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Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Deaths at Rukban: The UK has a responsibility to protect

Video: Trailer for ‘The People Of No Man’s Land,’ a short documentary on Rukban camp by Daham Alasaad.

At least 55,000 people are at risk in Rukban Camp on the border with Jordan, according to medical organisation UOSSM. The Times reports that Rukban holds between 45,000 to 60,000 people who have fled Assad and ISIS.

According to community workers, 15 people have died this month alone, among them two babies. On October 8, in the space of less than 24 hours, two babies died in the camp. 4-month-old Huda Raslan died from malnutrition and lack of medical access. Munaf Al Mahmoud, a one year old baby, died due to the lack of adequate medical care.

There are now 150 cases in urgent need of medical care, UOSSM reports.

The UK has a direct responsibility to protect people trapped in Rukban.

UK ally Jordan is blocking access for medical and food aid.

Rukban Camp is near the Coalition’s Tanf base, used by the US and by the UK’s SAS to train Syrian anti-ISIS fighters.

The camp is inside a 55km deconfliction zone protected from Assad and ISIS forces by the RAF and US Air Force. As recently as June 2018, an RAF Typhoon fighter bombed Syrian regime forces that were threatening the Tanf deconfliction zone.

The UK has military access to the area—in the air and on the ground. The UK has close diplomatic relations with the Jordanian government. In April 2018, DFID committed to provide £110 million of UK aid funding for 2018/19, and to double its funding for economic resilience and reform.

For months and years, the UK and its allies Jordan and the US have been failing in their responsibility to protect people trapped in Rukban. Here, even more than in other parts of Syria, the UK has the means to act, by negotiating ground access, or by implementing air access for food and medical assistance.

End the UK’s shameful failure to protect people in Rukban camp.

Write to your MP here.

Read more from Syria Direct:
Below: Map of Rukban camp and the US-UK military base at Tanf, Map by the Carter Center via War on the Rocks.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on R2P and Syria

In 2016, children in Daraya sent an SOS message to the world.

Syria Solidarity UK was one of several groups and individuals to submit evidence to the recent House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on Responsibility to Protect and Syria. Our full evidence is below.

The Committee published its report on 10 September 2018. Read it here, or as a PDF here.

Syria Solidarity was one of twelve organisations welcoming the report in a joint letter, and calling on the UK to lead by example on R2P.

Much of the discussion in the UK over Syria and R2P has focused on the failure to act in 2013 following the Ghouta chemical massacre. The consequences of that decision are still being debated. This year, the UK joined the US and France in carrying out airstrikes in response to a fatal chemical attack in Douma. By taking this action, and by taking it without a vote, the current Government undid the 2013 Parliament’s decision. As a result we can see that limited strikes to deter chemical weapons attacks have not in themselves been enough to stop large scale violence, and they most likely wouldn’t have been enough in 2013. Arguably however they have made possible a wider deterrent effect by re-opening the possibility of further UK action, a possibility that was definitively shut down in the aftermath of the 2013 vote.

While a capacity to deter is part of what we argue is needed to stop large scale violence against civilians in Syria, as long as that deterrence is focused solely on the use of chemical weapons, it cannot be truly regarded as amounting to a strategy to protect civilians. For this reason, there is a need to reconsider the popular narrative of 2013 as the key failure of the UK and its allies on Syria. The more decisive failure was arguably the failure to militarily enforce the UN-negotiated ceasefire in Spring 2012. Reflecting on that failed ceasefire, Kofi Annan wrote that ‘sustained international support did not follow,’ and ‘the ceasefire quickly unravelled and the government, realising there would be no consequences if it returned to an overt military campaign, reverted to using heavy weapons on towns.’

The second major Parliamentary vote on Syria came in 2015, when MPs voted to support the widening of UK military action against ISIS to include military action in Syria. When the need to protect civilians was raised in debates prior to that vote, the Government emphasised that the RAF would take great care to avoid inflicting casualties. But avoiding taking civilian lives is a different proposition to actively protecting civilian lives. Nearly three years later, we see that while the UK military maintains it has no evidence that UK action has directly inflicted civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq, British officers and British ministers have at the same time trumpeted the UK’s integral role in a Coalition campaign that has cost several thousand civilian lives.

Jo Cox, who expressed a sharper understanding of the Syrian crisis than any other British parliamentarian, explained her decision to abstain in the 2015 vote by the following remarks on the Government’s declared strategy:

‘While much of the intent and language is there, the thing I am most concerned about and which in my view will most change the conflict dynamic is the protection of civilians, particularly from Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombs. This is relegated to second order status in the strategy, underdeveloped and unthought out. It is a fatal flaw in the strategy.’

Written evidence from Syria Solidarity UK (RTP0012)
  • We call for the protection of civilians to be a primary aim for all future UK military actions rather than a secondary consideration.
  • We call for the human rights of all of Syria’s population including those forcibly displaced and exiled to be the primary concern in UK policy towards the political future of Syria.
  • We call for human rights to be put at the centre of  refugee policy and humanitarian policy towards Syria and the region.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

With millions of people under threat in Idlib, what can the UK do?

Five children were killed by Russian aircraft in Jisr al Shughur, Idlib, yesterday.
Photo: Syria Civil Defence.

  1. Track and publish details of air attacks on civilians.
  2. Sanction Russians with command responsibility.
  3. Deter ALL attacks on civilians, not just chemical attacks.
  4. Support and protect civilian local government.

2.5 million civilians are trapped in Idlib, including 700,000 people displaced from other parts of Syria by the Assad regime. (Source: Amnesty)

The UK, US, and France have warned the Assad regime that they will take action if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons in attacking Idlib. However the UK, US, and France are offering no deterrence against any other bombing of civilians, whether by Assad or Russia.

Idlib is supposed to be a protected zone under a de-escalation agreement made between the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, but over the last year other de-escalation zones have been subject to massive attacks and forced displacements by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

The boundary of the Idlib de-escalation zone is marked by Turkish, Russian, and Iranian military observation posts.

Military control within Idlib is contested by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) armed groups and National Liberation Front armed groups. HTS includes the former Jabhat al-Nusra, historically linked to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front groups opposing HTS are backed by Turkey.

Political control within Idlib is contested between HTS and local councils, some of them democratically elected. Syrian civil society groups and civilian local government have spent years resisting both the Islamist extremists and the Assad regime.


1. Track and publish details of air attacks on civilians.

The RAF tracks military aircraft across Syria as part of its contribution to the anti-ISIS Coalition.

According to the RAF, its E-3D AWACS aircraft provides ‘big picture’ situational awareness for Coalition aircraft and early warning of aircraft movements outside Coalition control, while Air Vice-Marshal Stringer recently told the Defence Select Committee that the RAF’s Sentinel stand-off radar provided about 25% to 30% of the overall Coalition contribution.

The UK should publish radar tracking data on attacks by Russian and Syrian aircraft against civilian targets, in order to help identify those with command responsibility, to establish grounds for future prosecutions, and to make the case for targeted sanctions against those implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

MPs of various parties have raised this issue with ministers, only to receive boilerplate replies suggesting that security considerations prevent publication, but when Assad’s air force dropped nerve agent on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, the US published tracking data to show the regime was responsible. If it could be done in that case, it can be done for other attacks on civilians.

Publish the radar tracking data. Identify the bases of origin for individual attacks, and identify individuals with command responsibility.

2. Sanction Russians with command responsibility.

Russian forces in Syria have attacked hospitals, schools, rescue workers, crowded marketplaces, and even a UN aid convoy. They have faced not one single sanction in consequence of these criminal attacks.

The UK coordinates its international sanctions with the EU. A key reason for calling on the UK Government to publish aircraft tracking data is to make a public case for international sanctions against Russian individuals and entities implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

3. Deter all Assad regime attacks on civilians, not just chemical attacks.

The UK, US, and France have warned the Assad regime that they will take action if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons in attacking Idlib. However the UK, US, and France are offering no deterrence against conventional bombing, artillery, barrel bombs, cluster bombs or incendiary attacks, all of which are regularly targeted against civilians in Syria.

In February 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2139 demanding that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs, and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.”

As the UK, US, and France ready a response to any chemical attack, they should also publicly declare themselves willing and ready to respond to other attacks on civilian targets such as hospitals and schools, and to respond to other indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions, incendiaries, and barrel bombs.

4. Support and protect civilian local government.

Civilians in Idlib are under threat by armed groups who have been responsible for torture and killing, but the answer is not to allow those armed groups to be replaced by the Assad regime which is responsible for even more torture and killing.

Civil society and local civilian government have resisted both extremist armed groups and the Assad regime. They need to be supported. The recent withdrawal of UK funding for Free Syria Police and local councils was a step backwards. Ending the external threat to Idlib from the Assad regime needs to be matched by planning and resources to support civil governance and civil society inside Idlib.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The killing of Mohammad and Yahya Sharbaji

Rethink Rebuild

Yahya Sharbaji, a prominent non-violent activist from Daraya detained by the Assad regime since 2011, has today been confirmed to have died while in detention. His family was informed by regime authorities earlier on Monday that both Yahya and his brother Mohammad had died in 2013 while in detention.

Yahya was a true leader of his community. He was known to be the mastermind behind non-violent protest tactics in Daraya’s revolutionary movement. Yahya firmly believed that the uprising must remain non-violent in order to truly achieve a transformation away from the regime’s coercive employment of violent methods. He was part of the ‘Darayya Youth’ group along with our Managing Director Haytham Alhamwi which was active in community work and promoting social change before the uprising in 2011, following the non-violent philosophy of Jawdat Said.

In Yahya’s own words, ‘I would rather be killed than be a killer.’

Yahya was a victim of the Syrian regime’s campaign early in the uprising of detaining front-line leaders of non-violent activism, which ultimately led militant enthusiasts and extremist groups to fill the void.

The Syrian regime is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed over the past seven years. Thousands of detainees have been killed in security branches and detention centres under torture. The fate of tens of thousands still in regime prisons remain unknown.

It is also responsible for devastatingly tarnishing a youth generation’s aspirations for progressive change to its country.

While international powers rush to contain the conflict without addressing underlying grievances through the current constitutional process, one thing is certain: there will be no peace without justice.

Rest in Peace Yahya and Mohammad.

Cross-posted from Rethink Rebuild’s Facebook page.

Rethink Rebuild Society is a Manchester-based charity that works towards improving the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, in particular but not exclusively Syrians in the UK, helping them become positively established within British society.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Review: My Country

My Country, A Syrian Memoir
Kassem Eid, Bloomsbury, 2018

Review by Kellie Strom

On the early morning of 21 August 2013, the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta, and Moadamiya in Western Ghouta, were attacked with rockets loaded with Sarin nerve agent. An estimated 1,500 people were killed. Kassem Eid, then 27 years old, was amongst the survivors.