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Siege Watch Eighth Quarterly Report, August – October 2017

Siege Watch Eighth Quarterly Report

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:

Key Recommendations:

  • 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.

Download the PDF here.

Siege Watch Seventh Quarterly Report, May-July 2017

The Seventh Quarterly Siege Watch Report details conditions for at least 821,210 people living in more than 34 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 1.7 million additional Syrians face the threat of intensified siege and abuse.

Notably, al-Raqqa city was added to the Siege Watch “Watchlist” after being surrounded by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in June. This is the first time the US-led Global Coalition and its SDF partners have been implicated in the prolonged siege of a civilian population in Syria. Reports from the ground suggest that the SDF and the Global Coalition are violating international humanitarian law by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians trapped in the city and those trying to flee.

Two more “Watchlist” communities – Barzeh and Qaboun – capitulated to the Syrian government’s “surrender or die” strategy, and both were subjected to forced population transfers. Qaboun was completely depopulated as a result of these transfers and was removed from all Siege Watch monitoring efforts. The final forced population transfers from al-Waer neighborhood also occurred during the reporting period after it succumbed to the government’s scorched earth tactics last quarter, and it was subsequently reclassified from “besieged” to the project’s “Watchlist.”

Eastern Ghouta – the largest remaining besieged enclave in the country – is the most likely target of the Syrian government’s next major “surrender or die” campaign, putting more than 420,000 people at risk. The front lines of Eastern Ghouta and Jobar were targeted with at least six suspected chemical attacks in June and July 2017. In one these attacks, the victims displayed symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, indicating a dangerous tactical escalation by pro-government forces.

This seventh quarterly report also documents the continued abuses faced by civilians who remain in post-surrender communities after they revert to government control. In communities like Wadi Barada, the widespread confiscation of property, destruction of property records, and continued access restrictions all point to state-led efforts to permanently alter the areas’ demographic composition and prevent displaced civilians from ever returning home.

The forced deportation of civilian populations, along with the other collective punishment tactics of the sieges, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. All signs indicate that the Syrian government – 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:

  • The US-led Global Coalition against Daesh and its local partners must ensure that its combat operations in al-Raqqa are in compliance with the laws of war. They must provide safe passage for civilians escaping ISIS-controlled parts of al-Raqqa, and ensure that internally displaced persons (IDPs) are treated humanely and provided with necessary care and provisions.
  • The UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should immediately open investigations into the recent suspected chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta and Jobar.
  • International stakeholders, including the UN Security Council, must increase political pressure on besieging parties and their allies to prevent Eastern Ghouta – the largest remaining besieged enclave in the country – from becoming the next eastern Aleppo.
  • 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.
  • Agencies working on early recovery initiatives in post-surrender communities in cooperation with the Syrian government should take measures to protect the housing, land, and property rights of forcibly displaced civilians.

Download the PDF here.

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.

Download the PDF here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Download the PDF here.

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.

Siege Watch cited in Syria Deeply article on the siege economy

The Siege Sector: Why Starving Civilians Is Big Business

WRITTEN BY Annia Ciezadlo  PUBLISHED ON Aug. 11, 2016  READ TIME Approx. 5 minutes

As 2 million people are at risk of coming under siege in Aleppo, researcher Will Todman speaks to Syria Deeply about the war economy that has taken hold in besieged areas across the country.

BEIRUT, LEBANON – Starving civilians into submission is a war crime. Yet siege warfare has become a widespread tactic in the Syrian conflict, especially with government and pro-government forces, for one simple reason: It works.

But while sieges are a brutally cost-effective way to win back territory with minimal cost, there’s another, even uglier reason they’ve become so popular in the Syrian conflict. As some of the country’s longstanding sieges enter their fifth year, starvation itself has evolved from a military tactic into a profitable underground economy.

Besieged civilians are a captive and extremely lucrative market. Today, at least 590,200 people are officially under siege in Syria, according to the United Nations; the independent watchdog group Siege Watch estimates that over 1 million people are being deliberately starved, most of them by the government. The traders and business people who control the flow of black-market goods into besieged areas reap enormous profits. “It’s not only money that people are gaining from this, but also goods,” says Will Todman, who wrote a recent report for the Middle East Institute on siege profiteering. “And even winning loyalty comes into it.”

Todman spoke to Syria Deeply about the war economy that has grown up around sieges inside Syria, how traders and profiteers manipulate prices, and some of the dilemmas for humanitarian groups trying to bring aid into besieged areas.

Syria Deeply: Your report was a portrait of what I would call the “siege sector.” Did you get a sense of the overall size of this sector?

Will Todman: It’s difficult, because these things fluctuate so much. The prices are constantly going up and down. The traders will lower their prices to meet whatever they think demand is, or whatever they think people can pay.

One indication is the Wafideen crossing, out of Eastern Ghouta, near Douma. It’s nicknamed the Million Checkpoint [Hajez al-Milyon]. The soldiers on the checkpoint are taking a million Syrian pounds [about $4,600] an hour from bribes. That’s just a fraction of the whole thing.

Syria Deeply: Everyone I’ve talked to in besieged areas has described a similar pattern of selectively banning certain goods: One week you can’t bring in bread, the next you can’t bring in chickpeas. At first everyone thought this was a form of psychological warfare. After reading your report, I’m beginning to wonder if those running the checkpoints are banning certain goods in order to manipulate prices.

Todman: I’m sure psychological warfare plays a role in it. But the overwhelming thing, which I hadn’t really appreciated when I started looking at this, was the economic side.

I think sieges did start as a military tactic, and they’re pretty effective. From a counterinsurgency military perspective, early on they achieved their aim: Look at the very first siege, of Daraa, which went on for about 10 days and made things settle down again. Elsewhere, on a bigger scale, ultimately you could say that they worked.

But now it’s become about making money. Traders get agreements from very high up, often from connections in the regime, to be allowed to import a certain good. Because there’s so few goods getting in in the first place, it’s really difficult to try and nurture alternative economic networks that could form some kind of competition. They’re free to exploit as much as they want. Eastern Ghouta is the prime example of this economic exploitation.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if this tactic of allowing a certain product in one day, and then not, might be to try and make the most profits. To let the demand increase, and then suddenly allow them in, and take lots of money when everyone’s desperate for something – for cooking oil, fuel or whatever it might be.

I tried to trace the evolution of corruption, really both in the Syrian army and also with pro-regime militias. I think that might help explain how the profiteering aspect of this came about. There are a few examples that show just how important that is.

Hezbollah took over the checkpoints at Madaya in late 2015. That’s when those horrific, horrific images of emaciated children and civilians came out. It was so stark that this was after Hezbollah had taken over, because I think they’re much less corrupt than either the Syrian forces or pro-regime militias. So, soon after a change in the actor enforcing the siege, you can suddenly see that impact. That was an indication to me just how much corruption was going on.

Syria Deeply: So the lack of corruption actually caused people to starve more? There’s an interesting point there about the role of smuggling and bribery and profiteering – that perhaps they also help people to survive.

Todman: I spoke to someone with good contacts in the regime who said that soldiers are sent to sieges as a reward. They’ll get sent to wherever the front lines are at the moment; and then, almost like a vacation, they’ll get posted to a checkpoint by a siege, and effectively given the green light to exploit as much as they can. Because they don’t know how long they’re going to be deployed there, or when they’ll next be paid their salary.

Syria Deeply: Did you hear of any examples of that happening with anti-government or pro-opposition militias as well?

Todman: I didn’t speak to anyone living inside an opposition group siege, but I heard anecdotally that these things are happening there as well. I got the impression that it’s almost as though they’d learned from what the regime was doing and were trying to mimic it, as a means of making money, and also as a means of revenge.

I’m not trying to ignore the sieges that aren’t imposed by the regime. But they’re so overwhelmingly imposed by regime or pro-regime forces that I do think it’s appropriate to focus on that. Often the armed groups who are being besieged find ways of benefiting from this as well. But it’s always the civilians who end up right on the bottom.

Syria Deeply: What about sieges by ISIS or Nusra?

Todman: I heard from people in Deir Ezzor that it’s much more difficult to get goods in through ISIS checkpoints. There’s not the same levels of smuggling at all. There doesn’t have to be, because the regime can still fly all that stuff in. This is why I would define Deir Ezzor as being besieged by the regime and ISIS at the same time. Because the ways in which goods are distributed once they’ve been flown in through the military airport, I would say, are very similar to sieges elsewhere. It’s not physically going through a checkpoint, but the quantities are still designed in a way to increase the amount they can make civilians there pay.

Syria Deeply: Sieges are by definition hard to break. But do you see any viable ways to alleviate the human suffering of people inside besieged areas?

Todman: U.N. convoys are incredibly problematic. Yes, we’re seeing a few more now, but it’s still meeting a fraction of the need, and not sustainable at all. The things that are being sent in are not really the things that people need to be able to restart their lives.

But if you’re looking purely at the war economy, I do think that convoys are probably one of the best ways of breaking the hold that some of these actors have over the whole system. It’s far from perfect, and I wouldn’t say that’s what we’ve got to do, but I think they are one of the ways of helping. Obviously the best thing is to stop the sieges.

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