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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.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on R2P and Syria

Laila Alodaat, Haid Haid, and Dr Farouq al Habib before the Committee.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention to protect civilian populations, with specific reference to Syria.

Witnesses at the most recent hearing (video) were Dr Farouq al Habib, Director, Mayday Rescue Foundation; Laila Alodaat, Middle East and North Africa Director, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and Haid Haid, Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Review: The Burning Shores

Bronwen Griffiths

The 2011 Libyan and Syrian revolutions began within weeks of each other, and the Libya intervention profoundly affected international responses to Syria. Bronwen Griffiths reviews a new book by Frederic Wehrey on the Libyan experience.

The Burning Shores—Inside the Battle for the New Libya,
Frederic Wehrey, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2018

The NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which the UK took part in, is still contested. A report in 2016 by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee stated that the UK’s strategy was based on ‘erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence’, accusing the government of selectively taking the threats of Quadafi at face value. After the Government argued that its actions ‘undoubtedly’ saved civilian lives in Libya, the Committee accepted that ‘as the Government response suggests, UK policy in Libya was initially driven by a desire to protect civilians. However, we do not accept that it understood the implications of this, which included collapse of the state, failure of stabilisation, and the facilitation of Islamist extremism in Libya.’

The idea of an international ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and a possible enforcement of human rights is seen as a way of preventing authoritarian governments from hurting their own populations. In a contrast to Libya, the violent protests in Syria, which were met with extreme violence by the Assad regime, demonstrates the limits of this idea. This raises questions about the international context of the intervention in Libya, and possible reasons for differences between the two countries.