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Friday, 3 May 2019

UK failure to protect: Barrel bombs are back in Syria



Photo: A vehicle streaked with blood after Syrian regime aircraft targeted civilians fleeing bombing in northwest Syria on 1 May 2019. Two men and a woman were killed.

What can the UK do?

1. The UK can act to protect civilians by striking Assad’s helicopter fleet on the ground.

2. The UK can make a case for targeted EU sanctions in response to Russian attacks on hospitals.

Putin and Assad are escalating bombing of civilians in Syria’s northwest.

Russia has once again been targeting hospitals, and the Assad regime has again started dropping barrel bombs—improvised high-explosive weapons—on residential areas.

Just over a year ago, the UK joined with the US and France to strike Assad regime targets in response to a chemical attack in Douma.

That chemical attack was carried out by a helicopter dropping a chlorine weapon onto a residential building where civilians were sheltering.

The UK part of that April 2018 joint response targeted the Him Sinshar chemical weapons storage site, located some fifteen miles west of Homs.

The UK Government’s legal justification for the 2018 strike was based on the concept of ‘humanitarian protection’. But because the Government’s action only focused on chemical weapons and not on other weapons causing suffering to even greater numbers of people in Syria, the action cannot be judged a true humanitarian intervention. A more comprehensive strategy of civilian protection by the Government is necessary to qualify.

In particular, the joint action by the UK, US, and France failed to act against Assad’s helicopter fleet, used not just to deliver the weapon in the Douma chemical attack, but used in several other chemical attacks in Syria, and used in several more attacks with high explosive bombs against residential areas, and against prohibited civilian targets such as hospitals.

Hospital attacks have been a central feature of the Assad regime campaign against civilians. These have been carried out by Assad regime helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, and by Russian aircraft. There has been no direct action taken by the UK to stop them.

Assad’s use of chemical weapons needs to be understood as part of the Syrian regime’s wider strategy of waging war directly against civilian populations in areas outside regime control, to kill, maim, and starve them, to make them flee or surrender.

Civilian casualties of Assad’s bombing are by design, not by accident. Hospitals ARE a target for the Assad regime. Refugee movements are not a side effect but a deliberate objective of Assad’s campaign to make life unliveable in areas of Syria beyond his rule.

The UK’s minimal response wholly failed to address this strategy of death, destruction, and displacement. The UK has failed to protect civilians.

What can the UK do?

1. The UK can act to protect civilians by striking Assad’s helicopter fleet on the ground.

Nobody likes this option, but it is there. It is just as real an option now as at any other point in these years of mass-murder in Syria.

The legal basis is the same as used by the UK in responding to the 2018 chemical attack, and the case is stronger, as Assad’s helicopter fleet is responsible for many more civilian deaths than his chemical weapons programme.

2. The UK can make a case for targeted EU sanctions in response to Russian attacks on hospitals.

In the past week, four medical facilities were bombed in four days:

Kaston Primary Health Care Centre, Hama, 1 May.
• Alhbeit Primary Health Care Centre, Idlib, 29 April.
Al Latamna hospital, Hama, 28 April.
Al Madiq Hospital, Hama, 28 April.

There are zero—ZERO—sanctions by the EU on Russia for its actions in Syria, despite years of targeting hospitals, targeting rescuers, targeting aid workers.

The UK thinks it can’t get sanctions on Russian entities or individuals passed by other EU states.

The UK has evidence from multiple sources of Russian responsibility for attacks on hospitals, from the Sentry Syria early warning system which is supported by the UK, and from the Coalition air campaign in Syria which monitors Russian and Assad regime aircraft for deconfliction.

The UK should now publicly make the case for EU sanctions on Russian officers with command responsibility for crimes such as hospital attacks. And the UK should back up that case by publishing evidence to whatever level of detail is compatible with security concerns.


We have been here before.

Turn the sound on for the above video and you will hear the distress of the couple looking at the ruins of their home, bombed by an Assad regime helicopter.

We have been here before, through the siege and assault on Baba Amr, on Daraya, on Aleppo, on Madaya, on so many Syrian communities. Routine statements now from UK politicians and officials are worse than meaningless. Only actions count.

Below: Words from a UK official: “Monitoring…” “grave concern…” “must stop…”



Monday, 15 April 2019

Rukban camp: A new Srebrenica



On 11 July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army entered Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina that had been declared a ‘safe area’ by the UN Security Council. Six hundred Dutch soldiers were stationed in Srebrenica as UN peacekeepers. Civilians who sought refuge in the UN base were forced to leave and handed over to Bosnian Serb forces by the Dutch soldiers. 8,372 men and boys were shot over the course of the next few days, with the majority being murdered between 11–13 July.

In 2013, after over five years of trials, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands found that the Netherlands had been in control of Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica, and was liable for the deaths of civilians whom they had forced to leave and who were then murdered.

A few days ago, on Friday 12 April 2019, Syria Solidarity UK received a report about the killing of three civilians by Assad regime forces. The three people killed were amongst thousands forced in recent weeks to leave Rukban camp because of hardship and starvation caused by the blocking of humanitarian aid. Russia, the Assad regime, and UK ally Jordan, are all blocking or restricting humanitarian access to the camp.

The three young men were killed at an improvised detention facility in a school in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, where several people transferred from Rukban camp had been taken by Russian and Assad regime forces. According to EA WorldView’s account, one source said that “everyone, even women and children, witnessed it.”

We cannot know if others forcibly transferred from Rukban have also been killed. We cannot know if more will be killed in the coming days.

There are clear parallels with Srebrenica. Rukban camp is within an area militarily occupied by the US-UK Coalition. Rukban camp is next to Tanf base, occupied by US troops. A zone of 55 kilometre radius around Tanf base is patrolled by US and UK military aircraft. Under Geneva Convention IV, the US and UK both have clear legal duties to civilians in Rukban camp which is within their area of military occupation. In particular the UK and US have a legal duty to provide humanitarian aid.

The UK, US, and Jordan are all complicit in the forcible transfer of population from Rukban camp by Russia and the Assad regime, and are complicit in the killing of forcibly transferred people by the Assad regime.

The UK and its allies must deliver needed aid NOW to civilians in Rukban camp, whether by RAF airlift to Tanf base, or by airdrop, or by land via Jordan.

It took eighteen years for a court to find the Netherlands liable for killings in Srebrenica. Syrians and their friends won’t rest. We will seek to hold legally accountable all those responsible for this unfolding crime against civilians in Rukban.

Image from a UN video of their last aid delivery to Rukban camp in February 2019.



Above: Tweet by Refik Hodzic, former spokesperson for International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, on forced transfer and reported killing of civilians from Rukban camp.

Friday, 12 April 2019

REPORT: Three executed in Russian forcible transfer of displaced people from Rukban camp

According to a report received from a source in Rukban camp, three young people who were amongst those transferred from the camp in a Russian-organised displacement have been executed by Assad regime forces.

The three people executed were in a group taken to a school in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs. Women in the group were released and men were detained. The three executed were killed in the school.

Syria Solidarity UK is unable to verify this report, but the source has been reliable in the past.

Monday, 8 April 2019

The UK is complicit in a crime against humanity at Rukban camp

PDF version. Updated 12 April 2019.

While MPs have been absorbed in Brexit, the UK Government and Ministry of Defence have failed in their legal duty to civilians under Geneva Convention IV, and are now complicit in a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The UK must now urgently deliver aid to Rukban’s civilians by any means necessary.



Where and what is Rukban camp?

Rukban camp is in southern Syria on the border with Jordan, near where it meets the Syria-Iraq border.

Rukban is a camp of internally displaced Syrians, numbering between 40,000 and 50,000, who fled towards Jordan and were blocked by Jordan from crossing the border.

Rukban camp is next to Tanf, a Coalition base. The base is currently held by US forces and supports the Coalition’s Syrian client militia forces in the Tanf zone.

Rukban camp is inside a 55 kilometre radius zone around Tanf base controlled by Coalition forces, including the Royal Air Force.

What is happening with Rukban camp?

Russia and the Assad regime are trying to forcibly displace people from Rukban camp by blocking access for food and medical aid.

Russia and the Assad regime want the population to return to areas under the control of the Assad regime, as a step towards the regime regaining control of the area.

Most people in the camp are afraid to go to regime-held areas, fearing conscription, imprisonment, torture and killing.

Latest report 12 April 2019: Over two thousand women and children, and some men, have been forced to leave for regime-held areas, due to aid being blocked.

(2,254 people up to 12 April, approx. one in twenty of Rukban’s population. Data source: SARC)

Jordan’s government also wants Rukban camp cleared in order to avoid any further responsibility for the people living there.

Jordan has been blocking most cross-border humanitarian access for years.

The US-UK Coalition as the occupying force has legal duties to civilians in Tanf zone under Geneva Convention IV, including to bring in aid when necessary. The US and UK are not fulfilling this legal duty, or even acknowledging it.

How is the UK responsible for Rukban camp?

The UK is a senior partner in the anti-ISIS Coalition which is occupying Tanf zone.

The UK holds the post of Deputy Commander in the Coalition’s military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria: Operation Inherent Resolve. This post is currently filled by UK Major General Christopher Ghika CBE.

The Coalition is enforcing a military occupation of the 55km radius Tanf zone which includes Rukban camp.

The Royal Air Force plays a part in enforcing the Coalition’s occupation of the Tanf zone.

This military occupation is part of a Coalition operation in Syria which claims legal justification under Article 51 of the UN Charter as collective self-defence of Iraq, as set out in a letter to the UN Secretary General on 23 September 2014 from then US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

Geneva Convention IV Section III sets out legal duties that come with any military occupation.

Article 49 prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory.

Article 55 states that: To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the 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.

The UK has the legal duty and the means to bring aid in to Rukban.

The RAF already operates in the Tanf zone. It has the aircraft and the experience to do the job. US forces have already demonstrated military air drops in the Tanf zone. Now the RAF must fly in aid.


The UK must now urgently deliver aid to Rukban’s civilians by any means necessary.


The latest news is that as many as 2,254 people have been forced to leave for regime-held areas. Those leaving are disproportionately women and children, as men in particular fear conscription or imprisonment by the Assad regime

Forcible transfer of population is a crime against humanity under Article 7 (d) of the Rome Statute of the ICC.

By failing its legal duty under Geneva Convention IV — and thus allowing conditions for forced displacement — the UK is complicit in a crime against humanity, and is at risk of future prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Both the UK and Jordan are ICC State Parties.

By blocking cross-border aid, Jordan is similarly complicit and at risk of prosecution.

Jordan’s government, which is blocking cross-border aid access to Rukban camp, is also a recipient of major sums of UK aid.

The UK should privately and publicly press Jordan’s government to restore cross-border aid access to Rukban camp. Until Jordan does so, the UK must fly aid in to Rukban, either by air bridge via Tanf base or by air drop.

Write to your MP and call for the UK to do its legal duty towards civilians in Rukban camp.



Above: US military airdrop to US forces inside the Tanf zone, September 2018.

The US has repeatedly demonstrated that military air drops and airlifts to the Tanf zone are viable.

The UK military must now do its duty under Geneva Convention IV: deliver aid to civilians in Rukban camp.

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.