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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.

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.