MEE coverage of new Siege Watch report

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


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.”


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.


MEE quotes TSI’s Szybala on besieged Aleppo

Fresh fighting in besieged Aleppo, residents ration food, fear what’s to come


Despite ceasefire claims rebel and government strikes kill 42 civilians, as Aleppo residents say they fear a long blockade.

Last update:
Saturday 9 July 2016 14:08 UTC

About 300,000 residents in rebel-held Aleppo are besieged after government forces seized the last main road into the city’s eastern side, as rebel strikes killed at least 38 civilians on Saturday.

The government’s capture of the Castello Road on Thursday, previously the only rebel-held artery into Syria’s largest city, came two days after the Syrian army declared a 72-hour ceasefire for the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The road’s seizure has effectively cut off residents in the eastern area of the divided city from being able to leave and food and other supplies from entering, raising concerns of a long-term siege.

On Saturday opposition fighters renewed rocket fire on the government-held west of the city, in strikes that killed at least 38 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based monitoring group said 14 children were among the dead, while Syrian state media gave a toll of 43 dead and 300 injured.

Fresh government air strikes on rebel neighbourhoods also killed four civilians on Saturday, the monitor reported.

The fresh airstrikes and rocket attacks came despite a claim from the Syrian army that it was extending the earlier truce for another 72 hours.

There were also reports of government strikes east of Damascus, where Syrian army troops took the town of Midaa, severing a key rebel supply route to the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta region.

In the east of Aleppo on Saturday, residents described shortages of basic goods after government troops advanced within firing range of the key Castello Road supply route.

“For two days the situation was calm, I went to the market and I filled up my motorbike with gasoline. Today, I couldn’t even find a single tomato,” said Bilal Qaterji, a local textile factory employee.

“There’s not a drop of fuel left because the Castello Road has been cut,” the resident of the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood told AFP.

In Aleppo, residents in the east of the city said they feared ongoing shortages if the Castello Road remained closed.

“I worry that the Castello Road will be cut for a long time, it will lead to shortages of bread and other necessities,” said Ahmed Kanjou, an unemployed father of four.

The Castello Road wraps around Aleppo’s eastern and northern edges and leads into rebel-controlled territory north of the battered city.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been trying to cut the key route for more than two years and their Thursday advance brought them the closest so far to achieving that goal.

On Saturday, the Syrian army was less than 500 metres (yards) from the key road, and were firing at anyone attempting to use the route.

“Shortly after [the road closure], the people will go hungry,” Fadi al-Halabi, a journalist based in the rebel-held side, told Middle East Eye on Friday. “[A] blockade is death, just slowly.

“The blockade is the hardest thing. I do not know what happens after a week. Now, yes, [I have food]. Tomorrow, I don’t know.”

Halabi said the blockade had an immediate impact on fuel and food prices in the city as supplies ran low and residents tried to stock up.

One kilogram of cucumbers, for example, would have cost five Syrian pounds (SYP) [23 US cents] before the war, he said. It cost 75 SYP earlier this week and jumped to 100 on Friday.

The government has been accused of using siege tactics to pressure rebel forces, and the UN says nearly 600,000 Syrians live in besieged areas, most surrounded by government forces although rebels also use the method.

Laila Kiki with The Syria Campaign, an advocacy group campaigning for the protection of Syrian civilians, said she had spoken with a social worker in eastern Aleppo on Friday morning who was cooking with less food because she was worried about a siege.

“Already from today,” said Kiki, “they started to think, ‘Maybe I should keep some extra things.’”

Over the past three days, Halabi said, there had been continuous aerial bombardments, which he believed to be Russian.

His account is backed up by a US intelligence official, who told Reuters on Thursday that in recent weeks Syrian forces, supported by Russian firepower, had “intensified their efforts to isolate and encircle opposition forces in Aleppo”.

On Friday, the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it was “extremely concerned at the unfolding situation in Aleppo” and for civilians trapped in eastern part of Aleppo City due to heavy clashes along Castello road, the only road in and out of this part of the city.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the secretary-general, said: “Heavy fighting over the past few days has continued to put civilians at risk of death and injury while effectively cutting off humanitarian’s access to people in need of assistance.

“This follows intensified fighting by all parties to the conflict in Aleppo city and surrounding areas in recent weeks, including reports of air strikes, shelling and heavy clashes, causing many civilian casualties and injuries. It has also caused damage to schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, and hindered humanitarian aid operations.”

Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported on Thursday that soldiers were carrying out “counter-terrorism operations in Syrian provinces, establishing control over new areas in Aleppo”.

“Army units are continuing their operations and now are hunting down fleeing terrorist groups in the area,” the agency said.

In a video posted to YouTube on Thursday, al-Raed Yasser Abdel Raheem, head of the Free Syrian Army’s Aleppo Operations Room, said his forces would not allow the city to be besieged.

“We will not allow them to blockade this city, we will not allow their planes to scare us,” he said.

“You are the patient ones, the warriors, they are mercenaries who took money to occupy our lands – do not let them.”

‘Planning and stockpiling’

For two years, Syrian forces have been trying to capture the rebel-held road, with the potential siege as a threat.

For this reason, Valerie Szybala, a siege monitor and executive director of The Syria Institute, based in Washington, DC, said, even if the government continues to besiege the city, Aleppans in the east side are unlikely to be on the brink of mass starvation in the next couple of weeks.

“It’s been an off-and-on-again threat so long that maybe some people became complacent,” she said. “But there has definitely been planning and stockpiling.”

As of 5 July, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the agency responsible for monitoring and bringing aid to besieged areas, said there were more than 354,000 people living under siege in Syria, more than half in areas surrounded by the government.

The agency has come under fire for allegedly downplaying the numbers, categorising some Syrians as “hard-to-reach” instead of besieged. Siege Watch puts the figure at more than one million, while NGO Doctors Without Borders has said it is almost two million.

Between 250,000 and 400,000 Syrians are thought to be living in the rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo.

Eastern Aleppo is the largest urban siege in the country, with conditions that differ from the majority of the sieges, which are in rural areas just outside Damascus, Szybala said.

“Urban areas fare worse generally because the rural areas have more avenues for coping. There is more room to farm and arable land,” she said.

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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