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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.

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


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


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.


  • 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.

Friday, 16 February 2018

UN agencies have the power to deliver aid to Eastern Ghouta NOW

  • The UN is failing Syria’s civilians.
  • After months of waiting, this UN convoy only had 1 month of food for 1 out of every 50 people.
  • While UN airdrops fed 100,000 people in Deir Ezzor for 1½ years, the UN has never once dropped aid to besieged Eastern Ghouta.
  • Drop aid now.

On 14 February, a UN and Syrian Red Crescent humanitarian aid convoy took food for 7,200 civilians for one month to Al-Nishabieh in besieged Eastern Ghouta. It was the first UN aid convoy to Eastern Ghouta since November. There are about 400,000 people trapped in Eastern Ghouta. This aid delivery was a drop in an ocean of need.

Medical supplies such as painkillers were included in Wednesday’s convoy, but medications needed to treat chronic illnesses were not, local council member Abu Saleh told Syria Direct.

UN OCHA tweeted: ‘If Nashabiyeh East Ghouta is a sample of communities in need, then the situation is far graver than imagined.’

According to OCHA’s report, ‘in Nashabieh, the UN technical team of the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the World Health Organization found a tired and exhausted population following long months of isolation. Families are forced to skip meals, some only having one meal a day. A young ailing girl informed the team she has been eating yogurt and nothing else.’

Jakob Kern, Country Director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Syria, tweeted: ‘We need much more such convoys. Fighting has to stop to deliver much needed aid to all civilians in need.’

The day before, 13 February, Jakob Kern tweeted impressions from the World Food Programme’s team in Deir Ezzor: ‘Abu Sufian told WFP: “Your airdrops kept us alive. We had at least some food to keep us going during the siege.”’

The UN successfully airdropped enough food and medical aid to besieged Deir Ezzor to sustain as many as 100,000 people for a year and a half.

In that time, the UN’s World Food Programme completed 309 airdrops of food and medical aid.

There have been ZERO aid airdrops to Eastern Ghouta.

UN agencies were given a mandate to plan aid airdrops to all besieged areas by the International Syria Support Group in June 2016. Today’s starvation in Eastern Ghouta is in part the result of a dereliction of duty by UN officials who didn’t want to rock the boat.

Eastern Ghouta was an agricultural area before the war. Space is available for drop zones.

Whether by road or air, UNSC resolutions empower UN agencies to deliver aid cross-line WITHOUT Assad regime permission.

Load the trucks. Drive them to the checkpoints in front of the cameras of the world’s media.

Load the planes. If necessary use JPADS remote-guided parachutes as in Deir EzzorDrop aid NOW.

What legal power do UN agencies have to deliver aid inside Syria?

UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorised to use routes across conflict lines in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes, with notification to the Syrian authorities.

This means that Syrian authorities, upon receipt of notification, do not have a legal right to stop UN agencies delivering humanitarian assistance across conflict lines.

UN agencies have a legal right to declare that they are going to deliver aid to Eastern Ghouta, and the Assad regime then has no right to stop them.

Here is how that is set out in UN Security Council resolutions:

On 19 December 2017, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2393 renewing legal authorisation for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access in Syria by UN agencies. The details of the authorisation are set out in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the earlier UN Security Council Resolution 2165 (adopted 14 July 2014).

Paragraph 2 of Resolution 2393 states that the Security Council:

2.   Decides to renew the decisions in paragraphs 2 and 3 of Security Council resolution 2165 (2014) for a further period of twelve months, that is, until 10 January 2019;

And those paragraphs 2 and 3 of Resolution 2165 state that the Security Council:

2.   Decides that the United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, in addition to those already in use, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes, with notification to the Syrian authorities, and to this end stresses the need for all border crossings to be used efficiently for United Nations humanitarian operations;

3.   Decides to establish a monitoring mechanism, under the authority of the United Nations Secretary-General, to monitor, with the consent of the relevant neighbouring countries of Syria, the loading of all humanitarian relief consignments of the United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners at the relevant United Nations facilities, and any subsequent opening of the consignments by the customs authorities of the relevant neighbouring countries, for passage into Syria across the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, and with notification by the United Nations to the Syrian authorities, in order to confirm the humanitarian nature of these relief consignments.