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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.

MEE coverage of new Siege Watch report

More than a million people still under siege in Syria, says report

#SyriaWar

Transfer of formerly besieged civilians into areas which are also cut-off means little overall drop in number of war’s trapped non-combatants

Last update: Tuesday 13 September 2016 14:20 UTC

More than a million Syrians remain under siege even as the current US-Russia brokered ceasefire came into force, according to a damning report released by monitoring group Siege Watch on Tuesday.

The organisation, a joint project of the PAX peace organisation and the Syria Institute, said that more than a million people remain trapped in at least 40 besieged communities across the country as of July.

While Siege Watch acknowledged that thousands of people have since been brought out of the besieged Damascus district of Daraya, the report stressed that prior to this many civilians from rebel-held areas were often just transferred to other areas under siege, greatly limiting the overall drop in the number of Syrians trapped by fighting.

The group said that a further 1.4 million Syrians were on its watchlist as being under the threat of siege and Siege Watch urgently called on the international community to act.

“The situation for besieged Syrians appears grim. Six Siege Watch besieged communities were captured by force during the reporting period, displacing tens of thousands of people. Not a single siege was lifted through diplomatic means.”

The evacuation of Daraya in August, following the surrender of rebels, was branded as “ethnic cleansing” by some opposition sources, pointing out the suburb is now virtually empty after the Syria government ended its siege. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was shown by Syrian state TV defiantly praying in the city on Monday to mark the beginning of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

“The forcible evacuations raise a number of issues beyond the fact that people are often moved to other besieged areas: these mass evacuations contribute to what has become a clear policy of demographic engineering by the government of Syria,” Valerie Szybala, the executive director of the Syria Institute, told Middle East Eye.

“Syria is already overwhelmed with a massive IDP [internally displaced person] crisis, and people displaced in this manner are very vulnerable to human rights violations such as enforced disappearances or military conscription.”

The al-Waer district of Homs was singled out in the report as needing the most urgent attention from world powers with a community of almost 100,000 people on the verge of “complete collapse”. It said: “The medical sector has been severely impacted by the intensified siege of al-Waer, with a lack of fuel and medical supplies hampering effective treatment for all conditions.”

The report also warned that civilian deaths are mounting “due to lack of care for conditions like kidney disease”, adding that the government of President Bashar al-Assad rarely allowed medical evacuations of the area.

The report went on to call on the UN and the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a group of world powers working to find a solution to the crisis, to focus on ensuring free movement of civilians into and out of besieged areas, rather than concentrating on one-off aid convoys.

It also called on the bodies to “follow through on monitoring the implementation of any local ceasefire agreements that it helps to initiate.”

Tense ceasefire

As part of the Russia-US brokered ceasefire, which began on Monday evening, aid convoys are set to roll into some of the worst hit areas. However, uncertainty over the stability of the truce has so far kept aid groups on the Turkey border, although agencies insist they are ready to deploy into Syria quickly.

Monday’s ceasefire was greeted with wariness from the Syrian opposition, but its main umbrella group the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) appears to have accepted the ceasefire provided that certain “guarantees” about which groups would not be included were observed.

Russia said on Monday it would continue to target “terrorist” groups during a ceasefire in Syria, which includes the Fatah al-Sham formerly the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, as well as the Islamic State (IS) group.

The deal will be backed by “the largest groups,” including Ahrar al-Sham, despite the latter voicing concerns over the viability of the deal and initially appearing to reject it.

As of Tuesday, the truce appeared to be holding, but analysts have warned that the ceasefire is likely to remain shaky while the international community is unable to punish violations.

“I believe [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry noted at Friday’s press conference that the deal requires ‘unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all of the besieged and the hard-to-reach areas.’ Priority for the besieged areas should be to focus on making this statement a reality,” said Szybala.

“The most effective pressure that could be applied is for the terms of the agreement to actually be enforced, with consequences for violators. The lack of enforcement has been a fatal flaw in previous agreements as warring parties – particularly the Syrian government and its allies – have learned that they can commit violations with impunity.”

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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.

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

READ ORIGINAL HERE

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