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.

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.


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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