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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.

READ THE ORIGINAL HERE

Siege Watch Second Quarterly Report, February – April 2016

The second quarterly Siege Watch report details the conditions for an estimated 1,015,275 Syrians trapped in besieged communities across the country. The report shows that despite unprecedented international efforts to reach the besieged areas, conditions continued to decline. No sieges were lifted and and additional communities were added to the Siege Watch “Watchlist.” Many besieged areas came under continued attack despite the nationwide “Cessation of Hostilities.” This report covers the period from early February to April 2016.

Download the PDF here.

Siege Watch First Quarterly Report, November 2015 – January 2016

SiegeWatch1Siege Watch is a project that aims to provide the international community with timely and accurate information on conditions in Syria’s besieged communities. New data published in this first Siege Watch report shows that there are well over 1,000,000 Syrians under siege and that the Syrian government and its allies are by far the biggest perpetrators of sieges against civilians. Current UN practices regarding besieged area designation and reporting, forced local ceasefires, and aid delivery may validate and inadvertently encourage the expansion of the Syrian government’s “surrender or starve” strategy.

Download the PDF here.

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