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Saturday 31 December 2016

Wadi Barada: Civil society and local government groups call for enforcement of the ceasefire agreement

The following statement comes from local civil society and local government organisations in Wadi Barada.

Wadi Barada outside Damascus has seen an escalation of regime attacks by the Assad regime and its allies in recent weeks, including bombing that has damaged water facilities supplying Damascus city. According to the UN, four million people in Damascus are now without mains water as a result of facilities being attacked.

We, the undersigned entities (civil societies organisations, local civil services entities, local activists, Syrian NGOs and local communities organisations) which are working in the towns and villages of Wadi Barada; declare the following:

The civilian and the above mentioned organizations felt optimistic once the cease fire agreement signed under the auspices of Russia and Turkey. We believed the bloodshed will reach to end in Syria in general and in Wadi Barada region in specific. But, unfortunately, the military campaign and offensive operations has not put its end by the regime’s army and its allied militias of Hizboullah the Lebanese militia and with a full support and guidance from Iran. This campaign is threatening more than one hundred thousand civilians trapped in the Wadi Barada region.

The civilians in this region are suffering from the absence of the basic necessities of life. The basic commodities are not accessing the local markets due to severe block of the main access roads. The physical security of the trapped civilians is vitally challenged due to continuous land shelling and air raids. These military attacks are not targeting fronts; rather, it is taking place randomly. The impact of the recent offensive operation is not against the civilians trapped inside Wadi Barada region, it is directly affecting the living conditions of 6 million civilians who are living in Damascus city. The populations in Damascus are suffering from shortage of water because the regime’s air forces have targeted the Fijeh Spring facility and put it out of service.

Although the delegation of the Syrian Free Army notified the Russian delegation of the importance of including Wadi Barada region in the cease fire agreement and recognising the agreement to include this region in the general agreement of the ceasefire, shockingly the regime’s troops and its allied militias among them Hizbollah resumed its aggression after the zero hour by dropping so far more than 35 explosive barrels against civilian areas. In addition, the Syrian regime’s air forces conducted so far 10 air raids against the villages and towns in Wadi Barada. Even more, the ground troops took several attempts to advance from different axes. It is worth to mention, that the defending armed opposition groups and the civilians are taking the most limited response in an attempt to maintain the ceasefire, which they believe it is an opportunity to bring peace to Syria.

The above mentioned entities assure that the regime’s allegations of targeting Fateh Asham bases and personnel are purely lies. The above mentioned entities and the armed opposition groups declare that Fateh Asham does not have presence in Wadi barada region. The Armed opposition group in the region is under the Abdal Asham, which is one of the Syrian Free Army fractions and local groups of people originated from Wadi Barada and who are holding weapons to defend their houses. All of these armed groups are not belonging or believing in Fateh Asham ideology.

We the people of Wadi barada and the above mentioned entities and the Armed Opposition groups operating in Wadi Barada who signed this document, we are calling sponsors of the ceasefire agreement (Russia and turkey) to assume their responsibilities and appealing to them for practicing the needed pressure against the regime and its allied militias for putting on halt the aggression and maintain the protection of civilians and respecting the ceasefire agreement.

We, the above mentioned entities and the armed opposition groups operating in Wadi Barada declare that once the ceasefire agreement is respected and all aggression operations among them ground and air operations are on hold against the civilian populated areas in Wadi Barada, we will work immediately on facilitating the entrance of the maintenance teams to the water facility in Fijeh Spring and allowing the accessories to access and we will make all the available efforts to assist the maintenance team for resuming the water supply to our people in Damascus city.

Finally, we call on representatives from the sponsoring states and the the United Nations organizations and the International Red Cross to enter the Wadi Barada valley to assess the humanitarian situation and facilitating the humanitarian access of the medical and other humanitarian assistance to affected people in Wadi Barada Region.


Relief Commission for Wadi Barada and its neighborhoods
Medical Corps in Wadi Barada
Media Corps in Wadi Barada
Local Council in Wadi Barada
Civil Defense in Wadi Barada
Institution of Barada Al Kheir
Institution of Ghouth Barada

Wednesday 21 December 2016

How to justify mass-murder: Aleppo and the apologists

Interview with Syrian activist Lina Al Shamy while she was still in Aleppo, 19 December.

By Amr Salahi

Last week, as Assad’s forces and their foreign militia allies closed in on the last remaining opposition enclave in East Aleppo, the horrific crimes being committed during their assault became headline news across the world. In one massacre alone as many as 82 people were reported killed, and there were reports of children being burned alive.

Activists and civil defence workers in Aleppo uploaded photos and videos, and gave interviews to international media, telling the world that they were trapped and completely surrounded in East Aleppo. Nearly 100,000 people were herded by the Assad regime and its allies into an area of less than two square kilometres. The people in this tiny enclave were deprived of food, medicine, and electricity while cluster bombs and barrel bombs dropped by the Russian and Syrian air forces rained down on them.

Eventually, what was called an ‘evacuation’ agreement was signed. This was a misnomer. The people remaining in East Aleppo were being given a choice: either a horrific death at the hands of the regime and its militia allies, or permanent forced displacement from their city to other opposition-held areas of Syria—where they would be subject to continued aerial bombardment by Russia and the Assad regime.

In the age of digital media, it is very difficult to prevent photographic evidence of such atrocities or to silence the voices of those trapped in conflict zones. However, there is a concerted effort by some advocacy groups and some sections of the media to do just that. Other articles have dealt with the efforts of Russian media and activists associated with them to misrepresent the situation in Aleppo. This article will look at what was said in the United Kingdom, examining statements published on the website of the Stop the War Coalition and an article by Patrick Cockburn, a journalist who has been widely and misleadingly quoted as an authoritative source on Syria.

Stop the War: War Crimes are Fine as Long as We Don’t Get Involved

One would expect that an organisation called ‘Stop the War’ would have something to say about the killing, starvation, and siege of civilians in Aleppo. It would be easy for them, for example, to publish links to some of the English-language video reports uploaded to YouTube and Twitter by Syrian media activists trapped in Aleppo. But there was no mention of these, even though Stop the War does have a lot to say about Aleppo.

In two articles on Stop the War’s website, the organisation’s National Convenor, Lindsey German, took the greatest pains to make sure the attention of Stop the War supporters was drawn away from the atrocities taking place there. One of these, entitled ‘Aleppo Debate: MPs in Denial Once Again,’ began with the sentence ‘The usual stench of hypocrisy is oozing from the Palace of Westminster’ and attacked ‘right wing Labour MPs’ for daring to suggest that intervention in 2013 would have prevented what German herself admits is a ‘terrible situation’ in Aleppo.

German justified this by saying that the ‘ongoing catastrophe’ in Libya since 2011 was ‘solid proof that western bombing and intervention only makes things worse.’ Apparently, no matter how hellish a situation is, no matter how many people are being slaughtered, and no matter how much intervention there is from non-Western countries (there are reports now that the foreign Shi’i militias fighting for Assad in Syria now actually outnumber his own forces) any intervention anywhere by Western countries will ‘only make things worse.’

She misleadingly said that 30,000 Libyans died as a result of NATO intervention in the country, when this often quoted figure in fact applies to all casualties of the war, including those killed by Qadhafi. (Human Rights Watch confirmed a minimum of 72 civilians killed by NATO’s Libya intervention.) German could have looked at the speeches Qadhafi made about what he was going to do to the ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’ who rose up against him in Benghazi in 2011, or she could have compared the 2016 death tolls documented by Libya Body Count to those in Syria documented by the Syrian Network for Human Rights to see whether Western intervention had led to the worse outcome. But who is she to let facts get in the way of a good argument?

In the rest of the article she went on to blame the UK government for its alleged support for the opposition. This apparently, is the reason for what’s happening in Aleppo. Assad and his allies are killing and starving people in a besieged enclave, but it is all the West’s fault for supporting his opponents. Once again it doesn’t matter that Syrian rebels have complained of a lack of meaningful support from the West since 2012 and have not received any weapons capable of changing the game in their favour in Syria. Nor does it matter that they are hopelessly outgunned and that the regime and its allies continue to have a monopoly on aerial power and heavy weaponry in Syria. For German it is the MPs criticising inaction who are in denial, and the stench of hypocrisy is so strong she can’t actually smell where it is coming from.

Patrick Cockburn: Anyone reporting from Aleppo is Al-Qaeda

In The Independent, Patrick Cockburn went much further. His article began with the words ‘There was a period in 2011 and 2012 when there were genuinely independent opposition activists operating inside Syria, but as the jihadis took over these brave people were forced to flee abroad, fell silent or were dead.’ Reading the rest of the article, the last part of the sentence sounds more like an aspiration than a statement of fact.

According to Cockburn, the reason Western journalists can’t make it to Aleppo is because the ‘jihadis’ hold power there. Never mind the fact that East Aleppo is surrounded and besieged by Assad’s forces and his (religiously motivated) Iranian-run militia allies, never mind the fact that Turkey has closed its border with the rebel held areas of northern Syria, making it impossible for journalists to enter, Cockburn has decided that the reason he can’t go and investigate what’s going is because ‘al-Qaeda type jihadis’ are in control. These same people, he informs us, have kidnapped and killed Western journalist journalists and this is a ‘smart move,’ all part of a conspiracy to control the flow of information to the West and make sure that anyone reporting from East Aleppo or uploading images to the Internet from the city, from seven-year-old Bana al-Abed to members of the Syrian Civil Defence, are jihadist sympathisers and fellow-travellers.

The threat to Western reporters is ‘very real,’ Cockburn points out: ‘James Foley had been ritually beheaded on 8 August 2014 and Steven Sotloff a few days later.’ Cockburn conveniently omits to mention that these journalists were murdered by ISIS, and that ISIS were driven out of Aleppo by the very same ‘jihadists’ who are now in control of Aleppo. The majority of the rebels who controlled East Aleppo until last week in fact owed their allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, which is motivated by a nationalistic opposition to the Assad regime, rather than by Islamism. Fighters from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a group which was previously affiliated with Al-Qaeda, accounted for no more than 900 people or 11% of opposition fighters in the city, and may have been much fewer. Like Western journalists, rebel fighters have been ritually murdered by ISIS and their deaths have been even more brutal—they have been publicly crucified in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

But none of this is important when you’re out to prove that everyone being targeted by Assad in Syria is a ‘jihadist’ and that every single fact being reported from a city subject to a bombardment and siege of unprecedented ferocity is ‘jihadist propaganda.’ It doesn’t take much effort to identify the subtext of Cockburn’s article: everyone remaining in East Aleppo is a legitimate target.

‘News organisations,’ he concludes ‘have ended up being spoon-fed by jihadis and their sympathisers.’ If you are a civilian or an activist trapped in what is now the most heavily bombed cities on earth, waiting for forced displacement to a marginally less dangerous area at best or a horrific death at the hands of sectarian-motivated militia at worst, you are by default a jihadi sympathiser and have no right to tell your story to the world. Only Western journalists are capable of telling the truth.

While the people of Aleppo have been literally going through hell this past week, waiting either to be ethnically cleansed from their city or to die horrific deaths, those cited as authoritative sources on the Syrian situation and those claiming to represent a progressive movement working for have been bending over backwards to make sure that their story isn’t told. They have not stopped short of slander and racism in their efforts to obscure the suffering of thousands of innocent people. It doesn’t get much lower than this.

Protesters call for action to save Aleppo and for sanctions against Putin, 17 December.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Die in for Aleppo at Parliament by doctors and nurses

On 17 December, UK doctors and nurses staged a ‘die in’ in front of Parliament to call for protection for their colleagues in Syria.

This followed the departure the same day from London of the People’s Convoy, a project to bring a new crowdfunded hospital to Aleppo province.

The People’s Convoy hospital project is organised by CanDo, Doctors Under Fire, UOSSM, Hand in Hand for Syria, and The Syria Campaign amongst others.

On Twitter, follow Dr Saleyha Ahsan who is travelling with the convoy.

Donate to the People’s Convoy here.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Jeremy’s letter

It’s time that the Leader of the Opposition stopped undermining his own MPs on Syria, writes Clara Connolly

Let’s be clear, the major blame for the UK’s lamentable lack of action on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria lies with the Government. The Foreign Secretary’s response to the passionate debate in Parliament on Tuesday was almost a joke: he threw up his hands, blaming Parliament itself for its vote against intervention in 2013, which, he said, passed the baton to Russia. Syria was now Russia’s responsibility, and Putin is welcome to it. Nothing to be done.

But the Leader of the Opposition made that response easy, and inevitable. He did not speak at the debate, but he wrote a letter on the subject to Theresa May that morning, which had the effect of undermining his own Foreign Secretary, as well as the many Labour MPs who spoke strongly in favour of action by the UK.

At first sight, the contents are unobjectionable. He asks the Government to ‘press for an end to the violence and a UN-led ceasefire,’ since the rules of war ‘are being broken on all sides.’ He says that Labour has long condemned all attacks on civilians, ‘including those by Russian and pro Government forces in Aleppo, for which there can be no excuse.’

On humanitarian assistance to Aleppo and other besieged areas—an immediate priority—he urges the UK to ‘bolster and affirm the United Nations as the primary avenue for international efforts.’ It should engage all sides in its diplomatic effort, including regional powers. Lastly, he urges ‘patience and persistence’ in pursuing a long term negotiated settlement.

So what is wrong with this? Set alongside the debate, its weaknesses become obvious. But I cannot believe that this is due to haste or ignorance: its extraordinary absence of detail, its anodyne tone, are carefully calibrated. Despite what his fellow MPS might say in the debate, it gave a green light to the Government’s ‘do nothing’ policy.

Firstly, his emphasis on the primacy of the UN takes no note of its complete failure on Syria: stalemate at the Security Council because of Russia’s use of the veto, its refusal to deliver on its own resolutions on humanitarian aid to besieged areas. If he really hoped for UN–led action, it would have been helpful to refer, as some MPS did, to the Unity for Peace (UN 377) resolution proposed by Canada. This is a mechanism which in an emergency can trump the use of veto.

Secondly he makes no mention of the European Union, though there were repeated requests in the Commons for clarity on the UK’s position on the matter in the forthcoming European Council meeting. (The Mayor of Aleppo has since made an urgent plea to the European Council, for a hearing on humanitarian assistance.)

Thirdly he does not refer to the security and safety of civilian and humanitarian activists in Aleppo, in imminent danger of torture and death if captured by the regime—including the famed White Helmets (whose Director had spoken in Parliament recently) and even including British citizens involved in the aid effort there, which Mary Creagh MP repeatedly raised as a matter of urgency with Boris Johnson.

Finally, he makes no allusion to airdrops of food by the UK, despite there being a majority for this in Parliament. MPs from the Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, and Conservative parties spoke in favour of it during the debate. It is also popular with the public: at the time of writing there are over 137,000 signatures on a petition, more than enough to trigger a further debate.

Most significantly,  his own Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry,   spoke strongly in favour of the proposal, with Jeremy at her side. She reminded the Government that, months before, they had promised airdrops ‘at the point of last resort,’ and gave way to a fellow Labour MP who asked: ‘if we have not reached the point of last resort, what would it be?’ to which she agreed.  She said that,  if it was considered too risky to pilots to drop food from planes, ‘the Government must use unmanned drones or GPS guided parachutes.’ Inaction, she said, ‘is simply not an option.’ She could not have put the point more insistently.

And yet not a word of support for this, in Jeremy’s letter. It is well past time that the Leader of the Opposition stopped undermining his own MPs in Parliament, including even his closest allies in the Shadow Cabinet.  

As was pointed out to him very clearly during his speech on International Human Rights Day, his own credibility as a champion of human rights is seriously undermined by his significant silences on Syria. Pious and mealy mouthed generalities will not do the trick any longer.

Clara Connolly and fellow protesters, 10 December 2016. Photo © Steve Eason.

Saturday 17 December 2016

Day of action for Aleppo

Aleppo march map by Metropolitan Police

Events in London today Saturday 17 December

11 am: People’s Convoy leaves Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. 

Organised by Can Do Action and a coalition of Syria medical groups, the People’s Convoy is travelling to Syria to build new hospital in Aleppo province. See www.peoplesconvoy.com for more.

12.30 pm: March from Marble Arch.

2-4 pm: Die in and Vigil for Aleppo at Parliament Square, Westminster.

Organised by UK doctors and nurses together with Syria solidarity groups. Meet Syria Solidarity UK by Nelson Mandela statue on Parliament Square at 1.45.

Facebook event page here.

There are solidarity actions for Aleppo all over the world today. If you can't travel to London today check SyriaCalendar.com for the next solidarity action near you.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Today’s emergency debate on Aleppo: What we haven’t done

By Kellie Strom

Tobias Ellwood, UK Government Minister for Middle East, tweeted today to the Russian Ambassador: ‘Emergency Commons debate on Syria today. Please say what you are doing to help those trapped in Aleppo.’

The Russian government, in partnership with the Assad regime, the Iranian regime, the Hezbollah terrorist organisation, and their associated militias, are jointly committing crimes against humanity in Syria. The ferocity of those crimes is escalating in these days, but they have been ongoing for years. As crimes against humanity, they are attacks not just on Syrians but on the common security of us all.

A UK minister should not be pleading with a representative of a joint criminal enterprise for mercy. Our Government should not be pleading with these criminals for mercy. We should be defending our common humanity, our shared security, robustly and relentlessly.

There are still people alive to be saved: on the run in Aleppo, under siege in Madaya and the suburbs of Damascus, in prisons across Syria. There are many possible actions that we and others have proposed that haven’t been attempted by our Government.

We haven’t seen UK airdrops, even to areas away from the Russian focus of operations such as Madaya which is only minutes from Syria’s border.

We haven’t seen RAF surveillance drones make their presence felt over hospitals and other civilian targets to deter war crimes.

We haven’t seen the UK track and publicly identify aircraft committing war crimes and publicly identify officers and officials with command responsibility.

We haven’t seen any sanctions against Russian individuals implicated in war crimes.

We haven’t seen any sanctions against Iranian airlines resupplying Assad.

We haven’t allowed our much discussed prospective allies against ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, to have the means to defend themselves and their fellow Syrians against Assad’s and Putin’s air attacks.

We haven’t dared do anything to constrain or deter Assad’s ongoing chemical attacks, at the same time as Israel has regularly enforced its own red lines by carrying out air strikes against Assad and Hezbollah forces.

Assad and Putin’s mode of operation is to attack the weakest: to attack hospitals, schools, and aid workers. They are free to attack the weak because we are afraid to be strong.

This is a war against humanity, a war against every law and convention that keeps us secure. We must defend ourselves now and end Assad’s and Putin’s slaughter.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Labour urged on International Human Rights Day: ‘Actions not words on Syria’

Peter Tatchell has joined with activists from Syria Solidarity UK to disrupt a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, and urge the Labour Party to pursue “actions not words” to save civilians in Aleppo. 

Jeremy Corbyn was outlining the Labour Party’s commitment to fundamental rights on Human Rights Day, when activists silently took to the stage with placards saying ‘Action not words: Back UK Aid Drops now’.

Campaigner Peter Tatchell, who joined the action today, said:

 ‘On this day, politicians across the world have gathered to give speeches and celebrate the noble sentiments in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet in Aleppo, even as these words are being voiced, Syrian and Russian forces are targeting fleeing refugees, children in schools, doctors in hospitals, and paramedics from The White Helmets. In addition 200,000 civilians are being deliberately starved in Aleppo and over a million elsewhere in Free Syria. We call on the Labour Party to live up to its progressive rhetoric and actively push for aid drops’

Clara from Syria Solidarity UK added: “Do Syrian civilians have human rights? If so, why are we allowing this to continue? Western diplomats have conceded that there are no technical obstacles to delivering airdrops of food and medicine to Aleppo using a GPS-guided parachute system. What is lacking is the political will. If we stay silent, if Western politicians refuse to take what actions are available to them, then they are complicit in these massacres’

Syria Solidarity UK are calling on Mr. Corbyn, Labour Party MPs and members to engage more fully with the situation in Syria and publicly and vocally:

  • Support calls for humanitarian access to besieged areas in Syria.
  • Push for a parliamentary vote on unilateral UK aid drops.
  • Demand the suspension of Syria from the UN until it agrees to a ceasefire, and stops blocking aid to besieged areas.
  • Request UN supervised evacuations of the White Helmets and the civilian population.

Contact info@syriauk.org for more information.