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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.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Southern Syria crisis: Why the UK must act


Elizabeth Tsurkov: “Over the past two days, sources in Quneitra tell me that Israel provided additional humanitarian assistance to camps for the displaced on the fence along the Golan, but situation there remains desperate.” Photo: Alaa al-Fakier.

  • The UK is again failing to protect civilians
  • The UK should call on allies to give refuge to civilians—not call on NGOs to do an impossible job in a war zone
  • The UK should publish evidence of Russian war crimes and sanction perpetrators
  • The UK should enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2139 by grounding Assad’s bombers
  • The UK should act against proscribed organisations threatening civilians in southern Syria

Today UNOCHA published their latest report on people fleeing renewed Assad regime violence in southern Syria:

“Sustained hostilities in south-west Syria since 17 June have led to the displacement of an estimated 271,800 individuals as of 2 July. Of those, approximately 60,000 displaced to areas in close proximity to the Nasib/Jaber border crossing with Jordan, including the free zone, and some 164,000 IDPs have moved towards camps and villages in Quneitra, close to the Golan Heights area.”

The UN has received reports of dozens deaths, including women and children, as well as reports of indiscriminate attacks on health facilities, schools, civil defence centres and offices of local NGOs. Health and educational facilities are closed due to airstrikes and ground hostilities.

According to the UN, “the displaced lack regular access to clean drinking water and healthcare, and local sources on the ground report that at least twelve children, two women, and one elderly man died in areas close to the Jordanian border due to scorpion bites, dehydration and diseases transmitted through contaminated water.”

The Governments of Jordan and Israel are keeping the borders closed to Syrian civilians fleeing the bombing.

In the case of Israel it is preventing displaced Syrians seeking shelter in the Golan Heights which is Syrian territory under international law, despite Israel’s control of the area.

UK DFID officials have expressed the view to multiple NGOs that it is not realistic that Jordan will be able to take in more people. But leading NGOs’ assessment of the situation in southern Syria is that it is currently impossible to provide adequate aid inside Syria to most people fleeing the fighting.

Aid agencies say they are ready to assist new arrivals in Jordan. Azraq Camp could be developed further to host another 80,000 new Syrian refugees.

Jordan is a UK ally, and the UK and US have close relations with Israel. The UK should call on allies to give refuge to civilians, and not call on NGOs to do an impossible job in a war zone.

The UK’s failure to protect

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry on Responsibility to Protect and Syria. In its most recent session, the Committee heard evidence that the cost of non-intervention and non-action in Syria included “further war crimes in Syria; the invasion and annexation of Crimea; the murder of hundreds of people inside Syria; aggression from Iran; and the exploitation of the Iranian people off the back of this,” as well as “the fundamental undermining of international rules.”

The Chair of the Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, summarised that “the cost of doing nothing is most immediately obvious in Syria, and among the murdered in Syria, but actually it fundamentally undermines the security position of the British people and is a fundamental threat to the rules that we have relied on for seventy years to keep us safe.”

Most discussion of the UK’s failure to protect civilians in Syria focuses on the August 2013 vote against action following the Ghouta chemical attack. But there have been many other points at which the UK could have chosen to act but didn’t, with dreadful consequences.

The UK and its allies failed to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2139, passed in February 2014, which demanded “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.”

The UK failed to act to relieve the siege of Madaya imposed by Hezbollah, resulting in the death of civilians including children by starvation, mines, and gunshots, mass displacement, and the strengthening of an armed group proscribed by the UK as a terrorist organisation.

The UK failed to act on its own May 2016 proposal to airdrop humanitarian aid to besieged communities such as Daraya, resulting in the depopulation of entire towns.

The UK failed to publish radar tracking evidence of Russian attacks on hospitals and on a UN aid convoy during the siege of Aleppo, evidence that could have allowed Russian individuals with command responsibility to be sanctioned.

The UK failed to invest in UAVs that could have airdropped medical supplies and even food to besieged communities in eastern Ghouta, a besieged region that had large areas of open farmland suitable for airdrops.

The UK is failing now in southern Syria: Failing to publish evidence on culpability for hospital attacks, failing to sanction Russian individuals with command responsibility, failing to get aid through, failing to press allies and work with allis to give shelter to refugees, failing to act against proscribed organisations involved in attacks, and failing to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2139 by grounding Assad’s bombers.

As seen again in recent reporting by The Sunday Times, the RAF has the ability to act against the Assad regime when UK political leaders give them the green light.

And the UK’s allies have the means—with UK support—to give shelter to civilians.

We have seen some of the costs of not acting in the past. What will be the cost of not acting today?

Below: Map from the latest UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report.




Sunday, 29 April 2018

Say no to the Russia War Cup

SyriaUK activists were at the London Stadium for the West Ham vs Man City game today, campaigning against Putin’s hosting of the World Cup. With ‘Russia War Cup’ balloons and leaflets, we got a good response from very many fans.

Also today, Rethink Rebuild, the Syrian community organisation in Manchester, are bringing the campaign to Old Trafford football ground, the home of Manchester United.

Syria Solidarity UK and Rethink Rebuild urge fans not to travel to Putin’s Russia. We call on FIFA to remove hosting rights from Russia, and call on all of the companies and organisations sponsoring the World Cup to pull out.

The World Cup has served as a symbol of unity and fair play among nations, but this year FIFA has decided to hold it in a country ruled by a regime which is a danger to world peace.

By giving the tournament to Putin, FIFA is offering legitimacy and prestige to a regime which is committing murder on a daily basis. Every day in Syria, Russian planes are bombing towns and cities, schools and hospitals in support of the genocidal dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The Russian state is complicit in the regime’s continued use of chlorine and sarin chemical weapons, and has carried out its own chemical attack in the UK.

Say NO to the Russia War Cup.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Why aren’t hospital attacks a red line?


Five-month-old Rukaya being treated for pneumonia at a SAMS-supported hospital in Idlib. Read more.


  • UK to spend £450 million on aid to alleviate suffering in Syria but won’t act to end hospital attacks.
  • UK aid includes blast proofing materials and sandbags to reinforce underground hospitals.
  • UK says Syria strikes were to protect civilians—but allows Assad’s attacks on hospitals to continue.
  • UK keeps evidence secret on Russian air force role in hospital attacks

The UK’s international development minister Penny Mordaunt has announced that the UK will provide at least £450 million this year to alleviate the extreme suffering in Syria. With at least 30,000 people currently injured every month in Syria, the Department for International Development (DFID) expects that around a quarter of this UK aid will be spent on healthcare.

Assad and Putin deliberately and systematically target civilian hospitals as part of their campaign to drive ordinary people out of opposition areas and out of Syria. This is why UK aid includes providing blast proofing materials and sandbags to reinforce underground medical facilities and limit the damage from attacks.

Hospital attacks should be a red line. The UK, US, and France should show the same determination to STOP these attacks on medics as they do to stop chemical attacks.

The UK claimed its response to the Douma chemical massacre was an emergency measure to protect civilians. If that is true, then extend the same protection to Syria’s doctors, nurses, and patients. Don’t just spend money picking up the pieces and reinforcing hospitals against attack.


BRITISH DOCTORS TARGETED BY ASSAD

British doctors have been amongst those targeted by the Assad regime. British surgeon David Nott has described the experience of being in the sights of one of Assad’s pilots and surviving.

Others have not been so lucky. The British doctor Abbas Khan was captured by Assad’s forces and eventually died in a regime prison. The jury at the inquest into his death found that ‘Dr Khan was deliberately and intentionally killed without any legal justification.’

Another British doctor, Isa Abdur Rahman, 26, died in May 2013 in a mortar attack on a hospital in Idlib province. Dr Rahman had left his position with the Royal free Hospital in north London to volunteer with a British charity working in Syria.

In 2016 two Conservative MPs, David Davis and Adam Holloway visited Syria and met Assad. Syria’s dictator gave David Davis a list of 783 people the regime was targeting for assassination. Assad’s ‘kill list’ included the same Dr Isa Abdur Rahman who had been killed in 2013, confirming again that Assad targets doctors.



Eastern Ghouta, March 2018. Photo via SAMS.

HOSPITAL ATTACKS REACH ONE A DAY IN 2018

In the first months of this year, attacks on hospitals and medical facilities escalated to a rate of more than one a day:
  • At least 10 hospitals in rebel-held areas of Syria have suffered direct air or artillery attacks over the past 10 days, aid workers say—BBC News 6 January 2018
  • Attacks on medical facilities ‘jumped to an average of one a day’—NBC News 18 February 2018
  • Thirteen targeted attacks on hospitals in East Ghouta in 48 hours—SAMS 20 February 2018
Physicians for Human Rights counted 492 attacks on medical facilities in Syria up to the end of 2017.

446 of those attacks were by either Assad regime or Russian forces.

Now newly published research suggests the true total number of hospital attacks by Assad and Putin is even higher.

Dr. Rohini Haar, University of California, Berkeley, led a team that collected ground reports of attacks in 2016 in northern Syria, filed by civilians via cellphone text. The data shows a total of 200 health care-related attacks in the governorates of Aleppo, Idleb, Homs and Hama in 2016, an average of more than one attack every other day.

This is over twice the number (90) counted and verified by Physicians for Human Rights in those same areas in the same 2016 period.


RUSSIA IMPLICATED IN MULTIPLE ATTACKS—UK KEEPS EVIDENCE SECRET

A recent report by The Syrian Archive implicated the Russian air force in four hospital attacks in January in Idlib province, Syria. Using data from the aircraft spotters who provide early warning to Syria Civil Defence, the report concluded that Russian aircraft were most likely responsible in each case.

The UK and its military allies are in a position to provide corroborating evidence of Russian responsibility, but choose to keep this evidence secret. As part of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria, NATO’s AWACS aircraft track all military aircraft in Syrian airspace, including Russian and Assad regime war planes.

MPs of several parties have repeatedly asked the Government to find a way to publish radar tracking data relating to hospital attacks and other likely war crimes. 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, but the same hasn’t been done for any of the hundreds of hospital attacks.

Most recently, Roger Godsiff MP asked the government to look again at “publishing tracking data on Russian violations of the Syrian ceasefire in a form that is compatible with security requirements,” only to once more receive the stock reply that it “would not be appropriate to publish” that kind of information.




RUSSIA OPENS A NEW PROPAGANDA FRONT AGAINST MEDICS

With the UK and its allies unwilling to publish corroborating evidence from aircraft tracking data, medics under fire are dependent on their own reporting and the reporting of other civil society organisations like Syria Civil Defence, AKA The White Helmets.

The White Helmets have been targets of Russian propaganda since 2016 when they helped gather evidence of Russian attacks on a UN aid convoy. Now Russia is beginning to target doctors working in Syria with a similar disinformation campaign, apparently with the aim of undermining the credibility of their evidence in the eyes of the public, and of preparing for further attacks on hospitals and health workers.


WHAT SHOULD THE UK DO?

The UK needs to stand by doctors, nurses, and patients, not just by writing cheques for ever more medical supplies and fortified underground hospitals, but by taking action to stop hospital attacks.

The UK needs to actively defend medics by publishing the evidence on hospital attacks to make the case for sanctioning Russia’s criminal war machine.

The UK needs to take enforcement action against Assad on hospital attacks as it has on chemical attacks.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Don’t give up on Syrian civil society



We Exist is an alliance of Syrian civil society groups working inside Syria and in the diaspora. This week they are in Brussels taking part in the UN and EU’s second Brussels conference on Syria.

On UN peace efforts, they say peace is only possible if Syrian organisations and democratic institutions play a leading role in the humanitarian response and any rebuilding of the country.

Syrian civil society organisations are providing millions of people with education, food, water, healthcare and humanitarian aid, despite daily bombardment and fighting.

The organisations in We Exist call for the protection and involvement of Syrian human rights and civil society groups to ensure that abuses such as sexual violence, forced displacement and targeting of civilians are documented, monitored and ultimately, prevented. A Special Tribunal should be established for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.

Maria Alabdeh​ of one of the member organisations, Women Now for Development, said:
‘Investing in an active, vibrant and fully-funded civil society is the only hope for a peaceful and democratic Syria. As Syrian human rights and humanitarian workers, we are doing all we can to empower young men and women, train local leaders, document human rights abuses, advocate for property rights and treat traumatised children but we can’t do it alone.

‘International aid needs to help heal the emotional and physical wounds, hold perpetrators to account and stitch the fabric of society back together again. Our work is fighting extremism and challenging the continued war crimes but we are operating under fire from Russian and Syrian planes, on shoestring budgets, trying to make the books balance from one month to the next.’

We Exist’s demands:
  1. Stop the bombing of civilians and use of prohibited arms (not just chemical weapons), as well as the deliberate targeting of schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure.
  2. Halt the forced displacement of civilians. People have the right to remain in their homes, safe from bombardment or illegal detention.
  3. Guarantee safety for civil society organisations, including legal recognition and protection.
  4. Support survivors of sexual violence and prosecute the perpetrators.
  5. Ensure humanitarian programmes address the need of young men and offer alternatives to violence.
  6. Anyone who wishes to return home, needs support to do so—with health, psychological and education services, as well as reconciliation programmes.
  7. Pressure the Syrian government and all warring sides to release a list of names of all detainees, along with their current locations and statuses, and to immediately stop torture and mistreatment.
  8. Abolish exceptional courts, especially field, sharia law, war and counter-terrorism courts and guarantee fair trials under a supervision from the United Nations. Establish a Special Tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.
  9. Consider Civil Society a leading partner in all issues concerning the future of Syria—whether it is humanitarian or development work, reconstruction or rebuilding.
  10. Accountability should be ensured for all war crime committed and for the use of all prohibited arms, not just chemical weapons.

Full press release via Women Now For Development.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Questions to ask after UK action in Syria

  • What do Syrians say?
  • What does the British public think?
  • Did this action really protect people in Syria?
  • Was this action legal?
  • Will this action protect people in the UK, or put them in danger?
  • Will this action escalate the war?
  • Doesn’t Libya prove that anything we do makes things worse?
  • What effect will this have on the search for a political solution?
  • What does this mean for the fight against ISIS?
  • What next?

The UK Government has joined the governments of the United States and France in military action against the Assad regime in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than forty people, many of them children.

The action consisted of limited targeted missile and air strikes against three military targets carried out in the space of under an hour.

What questions should we ask in debating this action? Here are some to consider.

Is Theresa May in breach of international law?

By Clara Connolly

Whether the 13th April intervention in Syria by the US, France and the UK was within the parameters of international law is not the only nor perhaps even the most significant question. But it is the nub of the criticism of UK Government action by the Leader of the Opposition and internationally by Russia and the Syrian Arab Republic, so it is worth considering.

The legal justification is based on the concept of ‘humanitarian protection’ using arguments outlined by the Labour government in the case of Kosovo in 1998/9. The legal case for humanitarian intervention without UN Security Council approval was rehearsed again in 2013, when action against Syria was debated in Parliament after a major chemical attack on civilians.

Sir Bethlehem gives a useful reading list on the history and development of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. He makes clear that it is neither codified in international law, nor established in the UN Charter, which prioritises the sovereignty of states and the illegitimacy of interference by outside bodies. The UN makes an exception of self defence, and grants itself the power to intervene when ‘international peace and security’ is threatened. So where does that leave the justification for action outside the UN, when it cannot agree on what action to take?

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Robin Cook’s legacy and Labour’s response to the chemical weapons massacre

We have written to Labour MPs with our concerns over Labour’s response to the latest chemical attack in Douma, Syria. We are concerned that:

  • Labour ignored the UN-OPCW’s 2017 verdict on Assad’s use of nerve agent
  • Emily Thornberry suggested spending UK money on the Assad regime
  • Labour has lost touch with Robin Cook’s true legacy on protecting civilians


ON LABOUR’S RESPONSE TO LAST YEAR’S ATTACK

Responding to the chemical attack in Douma, Syria, that killed over forty civilians, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has called for “an urgent independent investigation” and said that “once this investigation is complete” those responsible must be held to account.

Emily Thornberry took the same approach last year after the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun sarin nerve agent attack that killed over seventy Syrian civilians including tens of children. Then she criticised the US military response and called for a UN investigation leading to international action.

The UN and the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) did investigate Khan Sheikhoun and in November last year found the Assad regime responsible. The Leadership Panel of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism wrote to to the UN Secretary-General that it was “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.”

Russia responded by blocking the joint investigation with its Security Council veto. As for Emily Thornberry, far from calling for any action against Assad after the UN-OPCW investigation’s guilty verdict, she instead stood up in the House of Commons in December and suggested Assad be left in place and the regime be granted international funding for reconstruction.


OUR DINNER DATE WITH EMILY

We and other SyriaUK activists recently gatecrashed a fundraising dinner hosted by the Shadow Foreign Secretary in her Islington South constituency.

We distributed a special menu to diners setting out some of Emily Thornberry’s recent unsavoury offerings on Syria, and calling for an alternative policy menu focused on protecting civilians. In order to glide among diners without causing undue alarm or hostility, we posed as waiters.

Our title was “Don’t give Assad Syria on a plate,” because of Emily Thornberry’s worrying remarks in Parliament in December when she floated a proposal to keep Assad in power.

Her exact words in a question to Boris Johnson on 11 December:

“… may I ask specifically what conclusions he reached from his discussions on the prospects for a political solution to end the fighting in Syria? Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction? If that is the case, will the UK Government accept that deal, despite the Foreign Secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria?”

Along with the Labour Campaign for International Development, we wrote a joint letter to the Shadow Foreign Secretary making clear our objections, only to receive a rude reply where Emily Thornberry denied responsibility for her own words.


NO UK TAXPAYER MONEY FOR ASSAD

In Emily Thornberry’s scenario, she suggested that international assistance—in other words UK taxpayers’ money—could help pick up the bill for reconstruction of the towns and cities bombed by Assad and Putin, while leaving Assad still in power.

Assad’s regime in Syria is based as much on economic exploitation as political repression. Assad family members and cronies control major parts of the economy in regime-held Syria, and already profit from Damascus-based UN aid operations which are unable to operate independently of the regime’s mafia-like control. Investing in regime-held Syria would not only be rewarding the perpetrators of the worst set of atrocities this century, it would further entrench the corruption and exploitation that was a primary driver of the first 2011 protests against Assad’s regime.

Back in October 2017, Emily Thornberry made clear to one of our fellow activists that she supported reconstruction funding even with Assad still in place. He raised with her the issue of detainees. As many as 200,000 civilians have been detained or disappeared by regime security forces. Photographic evidence shows several thousand corpses of those tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. But Emily Thornberry’s response was to say that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”

The UN Commission of Inquiry into Syria in a recent report said that reconstruction aid should depend on the release of detainees, on criminal accountability for perpetrators of torture and killing, and on truth and justice for the survivors and the families of victims.


ROBIN COOK’S LEGACY

Writing recently in the Mirror, Emily Thornberry commemorated Robin Cook’s famous resignation speech opposing the Iraq war. She quoted his words, ‘Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement, and a world order governed by rules.’

In Syria, that world order governed by rules is being destroyed daily by Assad and Putin’s flouting of all UN resolutions passed since 2013: resolutions banning use of chemical weapons, demanding an end to bombardment of populated areas, demanding an end to sieges against civilians, authorising unrestricted humanitarian access by UN agencies.

When we remember Robin Cook’s legacy, let us also remember Kosovo where he stood up to Russia’s bullying and supported humanitarian action to enforce the declared will of the UN Security Council. Read his words on Kosovo in 1999, on national interest and upholding international law, when he said “one should not commit servicemen to take the risk of military action unless our national interest is engaged,” but that “I firmly believe that upholding international law is in our international interest.”

Robin Cook noted then that Serbia was on NATO’s border, as is Syria. He noted that NATO credibility as a guarantor of international agreements was at stake if Milosevic was allowed to trampled on agreements with impunity. On refugees, he said that “they should be able to return to their homes under international protection.”

Today the entire credibility of UN authority, UN structures, UN agencies, as well as the very concept of international humanitarian law, is at stake. Will Emily Thornberry now show the same resolve now as Robin Cook did then? Will she reject appeasement of Putin, and stand up for the enforcement of international law for the security of all, and for international protection to allow Syrians to live in their homes in peace?

Labour’s own credibility is also at stake, with Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Syria receiving the endorsement of former BNP leader Nick Griffin. Some may be confused when the Labour leader condemns violence ‘on all sides’ without blaming Assad in particular. Nick Griffin, a long-time supporter of Assad, clearly believes he understands Corbyn very well.

We are now at a decision point. After this latest chemical weapons outrage, with the Assad regime’s responsibility for previous attacks already established by the UN and the OPCW, will Labour MPs now show that Labour is capable of supporting action to punish the guilty and protect the innocent?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Assad’s latest chemical weapons massacre of civilians

  • UK POLITICIANS NEED TO STEP UP
  • IMPUNITY ENDANGERS EVERYBODY

The Assad regime has once again used chemical weapons to massacre civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

At least 42 people are reported killed according to Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets). Other reports from the scene put the number killed much higher.

More than 500 people were brought for medical treatment, the majority of them women and children, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

Areas of Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus were the site of the Assad regime’s deadliest chemical weapons attack in 2013 when at least 1,400 people were killed with Sarin nerve agent.

Since then the Assad regime has repeatedly used chlorine chemical weapons in attacks on civilians, including in Eastern Ghouta.

And this time last year the Assad regime killed over 70 people including tens of children in a nerve agent attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib.

From medical reports, this latest attack appears to have combined nerve agent with chlorine. The Assad regime is reported to have previously combined the two to mask its use of nerve agent.

UK politicians need to step forward.

UK MPs who blocked action following Assad’s 2013 nerve agent massacre have a particular responsibility today to face up to the consequences of inaction both for Syria’s people and for the UK's own security.

We have seen the normalisation of chemical weapons use in Syria be followed by the use of chemical weapons within the UK.

Impunity endangers everybody.

It is time to stop Assad now. Deny the Assad regime its use of military means to terrorise and kill Syria’s people. Ground Assad’s air force with targeted strikes against his airbases. Silence Assad’s heavy weapons. End Assad’s use of the weapons of total war against civilian communities.

It is time to stop Putin by imposing overwhelming economic costs, not just for Putin’s actions in Europe and in the UK, but also for Putin’s actions in aiding Assad’s campaign of mass murder.

We have heard for years that there is no military solution. But the UK has sent its diplomats to do the impossible by denying them the military and economic means to exert pressure for a political solution.

To enable a political solution, deny Assad and his allies their military options.

Protect civilians.

The UK has been intervening militarily in Syria against ISIS since 2015.

What the UK has not done is enforce any of the series of UN resolutions broken every day by Assad and his backers.

What the UK has not done is protect civilians.

If we choose, we have the power to save lives.

Extract from SAMS press release:

On Saturday, April 7th, at 7:45 PM local time, amidst continuous bombardment of residential neighborhoods in the city of Douma, more than 500 cases -the majority of whom are women and children- were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.

During clinical examination, medical staff observed bradycardia, wheezing and coarse bronchial sounds. One of the injured was declared dead on arrival. Other patients were treated with humidified oxygen and bronchodilators, after which their condition improved. In several cases involving more severe exposure to the chemical agents, medical staff put patients on a ventilator, including four children. Six casualties were reported at the center, one of whom was a woman who had convulsions and pinpoint pupils.

Civil Defense volunteers have reported more than 42 casualties found dead in their homes, with similar clinical symptoms of cyanosis and corneal burns. Civil defense volunteers were unable to evacuate the bodies due to the intensity of the odor and the lack of protective equipment. The reported symptoms indicate that the victims suffocated from the exposure to toxic chemicals, most likely an organophosphate element.

Following the chemical attack, the target site and the surrounding area of the hospital receiving the injured were attacked with an explosive barrel, which hindered the ability of the ambulances to reach the victims.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) have documented nearly 200 uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012. Previous United Nations Security Council Resolutions on this matter have failed in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Full SAMS press release.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Syria Solidarity UK serves up a surprise at Emily Thornberry’s dinner

Syria Solidarity UK had an unexpected surprise for Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry during her Spring Fundraising Dinner at Frederick’s Restaurant in Islington.

With the title, “Don’t give Assad Syria on a plate,” Syria Solidarity UK’s “waiters” politely presented Shadow Foreign Secretary and her guests with the unappetising bill of fare that is Emily’s record on Syria.

Emily Thornberry has suggested in Parliament that the UK might make a deal with Russia to keep Assad in power, with the UK taxpayer picking up a bill for reconstruction of cities bombed by Putin and Assad.

Emily Thornberry has dismissed the hundreds of thousands of people detained and tortured by the Assad regime as “a few political prisoners” whose fate should not be a bar to paying UK money for the reconstruction of Syria under the regime.

Emily Thornberry has also spoken approvingly of the regime’s forced displacement of Syrian civilians from Homs, describing it as an evacuation of terrorists.

A recent article by Emily Thornberry in The Guardian discussed Syria with no mention of the war crimes committed by Assad and Russia. It was written in the midst of the regime’s starvation siege and relentless bombardment of civilian communities in Eastern Ghouta.

Emily Thornberry has not properly held the UK government and its Coalition partners to account for their failure to protect civilians, and for the enormous civilian death toll inflicted by the Coalition.

Syria Solidarity UK want an alternative policy menu on Syria. An ethical policy on Syria must put protecting civilians as its first priority.

Our three courses:

  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that puts protecting civilians first.
  • We need a Labour policy that commits to stopping Assad’s crimes.
  • We need all parties and all members of Parliament to unite in supporting action to end the slaughter.


See our full menu (PDF).

Read more about Labour and Syria.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Syria Comes to Salisbury

By Clara Connolly

The recent nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil has caused outrage in Parliament, and has prompted speculation as to how the UK could retaliate. The attack has also caused widespread alarm in the town of Salisbury.

This incident has brought England a little closer to the horrors of Syria, where civilians suffer attacks from chemical weapons on a regular basis. If a narrowly targeted nerve agent attack on two people can cause such harm and alarm, imagine the effects on the population of Ghouta when 1,400 residents died of a Sarin attack in August 2013. That attack targeted the small neighbourhood of Zamalka  in Eastern Ghouta, and Moadamiya neighborhood in Western Ghouta which had a population similar in number to Salisbury.

Four years on the horror and pain of the Ghouta chemical massacre attacks have  not subsided for those who survived. Here is a description of its effects.

Sarin is as deadly a nerve agent as that used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. It has been used several times by Assad on Syrian  civilians, most recently in April 2017.

It is not the only chemical weapon in use by Assad against ordinary people: he has also developed chlorine bombs. Chlorine gas was used by the German army in the First World War to kill 5,000 allied soldiers. Today it is the most common chemical weapon used against towns and villages in East Ghouta. Napalm and other incendiary weapons have also been used, with horrific consequences.

Assad and Putin believe they can act with impunity to inflict the most heinous war crimes on Syrian citizens. Last November, Russia twice vetoed the extension of the UN’s investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria.

As in Syria, Putin believes that he can act with impunity to kill his enemies in Britain. Indeed his ambassador gloats at their misfortune.

Hamish de Bretton–Gordon, a former commander of the British regiment that specialised in dealing with chemical weapons, said of the Salisbury incident that ‘this is symptomatic of the fact that chemical weapons have become the norm. We haven’t done anything about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iran. Now we’re paying the price.’

If the UK government is finally to take action to protect British citizens and residents against chemical attack, I  hope that they will spare a thought also for Syrian civilians, who have endured immeasurably worse. In responding to Putin over the Salisbury attack, we must also end Putin and Assad’s impunity in Syria.

Image: Coverage of the attack in the Salisbury Journal.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Don’t trade with Sukhoi – Don’t fly CityJet


At the CityJet check-in desk, London City Airport. Photo: Steve Eason

“Don’t fly CityJet” is the call by Syria solidarity activists in the UK and Ireland today.

Dublin-based airline CityJet is Europe’s leading purchaser of passenger aircraft from Russian state company Sukhoi which also supplies war planes used by Putin and Assad to attack civilians in Syria.

This morning protesters went to London City Airport (above) and Dublin Airport (right) to protest CityJet’s trade with Putin and Assad’s arms supplier.

At the CityJet desk in London City Airport, activists made a “civilian protection announcement” chanting “Sukhoi jets are killer jets” and do not fly killer jets, do not fly CityJet.”

Syria solidarity activists in the UK and the Republic of Ireland issued the following joint statement:

Don’t trade with Sukhoi – Don’t fly CityJet
PDF version

  • CityJet is a leading customer of Russian state-owned arms manufacturer Sukhoi.
  • Sukhoi aircraft have been used to kill thousands of innocent civilians in Syria.
  • Today activists in London and Dublin say: Don’t fly killer jets – don’t fly CityJet.

Sukhoi fighter planes supplied by Russia have been used by the Assad regime to target civilians since 2012. The Russian Air Force has targeted and killed Syrian civilians with its fleet of Sukhoi war planes since directly intervening in September 2015.

In 2016, the Russian Air Force in concert with the Syrian Air Force used Sukhoi jets to deliberately bomb a UN aid convoy in Aleppo. Russian Air Force Sukhoi jets have repeatedly targeted schools and hospitals.

These attacks are crimes against humanity, breaking multiple UN Security Council resolutions and violating international humanitarian law.

This has not stopped CityJet from doing business with Sukhoi. CityJet was the first European airline to purchase Sukhoi’s SuperJet and in 2017 it placed a billion dollar order for Sukhoi aircraft. Sukhoi considers CityJet a valued customer and hopes that CityJet’s operation of Sukhoi aircraft, both under CityJet’s own name and under the names of other carriers on “wet-lease” contracts will boost Sukhoi’s sales.

CityJet’s willingness to trade with the same state company supplying the planes killing innocent people in Syria is sending Putin and his government a message that whatever the crimes they commit, it will be business as usual with Europe.

Now in Eastern Ghouta an ongoing aerial campaign has killed hundreds of men, women, and children and destroyed homes and hospitals despite yet another Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire. Russia is flouting both this UN resolution and the most basic conventions against the targeting of civilians.

Sukhoi Su-22 and Su-24 jets have been photographed dropping bombs in Ghouta over the past few days. In the first six months of the Russian intervention in Syria, Sukhoi Su-25 jets dropped 6,000 bombs on Syria. Russia has been using Syria as a testing ground for new Su-57 stealth fighters.

Sukhoi, which is today part of the United Aircraft Corporation, a company in which the Russian state holds the majority of shares, is an integral part of the Russian machine of murder in Syria.

Syria Solidarity UK and the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement today calls on CityJet to stop trading with Sukhoi, a company which exports death to Syria.

We call on the governments of the United Kingdom, of the Republic of Ireland, and of other EU states, to tighten sanctions on Russia and prohibit trade with Sukhoi, United Aircraft Corporation, and others manufacturing weapons to kill civilians.

We call for an immediate ceasefire in Ghouta and effective action to protect the civilians there and in the rest of Syria.



Thursday, 8 March 2018

Reports of chemical weapons used in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta

Statement by Rethink Rebuild Society and the Syrian British Medical Society

Rethink Rebuild Society and the Syrian British Medical Society express their outrage at the suspected use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta yesterday, and calls for immediate investigations into their alleged use.

A press release by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations reported yesterday March 7th a chlorine attack that hit the towns of Saqba and Hammourieh in Eastern Ghouta around 9.00pm Damascus time which affected more than 50 people. Dr. Imad Kabbani, manager of the Damascus and Rural Damascus’ Directorate of Health, dismissed an alleged chemical attack earlier this week but confirmed yesterday’s chlorine attack. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) reported treating 29 patients with symptoms of a chlorine attack yesterday in one of their facilities.

More than 85 people have been killed yesterday in what was one the most devastating nights Eastern Ghouta had endured over the past years, with Syrian regime attacks reported to have used napalm and cluster bombs in addition to chemical weapons. As a result of the severe bombardment, an aid convoy originally planned to enter Eastern Ghouta today has been postponed.

According to SAMS, yesterday’s chlorine attack was the fifth chemical weapon attack in Eastern Ghouta and the eighth in Syria this year only. Moreover, a report released yesterday by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria confirmed the documentation of the regime’s use of chemical weapons during its fighting with rebel groups in Harasta in November of last year.

Rethink Rebuild Society and the Syrian British Medical Society demand an immediate investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons towards determining the validity of these attacks. While world powers continue to reiterate their commitment to preventing the use of chemical weapons, such as the latest “International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons” initiative, such attacks are believed to have continued. Use of such weapons are a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention to which Syria is a signee, and perpetrators must be held accountable. We urge the enforcement of UN resolution 2401 that called for a 30-day ceasefire, the entry of direly needed humanitarian relief and the evacuation of medical cases to end the indescribable suffering of civilians in the enclave.

International Women’s Day under siege, chlorine and napalm


Art by Reem Yassouf.

A message from Women Now For Development
Via Facebook

Today on International Women’s Day, we usually celebrate women’s achievements, highlight their successes and shine a light on their empowerment. But today is not a normal day. It has been 17 days since our team, consisting of over 60 women, along with all civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been forced underground. They are living in damp, dark and ill-equipped bunkers that have no kitchens or bathrooms. They are also unable to eat, as there is no food reaching the area.

Last night was the worst night since the assault on Ghouta began. Our team is reporting that it was “a catastrophic night under chlorine gas and cluster bombs”. Adding to this, the recent aid convoy had been stripped of 70% of its medical aid supplies and was also unable to finish its distribution. This is one of the most dire developments of the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta.

Under these circumstances, women are calling for an immediate end to the bloodshed, for the weapons to fall silent, aid to be allowed to enter the area and the siege to be lifted. Above all, the protection of civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law must be guaranteed.

On this day on which we celebrate women’s achievements, we should not forget those who have been forced into darkness. And even from these dark cellars and bunkers, messages reach us daily, updating us about the situation, and showing women’ strength and leadership. We have been publishing the stories and providing a platform for these women to share their fears, thoughts and hopes.

The situation all over the country is dramatic and civilians are under threat in many areas. Desperate pleas reach us from women all over the country, fearing for their lives and their families’ futures. We stand in solidarity with all civilians in Syria.

On this day, please take action and raise awareness about the situation in Eastern Ghouta and the rest of Syria. We can no longer afford to be silent in the face of such atrocities!

There are three actions you can take:

  1. Follow and share women’s stories and stay updated on Ghouta on our Facebook and Twitter
  2. Send us your messages of support on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which we can share with our colleagues and other women in Ghouta
  3. Donate to support Syrian women and girls in Syria and help us continue our work.


Women Now For Development – women-now.org

Monday, 5 March 2018

Atrocities in Syria and the United Nations


Dead children in shrouds made of UNHCR plastic sheeting, Eastern Ghouta 4 March 2018. Via Akram Abo Alfoz.

Hundreds of MPs made a dreadful error in August 2013 when they blocked action to respond to Assad’s mass murder of innocents.

Today we don’t need guilt or shame from those MPs. We need honesty, intelligence, bravery, and determination to act NOW.

What has changed since 2013? Numbers killed and injured rose by hundreds of thousands. Numbers of refugees rose by millions.

And since that vote in 2013, the Security Council has passed a series of resolutions that have all been flouted.

Resolution 2118 demanding the destruction of chemical weapons, passed in September 2013 has been repeatedly broken, most notoriously by the April 2016 attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

Resolution 2139 demanding an end to barrel bombs and sieges has been broken every single day since it was passed in February 2014.

Further resolutions have been passed and ignored, resolutions repeating demands to protect civilians, to grant humanitarian access, to release detainees from Assad’s torture prisons.

Now UN Security Council Resolution 2401 demanding a 30 day cessation of hostilities across all of Syria has been met with utmost violence and contempt by the Assad regime and its allies, including by Putin’s government.

In 2013, MPs called for working through the UN. With more than four years of broken resolutions, it should now be put to Parliament that the UK should enforce these UN resolutions and uphold international law. UN resolutions from UNSCR 2139 on have demanded:
  • an end to indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment;
  • rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access;
  • that all parties respect the principle of medical neutrality;
  • that all parties take all appropriate steps to protect civilians.
It has been argued that since the invasion of Iraq, the UK has turned against military intervention. But the UK has been militarily engaged in Syria since 2015. What the UK has not yet done in Syria is protect civilians.

The UK Government has a duty to act, to defend international law and enforce the declared will of the UN Security Council, and to take all appropriate steps to protect civilians by acting to end the slaughter.

We now need Parliament to affirm that the UK Government has a mandate to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 2139 and subsequent resolutions and to enforce the declared will of the UN Security Council in Syria.

We need Parliament to affirm that actively protecting civilians must be the primary goal of UK forces engaged in Syria.

If we don’t act now, the Syrian war will end with the United Nations itself in the grave.

Dr Batool Abdulkareem, SyriaUK
Dr Amer Masri, Scotland4Syria
Dr Fadel Moghrabi, Peace and Justice for Syria
Dr Haytham Alhamwi, Rethink Rebuild Society
Dr Mohammad Tammo, Kurds House

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Don’t let humanitarian corridors be a cover for forcing Syrians from their homes

On ‘safe’ passage out of Eastern Ghouta, by Bronwen Griffiths, SyriaUK

“When we talk about an ‘agreement’, in reality there was no agreement at all; it was either we leave or we die.” (Activist from Daraya)

On Monday 26th February, Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, asked the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, what discussions have taken place at the UN to enable the opening up of a corridor in Eastern Ghouta for humanitarian relief and “to allow civilian safe passage out of the city.”

On the surface, Thornberry’s comment seems eminently sensible. Who would not wish for the people of Eastern Ghouta, who have suffered so terribly, a means to escape? But there are a number of very serious questions which must be asked. For one, where will they go to? Are there safe places in Syria for them to go to? When will they be able to return to their homes? Will those who overtly oppose the regime—such as citizen journalists—be able to leave without fear of arrest and imprisonment?

A report from Amnesty International in 2017, We Leave or We Die—forced displacement under Syria’s reconciliation agreements, states that:
“Over the past five years, the Syrian government and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition groups have enforced sieges on densely populated areas, depriving civilians of food, medicine and other basic necessities in violation of international humanitarian law. Besieged civilians have further endured relentless, unlawful attacks from the ground and the air. The systematic use of this policy by the government has become widely referred to, including by the United Nations (UN), as a ‘surrender or starve’ strategy.”

‘Reconciliation’ agreements were agreed between August 2016 and March 2017 in the following areas: Daraya, eastern Aleppo city, al-Waer, Madaya, Zabadani, Kefraya, and Foua. These agreements are presented by the government and its allies as a ‘reconciliation’ effort, but, in reality, they come after prolonged unlawful sieges and bombardment and typically result not only in the evacuation of members of non-state armed groups but also in the mass displacement of civilians. The deals have enabled the government to reclaim control of territory by first starving and then removing inhabitants who rejected its rule.


Photo: Forced displacement from Aleppo, December 2016, via The Guardian.

During the recapture of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, pro-regime forces arrested doctors and aid workers and committed reprisal executions. The same is likely to happen in Eastern Ghouta.

A United Nations report (March 2017) concluded that the Aleppo evacuation agreement (which was overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross) amounted to the “war crime of forced displacement”.

The population ‘transfers’ in Syria on the now-infamous green buses have come to symbolise dispossession and defeat. These ‘reconciliation agreements’ must be viewed in the context of the myriad of international humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses preceding, during, and after their implementation. Forced displacement of large numbers of people cannot be viewed as anything but a war crime.

A just end to this siege means not just allowing humanitarian access and medical evacuations, it also means Eastern Ghouta’s people being able to live in their homes in safety, and being free to come and go as they please.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Humanitarian catastrophe in East Ghouta



PDF version.

To:
Rt Hon. Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

boris.johnson.mp@parliament.uk
fcocorrespondence@fco.gov.uk

21 February 2018

Dear Mr Johnson,

Humanitarian catastrophe in East Ghouta

The Head of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) this week described the current assault on East Ghouta as ‘one of the worst attacks in Syrian history, even worse than the siege of Aleppo.’ Russia and the Assad regime have pummelled homes, hospitals and schools to dust, and the civilian casualty rate is stunning, even to a world and UK public grown used to the horrors of Syria.

We come to your door to remind you that our Government and our Foreign Office can make a real difference to the protection of civilian lives, given the political will.

You could:

  • Summon the Russian Ambassador to demand an end to the bombing;
  • Airdrop food and medical aid to East Ghouta communities under siege;
  • Track and publish the flight data of killer planes attacking civilians;
  • Impose UK sanctions on Russia and call for European sanctions;
  • Ground Assad’s air force by striking bases responsible for bombing civilians.


These are just some of the actions the Government could take immediately. Don’t just shrug your shoulders and blame current inaction on mistakes in 2013. The UK has been militarily engaged in Syria since 2015, and we have the power to save lives now. History will not look kindly on the powerful who stood by while Syrian towns, and their inhabitants, were obliterated.

Yours sincerely

SyriaUK
www.syriauk.org
info@syriauk.org



Tuesday, 20 February 2018

From Aleppo to Ghouta



A video of Jo Cox MP speaking on Aleppo, 3 May 2016.

Everything that Jo Cox said about Aleppo then is true today about Eastern Ghouta.

The UK has the power to protect civilians.

We have the power to ground Assad’s air force.

We have the power to sanction Putin.

We have the power to airdrop aid.

If we choose to, we have the power to save lives.

Read Jo’s 2016 speech on Aleppo here.

Take action to help East Ghouta’s civilians today.

Russia threatens to turn Eastern Ghouta into another Aleppo

UPDATE: The death toll for East Ghouta for February 19th and 20th now stands at 250 

Yesterday, Russia and the regime killed 97 people and injured over 500 people in east Ghouta, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM). Not a single town in this small rebel-held enclave was spared bombardment and five hospitals were damaged and put out of service by the attacks. One of these, the Al-Marj Hospital was completely destroyed by three barrel bombs.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated that Russia could “deploy our experience… of freeing Aleppo in the eastern Ghouta situation.” The east Ghouta area, which is home to roughly 400,000 people, is the last opposition-held area in the environs of Damascus. Other areas previously held by the opposition around the capital, such as Daraya and Wadi Barada, have either surrendered and been cleared of their inhabitants or have entered into “reconciliation agreements” giving the regime total control of their affairs.

The CEO of UOSSM, Dr. Zedoun Al-Zoabi described the attack as “one of the worst attacks in Syrian history, even worse than the siege on Aleppo.” As the attack which targeted homes, hospitals, civil defence workers, and any building which may be used to store food supplies show, Lavrov’s threat to “free” east Ghouta is not an idle one. The Russian and regime capture of eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016 saw dozens of people killed in airstrikes and massacres, the bombing of every single hospital in the city, and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people. At the time Russia and the regime used the presence of a small number of fighters from the formerly Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front (today known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) as a pretext for their attack on east Aleppo, even though there were only a few hundred fighters from this group in the city out of approximately 10,000 fighters overall.

Dead bodies of civilians at the morgue of a field hospital in the town of Hamouriya in eastern Ghouta on February 19th. At least 97 civilians were killed in yesterday's airstrikes. (Photo by Abdul Moyeen Homs / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Russia has once again used the presence of the Al-Nusra Front as a pretext for the latest attack on east Ghouta, saying that Al-Nusra was using the civilians there “as a human shield”. In fact, it is doubtful today whether there is any armed Al-Nusra presence in Ghouta at all. The two largest rebel groups in East Ghouta are Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) and Failaq al-Rahman (the Brigade of the Merciful). In May last year Jaysh al-Islam signed up to a de-escalation agreement guaranteed by Russia and Failaq al-Rahman followed suit in August. This agreement was supposed to put an end to attacks on the rebel-held enclave and guarantee food, medical supplies, and where necessary, medical evacuations, for its inhabitants. Since September, however, Ghouta has been under attack by the regime and the five year siege on the area has been tightened to the point where child malnutrition rates became “the highest seen so far in Syria since the beginning of the crisis” as the World Health Organisation representative to Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, said on December 6th of last year.

Following the de-escalation agreement, the other rebel groups in East Ghouta became exceedingly hostile to the Al-Nusra Front’s presence in the area. Beginning in May of last year Jaysh al-Islam began attacking Al-Nusra Front fighters in East Ghouta, killing approximately 40 and arresting 150. The Nusra Front lost 70% of its equipment and ammunition as a result of these clashes. There were also several popular demonstrations in the area calling for the Al-Nusra Front to leave and posters were placed on mosques calling for fighters from the group to register in preparation for departure from the area. In November, Jaysh al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman started negotiating with Russia for the departure of the remaining Al-Nusra Front fighters. These negotiations were not completed however, and Syrian observers speculated that the Assad regime did not want the Nusra Front to leave Ghouta because that would mean the loss of its last pretext to attack east Ghouta.

The real reason for the current escalation probably has much more to do with what happened at the failed Russian-sponsored Sochi peace conference. The Syrian opposition boycotted this conference on the grounds that attendance would amount to accepting the regime and Russia’s terms for the future of Syria. An ominous response came from the Facebook account of the Russian Hemeimim military base in Syria, saying that the opposition’s refusal was not in its interests and “would have consequences on the ground”.

While Lavrov wants to repeat the experience of Aleppo in east Ghouta, and there is a real danger of this taking place on the ground, the situation there differs from the one that existed in Aleppo in important aspects. The safety of Ghouta was guaranteed by an agreement to which both Russia and the two main rebel groups in the area are signatories. One of the other so-called de-escalation areas, Idlib province, is also being attacked and the regime has threatened to attack another, northern Homs province, and expel its inhabitants to Idlib. The attack on Ghouta and the siege which the area has been subjected to in the preceding months has underlined just how meaningless the de-escalation agreements are. As a Syrian radio presenter pointed out last week, what is the worth of an agreement “where the guarantor is the criminal?”

When the people of eastern Aleppo were forced out of their city, they took refuge in nearby opposition-held areas—the rural western areas of Aleppo province and Idlib province. Today the 400,000 people of Ghouta have literally nowhere to go. Idlib province, which was used as a dumping ground last year for people from opposition-held areas which the regime overran, is now overcrowded and itself under attack. It is very difficult to imagine what fate Russia and the regime have in mind for the people of eastern Ghouta beyond more massacres and more siege-induced starvation. The fact that Russia can get away with being both the guarantor and the criminal is the result of the international community letting it take the lead in Syria and looking the other way while it massacres civilians.

WHAT YOU CAN DO – SUGGESTIONS FROM THE UOSSM AND THE SYRIA CAMPAIGN

  • Join the global advocacy campaign on social media #BreakGhoutaSiege & #SaveEastGhouta
  • Organise events and hold vigils on behalf of eastern Ghouta
  • Write articles to submit to your local media.

Labour and Assad

 
  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that puts a commitment to protecting civilians first.
  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that commits to stopping Assad’s crimes.
  • We need all parties and all members of Parliament to unite in supporting action to end the slaughter in Syria.

We are deeply concerned at the current treatment of Syria by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary.

In listing what’s currently happening in Syria for her Guardian article last week, Emily Thornberry covered everything EXCEPT Assad and Putin’s attacks on civilians. The Assad regime, responsible for most of the killing, wasn’t even mentioned. Why was that?

A reminder: In October Emily Thornberry was giving her backing to a pro Assad conspiracy theorist attacking the BBC.

Also in October Emily Thornberry told an activist that the UK should fund Syria’s reconstruction even with Assad in place, that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”

In December Emily Thornberry introduced into a debate in the Commons a proposal to make a deal with Russia and Iran to keep Assad in place, where Iranian and Coalition forces would leave, and the UK would help fund reconstruction under Assad’s rule.

Emily Thornberry then said the proposal wasn’t hers, but she didn’t say whose proposal it was, and she didn’t rule out spending UK taxpayer money on rebuilding Syrian cities bombed by Assad while still keeping the Assad dictatorship in place.

Protect Civilians

Emily Thornberry’s blanking of Assad and Putin’s ongoing attacks on civilians was one problem with last week’s article. Another was her falling in line with Jeremy Corbyn’s distorted view of the 2011 NATO mission to protect civilians in Libya, and of what followed after.

Evidence suggests NATO likely saved many lives in Libya up to September 2011. But the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) wasn’t up to the task it was given after that.

NATO’s 2011 mission was legally defined as protecting civilians. Today the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition’s legal justification is collective defence of a state, Iraq. The effect of this is that NATO was responsible for relatively few civilian deaths in 2011, but the Coalition has killed thousands.

Airwars estimates that the Coalition strikes killed over one thousand civilians in the assault on Raqqa. Many more civilians were killed in other towns and cities, particularly in taking Mosul in Iraq.

One might expect Labour’s Emily Thornberry to be concerned about the number of civilians killed by the Coalition in Raqqa. But it seems not.

Instead she used a Parliamentary debate on the taking of Raqqa as a cue to attack UK support for Syria’s pro-democracy opposition.

We need a Labour policy on Syria that puts a commitment to protecting civilians first.

We need a Labour policy on Syria that commits to stopping Assad’s crimes.

We need all parties and all members of Parliament to unite in supporting action to end the slaughter in Syria.