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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.

‏لا عودة إلى حمص: دراسة حالة عن الهندسة الديموغرافية في سورية

No Return to Homs cover

معهد سورية بالتعاون مع المنظمة الشريكة باكس سعيدون بنشر الترجمة العربية لتقريرهم الرائد: “‏لا عودة إلى حمص: دراسة حالة عن الهندسة الديموغرافية في سورية.”

 

في عام ٢٠١٤ ‏خضع أول مركز حضري رئيسي لحصار الحكومة السورية واستراتيجية التدمير. في “لا عودة إلى حمص”، ‏تمت مقابلة ‏سكان المدينة السابقين لفهم كيفية تنفيذ استراتيجية التهجير السكاني الموجهة من قبل الدولة، وما آثارها حتى يومنا هذا. ‏ولا تزال نتائج التقرير تزداد أهمية، حيث “نموذج حمص” من حصار وتهجير السكان ومصادرة الممتلكات استخدم كمخطط لتدمير وتهجير السكان من مناطق أخرى رئيسية مثل داريا في ريف دمشق و شرقي حلب.

 

‏إن نتائج تقرير “لا عودة إلى حمص” كانت مؤثرة في صياغة استراتيجية الاتحاد الأوروبي بشأن سورية في أبريل / نيسان  2017، والتي ذكرت أن “اﻻﺗﺣﺎد اﻷوروﺑﻲ ﻟن ﯾﺷﺎرك ﻓﻲ اﻻﻧﺗﻌﺎش اﻟﻣﺑﻛر / ﺟﮭود اﻻﺳﺗﻘرار اﻟﺗﻲ ﯾﻣﻛن أن ﺗدﻋم اﻟﮭﻧدﺳﺔ اﻻﺟﺗﻣﺎﻋﯾﺔ واﻟدﯾﻣوﻏراﻓﯾﺔ.”

 

‏إن حجم ونطاق وطبيعة التهجير القسري من أماكن مثل مدينة حمص يشكل تحدياً هائلاً أمام الاستقرار في سوريا مستقبلاً. ‏ولن تكون المصالحة الوطنية قادرة على المضي قدماً ‏من دون معالجة مسائل معقدة تتعلق بالعودة الطوعية وحقوق الملكية. ‏إن جهود إعادة البناء المبكرة في أماكن مثل مدينة حمص التي ‏تفشل في الأخذ بعين الاعتبار أوضاع المُهجرين، قد تعزز المظالم وتعمق.

اقرأ التقرير هنا.

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 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.

No Return to Homs: A case study on demographic engineering in Syria

The Syria Institute and PAX published a new report today entitled: “No Return to Homs: A case study on demographic engineering in Syria.” No Return to Homs explores the mechanisms and impacts of state-directed population displacement in Syria through a case study of Homs city, which in 2014 became the first major urban center to succumb to the government’s siege and destroy strategy. Former residents of Homs city were interviewed to understand how the state-directed population displacement strategy was carried out in Homs city, and how it impacts the future of that city today. The ‘Homs model’ has served as a blueprint for the destruction and depopulation of other key locations such as Darayya in Rural Damascus and Eastern Aleppo today.

Between 2012 and 2014, the Syrian military and affiliated militias systematically displaced more than half of the population in Homs city. Their tactics included: detention, torture, rape, massacres, full-scale military assault with ground and air assets, siege, and the targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure. Displaced residents of Homs continued to face persecution even after their initial displacement and many are still trapped under siege in other parts of the governorate. Interviewees identified a long list of physical and administrative barriers created by the Syrian government that prevent them from returning to their homes. As a result, they are effectively excluded from rebuilding efforts undertaken by the Syrian government in cooperation with UN agencies with the support of foreign donor states.

This report shows that the government’s displacement strategy in Homs city is a form of demographic engineering, which seeks to permanently manipulate the population along sectarian lines in order to consolidate the government’s power base. Under these conditions, international support for government efforts to rebuild the Homs neighborhoods that it intentionally destroyed and depopulated may serve to incentivize similar atrocities elsewhere by paying the government “war crimes dividends,” instead of holding it accountable.

The scale, scope, and nature of forced displacements from places like Homs city present a formidable challenge to future stability in Syria. National reconciliation will be unable to move forward without addressing complex issues of repatriation and property rights. Premature rebuilding efforts in places like Homs city that fail to account for the displaced may reinforce injustices, deepen sectarian schisms, and create new grievances that will undermine progress towards a solution and lay the groundwork for future conflict.

“No Return to Homs” was a joint effort of The Syria Institute and PAX, a Dutch peace building NGO.

Download the PDF here.