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Friday, 30 November 2018

Honour the memory of Raed and Hammoud—support civil society in Idlib

Raed and Hammoud at a screening of Pink Panther cartoons for the children of Kafranbel, January 2013.

It is one week since the shocking murder of civil society activists Raed Fares and his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid.

We need to help carry on their work. You can give directly to fund Radio Fresh, the independent radio station that Raed and Hammoud and their fellow activists founded in Kafranbel, Idlib.

And if you live in the UK, you can write to your MP and call on the UK to support civil society inside Idlib.

Remembering Raed in an article for the Washington Post, Iyad el-Baghdadi wrote: “Don’t let them tell you there are no good guys in Syria. There are—but the world chooses to ignore them while they’re alive, only to eulogise them after their death.”

The best way we can honour the memory of Raed and Hammoud is to support those who follow their path of non-violent activism across Syria, and in particular those in Idlib who work to strengthen civil society and to build a better alternative both to the murderous extremism of Assad and to those extremist armed groups who continue to undermine and repress Syria’s popular revolution.

Remember, anyone resident in the UK can write to their local MP. This website will help you.

We have written a suggested letter below, but please when writing add your own personal thoughts about why this is important to you.

Dear —

I write as your constituent to draw your attention to the murder of Raed Fares, celebrated journalist and civil society activist in the town of Kafranbel in Idlib province, Syria, killed along with his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid.

Raed Fares and his fellow activists in Kafranbel had for years campaigned against the Assad regime, calling on states like the UK to act to stop the killing. Kafranbel’s demonstrations were world famous for their powerful and witty banners and posters.

Raed had also consistently opposed the extremism of groups like ISIS and HTS. He was a consistent voice for human rights and freedom. Through Radio Fresh he worked to counter extremism in Idlib.

In 2014, two gunmen from ISIS attacked him, shattered several bones and punctured his lung. In 2016 he was detained by the Nusra Front, then linked with al-Qaeda. More recently Nusra’s successor, the jihadist group HTS, ordered Radio Fresh to stop broadcasting music—Raed’s response was to response was to use other sounds, such as tweeting birds, clucking chickens and bleating goats, poking fun at the jihadists’ restrictions.

On Friday 23rd November, Raed Fares and his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid were shot down by unknown gunmen—very likely from HTS.

Their murder illustrates the serious challenge peaceful civil society activists for free expression and democracy pose to authoritarian rule: by the Assad regime and also by the extremists who have undermined Syria’s popular revolution.

But Syrian civil society is struggling to survive. Many states, including the UK, have been slowing or cutting funding to the people most needed to defeat extremism: the White Helmets, the Free Syria Police, local councils, and the many community activists, women’s organisations, peacebuilding groups, and human rights activists that risk their lives for a better future in Syria.

The crisis in Syria is not over. Coalition bombing may have driven back ISIS in some parts, but bombs will NOT end extremism. Without human rights and good civil governance, extremism will still thrive in other forms. The killing of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid shows things can still get worse if we stand by. Or we can choose to give our full support those working to make things better.

We ask you, in honour of the memory of Raed Fares and of his projects such as the fiercely independent Radio Fresh, to ensure that the funding of civil society organisations in Syria is maintained and wherever possible increased. This is the ONLY way to finally defeat extremism from state and non-state actors, and to promote a secure and democratic future for Syria.

As Raed Fares said: ‘ the only way to create a new Syria is through civil society. There is no other way. It can’t happen through weapons, it can’t happen through realities that others are trying to impose.’

Yours sincerely

Read more:

Lindsey Hilsum’s Channel 4 News report on the killing of Raed Fares.

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham most likely behind assassination of Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneed: report by Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In memoriam: Raed Fares and Hammud Junayd, giants of Syrian civil society, by Mustafa Abu Shams for Al Jumhuriya.

‘The one who gave life to the demonstrations’: Raed Fares, remembered, by Alaa Nassar and Avery Edelman for Syria Direct.

The famous cartoons and banners of Kafranbel’s demonstrations were the result of teamwork. Here is an article on one Kafranbel cartoonist Iman, and a post on another Kafranbel cartoonist Ahmad Jalal.

Idlib Lives: reports on peaceful civil society organisations in Idlib, Syria, by Peace Direct and The Syria Campaign.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The UK’s failure to protect

Recovering the body of a victim of an incendiary attack in Arbin, Eastern Ghouta, 22 March 2018. Photo: Syria Civil Defence via Siege Watch 10th Quarterly Report, Part One.

“In no part of Syria is there comprehensive, long-term and reliable protection for persecuted people.”

That’s the view of the German Foreign Ministry in a report leaked this month. This observation is of course an indictment of the war against civilians by the criminal Assad regime and its international allies, Putin and company. But it’s also an indictment of the intervening powers, the US-UK Coalition and Turkey, and their failures to put civilian protection at the centre of their strategies.

• UK Government rejects R2P report recommendations

This week the Government responded to a recent Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on Syria and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The Government rejected two key recommendations: that the Government develop an atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan; and that the Government establish an independent inquiry into the decision-making processes leading to, and the consequences of, non-intervention.

In rejecting an atrocity prevention strategy proposal, the Government listed what it does on atrocity prevention, particularly on Syria, but didn’t examine why what it does is failing to prevent atrocities, and didn’t consider how today’s policy choices in Syria may be setting conditions for further atrocities in the future.

In rejecting an independent inquiry into non-intervention, the Government sought to contain the question to the August 2013 vote, but the issue of UK non-intervention in Syria goes wider, back to the narrowing of UK policy options in line with US policy in 2012, and forward to the decision to intervene against only one perpetrator in 2015. The issue continues today with the UK avoiding full transparent discussion of its current responsibilities as a military force in Syria.

• Three years of UK intervention in Syria

Next month will be three years since the UK Parliament voted to intervene in Syria, not to protect civilians against all their worst oppressors, but to act only against those who presented a short-term security threat to Western states.

Jo Cox abstained in that vote precisely because although she believed intervention was needed, she insisted intervention should be centred on civilian protection. At the time of the December 2015 vote, she wrote:
“Since the first outline of the plan by the Prime Minister I have studied the case he has set out in detail, discussed it with officials and experts, with Syrian people and with campaigning groups trying to end the conflict. My reluctant conclusion is that beyond the tactic of airstrikes, the wider plan remains undeveloped. 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.

“The Prime Minister has compounded this for me by positioning the strategy as ‘ISIS first’, like we are picking from a menu of independent variables. First we’ll deal with ISIS and then we’ll come back to Assad. Wars don’t work like this. Indeed, by refusing to tackle Assad’s brutality we may actively alienate more of the Sunni population, driving them towards ISIS.

“So I have decided to abstain. Because I am not against airstrikes per se, but I cannot actively support them unless they are part of a plan. Because I believe in action to address ISIS, but do not believe that it will work in isolation.

“My final hope and plea is whether or not the Government win this vote that they take a long hard look at revamping their strategy for civilian protection in Syria. That in the weeks that come the protection of civilians becomes the central component in our plan. In my view it is only when civilians are protected that we will defeat ISIS, and until that is at the centre of our plan I will remain an outspoken advocate for that cause.”

See also: UNA-UK disappointed by UK’s response to Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on Humanitarian intervention.

Monday, 5 November 2018

The UN aid convoy and the Assad regime torture chief

Who is responsible for Rukban camp? Above: Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, wanted on criminal charges in Germany and France; Gavin Williamson, UK Defence Minister; Jim Mattis, US Secretary of Defense; Abdullah II, King of Jordan.

On Saturday, a UN aid convoy from Damascus reached Rukban Camp in the Tanf Deconfliction Zone, southern Syria.

On Monday, international arrest warrants issued by French judges against three high-ranking Syrian regime officials were made public.

These two stories are connected—here’s how:

French judges issued the international arrest warrants on 8 October 2018, but they were first made public on 5 November. The three Syrian regime officials named are Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud. They are charged with complicity to crimes against humanity and (for Mahmoud) war crimes, in connection with the disappearance, torture and death of dual Syrian-French nationals, Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh.

Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, is also subject to an international arrest warrant issued by Germany’s federal prosecutor in June of this year for his role in the deaths of ‘at least hundreds of people’ between 2011-2013 in Syrian prisons.

Jamil Hassan has been under EU and US sanctions since 2011.

Jamil Hassan personally signs the facilitation letters that permit UN agencies and NGOs to make aid deliveries inside Syria. No UN aid moves through Damascus without his signature. For years this meant that little or no UN aid was allowed to reach civilians under siege by the Assad regime.

Saturday’s UN aid convoy from Damascus was to Rukban, a camp of 50,000 or more civilians on the border with Jordan, outside of regime-controlled territory in the Tanf Deconfliction Zone, an area around the US-UK Coalition’s Tanf base. This UN convoy was the first aid delivered there since January, when aid was delivered across the Jordanian border by crane.

The government of Jordan (a UK ally and recipient of UK aid money) has been restricting cross-border aid to Rukban since 2016, while the Assad regime has been resisting calls to allow cross-line aid from Damascus.

Rukban camp is inside the Tanf Deconfliction Zone, an area militarily controlled by the US-UK Coalition. The zone is defended both against ISIS and against pro-Assad forces by the Royal Air Force and other Coalition forces. The zone  is patrolled on the ground by Maghaweir al-Thowra (MaT) which is a local Syrian militia trained at Tanf base by UK and US forces, and equipped and paid by the US-UK Coalition.

Under Geneva Convention IV, the US and UK as occupying powers have duties to civilians in the Tanf zone, including the duty to bring in food and medical aid themselves when UN cross-border and cross-line aid deliveries fail.

Despite this, the US-UK Coalition has sought to evade responsibility for Rukban camp. On 20 October 2018, the Financial Times reported Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for the US-UK Calition, as saying that Rukban camp was a “humanitarian concern but not technically part of our military operation.”

Rather than take full direct responsibility for civilians in the US-UK area of military occupation, the US and UK have left the civilians in Rukban dependent on the signature of Jamil Hassan, Assad’s torture chief in Damascus, the same criminal who is now subject to international arrest warrants from both Germany and France. Survivors of Assad’s starvation sieges in Daraya, Madaya, Moadamiya and elsewhere can testify to the immorality of this policy.

Today we see small steps forward on accountability for Syrian regime crimes. The US-UK Coalition also need to be held legally accountable for their actions and inactions. The UK and its allies must now do their duty towards civilians in the Tanf zone.

Read more: Rukban Camp in Syria: The UK is failing in its legal duty under the Geneva Conventions

Update: UK organisations write to Prime Minister Theresa May on Rukban camp

Monday, 29 October 2018

Rukban Camp in Syria: The UK is failing in its legal duty under the Geneva Conventions

55,000 people are trapped without aid in Rukban Camp in southern Syria.

The camp is inside the Tanf deconfliction zone, effectively under US-UK Coalition military occupation.

As an Occupying Power, the UK has a LEGAL DUTY under the Geneva Conventions to ensure the population are able to receive food and medical aid.

The UK is failing in its legal duty under the Geneva Conventions.

Today we are sending MPs a full illustrated briefing (PDF) explaining the circumstances and the UK’s legal duty to the population.

Please write to your MP and call on them to end the UK’s failure in Rukban.

No UN aid for 55,000 civilians trapped in Rukban Camp

An aid convoy from Damascus to Rukban has been cancelled. UN aid from Damascus is subject to approval by the Assad regime. Rukban is on the Jordan border. UK ally Jordan blocks cross-border aid.

Rukban is inside the Coalition’s Tanf zone. The zone is patrolled by a local force trained by the UK and US, and is defended by the RAF.

As an Occupying Power, the UK has a LEGAL DUTY under the Geneva Conventions to ensure that the population can receive food and medical aid.

Questions UK MPs should be asking:
  1. Given the UK role in defending the Coalition’s Tanf zone, why is the UK failing to meet its obligations as an occupying power under Geneva Conventions towards the thousands of civilians trapped in the zone?
  2. Have ministers instructed the Royal Air Force to draw up plans for airlifting humanitarian aid to civilians trapped inside the Tanf deconfliction zone?
  3. Have UK officials discussed with Syria Civil Defence their offer to help provide aid to civilians trapped in the Tanf deconfliction zone?

The UK has a legal duty towards civilians in the ‘de facto besieged’ camp at Rukban.

Rukban camp is located just inside Syria along the border with Jordan. The camp began forming in late 2014 after Jordan closed its border to most asylum seekers.

Jordan has severely restricted aid access to the camp since a June 2016 ISIS suicide bomb attack on a Jordanian border post.

In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have fled to the camp from areas targeted by Russian and Coalition air strikes.

The most recent aid delivery in January was made over the border by crane. Since January, people in the camp have depended on a “trickle” of trade from the Syrian side, which the UN’s Jan Egeland says has been cut off in recent months, making it “one of the most desperate places in Syria.”

At least 55,000 people are at risk in Al Rukban refugee camp, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) reported this month. There are 150 cases in urgent need of medical care, and 15 people have died this month alone, among them two babies who died from malnutrition and lack of medical access.

This human suffering is taking place inside a military zone defended by Coalition forces, including by the Royal Air Force.

Rukban Camp is inside the Coalition’s Tanf deconfliction zone. The zone is patrolled by Syrian forces trained by the UK and US, and is defended by the Royal Air Force.

In Spring 2016, Syrian opposition forces captured the nearby Tanf border crossing from ISIS. Shortly after, UK, US, and Norwegian special forces established their base at Tanf.

In August 2016, BBC News reported on UK Special Forces at Tanf base, training local Syrian forces to fight ISIS.

Since then, US and UK forces have defended an area with a radius of 55 km around Tanf base both against ISIS and against pro-Assad forces. As recently as June 2018, a Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jet dropped a 500lb laser-guided bomb during a firefight with pro-Assad forces.

The Tanf zone is effectively under military occupation by UK and US forces. Consequently the UK and US have legal duties to the population within the zone under the Geneva Conventions.

In particular, the UK as an Occupying Power “has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.”

Syria Civil Defence (AKA the White Helmets) have declared their willingness to enter Rukban camp to assist civilians.

Maghaweir al-Thowra, the local forces trained by the UK and US, have declared they are ready to provide security for aid deliveries.

The UK has the capacity in the Royal Air Force to airlift aid into the Coalition’s Tanf zone.

Any UN aid from Damascus is dependent on facilitation letters signed by Assad regime authorities. The Assad regime has routinely blocked UN aid to areas outside regime control.

The Assad regime insists such facilitation letters be signed by Jamil Hassan, head of Air Force Intelligence, a man sanctioned by the UK and EU and subject to an international arrest warrant issued by Germany’s Federal Prosecutor for his part in the mass torture and killing of prisoners in Syria.

In leaving civilians in Rukban dependent on aid deliveries from Damascus, the UK and US governments and military forces are failing in their legal duty to civilians inside the Tanf zone.
  • Call on the UK government to airlift aid to the Tanf zone.
  • Bring the White Helmets to Rukban camp to help deliver food and medical aid.
  • End the Coalition’s shameful and illegal dereliction of duty towards civilians.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Concerns with the ‘Designated Area Offence’ in the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2018

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.

On the basis of their work with Syrian and other refugees, they have written about their serious concerns regarding certain provisions of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2018, in particular those stipulating the proposed ‘Designated Area Offence’.

There has been a lack of engagement and consultation with the charity sector in general and the Syrian community in particular regarding the drafting of this proposed offence within the Bill, despite that these two communities will be directly affected by the Bill’s application.

Rethink Rebuild are concerned that parts of Syria or Syria itself may become a designated area should this law be passed, and that the proposed offence does not sufficiently acknowledge in detail that there are valid reasons (completely unrelated to terrorism) why individuals may travel to ‘designated areas’.

Read a submission on the bill by Rethink Rebuild here (PDF).