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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.

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Aljazeera America discusses the Siege Watch report and the UN response

Report: More than 1M people besieged in Syria

A report by Siege Watch challenges the UN, which says 500K are besieged in Syria

More than one million Syrians are trapped in besieged areas, a new report says in a challenge to the United Nations, which estimates just half that amount and has been accused by some aid groups of underplaying a crisis.

The fate of Syria’s besieged is at the heart of peace talks that quickly fell apart last week in Geneva and are set to resume by Feb. 25. Negotiators for the opposition had insisted that the Syrian government stop besieging civilians before talks could truly begin.

The new Siege Watch report, issued Tuesday by the Netherlands-based aid group PAX and the Washington-based the Syria Institute, comes a month after images posted online of emaciated children and adults led to an international outcry and rare convoys of aid to a handful of Syrian communities.

The town featured in the images, Madaya, was not listed by the U.N. as a besieged community at the time. Aid workers who entered last month reported seeing skeletal people and parents who gave their children sleeping pills to calm their hunger.

The Siege Watch report says 1.09 million people are living in 46 besieged communities in Syria, far more than the 18 listed by the U.N. It says most are besieged by the Syrian government in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, and Homs. In the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, about 200,000 people are besieged by both the Islamic State in Iran and the Levant (ISIL) and the Syrian government. The report lists two communities besieged by armed opposition groups.

“Electricity and running water are usually cut off, and there is limited (if any) access to food, fuel, and medical care,” the report says.

Deaths have been reported from malnutrition, disease, hypothermia and poisoning while scavenging for food. Some communities have been besieged for months or years.

The estimates are based largely on information provided by local contacts in the communities, including local councils, medical workers and citizen journalists.

With the spotlight on the besieged, the United Nations last month raised its estimate by almost 100,000, saying that 486,700 people are affected.

That’s still less than some aid groups and others estimate. They argue that the world body’s numbers set the tone for humanitarian response efforts and that more urgency is needed.

“Many remain unaware of the extent of the crisis, and the international response has been muted as a result,” the Siege Watch report says.

In meetings this week with U.N. officials and member states, PAX says it will call for the immediate lifting of sieges as a way to build confidence in the peace talks. Syria Institute executive director Valerie Szybala said the new report has not been shared with Syria’s government.

The U.N. says it considers an area besieged if three criteria are met: The area is surrounded by “armed actors,” humanitarian aid cannot regularly enter,  and civilians, including the sick and wounded, cannot enter and exit.

“Of course, differences of opinion do occur,” Amanda Pitt, a U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman, said of criticism of the U.N.’s estimates.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders goes well beyond the figure in the Siege Watch report, estimating that 1.9 million Syrians live in besieged areas.

Doctors Without Borders said it defines Syria’s besieged areas as ones “that are surrounded by strategic barriers (military or non-military) that prevent the regular and safe inflow of humanitarian assistance and the regular and safe outflow of civilians, the wounded and the sick.”

The United Nations places an estimated 4.5 million Syrians into a separate category called “hard to reach,” a step below besieged. It defines that as “an area that is not regularly accessible to humanitarian actors for the purpose of sustained humanitarian programming as a result of denial of access.”

Doctors Without Borders said it doesn’t use that distinction, “as the medical consequences for both types of region are similar.” Medical supplies are almost never allowed in, it said, and medical evacuations are rarely allowed out.

The aid group has said that since convoys reached Madaya last month, at least 16 people there have died and at least 33 were in danger of dying of malnutrition.

The United Nations now considers the town of 20,000 besieged.

The Associated Press

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