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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Questions for the minister

Last week the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria held a discussion around the film Last Men in Aleppo, screened the same evening on BBC 4. Amongst those taking part was Alistair Burt, Minister of State for the Middle East. We went along to hear what he had to say, and to ask some questions.

Much of the minister’s remarks concerned opposition to military intervention in Syria amongst the UK public. Mr Burt argued that the vote in 2013 was not just a block on any possible military action, but a missed opportunity to persuade the regime to agree a more peaceful negotiated solution. The minister portrayed the UK now as having little say any more in events.

Missing in this was the fact that the UK has militarily intervened in Syria. The UK Parliament voted to intervene against ISIS in 2015, and the UK now shares responsibility for the consequences of that one-eyed campaign; consequences which include not just the near-total destruction of the city of Raqqa with civilian casualties comparable to the fall of Aleppo and with further mass displacement of ordinary Syrians, but also the retaking of territory by the Assad regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, striking as much fear in the heart of many Syrians as did ISIS.

You can read the minister’s remarks on the APPG Friends of Syria website.

Syria Solidarity UK believes the UK still has the capacity to act to protect Syria’s civilians, and has a duty to defend international humanitarian law, which has in so many cases been shredded in Syria, including it would seem by our own allies.

We asked the minister for two things:

1. Aid air drops to besieged Eastern Ghouta and other areas;

2. Tracking and publishing of radar information on the aeroplanes bombing civilians.

We need the UK to publish tracking data to hold Putin and Assad to account today, not just in the future. We need to hold them publicly accountable not just for chemical attacks, but for all attacks that target civilians. As long as we have no judicial body to hold them to account, we need the UK and others to present as much evidence to the public as possible, so that all the peoples of the world can demand their governments do their part.

On aid airdrops, feeding all 400,000 people under siege in Eastern Ghouta by air drops might not seem possible, but the UN did feed some 70,000 people in Deir Ezzor solely by airdrops from February 2016 to September 2017. The UN made over 300 airdrops to Deir Ezzor, including with precision guided JPADS parachutes.

The UN of course refused in 2016 to drop aid to areas besieged by the regime without explicit regime permission, despite all the countries of the ISSG calling on them to do so. The ISSG—the International Syria Support Group—included not just countries like the UK, US, and France; it also included Russia and Iran.

The UK promised at the time that it was prepared to join in dropping aid. On 31 May 2016, the UK Special Representative to Syria Gareth Bayley said:

“Air drops to deliver aid to all designated besieged areas remains a last resort. It is an expensive and complex way to deliver aid. But it is vital that we fulfil this commitment. The UK stands ready to do so.”

This promise on aid airdrops has not been kept by the UK Government.

Of course some feared that manned airdrops might be attacked. Would the Assad regime really have risked the consequences of such an act? After Russia and the regime were allowed to go unpunished for their murderous attack on a UN aid convoy in September 2016, one might well fear that they would.

There are three ways to avoid the risk of attacks on airdrops: One is to make a credible threat of decisive retaliation; another is to drop from high altitude as the UN did for Deir Ezzor; and a third is to use unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs or drones.

UK and US officials discussed using drones and guided parachutes for aid in the last weeks of the siege of Aleppo, but then as ever they folded in the face of Assad and Putin’s violent aggression.

As recently as January and February, the UK Government was saying that it was still considering using drones for aid airdrops, and yet it stood by as civilians from one town after another were forcibly displaced by Assad, Hezbollah, and Russia.

From Wadi Barada. From Madaya. From Al Waer. Tens of thousands more Syrians were forced from their homes by starvation sieges while the UK did nothing.

Alistair Burt laments the failure to act in 2013. If we continue to stand by while Eastern Ghouta is starved and bombed—if we won’t even drop aid to the starving—how will we look back at this failure to protect civilians in 2017?

Monday, 27 November 2017

Rukban camp: Britain and America’s shame

Rukban IDP Camp: Photo via Hammurabi’s Justice

  • The UK’s ally Jordan is blocking humanitarian access to Syrians trapped in Rukban.
  • The UK and US have a military base a few kilometres from 50,000 trapped civilians.
  • As full ground access is denied, the UK should now work with aid agencies to airlift aid directly to the desert camp.

How is it that 50,000 people are trapped without aid in the Syrian desert when there is a Coalition military base right next door?

Rukban camp is located in the desert on the Syrian-Jordanian border, in an area known as the Berm. 50,000 Syrians live there, internally displaced people blocked from fleeing Syria by the Jordanian government, and blocked by the Assad regime and its allies from receiving UN aid inside Syria.

People in Rukban are increasingly desperate. In the last year, there have been only two distributions of UN humanitarian food assistance, and none since June.

Camp residents report that water pollution, high temperatures, unsafe human waste disposal and garbage accumulation have led to major health issues such as diarrhea, fever, bronchitis, bowel inflammation, skin allergies and urinary infections.

Numbers of people at Rukban increased in September when pro-Assad Iranian-led militias advanced against Syrian opposition fighters, and another camp on the border, Hadalat, totally emptied out as people fled to Rukban. More recently, hundreds more have fled to Rukban to escape fighting in Deir Ezzor.

Map: The Carter Center via War on the Rocks

Rukban offers some safety from the Assad regime as it is near Al Tanf base, a military base used by the US and its allies, including until recently the UK, to train local Syrian anti-ISIS fighters. Rukban camp is 16 kilometres from the Tanaf border crossing.

It was at Tanf base that the BBC reported seeing UK special forces inside Syria in Summer 2016. After Russia bombed UK and US trained fighters at Tanf in 2016, the US negotiated a 55 kilometre deconfliction zone.

In 2017, Coalition forces defending the zone struck advancing Iranian-led pro-Assad militias, but allowed them to advance around it and reach the Iraqi border further east. Tanf base—and Rukban camp—are therefore now cut off from the rest of Syria by a pro-regime area of control held mainly by Iranian-led militias.

While the US and UK military regularly supplied their forces inside Syria across the Jordanian border, Jordan has closed that border for civilians.

When an alleged ISIS car bomb killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016, Jordan declared the Berm a closed military zone. No longer able to get access, UN agencies agreed a deal in late 2016 giving control of aid to the Jordanian military. Since then aid shipments have been sporadic.

Rukban now has the characteristics of a besieged community, trapped between Jordan’s military and pro-Assad militias. But it is a besieged community with a UK-US military base right next door. Rukban isn’t being bombed like Eastern Ghouta, but the UN clinic for Rukban regularly receives cases of acute malnutrition, including skeletal children.

The UK and US should be able to persuade their close ally Jordan to give reputable NGOs full access to Rukban. The UK and US are leading providers of humanitarian and development aid to Jordan, as well as of military aid.

If the UK and US can’t achieve an urgent and dramatic improvement in ground access, then Rukban is one place where there is no excuse for failing to fly aid in. Unlike other besieged areas in Syria, this area is defended by Coalition air forces. It can be accessed by flying either across the Jordanian or Iraqi borders—both Coalition partners. The UK could start delivering aid directly in days if not hours.

The UK’s excuses for failing to deliver air drops to Eastern Ghouta today, and to all the besieged areas that have fallen to Assad through 2016 and 2017, have been miserably weak. But in failing the 50,000 people trapped in Rukban, the UK has no excuse at all.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Syria Civil Defence statement on the Riyadh 2 peace talks

Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, yesterday issued a statement on the current talks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in which they called for the implementation of international resolutions to be given priority over more talks. First protect civilians, because only then will a secure peace be possible.

Read the full statement below.

Right: Alaa Addin Juha, Syria Civil Defence volunteer killed on Sunday 19 November by an Assad forces’ cluster bomb attack in the town of Hamouriya, part of the besieged Eastern Ghouta area in the suburbs of Damascus.

Above: The funeral of volunteer Alaa Addin Juha.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Who bombed Atarib Market last week? The UK’s MoD most likely knows the answer.

At least sixty-five people, including women and children, were killed and up to 100 others were wounded when a busy market in the town of Atarib, Aleppo province, was hit by three consecutive airstrikes, firing a total of six high-explosive rockets, on Monday 13 November 2017.

Atareb is inside what is supposed to be a de-escalation zone agreed between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The town is known for successfully driving out ISIS in 2014, and resisting extremists ever since. Atareb market was in no way a legitimate military target.

One report by Syrian opposition news site Zaman Al Wasl claimed that a regime Su-24 bombed al-Atareb, that it flew from T4 airbase, and that the pilot was Zuhair Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of Squadron 19.

Yesterday Syrians for Truth and Justice published a report saying that two Russian jets were most likely responsible:
At 14:00 pm, on Monday 13 November 2013, two aircrafts likely to belong to the Russian Air Force took off from Hmeimim Military Base (Basil al-Assad Airport) located in Jablah city in Latakia province, passed the Latakia Mountains range and headed east, and then deviated northwards and crossed Jabal al-Zawiya area through the skies of Idlib city, after that, they returned to the east until they reached the southern countryside of Aleppo, and to the north until they reached Khan Tuman town, and then headed westward, until they became in the skies of the northwest countryside of Aleppo, heading south towards to Atarib. Mohammed Bakkor, the supervisor of Atarib Observatory, which monitors and controls the movement of warplanes in the city’s skies through special surveillance devices, confirmed this. The Observatory transports such information to the Civil Defense teams through radios and to civilians in order to shelter from aerial bombardments. Mohammed added:

‘When the two Russian aircrafts became inside the area of operation, one of them carried out the first raid on the popular market in the middle of Atarib at 14:08 pm. Immediately, the other Russian aircraft carried out the second raid on the market 14:12 pm, and then the first aircraft turned and returned to the city's skies to target the market in the third raid. After that, the two aircrafts returned to Hmeimim Military Base.’

Which is correct? Were the people of Atareb killed and maimed by the Syrian Air Force flying out of T4 or by the Russian Air Force flying out of Khmeimim?

Most likely members of the US-led Coalition, including the UK’s Ministry of Defence, know the answer. The Coalition tracks military aircraft across Syria, coordinating information at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Michael R Gordon described the command centre there, ‘offering a rare glimpse into how the military plans and orchestrates the complex ballet of strike, surveillance and refuelling aircraft,’ in a May 2017 report:
Today, the American-led command center at this heavily secured base oversees air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other potential hot spots in the Middle East. The cavernous operations centre is crammed with liaison officers from countries in the American-led coalition, the American military services, intelligence experts and officers who plan and direct the missions.

The challenge in operating in Syria’s crowded airspace is clear from a glance at a large video screen inside the center that tracks aircraft across the region. Russian and Syrian planes are marked with yellow and orange icons; American and allied planes are delineated in green while civilian aircraft are blue.

In 2016, both Conservative and Labour MPs called for the UK to publish radar data on attacks against civilians. Ministers rejected these calls saying the information was ‘not appropriate to publish’ or ‘would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.’

These objections are nonsensical. The UK’s military publicly advertises its capacity to track military aircraft. The Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers use S1850M long range radar, able to track up to 1,000 air targets at a range of around 400 km. An RAF E-3D Sentry’s radar can scan distances of over 300 nautical miles. It can detect low-flying aircraft within 215 nmls (400 km).

The culture of reflexive military secrecy in the UK is standing in the way of accountability in Syria.

Since those Parliamentary questions were tabled, the US military has broken with its previous secrecy to publish tracking data showing the flight path of the Syrian jet responsible for the 4 April 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

It is time for the UK Government to put accountability first. Every day in Syria, ceasefires and de-escalation agreements are flouted, civilians are targeted, and no-one is held to account.
  • Publish the radar tracking data.
  • Name those responsible for war crimes.
  • Sanction the violators.

Read more about how to protect civilians here.

Chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta follows Russian double veto of UN-OPCW investigation

Photo via UK at the UN

On Saturday 18 November, a chemical attack targeted opposition fighters on the front lines in Harasta, Eastern Ghouta. Medical staff confirmed symptoms include vomiting, dyspnea, and pinpoint pupils, indicating a nerve agent was used.

The attack came the day after Russia’s second Security Council veto in 24 hours blocking an extension of the UN-OPCW joint investigation of chemical attacks in Syria.

Watch a video in English of a doctor with patients after the attack here.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) reported that ‘a SAMS facility in East Ghouta began receiving patients suffering from constricted pupils, coughing, vomiting, and bradypnea (abnormally slow breathing), all of which are symptoms indicative to exposure to chemical compounds. The victims reported that they were exposed to a substance following an artillery strike. Of the 61 individuals exposed to the substance, 15 required hospitalization, including 11 who were admitting to SAMS facilities.’

Besieged Eastern Ghouta is home to about 400,000 people, and is currently suffering an escalation in regime attacks which is being compared to the disastrous assault on Aleppo city last year.

The SAMS report continues: ‘The situation in East Ghouta continues to deteriorate. According to the local health directorate, between Tuesday, November 14 and Friday, November 17, 2017, airstrikes and artillery strikes resulted in 84 casualties, including 23 women and children, as well as 659 injuries. Many of these attacks took place in residential areas, where the victims were primarily civilians, and where hospitals and schools were among the affected infrastructure. In addition, there are more than 450 individuals in need of urgent medical evacuation, more than 72 % of children under the age of five are in need of nutrition support. Medical supplies to treat illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, hemophilia and many other chronic diseases have long since run out.’

Eastern Ghouta has been declared a de-escalation zone by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, and opposition armed groups inside Eastern Ghouta have signed ceasefire agreements negotiated with Russia, but the Assad regime, apparently with full Russian support, is increasing attacks against civilians while continuing to restrict aid.

Russia’s ceasefires and de-escalation promises have proved worthless.

Russia has shut off the UN route with its double veto.

The only way to stop Assad using chemical weapons is to ground Assad’s air force, silence Assad’s artillery, by deterrence and targeted retaliation against regime military assets.

The UK failed the people of Eastern Ghouta in 2013 when Parliament voted against any response to Assad’s chemical weapons massacre. Will the UK again fail the survivors of that massacre in 2017?