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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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Download the PDF here.