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Wednesday, 5 September 2018

With millions of people under threat in Idlib, what can the UK do?

Five children were killed by Russian aircraft in Jisr al Shughur, Idlib, yesterday.
Photo: Syria Civil Defence.

  1. Track and publish details of air attacks on civilians.
  2. Sanction Russians with command responsibility.
  3. Deter ALL attacks on civilians, not just chemical attacks.
  4. Support and protect civilian local government.

2.5 million civilians are trapped in Idlib, including 700,000 people displaced from other parts of Syria by the Assad regime. (Source: Amnesty)

The UK, US, and France have warned the Assad regime that they will take action if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons in attacking Idlib. However the UK, US, and France are offering no deterrence against any other bombing of civilians, whether by Assad or Russia.

Idlib is supposed to be a protected zone under a de-escalation agreement made between the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, but over the last year other de-escalation zones have been subject to massive attacks and forced displacements by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

The boundary of the Idlib de-escalation zone is marked by Turkish, Russian, and Iranian military observation posts.

Military control within Idlib is contested by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) armed groups and National Liberation Front armed groups. HTS includes the former Jabhat al-Nusra, historically linked to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front groups opposing HTS are backed by Turkey.

Political control within Idlib is contested between HTS and local councils, some of them democratically elected. Syrian civil society groups and civilian local government have spent years resisting both the Islamist extremists and the Assad regime.


WHAT THE UK CAN DO—IN DETAIL:

1. Track and publish details of air attacks on civilians.

The RAF tracks military aircraft across Syria as part of its contribution to the anti-ISIS Coalition.

According to the RAF, its E-3D AWACS aircraft provides ‘big picture’ situational awareness for Coalition aircraft and early warning of aircraft movements outside Coalition control, while Air Vice-Marshal Stringer recently told the Defence Select Committee that the RAF’s Sentinel stand-off radar provided about 25% to 30% of the overall Coalition contribution.

The UK should publish radar tracking data on attacks by Russian and Syrian aircraft against civilian targets, in order to help identify those with command responsibility, to establish grounds for future prosecutions, and to make the case for targeted sanctions against those implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

MPs of various parties have raised this issue with ministers, only to receive boilerplate replies suggesting that security considerations prevent publication, but when Assad’s air force dropped nerve agent on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, the US published tracking data to show the regime was responsible. If it could be done in that case, it can be done for other attacks on civilians.

Publish the radar tracking data. Identify the bases of origin for individual attacks, and identify individuals with command responsibility.

2. Sanction Russians with command responsibility.

Russian forces in Syria have attacked hospitals, schools, rescue workers, crowded marketplaces, and even a UN aid convoy. They have faced not one single sanction in consequence of these criminal attacks.

The UK coordinates its international sanctions with the EU. A key reason for calling on the UK Government to publish aircraft tracking data is to make a public case for international sanctions against Russian individuals and entities implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

3. Deter all Assad regime attacks on civilians, not just chemical attacks.

The UK, US, and France have warned the Assad regime that they will take action if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons in attacking Idlib. However the UK, US, and France are offering no deterrence against conventional bombing, artillery, barrel bombs, cluster bombs or incendiary attacks, all of which are regularly targeted against civilians in Syria.

In February 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2139 demanding that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs, and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.”

As the UK, US, and France ready a response to any chemical attack, they should also publicly declare themselves willing and ready to respond to other attacks on civilian targets such as hospitals and schools, and to respond to other indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions, incendiaries, and barrel bombs.

4. Support and protect civilian local government.

Civilians in Idlib are under threat by armed groups who have been responsible for torture and killing, but the answer is not to allow those armed groups to be replaced by the Assad regime which is responsible for even more torture and killing.

Civil society and local civilian government have resisted both extremist armed groups and the Assad regime. They need to be supported. The recent withdrawal of UK funding for Free Syria Police and local councils was a step backwards. Ending the external threat to Idlib from the Assad regime needs to be matched by planning and resources to support civil governance and civil society inside Idlib.



Notes

Amnesty International: Idleb: Millions in need of protection.
https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2018/08/idleb-millions-in-need-of-protection-world-must-act-now/

Royal Air Force: About the E-3D
https://www.raf.mod.uk/aircraft/e-3d/

Defence Committee: Oral evidence: UK Military operations in Mosul and Raqqa
http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/defence-committee/uk-military-operations-in-mosul-and-raqqa/oral/82916.html

House of Commons debate: Aleppo and Syria, contribution by Ann Clwyd MP (Labour), 11 October 2016
http://bit.ly/2vIrMaS

Point of order by Tom Brake MP (Liberal Democrat), 18 October 2016
http://bit.ly/2vHFStd

Syria: Armed Conflict: Written question – 47537
Asked by Helen Hayes MP (Labour)
https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-10-07/47537/

Syria: Military Intervention: Written question – 54038
Asked by Andrew Mitchell MP (Conservative)
https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-11-21/54038/

Syria: Armed Conflict: Written question – 117803
Asked by Martyn Day MP (Scottish National Party)
https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2017-12-06/117803/

Syria: Military Intervention: Written question – 131266
Asked by Roger Godsiff MP (Labour)
https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2018-03-06/131266/

Bellingcat: The Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack – Who Bombed What and When?
https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/04/10/khan-sheikhoun-chemical-attack-bombed/

Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2139 (2014)
https://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11292.doc.htm

The Sunday Times: Police in rebel-held Syria ‘betrayed’ as UK cuts off funds
https://www.idlibfreepolice.org/en/media-press/free-police-news/the-sunday-times-police-in-rebel-held-syria-betrayed-as-uk-cuts-off-funds/

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