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Monday, 1 January 2018

An evening with ‘Syria’s Disappeared’ and ‘Suspended’

Saturday 27 January 2018, 18:30–21:30
St James’s Piccadilly, 197 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL

Syria Solidarity UK and The City Circle invite you to join us for a screening of Syria’s Disappeared. It tells the hidden story of the tens of thousands of men, women and children who’ve been disappeared in Syria. This will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director Sara Afshar.

The evening will end with a beautiful musical performance by Sana Wahbaa on the Qanoon, a key instrument in Syrian music.

The screening will take place in the vicinity of Arabella Dorman’s art installation, Suspended, which highlights the plight of Syrian refugees.

Proceeds will go to the Starfish Foundation and Syria Solidarity UK.

The film screening starts at 7pm sharp.

Book via Eventbrite.

Facebook event page.

‘Suspended’ by Arabella Dorman. Photo by Tim Ireland, via It’s Nice That.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Is Labour whistling Russia’s tune on Syria?

Photo: Syria Civil Defence recovering one of the victims of Sunday’s bombing of Khan Sheikhoun by suspected Russian warplanes. At least ten civilians were reported killed. Khan Sheikhoun was the site of the Syrian regime’s chemical attack on April 4th that killed more than 80 people.

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary replied with denial and indignation to our recent letter concerning her remarks in the Commons on a deal to keep Assad in power in Syria.

Her reply addressed only Syria Solidarity UK, and ignored the co-authors of our letter, Labour Campaign for International Development.

Her reply failed to make clear either her own view or Labour’s policy on Assad, and it raised new questions.

To recap, on Monday 11 December, in reply to a statement by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said:

“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and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction?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?”

Together with the Labour Campaign for International Development, we wrote to Emily Thornberry to express our disappointment that she had proposed such a deal. We wrote:

“Assad’s regime has been responsible for extensive and systematic crimes against humanity, and for the large majority of civilian deaths during the war. Any implication that Assad has a place in the future of Syria is therefore deeply harmful, as is any suggestion that the UK might fund the reconstruction of Syria under his rule.”

And we concluded our joint letter with this call:

“We ask that you please clarify Labour’s position on the Assad regime, and re-establish the party as one that actively condemns those responsible for mass murder and genocide and seeks to hold them accountable. To do otherwise would be to let down those living under the regime’s bombs.We look forward to hearing from you.”

In her letter of reply, Emily Thornberry ignored the call for a clarification of policy. She asserted that:

“In response to a government statement on its talks with the Iranian regime, I asked what Iran was demanding on Syria, and how the government had responded. I advanced no proposals of my own, and endorsed none of Iran’s demands.”

This obscures what she actually said in the Commons, where rather than simply ask what Iran’s demands were, she asked if Iran and its allied Hezbollah and Shi’a militia would agree to a series of linked proposals which she herself set out in her question; she then asked not how the government had responded to any Iranian demands but how the government would respond if Iran would accept the package of proposals she herself had just described.

Emily Thornberry introduced this set of proposals into the exchange in the House of Commons. She did not at the time ascribe them to anyone else. Now in her letter she says the proposals are not hers.

Her remarks in the Commons did not present the set of proposals as Iran’s own; on the contrary, if they are Iran’s proposals then there would be no logic in her asking whether Iran will accept them.

But if these are not Iran’s proposals, and if as she says they are not Emily Thornberry’s own proposals, then whose proposals are they?

The Astana process which she referred to in her question in the Commons is the Russian-led talks process, as opposed to the UN-led peace process at Geneva which was established by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Are we to take it that the set of proposals introduced into the Commons debate by Emily Thornberry is Russia’s set of proposals?

We have not seen this set of proposals publicly put forward by Russia, or by Iran, or by any other party to the Astana talks. The only place we can find them is in Emily Thornberry’s 11 December speech. If anyone has an alternative source for them, we would be very interested to hear.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Call to clarify Labour’s position on the Assad regime

UPDATE: Emily Thornberry responds – scroll down for more

Syria Solidarity UK and the Labour Campaign for International Development have today jointly called on the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to clarify Labour’s position on the Assad regime.

This follows her remarks in the Commons on Monday, seen in the video above, and in Hansard here.

A PDF of our letter is here.

Rt Hon Emily Thornberry MP
House of Commons
14 December 2017

Dear Ms Thornberry,
We are writing to you, as campaigners for peace in Syria, to express our disappointment at your comments in the House, at the Oman, UAE and Iran debate on Monday 11 December 2017.

In your question to the Foreign Secretary, you proposed a deal which would involve Iranian and allied forces, withdrawing from Syria in exchange for the withdrawal of coalition forces, the maintenance of Assad in power, and the provision of aid for reconstruction.

Assad’s regime has been responsible for extensive and systematic crimes against humanity, and for the large majority of civilian deaths during the war. Any implication that Assad has a place in the future of Syria is therefore deeply harmful, as is any suggestion that the UK might fund the reconstruction of Syria under his rule.

To allow Assad to continue in his position as President, after all the crimes he and his allies have committed, would be entirely opposed to the values of the Labour Party, which should always champion democracy, social justice and equality. The party should instinctively stand in solidarity with oppressed people; to further enable an oppressor would be damaging, not just for Syria, but for human rights worldwide.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 calls for UN-led talks — the Geneva process, not the Russian-led Astana talks — leading to elections. Free and fair elections are impossible as long as Assad holds as many as 200,000 Syrian citizens hostage in his prisons; and inconceivable as long as the Assad regime can prevent UN agencies from delivering even basic medical aid to civilians in besieged Eastern Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus.

Without legal accountability, any reconstruction funding will reinforce the criminality of the Syrian regime which led to this crisis. As long as a just and viable political solution is out of reach, the UK should support reconstruction only in ways which strengthen rather than undermine the legal rights of Syrians. This can only be possible in areas outside of the control of the Assad regime.

We ask that you please clarify Labour’s position on the Assad regime, and re-establish the party as one that actively condemns those responsible for mass murder and genocide and seeks to hold them accountable. To do otherwise would be to let down those living under the regime’s bombs.We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Sana Kikhia
Syria Solidarity UK

David Taylor, Vice Chair
Labour Campaign for International Development

UPDATE: Emily Thornberry responds

Here is Emily Thornberry’s response. We would encourage readers to check her claim against what she actually said in Parliament.

Ms Sana Kikhia
Syria Solidarity UK

Our Ref: YD/KIKH03001/03174824
15 December 2017

Dear Ms Kikhia

Thank you for your letter of 14th December, which misreports me as making proposals about the future of Syria in a Commons debate on 11th December. I did no such thing.

In response to a government statement on its talks with the Iranian regime, I asked what Iran was demanding on Syria, and how the government had responded. I advanced no proposals of my own, and endorsed none of Iran’s demands.

To claim otherwise is both unworthy of your organisation, and a wilful misinterpretation of the parliamentary record.

Yours sincerely,
Rt Hon Emily Thornberry MP
Islington South and Finsbury

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Questions for the minister

Last week the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria held a discussion around the film Last Men in Aleppo, screened the same evening on BBC 4. Amongst those taking part was Alistair Burt, Minister of State for the Middle East. We went along to hear what he had to say, and to ask some questions.

Much of the minister’s remarks concerned opposition to military intervention in Syria amongst the UK public. Mr Burt argued that the vote in 2013 was not just a block on any possible military action, but a missed opportunity to persuade the regime to agree a more peaceful negotiated solution. The minister portrayed the UK now as having little say any more in events.

Missing in this was the fact that the UK has militarily intervened in Syria. The UK Parliament voted to intervene against ISIS in 2015, and the UK now shares responsibility for the consequences of that one-eyed campaign; consequences which include not just the near-total destruction of the city of Raqqa with civilian casualties comparable to the fall of Aleppo and with further mass displacement of ordinary Syrians, but also the retaking of territory by the Assad regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, striking as much fear in the heart of many Syrians as did ISIS.

You can read the minister’s remarks on the APPG Friends of Syria website.

Syria Solidarity UK believes the UK still has the capacity to act to protect Syria’s civilians, and has a duty to defend international humanitarian law, which has in so many cases been shredded in Syria, including it would seem by our own allies.

We asked the minister for two things:

1. Aid air drops to besieged Eastern Ghouta and other areas;

2. Tracking and publishing of radar information on the aeroplanes bombing civilians.

We need the UK to publish tracking data to hold Putin and Assad to account today, not just in the future. We need to hold them publicly accountable not just for chemical attacks, but for all attacks that target civilians. As long as we have no judicial body to hold them to account, we need the UK and others to present as much evidence to the public as possible, so that all the peoples of the world can demand their governments do their part.

On aid airdrops, feeding all 400,000 people under siege in Eastern Ghouta by air drops might not seem possible, but the UN did feed some 70,000 people in Deir Ezzor solely by airdrops from February 2016 to September 2017. The UN made over 300 airdrops to Deir Ezzor, including with precision guided JPADS parachutes.

The UN of course refused in 2016 to drop aid to areas besieged by the regime without explicit regime permission, despite all the countries of the ISSG calling on them to do so. The ISSG—the International Syria Support Group—included not just countries like the UK, US, and France; it also included Russia and Iran.

The UK promised at the time that it was prepared to join in dropping aid. On 31 May 2016, the UK Special Representative to Syria Gareth Bayley said:

“Air drops to deliver aid to all designated besieged areas remains a last resort. It is an expensive and complex way to deliver aid. But it is vital that we fulfil this commitment. The UK stands ready to do so.”

This promise on aid airdrops has not been kept by the UK Government.

Of course some feared that manned airdrops might be attacked. Would the Assad regime really have risked the consequences of such an act? After Russia and the regime were allowed to go unpunished for their murderous attack on a UN aid convoy in September 2016, one might well fear that they would.

There are three ways to avoid the risk of attacks on airdrops: One is to make a credible threat of decisive retaliation; another is to drop from high altitude as the UN did for Deir Ezzor; and a third is to use unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs or drones.

UK and US officials discussed using drones and guided parachutes for aid in the last weeks of the siege of Aleppo, but then as ever they folded in the face of Assad and Putin’s violent aggression.

As recently as January and February, the UK Government was saying that it was still considering using drones for aid airdrops, and yet it stood by as civilians from one town after another were forcibly displaced by Assad, Hezbollah, and Russia.

From Wadi Barada. From Madaya. From Al Waer. Tens of thousands more Syrians were forced from their homes by starvation sieges while the UK did nothing.

Alistair Burt laments the failure to act in 2013. If we continue to stand by while Eastern Ghouta is starved and bombed—if we won’t even drop aid to the starving—how will we look back at this failure to protect civilians in 2017?

Monday, 27 November 2017

Rukban camp: Britain and America’s shame

Rukban IDP Camp: Photo via Hammurabi’s Justice

  • The UK’s ally Jordan is blocking humanitarian access to Syrians trapped in Rukban.
  • The UK and US have a military base a few kilometres from 50,000 trapped civilians.
  • As full ground access is denied, the UK should now work with aid agencies to airlift aid directly to the desert camp.

How is it that 50,000 people are trapped without aid in the Syrian desert when there is a Coalition military base right next door?

Rukban camp is located in the desert on the Syrian-Jordanian border, in an area known as the Berm. 50,000 Syrians live there, internally displaced people blocked from fleeing Syria by the Jordanian government, and blocked by the Assad regime and its allies from receiving UN aid inside Syria.

People in Rukban are increasingly desperate. In the last year, there have been only two distributions of UN humanitarian food assistance, and none since June.

Camp residents report that water pollution, high temperatures, unsafe human waste disposal and garbage accumulation have led to major health issues such as diarrhea, fever, bronchitis, bowel inflammation, skin allergies and urinary infections.

Numbers of people at Rukban increased in September when pro-Assad Iranian-led militias advanced against Syrian opposition fighters, and another camp on the border, Hadalat, totally emptied out as people fled to Rukban. More recently, hundreds more have fled to Rukban to escape fighting in Deir Ezzor.

Map: The Carter Center via War on the Rocks

Rukban offers some safety from the Assad regime as it is near Al Tanf base, a military base used by the US and its allies, including until recently the UK, to train local Syrian anti-ISIS fighters. Rukban camp is 16 kilometres from the Tanaf border crossing.

It was at Tanf base that the BBC reported seeing UK special forces inside Syria in Summer 2016. After Russia bombed UK and US trained fighters at Tanf in 2016, the US negotiated a 55 kilometre deconfliction zone.

In 2017, Coalition forces defending the zone struck advancing Iranian-led pro-Assad militias, but allowed them to advance around it and reach the Iraqi border further east. Tanf base—and Rukban camp—are therefore now cut off from the rest of Syria by a pro-regime area of control held mainly by Iranian-led militias.

While the US and UK military regularly supplied their forces inside Syria across the Jordanian border, Jordan has closed that border for civilians.

When an alleged ISIS car bomb killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016, Jordan declared the Berm a closed military zone. No longer able to get access, UN agencies agreed a deal in late 2016 giving control of aid to the Jordanian military. Since then aid shipments have been sporadic.

Rukban now has the characteristics of a besieged community, trapped between Jordan’s military and pro-Assad militias. But it is a besieged community with a UK-US military base right next door. Rukban isn’t being bombed like Eastern Ghouta, but the UN clinic for Rukban regularly receives cases of acute malnutrition, including skeletal children.

The UK and US should be able to persuade their close ally Jordan to give reputable NGOs full access to Rukban. The UK and US are leading providers of humanitarian and development aid to Jordan, as well as of military aid.

If the UK and US can’t achieve an urgent and dramatic improvement in ground access, then Rukban is one place where there is no excuse for failing to fly aid in. Unlike other besieged areas in Syria, this area is defended by Coalition air forces. It can be accessed by flying either across the Jordanian or Iraqi borders—both Coalition partners. The UK could start delivering aid directly in days if not hours.

The UK’s excuses for failing to deliver air drops to Eastern Ghouta today, and to all the besieged areas that have fallen to Assad through 2016 and 2017, have been miserably weak. But in failing the 50,000 people trapped in Rukban, the UK has no excuse at all.