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Saturday 26 December 2015

Further Escalation of Deliberate Attacks on Medical Facilities

Syrian British Medical Society Press Release, 25th December 2015.

In an extremely worrying escalation of their incessant bombing campaign, Russian war planes have this morning struck a number of medical facilities, in a series of deliberate attacks.

From around 09:00am on 25th December 2015, squadrons of Russian war planes carried out a devastating attack on the Central Specialist Hospital in the City of Azzaz, causing extensive damage to several parts of the hospital, and to the surrounding areas.

Russian war planes then carried out another devastating attack on the Maternity and Paediatric Hospital in the same City, also putting the Hospital out of service, and inflicting catastrophic damage to most of its structures.

In addition, Baghdad Hospital in the town of Hreitan was also attacked by Russian war plane, resulting in severe damage to the structure of the hospital, and the death of a member of staff.

These attacks have left hundreds of thousands of civilians deprived of essential medical care, and once again, highlighted the extremely dangerous conditions that medical staff in Syria have to work under on a daily basis. Over 658 healthcare workers have been killed in the past four years, in addition to a substantial number of Syrian doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, detention, torture, in complete contravention of international accords and conventions, for no crime other than providing medical care to the injured.

We take this opportunity to respectfully urge Her Majesty’s Government, the international community, and the international medical relief organizations, to condemn in the strongest possible terms the deliberate targeting of medical facilities by the Russian air strikes, and the ongoing harassment, intimidation, detention, torture, and murder by the Syrian Regime, of medical teams working on the ground to help the injured.

The Syrian British Medical Society
25th December 2015

Editors’ Notes: The Syrian British Medical Society was established in 2007, as a forum for healthcare professionals of Syrian descent working in the UK. It is a non-profit, non-political organization that aims at promoting the highest professional and ethical standards amongst British-Syrian Healthcare Professionals, and the creation and promotion of academic and professional links with the Healthcare Profession in Syria and related organizations worldwide. Since the start of the uprising in Syria in 2011, the SBMS has redirected most of its activities towards helping the devastated healthcare sector in Syria.

SBMS Website.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Putin’s and Assad’s peace moves: bombings of civilians and chemical weapons attacks

On Friday, the UK and allies US and France joined Russia in passing a UN Security Council resolution supporting the Vienna process to bring peace to Syria.

On Sunday, Russia bombed civilian areas in anti-ISIS rebel held territory, killing scores of civilians.

Yesterday, Assad regime forces carried out another chemical weapons attack against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh.

For years the UK government has followed Obama’s lead in making excuses for not taking effective action to protect civilians. In March they joined Obama’s flawed train-and-equip program that attempted to build a Syrian rebel force to take on ISIS while ignoring the much greater threat to Syrians, the Assad regime. In November, government minister Tobias Ellwood told MPs and peers that a ceasefire was in Russia’s interest. Earlier this month, government minister Philip Hammond dismissed calls for a no-bombing zone by falsely claiming that such a measure would require troops on the ground.

It is long past time for government ministers to recognise the brutal fact that Putin does not face the same constraints or understanding of self interest as democratic politicians do, and that diplomacy alone will not stop Assad’s killing in Syria.

It is also long overdue for British MPs to face up to the consequences of not acting to constrain Assad. The vote against action on Assad’s chemical massacre in 2013 was a disaster for Syrians and for global security, and the current airstrikes against ISIS do nothing to undo the damage of that decision.

Below are videos we have received from yesterday’s chemical weapons attack on Moadamiyeh.

#فيديو يوثق لحظة وصول المصابين جراء استهداف الحي الغربي من #المعضمية بغاز السارين #مستشفى_الغوطة_التخصصي#معضمية_الشام ٢٢/١٢/٢٠١٥
Posted by ‎مستشفى الغوطة التخصصي‎ on Tuesday, December 22, 2015

See also Amnesty’s report today, Syria: Russia’s shameful failure to acknowledge civilian killings.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Syrians Condemn Russian Massacre in Idlib

PDF version here.

British Syrian groups across the UK strongly condemn Russia’s most recent attacks on Idlib in northern Syria on 20 December 2015, which led to the killing of over 47 civilians in the course of just a few hours. More than 8 rockets alone hit the main courthouse in the city causing enormous levels of devastation.

The attack on Idlib is not only a breach of UN Security Council Resolution 2139 but also of a recent local truce between oppositionists and the Assad regime, whereby Idlib would not be bombed.

The direct Russian intervention in Syria which began in September 2015 was justified through the need to get rid of ISIL. However, as numerous reports have shown, Russian forces are targeting civilian areas under the control of moderate opposition groups, while leaving ISIL-controlled areas largely intact. Evidence suggests that Russian involvement is helping, rather than impeding, ISIL advances.

Russia’s actions are especially shameful given its role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, through which it is obligated to act in good faith in upholding and maintaining international peace and security. Instead of playing an important role in forcing Assad to stop bombing civilians to make a political solution more attainable, Russia is instead intensifying the killing of civilians to empower the position of Assad. This will complicate any efforts to reach a political solution in Syria.

Dr. Sharif Kaf Al-Ghazal from the Syrian Association of Yorkshire says: ‘Russian atrocities against civilians have left the Syrian people hopeless and in complete despair. There is little condemnation and protest against this illegal and immoral intervention and the Syrian people feel more alone than ever at the failure of the international community to at the very least speak out against this.’

Putin is repeating the criminal “scorched earth policy” which destroyed Grozny 15 years earlier and is applying this barbaric tactic in one of the largest civilian areas in northern Syria. In destroying infrastructure and taking countless lives for mere political ends, namely to keep a dictatorial ally in the eastern Mediterranean, Russia’s crimes are unforgiveable.

The international community must pressure Russia in any way possible to stop targeting civilians and to label its actions as war crimes. We recall that the key to achieving a political solution in Syria can only begin through civilian protection from indiscriminate attacks such as those perpetrated by Assad and Russia.


Oxford for Syria
Peace and Justice for Syria
Rethink Rebuild Society
Syria Solidarity UK
Syrian Association of Yorkshire
Syrian Welsh Society

Saturday 19 December 2015

Who are the Syrian rebels?

By Mark Boothroyd

While commentators and politicians profess to not know who the “moderates” are in Syria, there is little excuse for ignorance as to the nature of the Syrian rebels. Over the course of the revolt a large array of writers, bloggers, journalists, amateur analysts and think tanks have produced accounts of the make up of the rebels, their politics, manpower, where they get their support and their ultimate aims. Analysts like Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Charles Lister and Aron Lund provide regular analysis on rebel organisations.

Amateur analysts regularly produce infographics showing the shifting alliances, formation of new coalitions and fracturing of old ones, and territorial conquests and losses. The most prolific of these are probably Archicivilians, and Thomas Van Linge, whose work was covered by the BBC.

Any armed group of a reasonable size has its own Twitter account used to announce offensives and issue statements, a website for hosting information, and YouTube channel for uploading films of their military victories, propaganda and recruitment videos.

Most of the larger groups have political officers who are responsible for liaising with the political opposition, the media and issuing statements and information about the progress of the struggle. Many of them are on twitter.

The political officer for Ahrar Al-Sham, Labib Al-Nahhas, recently had articles published in both the Telegraph and the Washington Post.

All the rebel groups listed below have opposed US-led Coalition and Russian air strikes on Syria as attacks on the revolution. Rebel groups have condemned sectarian massacres where they have been carried out by jihadist groups aligned with the opposition.

The fact that large sections of the left and progressive and anti-war movement can rubbish these statements about “moderate rebels” is down to their own wilful ignorance, not lack of available information.

Much attention has been paid to the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, the YPG, but they operate only in the North and East of Syria, and coverage of them does not provide information on what is happening in the rest of the country. The YPG are also not in conflict with the Assad regime, so don’t constitute part of the armed rebellion against Assad.

ISIS is sometimes portrayed as part of the rebellion, but it has more the character of a foreign occupying force, with the majority of its fighters being Iraqi or other foreign fighters. All rebel groups have been at war with ISIS since January 2014, and civil protest groups were trying to force it to leave opposition areas from early on in 2013.

There are hundreds of armed groups in Syria, the legacy of the fragmented formation of the armed struggle. Several armed factions and coalitions dominate the armed struggle. Around them the major alliances and offensives pivot. Below are listed the most significant factions, their ideological make up, approximate size and main backers.

Thursday 17 December 2015

The Humanitarian Impact of Russia’s Intervention

By Kellie Strom

The same day as the House of Commons debated airstrikes, elsewhere in Westminster the APPG for Syria was hosting a briefing by GOAL, an Irish NGO working inside northern Syria. The briefing was led by CEO Barry Andrews.

GOAL’s programme began in 2012, and is now reaching over a million people in rebel–held or contested areas. They distribute food to nearly 500,000 people. They supply flour to over 50 bakeries providing bread at stabilised prices to nearly one million people.

GOAL also supports water and hygiene services for over half a million people. In 2016 they plan expanding water systems and rural sanitation.

On livelihoods, GOAL supports farming families with pesticides, and plans on supporting related businesses and market systems, and developing small business groups accessible to women.
When GOAL first set up projects inside Syria, it was in the expectation that the war would end more quickly, and that the effort would support post–war transition and reconstruction. As things are, their work has helped temper the flow of refugees, making it possible for many to stay inside Syria. Their North Syria Response Fund is reaching over 200,000 internally displaced people, many from Aleppo and Homs.

Now the violence of Russia’s intervention has thrown the future of all this in doubt.

Russia is seen as carrying on Assad’s work, choosing to hit non-ISIS forces and infrastructure. There are fewer of Assad’s barrel bombs now, but the Russian weapons have far greater intensity. Buildings are gone in a single strike. They are targeting areas that were previously relatively safe, targeting border areas, hitting humanitarian convoys as well as commercial traffic.

People who before were prepared to stay now lack confidence that it is tenable, and there is a danger that pressure on Aleppo and Homs could displace as many as a million more.

While they see some grounds for hope in negotiations, GOAL are concerned not just by the bombing of civilians, but also at the bombing of FSA forces “holding the line against ISIS.”

While some have questioned the existence of moderate Syrian forces to fight ISIS, GOAL’s experience is that where there is extremism it’s amongst foreign fighters, whereas Syrian fighters are nationalists and “can be reasoned with.”

Where once there was talk of humanitarian intervention, now the focus has shifted to security threats and funding for aid has reduced even as the humanitarian crisis has worsened.

There is both a humanitarian and a political reason to continue aid work inside Syria, Barry Andrews argued; if you want forces of moderation to resist extremism, they need to be able to live and survive.

With thanks to the APPG for Syria Chair Roger Godsiff MP and his staff.

First published in Syria Notes.

Related at EA WorldView: Russia’s Aerial Victory—80% Aid Cut, 260,000 Displaced, Infrastructure Damaged.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Women’s perspectives on the Syrian conflict

Women’s perspectives on the Syrian conflict

1-2pm on Wednesday 16th December 2015,
The Wilson Room, Portcullis House,
Bridge Street, London SW1A 2LW.

“Peacebuilding defines our future now” is a study of women’s peace activism in Syria by the Badael Foundation. Discussing this report will be Raheb Alwany, a co-author of the report and a researcher at Badael, and Laila Alodaat, the Crisis Response Programme Manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The Syrian war has had particular effects on women, as victims of the targeting of civilian areas, of the destruction of health services, and of the use of sexual violence as an instrument of oppression. However, women continue to play a crucial role in building peace and spreading the culture of non-violence within their communities and beyond.

Despite their central role in the construction and preservation of civil society during this war, Syrian women are being challenged by the increasing militarisation of the conflict, which shrinks their space, and marginalises their voices and contributions. This event will focus on women’s contributions to overcoming the Syrian crisis through grassroots peace building, and on what needs to be done to insure their protection and support their efforts.

Raheb Alwany, researcher, Badael Foundation
Laila Alodaat, Crisis Response Programme manager, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP

We hope you will be able to attend.

Please RSVP to Syria Solidarity UK at info@syriauk.org

PDF version of this page.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Together For Syria

Above: BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend report on our Together For Syria event. Broadcast 6 December 2015. BBC News website version.

Saturday’s Together For Syria event gathered activists from several groups across the UK. Barton Creeth has written an account for the Slugger O’Toole blog:
In the Khalili Lecture Theater at SOAS, the Syrians on the panel, representing different pro-Syrian organisations based in the UK, spoke repeatedly on the theme of getting Syrian voices heard. For Syrians, it’s a great frustration that both the left and the right of the British political spectrum seem intent on rehabilitating the Assad regime—which is, according to the voices in the room, the root of the Syrian crisis, and the main cause of the rise of ISIS.

Read the rest: Syria Still Dreams of Freedom.

Leaders Bombing Syria Are Ignoring Syrians. We Need Civilian Protection.

This is an urgent SOS. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut demonstrate that the violence, insecurity and tragedy of Syria have travelled far beyond its borders. After close to five years of crisis, we all see that no one can afford for the violence in Syria to continue. No one can afford more war. No one can afford unsustainable peace.

All of us, and especially we Syrians, need the violence to end. Now, more than ever, peace talks on Syria must succeed. We need a peace that will hold. And we can achieve that. To do so, we need world leaders who have been meeting in Vienna to listen to our voice: guarantee our protection. Save our Syria.

Peace in Syria and international security will not come through airstrikes against ISIS alone. Peace will not come if Assad continues to wage war on civilians. Peace won’t develop in the backrooms of Vienna if Syrian streets are soaked in blood. If the international community is serious about reaching a political solution in Syria, world leaders must end the indiscriminate violence that costs Syrian lives. To save our Syria, to protect international security, we must first save Syrian civilians.

After four weeks of the Vienna talks on Syria, world leaders produced a nine-point communiqué that makes no mention of Syrian civilians, no reference to our calls for protection and no guarantee to take the measures needed to end the indiscriminate violence that kills so many. World leaders are not on a path towards peace and security in Syria because they are not listening to Syrian voices. Not a single Syrian has been at the negotiating table—despite repeated assurances that any future transition would be Syria-led and Syrian-owned. World leaders must do better when they next meet on Dec. 18 in New York.

Syrian lives matter. Syrian blood is being shed. Syrians must bring about the peace that will heal our country. It is our voices—above all others—that deserve to be heard. And our voices—overwhelmingly—are calling for civilian protection. Unless the participants at Vienna recognize and act on our calls for civilian protection, talks will lack legitimacy and will not secure peace.

Take the time to ask any Syrian what’s wanted—and above all what’s needed—and they will tell you: “protection.” Syrians across the political, ethnic and religious spectrum want protection from the indiscriminate killing primarily executed through aerial bombardment. We want protection from the barrel bombs, cluster munitions and chemical weapons that suffocate, maim and kill our children. We want protection from the missiles, kidnappings and other forms of indiscriminate warfare that take the lives of so many of our people.

Protection is the key to saving lives in Syria. It is also the key to getting peace talks on track and to reaching a political solution. We saw in Geneva in 2014 that talks won’t work if Syrians are being starved into submission and bombed into oblivion. They won’t gain traction if civilians are subject to relentless indiscriminate attacks, while high-profile leaders talk “peace” in far-off European capitals. Talks will fail if ordinary Syrians see them as little more than a cover for escalating violence on the ground or as a diplomatic charade that does little more than raise false hopes.

We Syrians want the Vienna process to succeed. We are desperate for peace. If Vienna could deliver a ceasefire, that would be a big step towards peace. But war has taught us that we must be realistic. No process throughout the conflict has delivered a comprehensive ceasefire, even when the parties have agreed to it.

To guard against the potential for the talks to fail, participants of the Vienna talks must guarantee to enforce civilian protection. Such a guarantee would make Syrians’ buy-in more likely, and it would increase the odds that the Syrian regime and Russia stop their killing of their own volition.

After close to five years of conflict, our country is in ruins. At least 250,000 of our brothers and sisters have died. Half of our people have been displaced, and the other half is in need of humanitarian assistance. The tragedy and insecurity of Syria is fuelling ISIS recruitment, causing mass flows of refugees and destabilizing Europe.

Terrorism and extremism are posing an unprecedented threat. The entire world is watching Syria in full awareness that the killing must stop. It’s time the world listens to Syrians and does what Syrians know must be done to end the conflict. Guarantee the protection of civilians. Save our Syria before it’s too late.


Syria Civil Defence (The White Helmets) · Syrian Emergency Task Force · Syrian Civil Society Alliance · Syrian Women's Network · Syrian Nonviolence Movement · Centre for Thought and Public Affairs · Free Syrian Translators · Help4Syria · Kurds House · Peace and Justice for Syria · Rethink Rebuild Society · Scotland4Syria · Syrian Association of Yorkshire ·Syrian Community of the South West · Syrian Platform for Peace ·Syria Relief Network · Syria Solidarity UK · Syrian Welsh Society · Gulsin Mohamad & Hamdiya Rasho, Sawa organisation, Qamishli · Hefa Jaja, Organisation for the Protection of Human Rights (DAD), Hasakah · Shiyar Khaleal, The Union of Kurdish Journalists in Syria · Ahed Nofal, Lawyer and Activist · Dr. Abdulkarim Hariri, Representative of Coalition of Civil Society Groups in Southern Syria, Daraa · Joud al Aseel, Damascus · Saeed Al Sheikh, Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability · Homad Homad, Free Lawyers of Aleppo · Nour Hallak, Wisdom House, Idlib, former political prisoner · Seham Torkmany, Lawyer, Daraa · Yahia Nanaa, Former president of the Aleppo Provincial Council · Hussein Hamdon, Journalist, Idlib · Alaaeedin Sallal, Journalist, Idlib ·

Monday 30 November 2015

MPs are being asked the wrong question on Syria

PDF version.

Monday 30th November 2015

Dear Member of Parliament,

MPs are being asked the wrong question on Syria: Whether or not to bomb ISIS.

ISIS must be defeated, for the sake of people in Syria as well as for the safety of people in Europe, of people in Britain.

But the greater threat to Syrians comes from Assad rather than ISIS: The number of civilians killed by Assad forces is over 2½ times the number of UK civilians killed in World War Two.

The number of Syrians killed by ISIS is a very small fraction in comparison to the industrial scale of Assad’s slaughter.

Assad is the cause of ISIS:

  • by unleashing the violence that allowed ISIS to enter Syria from Iraq
  • by bombing those Syrian rebel groups resisting the advance of ISIS
  • by buying fuel from ISIS
  • by inviting sectarian forces such as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militia into Syria’s killing fields
  • by a long history since 2003 of actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of ISIS

As long as the Assad regime remains, the terror threat will remain.

Protect civilians

Civilian protection should be a primary concern in any military action by the UK. In the Syrian conflict, where so many have already been killed, and where so many civilians are still being killed by Assad and his allies, it is not enough for the UK to merely seek to minimise additional civilian casualties at the hands of UK forces; as an active participant in the conflict, the UK must prioritise the protection of civilians being killed by Assad forces.

To protect civilians, MPs need to explicitly back concrete action to end Assad’s air attacks on civilians.

Empower Syrians to defeat ISIS

The need to stop Assad’s bombing is morally fundamental; it is also strategically essential.

Not only do we believe it is immoral to fly missions in Syria against ISIS while leaving the even greater killer, Assad, free to bomb civilians en masse, we also believe that any war against ISIS that doesn’t put the needs of the Syrian people first will be a failure that can only prolong their suffering.

The government assertion that there are 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria able to fight Assad has been greeted by disbelief in some quarters. The truth is that these fighters do exist, and likely in greater numbers, but they are being bombed by Assad, and now by Russia. They are defending towns and neighbourhoods under attack by Assad and by his Russian and Iranian allies. Without action to stop Assad, most are not available to join the fight against ISIS.

To empower Syrians to defeat ISIS, MPs need to explicitly back concrete action to end Assad’s air attacks on civilians.

Empower UK diplomacy

To stop Assad’s killing, the UK has placed its hopes in “putting Britain’s full diplomatic weight” behind the Vienna talks. In pursuing a diplomatic path, the UK has long called on Assad’s key backer, the Russian government, to pressure Assad to stop bombing civilians. Instead Russia has joined in bombing both moderate rebels and Syrian civilians. Clearly Britain’s full diplomatic weight is not enough to tip the balance.

To empower UK diplomacy, and to enable a political solution, MPs need to explicitly back concrete action to end Assad’s air attacks on civilians.

Reject using Syria as a proxy war for UK domestic politics

Neither the government nor the opposition have come to grips with the humanitarian or strategic imperatives of the Syrian crisis. MPs must reject any use of Syria as a proxy war for UK domestic politics, and instead demand measures that protect Syrian civilians, enable the defeat of ISIS, and thereby safeguard the security of the UK.

The action we need to see

Any UK military action in Syria must include concrete measures to protect Syrian civilians.

The minimal action required is a no-bombing zone. This means issuing an ultimatum stating that if the Assad regime does not comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2139’s demand to “immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment” then the UK will enforce the demand by striking Assad regime military assets (for example air bases) complicit in breaching Resolution 2139.

This would not require widespread attacks on Syrian air defences as some have suggested, nor would it require the use of ground forces, as enforcement strikes can be carried out with precision weapons launched from beyond Syrian air space.

The resolution we need MPs to vote on

Suggested wording:

“That this house recognises the legal justification for humanitarian intervention in Syria on the basis of evidence of overwhelming humanitarian necessity and the lack of any other feasible or workable solutions; and calls upon the Government to take exceptional measures in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe by imposing a no-bombing zone in Syria to enforce an end to aerial bombardment attacks against civilians.”


Abdullah Hourani and Kellie Strom
Syria Solidarity UK

Dr. Haytham Alhamwi and Yasmine Nahlawi
Rethink Rebuild Society

Dr. Mohammad Tammo
Kurds House

Abdullah Hanoun
Syrian Community South West

Fadel Moghrabi and Dr Mohamed Najjar
Peace and Justice for Syria

Amer Masri
Scotland 4 Syria

Dr. Mohammad Alhadj Ali
Syrian Welsh Society

Reem Assil
Syrian Platform for Peace

Dr. Sharif Kaf Al-Ghazal
Syrian Association of Yorkshire

Note on numbers killed by Assad forces:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 180,879 individual civilians killed by Assad’s forces. The number of Syrian civilians documented killed by ISIS is 1,712.

Note on humanitarian intervention:

The UK position is that it is permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, but only where three strict criteria are met:

1: There is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

2: It must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and

3: The proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

The UK approach was relied upon to justify the use of force on three occasions: (i) in protecting the Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1991; (ii) in maintaining the No Fly Zones in Northern and Southern Iraq from 1991; and (iii) in using force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in relation to Kosovo in 1999.

Note on moderate Syrian forces:

Yes, there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria. Here’s what we know about them
By Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Why we are not supporting today’s Stop the War demonstration

Syria Solidarity UK and Stop the War have very different concerns regarding Syria: Syria Solidarity is concerned with ending the suffering of Syrians under the Assad dictatorship; Stop the War with opposing any UK military involvement regardless of consequences for Syrians.

We oppose the British government’s proposal to merely mimic the American ISIS-only counter-terrorism war; not only do we believe it is immoral to fly missions in Syria against ISIS while leaving the even greater killer, Assad, free to bomb civilians en masse, we also believe that any war against ISIS that doesn’t put the needs of the Syrian people first will be a failure that can only prolong their suffering.

We do call for action to protect civilians in Syria, including limited military action to enforce a no-bombing zone.

Stop the War similarly oppose British government proposals to bomb ISIS, but not because they would leave Assad alone; for Stop the War also oppose any action against Assad. This puts Stop the War against Syrians who are being bombed by Assad: it puts them not just against Syrian revolutionaries but also against Syrian doctors, against Syrian White Helmets rescue volunteers, and against Syrian civil society activists, all of whom call for international action to stop Assad’s bombs.

This is why Stop the War don’t want to listen to Syrians.

That is why we do not support their demonstration today.

 • WATCH: Syria Solidarity UK and Diane Abbott MP debate Stop the War Coalition’s silencing of Syrians

 • READ: A letter to David Cameron from Syrians in Britain


If Stop the War’s slogan “Don’t bomb Syria” is to have any meaning, let them demand the end of the regime whose bombs have killed so many.

If Stop the War oppose imperialism let them demonstrate their sincerity outside the Russian Embassy. Let them demonstrate with placards calling for Russia to stop bombing Syrian hospitals.


The vast majority of violent deaths of civilians documented by the Syrian Network for Human Rights since March 2011 have been attributed to Assad’s forces. The following figures from SNHR’s report, The Main Conflict Parties Who Are Killing Civilians in Syria, are for the period from March 2011 to the end of October 2015.

Civilians killed from March 2011 to Oct. 2015
By Assad forces: 180,879   95.96%
... armed opposition groups: 2,669 1.42%
... unidentified groups: 2,002 1.06%
... ISIS: 1,712 0.91%
... Kurdish self management forces: 379 0.2 %
... al-Nusra Front: 347 0.18%
... Russian forces: 263 0.14%
... International Coalition forces: 251 0.13%

The SNHR also release monthly reports. For October 2015 they documented the following numbers of violent civilian deaths.

Syrian civilians killed in October 2015 alone
By Assad forces: 793
... armed opposition groups: 45
... unidentified groups: 50
... ISIS: 53
... Kurdish self management forces:   10
... al-Nusra Front: 1
... Russian forces: 263
... International Coalition forces: 1

All reports can be found on the Syrian Network for Human Rights website: http://sn4hr.org/

Friday 27 November 2015

A letter to David Cameron from Syrians in Britain

Dear David Cameron,

As Syrians residents in the UK we have watched the rise of ISIL with greater horror than many others in the world. That is because it is our people in Syria who are on the front lines of ISIL’s brutality. It is in the central square of our beloved city Raqqa that ISIL displays the severed heads of Syrian civilians and claims its capital.

We want more than anyone to be freed of ISIL and so we welcome international commitment to rid the world of this disease. But simply bombing ISIL will not defeat them. If anything it will make them stronger.

That is because the growth of ISIL is a symptom of Assad’s indiscriminate killing of civilians. There was no ISIL in 2011 when Syrians rose up peacefully against Bashar al-Assad to demand their dignity and their rights, only to have the regime use its full military might to crush them. As the violence and destruction increased, ISIL slipped across the border from Iraq, and like a parasite established itself in the rubble of Syria's barrel bombed towns.

Not long after, many Syrians bravely drove out ISIL. From towns like Atareb and Saraqeb in the north and large parts of Idlib and Aleppo, Syrian rebel groups routed ISIL. Entire communities resisted their advances, sometimes even peacefully. But this progress was impossible to sustain while Bashar al-Assad's regime dropped banned barrel bombs on schools, hospitals and homes in areas resisting both his forces and ISIL. In the first four months of 2014, half a million people fled Aleppo as a result of the regime’s aerial campaign, many heading over the border into Turkey and on to Europe.

If we want to drive ISIL from the land that it currently holds in Syria, we need to understand that the Assad regime is a much larger threat to people on the ground. It is responsible for more than 95% of civilian deaths in Syria since the beginning of the uprising. In the first half of 2015, the regime killed seven times more civilians than ISIL. A recent survey of refugees in Europe showed that twice as many Syrians were fleeing Assad's forces than were fleeing ISIL.

In this context, selectively bombing ISIL from the air will not win the support of those on the ground who want to defeat it. It will not free them to strengthen their communities once again and resist ISIL once again.

ISIL wants nothing more than to say to the communities that it occupies that the outside world does not care about them. ISIL wants to persuade Syrians that countries like the UK are turning a blind eye to the horrors of the Assad regime and are instead choosing to attack them because this is a wider clash of civilisations. Bombing ISIL while ignoring the much greater violence of the Assad regime would feed this narrative.

The only way to defeat ISIL is by stopping the Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, including areas controlled by moderate rebel groups. Once this happens, Syrians will be freed up to drive out ISIL themselves, as they have proved themselves capable of doing.

To make this happen, the UK and other countries need to get serious about the political resolution of the conflict. The peace talks that started a few weeks ago in Vienna offer hope to build on the agreements made two years ago in Geneva for a political transition in Syria, but we need to go beyond hope. While barrel bombs continue and entire towns remain under starvation siege and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners remain in government jail, there can be no progress. There needs to be a guarantee for civilian protection from the Assad regime’s use of indiscriminate air attacks.

We are urging you Prime Minister to prioritise the resolution of the conflict in Syria over the bombing of Raqqa. It is simply not possible to defeat ISIL while Assad maintains his grip on power and keeps the war burning and refugees pouring over the borders. Once the indiscriminate attacks stop you will see how.

Kind regards,

Dr. Mohammad Tammo, Kurds House
Dr. Mohamed Najjar, Peace and Justice in Syria
Dr. Haytham Alhamwi, Rethink Rebuild Society
Dr. Amer Masri, Scotland4Syria
Dr. Sharif Kaf Al-Ghazal, Syrian Association of Yorkshire
Dr. Mohammad Alhadj Ali, Syrian Welsh Society

Sunday 15 November 2015

Review: Syria’s Rebellious Women

By Clara Connolly

Zaina Erhaim is an award-winning journalist from Damascus, who currently works as project coordinator for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. This, her first film, is currently on a world tour, and for the showings she is accompanied by some of the women whose stories are narrated in the film. One had to drop her section of the film because of fears for her family’s security, and two others were refused entry visas to Britain. At the (fully booked) showing on Thursday 12 November in London, the Director was joined by Zein, one of the film’s stars. It was followed by a lively discussion between both of them and Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News.


We saw four short films documenting the extraordinary lives over 18 months of some of Erhaim’s women friends, working in free Aleppo and caught between the regime’s (and now Russia’s) constant aerial bombardment, and the jihadists. As Ahed says, ruefully, “I only wanted the Free Syria Army and I got FSA, Nusra Front and ISIS. We said Syria is for all. Now we got them all here.”

The first story is that of Waed, a lively young woman who joined the early demonstrations of her fellow students in Aleppo, and who persuades her father to let her leave the family (in a government controlled area) to return as a paramedic to Aleppo, volunteering in field hospitals and on the front lines. She becomes a video journalist. We see her working in Aleppo, and on leave in Turkey where she joins her young friends for life on the town. The contrast is stark: she dresses casually in Turkey with hair uncovered, but on the job in Aleppo she is carefully dressed so as not to offend the strict dress code for women that is now enforced there. She chafes at that, but accepts its necessity, and states that “freedom from Assad is only the first step in the revolution.”

Then we meet Ghalia, an older woman who was a housewife and mother in a small town in Idlib before the revolution, and is now a community activist. We see how her life has changed; she has trained her teenage son to cook and her family to become self reliant.

Despite the fact that the first women’s centre she opened was subject to repeated attack, she has gone on to found a series of these centres, teaching women (many of them war widows or with husbands at the front) the skills to help them to earn money to feed their families.

We meet Ahed, a cheerful tomboy who says she knows no fear: “the barrel bombs fly away from me!” She has always been known as “the troublemaker” among her friends; she organised women’s contingents in the Aleppo demonstrations which started off with just a few brave friends, but grew to significant size before being driven off the streets by aerial bombardment. She now does humanitarian relief work.

Last is Zein, a schoolteacher who now works in ‘field schools,’ underground because of the constant targeting of schools by the regime. We see her teaching in a rudimentary basement schoolroom, with few facilities, but the girls she teaches seem cheerful, like any other schoolchildren.

Unlike the other women, who seem remarkably carefree despite the extraordinary risks they face on a daily basis, she is sombre, and clearly marked by her experience of 13 months detention in Assad’s dungeons. She says she has given up all thought of marrying and having children, because the men who propose “do so out of pity, and I will not be pitied by anyone.” She is separated from her family, and lives in a house with other women, including Ahed. Because rape is so prevalent in detention, the assumption is that women who are released have been ‘dishonoured’ by their time there—whether this has happened or not.

It’s a bitter way for Zein to have won her autonomy, but she gives the impression that she is making the most of it.

What is moving about all the women is their dignity and rueful reticence—they clearly do not say everything on their minds. These are not ‘true confessions’ in the TV-tabloid sense. Neither are they boastful about their extraordinary courage and resilience. Although they are unusually free of family and community restraint, they are also ‘ordinary’, like anyone’s daughter, sister or mother. It is Ephraim’s achievement, and a testimony to the close relationship between her and her subjects, that the women are so natural and down to earth in front of the camera.


Lindsey Hilsum is well informed on the Middle East; but she started the discussion on a personal note, asking gentle but probing questions of Zein, who was seeing the film played back for the first time. Zein said it was difficult to watch, because she had to “remember all the details I shared with you,” but she recognised herself: “it was me.” She said that it was impossible to keep in contact with her family “because they live in an ISIS controlled area.”

She spoke of her work as a teacher: among the difficulties she mentioned are frequent absences because of the barrel bombs; and trying to answer questions from the children like: “why is this happening to us?” She is successful in persuading parents to send their children to school—including 3 children who lost their hands. She is dealing with the children’s physical and psychological problems constantly. When asked about her vision for the future, she said: “working to topple the regime, or be killed. We hoped that the international community would protect us, but the they let us down so we are on our own. The FSA protect us, I hope they can just hold on, and we can keep providing the basic services.” When asked what she wanted people to understand from the film she said: “We rose for our human rights, we are not monsters or extremists, we want to live with dignity.”

Zaina Ephraim started by saying she made the film to document women activists’ lives in a predominantly masculine society so that there would be a record of role models for the future. There are many women like this in Syria—some are reluctant to speak to camera, others are afraid because their families live in regime held areas. But many more women are simply no longer in the ‘liberated’ areas—they and their children have been sent to safety in Turkey and elsewhere while the men stay to fight the regime. She said that although ISIS is a huge threat to women, the main threat to civilians, including women, is Assad. She is disappointed that the world does not seem to understand that.

When asked if the international community helps, she said: “we could not survive without international aid, but we are concerned that most of the money is being spent on overheads and not getting into the besieged areas.” As an example, she said that the White Helmets (the Civil Defence) are paid 100 dollars a month, and their international monitors between 2 and 3,000 dollars.

The difference made to Northern Syria by the Russian intervention? The civilians now get no break from the bombing, because Russian unlike Syrian planes “can fly in all weathers.”

She believed that there are 100,000 more displaced people as a direct result. These people have nowhere to run except to the countryside inside Syria.

When asked about whether women’s lives would be better or worse in a future Syria, she said: “the women in this film work in Aleppo and surrounding areas, and although not religiously conservative themselves, try to conform outwardly to a society which was conservative before the revolution. The longer the war goes on the less likely that the future will be good for women. She admires the women fighters of Rojava but they have little effect on other areas in Syria; since the war the territory of Syria is fragmented and there is little contact between towns or even neighbourhoods. If the war were over soon Syria could be reunited and the women activists across the country could learn from and support each other. But she fears that there will be little left of Syria: there is a huge population drain, especially of the richer and more liberal-minded middle class.

Asked what sustained her and her women friends, she said, “there is a huge burden placed on us by those we have lost. We have to keep going for their sakes. I still believe in Syria; even the small gestures inspire me, like the Civil Defence, and the cleaners who mop up after the bombing raids. Like the work that the women in my film are doing, they keep life going.”

Read more about Zaina Erhaim’s films in Tracy McVeigh’s article for today’s Observer, The Syrian women fighting to save their city.

UK rejects visas for Syrians seeking to highlight women’s war activism, by Mary Atkinson, Middle East Eye,

UK denial of visas for Syrian female activists is counterproductive, Caabu press release.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Why Stop the War don’t want to listen to Syrians

The Syria Solidarity Movement UK was formed to give solidarity to the people of Syria in their struggle for a democratic and free Syria. Our membership is made up of Syrians, and friends of Syrians. Our positions are led by the needs and demands of Syrians suffering brutally at the hands of a criminal regime.

Stop the War Coalition was formed in 2001 to oppose US and UK military action against the Taliban. Its cause is opposition to UK military and foreign policy. Its focus is Western-centric and UK-centric, only actively opposing military action by the UK and its allies, while providing at most lip service to criticising military action by states opposed to the UK. The justification it gives for this is that as a UK organisation it has no influence over these other states.

It follows that Syria Solidarity UK and Stop the War have very different concerns regarding Syria: Syria Solidarity is concerned with ending the suffering of Syrians under the Assad dictatorship; Stop the War with opposing any UK military involvement regardless of consequences for Syrians.

We oppose the British government’s proposal to mimic the American ISIS-only counter-terrorism war; not only do we believe it is immoral to fly missions in Syria against ISIS while leaving the even greater killer, Assad, free to bomb civilians en masse, we also believe that any war against ISIS that doesn’t put the needs of the Syrian people first will be a failure that can only prolong their suffering.

We do call for action to protect civilians in Syria, including limited military action to enforce a no-bombing zone.

Stop the War similarly oppose British government proposals to bomb ISIS, but not because they would leave Assad alone; for Stop the War also oppose any action against Assad. This puts Stop the War against Syrians who are being bombed by Assad: it puts them not just against Syrian revolutionaries but also against Syrian doctors, against Syrian White Helmets rescue volunteers, and against Syrian civil society activists, all of whom call for international action to stop Assad’s bombs.

This is why Stop the War don’t want to listen to Syrians.


The Stop the War Coalition event in Parliament on 2 November was only the latest in a series where they have tried to exclude Syrians from discussion of their own country. Now the embarrassing exposure of their attitude on the BBC’s Daily Politics show has led them to issue a statement claiming they are being lied about.

This statement lists three claimed lies about their 2nd November meeting: that Stop the War’s Andrew Murray had called for support for the Assad government to fight ISIS, that Syrians were prevented from speaking at the meeting, and that Police were called to the meeting to control protesters.


Denying the first, Stop the War say Andrew Murray’s position is that ISIS can only be defeated by strong and credible governments in Syria and Iraq. If Andrew Murray does not mean Assad when he talks of a Syrian government, what does he mean? Elsewhere he makes clear that he is against the fall of Assad, saying that a no-fly zone should be opposed because “regime change is the real agenda.”

Andrew Murray also calls on foreign powers to abandon “all the preconditions laid down for negotiations,” language that echoes the Assad regime and its backers in Moscow. Why? Because there is just one precondition that is contested: the demand that Assad step down. This was not originally a Western demand, but first and foremost a Syrian demand.

So Andrew Murray’s “strong and credible government” is one where there is no change of regime, and no demand for Assad to step down: in other words, a continuation of the Assad regime.

There is no lie here.


Denying the second, Stop the War say Syrians were not prevented from speaking at the meeting, and claim that a Syrian activist “was given ample time at the meeting to make her case” at Stop the War’s meeting. Not so.

Stop the War did allow the Syria Solidarity activist to speak in the meeting, but only when other members of the audience called for her to be heard. She was the only Syrian allowed to speak, she was interrupted, and for the rest of the meeting all other Syrians were deliberately ignored by the Chair, Diane Abbott, even when other speakers Catherine West MP and Caroline Lucas MP said they wanted to hear from Syrians. Caroline Lucas has since said she wrote to Stop the War about the way the meeting was conducted.

And so the second is no lie either.


Stop the War deny that Police were called to the meeting to control protesters. This is the most blatant and astonishing falsehood. Police in the Houses of Parliament were called to the meeting. Syrian and Arab audience members were repeatedly told “you are going to get arrested.” One Syria Solidarity activist was prevented from re-entering the meeting by Police who arrived in numbers and were visible to all at the doors of the meeting by its end. One of the Arab attendees denied the opportunity to speak by the Chair was also talked to by Police after the meeting.

So finally, no lie here.


If Stop the War’s slogan “Don’t bomb Syria” is to have any meaning, let them demand the end of the regime whose bombs have killed so many.

If Stop the War oppose imperialism let them demonstrate their sincerity outside the Russian Embassy. Let them demonstrate with placards calling for Russia to stop bombing Syrian hospitals.

Lastly, if Stop the War are against war, let them stop denying war crimes; for this is their latest response, publishing a claim that Assad wasn’t responsible for the Ghouta chemical weapons massacre, “because it was so obviously not in Assad’s political and military interests.”

This latest comes in an article by Matt Carr. He writes that he has “never really doubted the brutality of the Syrian regime” before going on to do just that by claiming Assad’s violence has been deliberately exaggerated. Matt Carr is known as a champion of refugees; he should listen to them, and learn that most Syrian refugees are fleeing Assad’s violence.

His argument as to why he doesn’t believe Assad responsible for the Ghouta massacre crosses the line from naive to wilfully ignorant. Assad repeatedly tested the West’s willingness to act with smaller chemical attacks prior to Ghouta, and confirmed there was little or none. Assad’s forces were the only party with the industrial capacity to produce the amount of Sarin chemical used, the only party to have the kinds of rockets used in the attack, and the only party with a clear motive to kill the civilians in those neighbourhoods.

Matt Carr goes on about polls of Assad’s popularity: this in a dictatorship which has tortured thousands to death.  Who under regime control would dare answer no? Incredibly, one such survey was an internet poll with no more than 98 respondents in Syria.

He asks “what would happen to the Syrians that have supported the regime” if the Free Syrian Army win. The question Matt Carr fails to grasp is what is happening to millions of the dictator’s victims right now? The Free Syrian Army are the people who have defended their homes, freedom and justice against Assad for the last five years and against ISIS for the last three, and who are now being bombed by Assad’s ally Putin. The Free Syrian Army are not the ones levelling neighbourhoods and driving millions from their homes.

Syrian civilians need protection from Assad’s mass murder. Stop the War have nothing to offer Syrians, and so they stop their ears.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Events in November: On screen; on the street; in Parliament

Contact info@syriauk.org to let us know of an event.

Wednesday 11th November
  • Screening: Syria’s rebellious women, Caabu screening with director Q&A.
    Filmmaker Zaina Erhaim presents a series of short documentaries shot in Northern Syria.
    RSVP to Joseph Willits: willitsj@caabu.org
    Boardroom, Arab British Centre, 1 Gough Square, London EC4A 3DE.

Thursday 12th November

Saturday 14th November
  • Demonstration: Stop Russia’s bombs! Protect Syria’s doctors!
    Medecins Sans Fronteires reports that over 12 hospitals have been bombed by Russia since their attacks started on September 30th.
    Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/767854673343123/
    Russian Embassy in London, 13 Kensington Palace Gardens, W8 4QX

Tuesday 17th November
  • APPG Friends of Syria: A ministerial overview of the crisis with Tobias Ellwood MP.
    First of a series of evidence sessions leading to a report on UK strategy on Syria.
    RSVP to: secretariat@thesyriacampaign.org
    5–6pm, Committee Room 9.

Tuesday 17th November

Wednesday 18th November
  • Book talk: The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the evolution of an insurgency
    Author Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, works on the conflict in Syria, especially the makeup of the anti-government insurgency and its various jihadi components.
    LSE Department of International Relations public lecture.
    No booking required.
    Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House, 99 Aldwych, London WC2B 4JF.

Thursday 18th November
  • Ibrahim Olabi - Syrian Legal Development Programme
    Ibrahim Olabi, who recently completed his LLM (Security and International Law) and LLB degrees at Manchester University, is the founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP).

    The SLDP team consists of researchers, lawyers, on-the-ground trainers and human rights advocates, who put together and provide educational programmes focused on international law. The goal is to strengthen the application of international law (especially international humanitarian law) in the Syrian conflict.

    Ibrahim travels regularly to Syria and neighbouring states, where he provides training seminars to combatants and civilians near the front lines. His talk will focus on the SLDP’s work, the legal and practical challenges it faces in Syria, and the process of founding a human rights organisation as a young activist.

    UCL Department of Political Science, talk sponsored by the Human Rights MA Programme.
    Free, booking required via Eventbrite.
    Medical Sciences 131 AV Hill Lecture Theatre, Medical Sciences building, Malet Place, London WC1E 6BT.

Monday 23rd November
  • APPG Friends of Syria: Evidence session on the humanitarian crisis and policy response
    RSVP to: secretariat@thesyriacampaign.org
    11am–1pm, Committee Room 11, House of Commons.

    There will be a range of speakers to give a current picture of the situation within Syria and in the region, and to discuss the UK’s response.

    Max Hadorn, UNOCHA
    Amal Kaoua, Save the Children
    Rouba Mhaissen, Sawa for Development and Aid
    David Nott, emergency trauma surgeon
    Aula Abbara, Hand in Hand medical team
    Wael Aleji, Syrian Network for Human Rights

    This is one of a series of evidence sessions leading to a report on UK strategy on Syria.

    RSVP to: secretariat@thesyriacampaign.org

Thursday 26th November
  • Dealing with the Refugee Crisis: Europe and Britain
    UCL Department of Political Science, with Baroness Sarah Ludford, David Goodhart, of Demos, Dr. Sarah Fine of Kings College London, Professor Alex Betts of University of Oxford. Chair: Dr Avia Pasternak, lecturer in global ethics, UCL.
    5:30– 7pm, JZ Young Lecture Theatre, Anatomy Building, Gower St, London WC1E 6XA.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Syrians at the Stop Sisi protest: 4 November 2015, Downing Street, London

Above: Syria Solidarity UK speaking at a protest outside Downing Street against the visit of Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi this week.

Below: Egyptian and Syrian protesters together outside Downing Street on 4 November.

“Egypt’s freedom is incomplete without Syria’s freedom. Syria’s freedom is incomplete without Egypt’s freedom.”

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Stop the War refuse to listen to Syrians during debate…on Syria

Photo by Ross Hawkins – via Twitter

By James Bloodworth for Left Foot Forward

The Stop the War Coalition (StWC) have been accused of preventing victims of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from speaking at an anti-war event.

During a panel event on Monday evening to discuss the case against British military intervention in Syria, StWC included no Syrians on the speaker’s panel and reportedly refused to allow Syrians to speak from the floor.

The meeting was chaired by Labour MP Diane Abbott and featured chair of the Stop the War coalition Andrew Murray, former leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas, Labour MP Catherine West, Tory MP Crispin Blunt MP and SNP MP Tommy Shephard.

According to human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who attended the event, no Syrians were included on the panel and the Syrian activists who turned up to the event were threatened with arrest.
Speaking to LFF, Tatchell said:

“Some Syrian victims of Assad’s brutalities turned up but were not allowed to speak. They eventually shouted out in frustration, turning the meeting into momentary chaos, as they were jeered by some of the audience and as StWC stewards tried to eject them – allegedly threatening that they’d be arrested. The police turned up soon afterwards.”

Before the storm: Aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Sawa for Development and Aid is an NGO dedicated to helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Started in 2011, they work on a range of activities to improve refugees’ lives. With refugees facing another hard winter, they are now holding a fundraising drive.

From the Facebook event page:
This winter is expected to be the harshest in years… let’s not wait until the storm hits to react. Join us in keeping every family in the Bekaa camps warm.
Supporting local on the ground organisations like Sawa for Development and Aid is a particularly effective way to get resources to where they’re needed the most. For supporters outside Lebanon, you can donate online here.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Caesar photographs at the House of Commons

Photo: Joseph Willits

Event on evidence of torture in the Caesar photographs, House of Commons, 28th October 2015.

Notes by Bronwen Griffiths and Brian Slocock.


Mouaz Moustafa
Ambassador Frederic Hof
Prof. Steven Heydemann

Chair: Roger Godsiff MP

With testimony from Syrian detainee Farah; video messages by Stephen Rapp, Congressman Adam Kinzinger, and Holocaust survivor Margit Meissner; and images of Assad regime torture victims from the ‘Caesar’ collection of photographs.

Short summary

The main points of the discussion were on US and Western policy toward Syria and how this needs to move forward with respect to No-Fly Zones and Safe Areas.

Stephen Rapp, outgoing US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, formerly of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. (By video.)

These photos are important to lay the foundation for future accountability in Syria, Stephen Rapp said. The evidence provided by Caesar has been examined by the FBI and no inconsistencies found. These are real images of people starved and eviscerated by the regime—eyes gouged out, bones broken, limbs beaten, skin burned. There is evidence so far of 11,000 tortured and killed in this way by the regime. This crime is continuing, with 100,000 Syrians currently in custody.

Who are these victims? What was their supposed crime? Some parents have come forward to identify the victims. Security services pick up young people who come from certain areas and villages known to be opposed to the regime. The regime’s target is the moderate centre, trying to force us into a choice between the torturers and the radical extremists. But this is not a choice the West should accept. Above all justice needs to be served, and we must do everything we can to bring about justice for these victims and those who follow. Prosecutions can take place even if the perpetrators are still in Syria, particularly where the victims have dual nationality, as in the case of Dr Abbas Khan from the UK.

Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director, Syrian Emergency Task Force, Washington DC.

Mouaz Moustafa provided background on Caesar: He was a forensic photographer before 2011. In early 2011 he was asked to attend two military hospitals in Damascus to take pictures of 15 individuals—men and women—who had obviously been starved and tortured to death. For two and a half years he risked his life taking photographs of torture victims—images that were smuggled out of Syria in order to give families closure. In August 2013 the risk to his life became more extreme and he left for the USA. When the images were released there was a ‘never again’ moment but the reality is that this torture continues to this day. The regime acts with impunity. There has been outrage but no action. These arbitrary arrests are one of the reasons Syrians are fleeing their country in large numbers. The regime is not just killing one ethnic group but all groups. Arbitrary arrest and torture are but one part of the toolbox of killing by the regime, which also includes barrel bombs on civilian areas, chemical weapons and starvation. We cannot make a choice between two evils, Assad and IS.

Farah, teacher, aid worker, refugee. Farah asked to be identified only by her first name in order to protect her family.

Farah worked as a teacher in Syria. After the uprising broke out, she became an aid worker; and when her friends were detained by the regime she decided to leave for Lebanon, However she was arrested at the border and taken to a prison in Homs where she spent 36 days in detention. She was called a terrorist because of her opposition to the regime, and subjected to harsh interrogation, including threats to her children and threats of rape. But she believes that she was treated less severely than others held with her because she has a British passport. She claims her jailers were “not normal.” She asked one man, “How can you do what you are doing?” He got angry but he also showed her the pills he was taking, saying, “Because of these.” Farah worries about what the children are experiencing in Syria, the violence and constant fear of death. What is it doing to them? What would the UK do if it was our children suffering in this way?

Ambassador Frederic Hof, Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, DC; formerly Special Representative on Syria to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; formerly adviser on Lebanon and Syria to Special Envoy George Mitchell.

“We are here today because of one brave man who saw evil and tried to stop it.”

Hof talked about how Caesar had hoped that when the US government saw the photographs, they would come to the help of the Syrian people. He emphasised that “No one will deny that mass homicide has taken place—and is still taking place—in Syria, but because it is called mass homicide and not genocide, the UN Security Council does not act, it only condemns.”

He noted that most policy discussions on the options in Syria emphasise the risks; but, there is rarely discussion of the risks of inaction, which can be very high, as demonstrated by the rise of ISIS.

He concluded by saying that the images provided by Caesar form a mirror into which we in the West, may gaze at our leisure. But do we like what we see? If we do not, let us act.

Professor Steven Heydemann, Chair in Middle East Studies, Smith College, formerly Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at United States Institute for Peace.

Prof. Heydemann referred to the 2009 UN Human Development Report on Security in the Arab World. This proved controversial because of its focus on cases where the state poses a threat to its own citizens. The Caesar photos are a potent example of this.

The US policy on Syria since 2011 has been one of ‘containment,’ aiming merely to limit the regional impact of events in Syria. This policy, Heydemann asserted, has proved a disaster and it is now almost obscene to use the word.

What is needed is a policy aimed stabilising the situation by ensuring the safety of civilians, public order and good governance. The way to begin to achieve this is through de-militarised safe zones backed by a Coalition of NATO members. He realises that this is controversial but he argues that Russia’s involvement in Syria makes this even more urgent. Western governments need to play a more pro-active role in creating security for the Syrian population.

Questions and comments from the floor

It was asked if there was any prospect of change in the Obama administration’s policy to which the general answer was negative. A similar view was expressed by senior British MPs about the prospect for any British initiatives, citing the “legacy of Iraq” as the major obstacle.

Commenting from the floor, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a security consultant for humanitarian NGOs working in northwest Syria, argued that it was feasible to create a safe zone in this area, and noted that the Russian intervention had sparked off consideration in the US of a wider range of options. He described the situation in the refugee camps that he had visited recently as “at a tipping point,” meaning that people in the camps are on the verge of abandoning any hope of going home and shifting their attention towards moving westwards.

There was a lengthy session after the event in which questions were put to Hof and Heydemann by the press and others. Both were pessimistic about the prospect of any change in the Obama administration’s policy. Hof indicated that the Administration had a blind spot when it came to Syria; from the very start of the fight against ISIS it had acknowledged the necessity of having a legitimate political regime in place in Iraq, but refused to extend that to Syria. But he stressed that it remained necessary to establish a framework for civilian protection in Syria, defined as “making it impossible or extremely difficult for the Assad regime to continue its mass homicide.”

Heydemann argued that in one respect the Russian intervention was an opportunity, as it focused western attention on the need to do something in Syria to counter Russia’s initiative. He suggested that available information suggested that the Russian intervention had been done very hastily and with little consultation outside the top Russian leadership. In his view a properly prepared western initiative to create a safe zone in northwest Syria could be implemented in a way which could avoid direct confrontation with Russia and make it difficult for Russia to oppose.


This was a very valuable event which helps to put the issue of civilian protection in Syria firmly on to the political agenda in the UK. While there is a huge amount of further work to be done both among MPs and policy makers, and with the wider public, and there is unlikely to be any dramatic movement in the near future, a framework for the discussion is emerging, and a network of advocates for positive action—both inside and outside Parliament—is being created. In particular some immediate steps have been identified, such as pressure on the shadow cabinet to support an opposition day debate on civil protection in Syria.


Holocaust survivor Margit Meissner’s remarks by video.

‘They were torturing to kill’: inside Syria’s death machine. Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who smuggled shocking evidence of torture out of Assad’s dungeons, tells his story for the first time, by Garance le Caisne, The Guardian, 1 October 2015.

Geolocating the location where the Syrian “Caesar” photographs were taken, Bellingcat, 18 March 2015.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Statement on the upcoming Stop the War event at the House of Commons

Any UK policy on Syria must have the protection of Syrian civilians at its core and be jointly formulated with Syrian civil activists who know the reality on the ground in their country.

As a UK-based Syrian organisation that is part of an international civil society network in contact with Syrian civil activists, medics and rescue workers inside Syria, we urge all UK MPs to base any Syria policy around the urgent humanitarian needs of civilians on the ground.

Unfortunately, the upcoming 2nd November meeting at the House of Commons advocates a policy that is utterly divorced from the horrific reality experienced by civilians currently under attack by Russian and Assad regime aerial bombardments.

We categorically reject any policy proposal, be it for intervention or non-intervention, that is not formulated in consultation with Syrian civic, medical or humanitarian workers.

As it stands, we fully endorse the policy proposal recently put forward by MPs Jo Cox and Andrew Mitchell which is based on a genuine engagement with Syrian civil groups and prioritises the protection of civilians. This policy also echoes that recently put forward by the Syrian advocacy organisation Rethink Rebuild Society, to which Syria Solidarity UK is a signatory. This is where any sustainable UK Syria policy needs to start and we urge all MPs on the panel for the upcoming event to take note.

Syria Solidarity UK.

Facebook event page for Stop the War event, House of Commons Committee Room 12, Monday 2 November at 6:30pm.

British forces could help achieve an ethical solution in Syria, by Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox, The Observer, 11 October 2015.

Syria Between Dictatorship and ISIS: What can the United Kingdom Do? Policy document by Rethink Rebuild Society, voice of the Syrian community of Manchester.

Syrians and friends protesting at the Russian Embassy, 25 October. Photo via Peter Tatchell.

Monday 26 October 2015

The Struggle for Accountability

A Step towards Justice: Current accountability options for crimes under international law committed in Syria
By Mark Lattimer, Shabnam Mojtahedi and Lee Anna Tucker, for Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights / Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, April 2015.
PDF version here.

An event in the House of Lords: notes by Clara Connolly

The war in Syria has been characterised by impunity at every level, local, national, and international, for some of the most extreme violations of human rights of current times. This report, prepared by Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, and by Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, looks at the feasibility and potential impacts of different options for bringing some measure of accountability.

The report was discussed on October 19th at an event in the House of Lords chaired by Baroness Stern. The speakers were: Mark Lattimer, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights; Mohammad Al Abdallah, Syria Justice and Accountability Centre; Laila Alodaat, Syria Justice and Accountability Centre; and Nabeel Sheikh of Neumans LLP.

Mark Lattimer, director, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, introduced the report. It outlines a number of legal avenues to justice for war crimes and breaches of human rights committed in Syria: the International Criminal Court; a Hybrid Tribunal; or criminal prosecution in foreign national courts.

On the International Criminal Court (ICC), Syria is not a party, and without a UN Security Council Resolution the Court’s jurisdiction is limited. In May 2014, Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution to refer the Syrian conflict to the ICC, but despite this the ICC Prosecutor can investigate crimes committed in Syria by the nationals of any state which has signed up to the ICC, including most European countries. Many of these have nationals fighting in Syria, so ICC involvement is theoretically possible but to a very limited degree.

The second option considered by the report is a Hybrid Tribunal: this could be set up in a neighbouring state, or in a safe zone within Syria, combining international and domestic laws and processes. But states like Jordan or Turkey have taken sides in the conflict, and would not be regarded as impartial venues. It is unlikely that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would expand its brief to cover the war in Syria. Nobody is undertaking the establishment of a safe haven, and with the Syrian opposition as host it would not be regarded as impartial.

While both of the above options are therefore currently unfeasible, Mr Lattimer pointed out that Syrians are doing sterling work collecting and documenting evidence for the future.

The third option, criminal prosecutions in foreign national courts, is the only option regarded as feasible in the current context.

Mohammad Al Abdallah, of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, was more hopeful of the possibility of a democratic transition in Syria than was Mark Lattimer. He pointed out that Syrians have long experience of impunity after over forty years of the current regime. He briefly commented on the options covered by the previous speaker, noting that the Special Tribunal in Iraq was highly politicised, very expensive, and not regarded as successful.

On criminal prosecutions in foreign national courts, he referred to the prosecution of a former Free Syrian Army fighter who had sought refuge in Sweden, and was sentenced to five years in prison by a Swedish court for for an assault in Syria that was filmed and posted on social media. While this raised objections at the time from some that only one side in the conflict was being targeted, it seems increasingly likely that cases of former regime fighters will also come before European courts.

The influx of Syrian refugees to European countries represents an opportunity in his view, to engage Syrian communities as victims, but also to prosecute perpetrators of human rights breaches, in the European Courts. He has knowledge of an impressive dossier of pictures and videos linking some refugees in Europe with crimes committed in Syria, including crimes by regime forces.
Although only perpetrators from the lower ranks were present in Europe, he believes that use of national mechanisms for justice within refugee hosting countries would send a hopeful message of accountability in the interim period.

Eurojust is actively engaged in gathering evidence for such prosecutions. Mr Al Abdallah is passing on information received from Syrians in Europe, and anyone with such information can contact him directly at malabdallah@syriaaccountability.org. He warned however that the work of collecting evidence against Syrians in Europe carries risks, and should be done discreetly.

On recent efforts by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to negotiate a limited ceasefire or ‘freeze’ in Aleppo, he criticised the absence of any commitment to accountability in such proposals. On the possibility of future ICC prosecutions, he emphasised that these would only deal with a handful of high-profile cases, and that ending a culture of impunity required achieving meaningful justice within Syria.

Laila Alodaat, though also a member of Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, spoke about her role in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in documenting the particular suffering of women in the Syrian conflict. She said that although women have been centrally involved in the early demonstrations against the regime, and in numerous civil society initiatives, the militarisation of the conflict shrinks the space for women, and silences them.

The war has had particular effects on women; for example, 74% of girls killed since 2011 have been killed by indiscriminate bombing. The health care system has been destroyed; 80% of deaths in pregnancy and childbirth could have been saved were it not for the inaccessibility of healthcare. The collapse of the legal system has meant that women have no recourse to justice. Justice can only be enforced by arms, but women have no arms.

In addition, women have been targeted in particular ways under ISIS. Who opened the borders to them, and who gave or sold them arms? Now Russia’s intervention is aiding ISIS, it will bring ISIS to women in the villages of Syria. The question of accountability is crucial for the country’s future.

Women have been central to the preservation of civil society during this war, and there must be places for them at the table when discussing the transition to peace. Because they don’t have the prominence of combatants, there is a risk of their voices and contributions being ignored.

Answering a question on the contribution that refugees resettled in the UK could make to the documentation of war crimes, she reminded us that these were selected for resettlement because of their vulnerability, and should not be further traumatised by demanding their stories, unless they were freely given. She talked of how Syrians have been documenting human rights breaches from day one of the conflict.

Beyond documenting crimes, it’s necessary to stop them, she insisted: “Prevention is the core of justice.”

Nabeel Sheikh of Neumans LLP, acting for the family of Dr Abbas Khan, spoke about their efforts to obtain justice for his death while in the hands of the regime. He reminded us that Dr Khan, a British citizen, was a humanitarian aid worker who was arrested in Syria by the regime and spent 13 months in captivity, 7 of those months under the most severe torture. After his release was ordered, largely due to the extraordinary efforts of his mother, he died in a prison cell. According to the regime this was suicide—unlikely in a man just about to be released. The subsequent inquest in the UK found that he had been unlawfully killed.

There are great obstacles to achieving any justice in this case: though the victim was a British citizen, the UK Government’s responsibility is limited by the fact that he was not acting as an agent of the UK. However if key individuals responsible are identified it may be possible to include them in EU sanctions lists for asset freezes and travel bans. The legal team is currently pursuing this new avenue of accountability against such individuals.