PAX, a Dutch peace building NGO. This fourth quarterly reports covers the period from August to October 2016. For more information visit Siege Watch online at www.siegewatch.org, and follow us on Twitter at @SiegeWatch.

Download the PDF here.