The Eighth Quarterly Siege Watch Report details conditions for an estimated 744,860 people trapped in at least 33 besieged communities in Syria from August – October 2017. The report shows that the Syrian government and its allies remain responsible for the vast majority of the ongoing sieges: 96.5% of people are besieged entirely by pro-government forces versus just 1% besieged entirely by opposition forces. The Syrian government and its allies also remain responsible for the threats to all of the “Watchlist” areas, where more than one million additional Syrians face the threat of intensified siege or post-surrender abuse.
While other parties in Syria have been responsible for sieges, the Syrian government is the only party that has employed sieges against civilian populations across the country in such a systematic, widespread, long-term, or devastating manner, with tactics that include: restricting civilian access to water, food, medicine and fuel by blocking humanitarian aid convoys and restricting or blocking commercial trade; targeted attacks on hospitals, schools, and first responders as well as indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas; the use of chemical weapons and other internationally banned munitions; and the repeated denial of civilian medical evacuations. These components of the government’s “surrender or die” strategy all violate international humanitarian and human rights law and, committed as part of a massive collective punishment campaign, rise to the level of crimes against humanity.
This Eighth Siege Watch report marks two years since TSI and PAX started monitoring besieged communities in Syria. One of the most shocking aspects of the sieges over this period of time has been the inability of international stakeholders to end them. Almost all of the sieges that have come to an end during the two years of the Siege Watch project have done so through an intensification of a “surrender or die” strategy involving violence, coercion, and forced displacement. Some formerly besieged communities have been entirely depopulated, leaving forcibly displaced residents with little hope of return. In other post-surrender communities now under the complete control of the forces that besieged them with no protection measures in place, civilians continue to face abuses but have fallen silent fearing reprisal from state security forces for reporting on the ongoing access and movement restrictions, detentions, forced conscriptions, evictions, etc.
The continuation of long-term sieges, such as those in Eastern Ghouta, northern Homs, and the Southern Damascus Suburbs, are testaments to the impotence of the international community to prevent, deter, or seek accountability for ongoing crimes against humanity. The UN Security Council (UNSC) has not taken any steps to enforce its own Resolutions demanding humanitarian access and civilian protection measures. The division and inaction of the UNSC has created a situation where the burden falls on UN humanitarian agencies, which have neither the mandate nor the responsibility to end these atrocities. On their end, these UN agencies have made no notable improvements in their ability to reach besieged communities over the past two years. Instead they have continued an ineffective strategy of close coordination with the Syrian government despite evidence that this strategy fails to address the main challenges to reaching besieged populations: access denial and obstruction by the Syrian government.
The Syrian government has been emboldened not only by the military support of its allies, but also by the success of the siege strategy and the inadequate international response to the atrocities committed therein. The current and most likely trajectory will lead to deepening humanitarian crises in besieged areas, as hundreds of thousands of additional civilians face suffering, loss, and forced displacement.
PAX and TSI therefore recommend the following measures be taken to mitigate some of the worst consequences of the sieges, based on developments during the August – October 2017 period:
- Eastern Ghouta is facing a man-made humanitarian disaster and an estimated 424,260 people are at risk. Urgent action, including increased political pressure, is needed to stop the bombardments, allow for medical evacuations, and secure the sustained entry of food and medicine. International stakeholders including the UN Secretary General, the UN Security Council, and member states, must immediately identify steps they can take to prevent Eastern Ghouta from becoming the next eastern Aleppo.
- International development donors should increase their support of Local Councils, charity organizations, media reporting networks, and other civil society actors in besieged communities. The actors serve critical roles in maintaining community resilience and stemming the growth of extremist ideology.
- The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN Habitat, and other agencies should undertake comprehensive protection analyses before beginning any early recovery initiatives in post-surrender communities in cooperation with the Syrian government. When any early recovery efforts are undertaken, these agencies should take measures to protect the housing, land, and property rights of forcibly displaced civilians.
- Since the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism was vetoed in November, it has become critical that UN member states take the lead in addressing the continued use of chemical weapons. Individual countries should support independent investigations, call for a comprehensive study of all suspected chemical attacks in Syria, and actively engage with the OPCW to identify new mechanisms for investigation and accountability.
- The US-led Coalition and its local SDF partners should undertake a comprehensive review of its civilian casualty findings from the offensive to defeat ISIS in al-Raqqa. Ex gratia redress payments should be made to the family members of Syrian civilians who were killed in US-led combat operations.