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Friday 30 November 2018

Honour the memory of Raed and Hammoud—support civil society in Idlib

Raed and Hammoud at a screening of Pink Panther cartoons for the children of Kafranbel, January 2013.

It is one week since the shocking murder of civil society activists Raed Fares and his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid.

We need to help carry on their work. You can give directly to fund Radio Fresh, the independent radio station that Raed and Hammoud and their fellow activists founded in Kafranbel, Idlib.

And if you live in the UK, you can write to your MP and call on the UK to support civil society inside Idlib.

Remembering Raed in an article for the Washington Post, Iyad el-Baghdadi wrote: “Don’t let them tell you there are no good guys in Syria. There are—but the world chooses to ignore them while they’re alive, only to eulogise them after their death.”

The best way we can honour the memory of Raed and Hammoud is to support those who follow their path of non-violent activism across Syria, and in particular those in Idlib who work to strengthen civil society and to build a better alternative both to the murderous extremism of Assad and to those extremist armed groups who continue to undermine and repress Syria’s popular revolution.

Remember, anyone resident in the UK can write to their local MP. This website will help you.

We have written a suggested letter below, but please when writing add your own personal thoughts about why this is important to you.

Dear —

I write as your constituent to draw your attention to the murder of Raed Fares, celebrated journalist and civil society activist in the town of Kafranbel in Idlib province, Syria, killed along with his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid.

Raed Fares and his fellow activists in Kafranbel had for years campaigned against the Assad regime, calling on states like the UK to act to stop the killing. Kafranbel’s demonstrations were world famous for their powerful and witty banners and posters.

Raed had also consistently opposed the extremism of groups like ISIS and HTS. He was a consistent voice for human rights and freedom. Through Radio Fresh he worked to counter extremism in Idlib.

In 2014, two gunmen from ISIS attacked him, shattered several bones and punctured his lung. In 2016 he was detained by the Nusra Front, then linked with al-Qaeda. More recently Nusra’s successor, the jihadist group HTS, ordered Radio Fresh to stop broadcasting music—Raed’s response was to response was to use other sounds, such as tweeting birds, clucking chickens and bleating goats, poking fun at the jihadists’ restrictions.

On Friday 23rd November, Raed Fares and his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid were shot down by unknown gunmen—very likely from HTS.

Their murder illustrates the serious challenge peaceful civil society activists for free expression and democracy pose to authoritarian rule: by the Assad regime and also by the extremists who have undermined Syria’s popular revolution.

But Syrian civil society is struggling to survive. Many states, including the UK, have been slowing or cutting funding to the people most needed to defeat extremism: the White Helmets, the Free Syria Police, local councils, and the many community activists, women’s organisations, peacebuilding groups, and human rights activists that risk their lives for a better future in Syria.

The crisis in Syria is not over. Coalition bombing may have driven back ISIS in some parts, but bombs will NOT end extremism. Without human rights and good civil governance, extremism will still thrive in other forms. The killing of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid shows things can still get worse if we stand by. Or we can choose to give our full support those working to make things better.

We ask you, in honour of the memory of Raed Fares and of his projects such as the fiercely independent Radio Fresh, to ensure that the funding of civil society organisations in Syria is maintained and wherever possible increased. This is the ONLY way to finally defeat extremism from state and non-state actors, and to promote a secure and democratic future for Syria.

As Raed Fares said: ‘ the only way to create a new Syria is through civil society. There is no other way. It can’t happen through weapons, it can’t happen through realities that others are trying to impose.’

Yours sincerely

Read more:

Lindsey Hilsum’s Channel 4 News report on the killing of Raed Fares.

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham most likely behind assassination of Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneed: report by Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In memoriam: Raed Fares and Hammud Junayd, giants of Syrian civil society, by Mustafa Abu Shams for Al Jumhuriya.

‘The one who gave life to the demonstrations’: Raed Fares, remembered, by Alaa Nassar and Avery Edelman for Syria Direct.

The famous cartoons and banners of Kafranbel’s demonstrations were the result of teamwork. Here is an article on one Kafranbel cartoonist Iman, and a post on another Kafranbel cartoonist Ahmad Jalal.

Idlib Lives: reports on peaceful civil society organisations in Idlib, Syria, by Peace Direct and The Syria Campaign.

Thursday 22 November 2018

The UK’s failure to protect

Recovering the body of a victim of an incendiary attack in Arbin, Eastern Ghouta, 22 March 2018. Photo: Syria Civil Defence via Siege Watch 10th Quarterly Report, Part One.

“In no part of Syria is there comprehensive, long-term and reliable protection for persecuted people.”

That’s the view of the German Foreign Ministry in a report leaked this month. This observation is of course an indictment of the war against civilians by the criminal Assad regime and its international allies, Putin and company. But it’s also an indictment of the intervening powers, the US-UK Coalition and Turkey, and their failures to put civilian protection at the centre of their strategies.

• UK Government rejects R2P report recommendations

This week the Government responded to a recent Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on Syria and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The Government rejected two key recommendations: that the Government develop an atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan; and that the Government establish an independent inquiry into the decision-making processes leading to, and the consequences of, non-intervention.

In rejecting an atrocity prevention strategy proposal, the Government listed what it does on atrocity prevention, particularly on Syria, but didn’t examine why what it does is failing to prevent atrocities, and didn’t consider how today’s policy choices in Syria may be setting conditions for further atrocities in the future.

In rejecting an independent inquiry into non-intervention, the Government sought to contain the question to the August 2013 vote, but the issue of UK non-intervention in Syria goes wider, back to the narrowing of UK policy options in line with US policy in 2012, and forward to the decision to intervene against only one perpetrator in 2015. The issue continues today with the UK avoiding full transparent discussion of its current responsibilities as a military force in Syria.

• Three years of UK intervention in Syria

Next month will be three years since the UK Parliament voted to intervene in Syria, not to protect civilians against all their worst oppressors, but to act only against those who presented a short-term security threat to Western states.

Jo Cox abstained in that vote precisely because although she believed intervention was needed, she insisted intervention should be centred on civilian protection. At the time of the December 2015 vote, she wrote:
“Since the first outline of the plan by the Prime Minister I have studied the case he has set out in detail, discussed it with officials and experts, with Syrian people and with campaigning groups trying to end the conflict. My reluctant conclusion is that beyond the tactic of airstrikes, the wider plan remains undeveloped. While much of the intent and language is there, the thing I am most concerned about and which in my view will most change the conflict dynamic is the protection of civilians, particularly from Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombs. This is relegated to second order status in the strategy, underdeveloped and unthought out. It is a fatal flaw in the strategy.

“The Prime Minister has compounded this for me by positioning the strategy as ‘ISIS first’, like we are picking from a menu of independent variables. First we’ll deal with ISIS and then we’ll come back to Assad. Wars don’t work like this. Indeed, by refusing to tackle Assad’s brutality we may actively alienate more of the Sunni population, driving them towards ISIS.

“So I have decided to abstain. Because I am not against airstrikes per se, but I cannot actively support them unless they are part of a plan. Because I believe in action to address ISIS, but do not believe that it will work in isolation.

“My final hope and plea is whether or not the Government win this vote that they take a long hard look at revamping their strategy for civilian protection in Syria. That in the weeks that come the protection of civilians becomes the central component in our plan. In my view it is only when civilians are protected that we will defeat ISIS, and until that is at the centre of our plan I will remain an outspoken advocate for that cause.”

See also: UNA-UK disappointed by UK’s response to Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on Humanitarian intervention.

Monday 5 November 2018

The UN aid convoy and the Assad regime torture chief

Who is responsible for Rukban camp? Above: Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, wanted on criminal charges in Germany and France; Gavin Williamson, UK Defence Minister; Jim Mattis, US Secretary of Defense; Abdullah II, King of Jordan.

On Saturday, a UN aid convoy from Damascus reached Rukban Camp in the Tanf Deconfliction Zone, southern Syria.

On Monday, international arrest warrants issued by French judges against three high-ranking Syrian regime officials were made public.

These two stories are connected—here’s how:

French judges issued the international arrest warrants on 8 October 2018, but they were first made public on 5 November. The three Syrian regime officials named are Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud. They are charged with complicity to crimes against humanity and (for Mahmoud) war crimes, in connection with the disappearance, torture and death of dual Syrian-French nationals, Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh.

Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, is also subject to an international arrest warrant issued by Germany’s federal prosecutor in June of this year for his role in the deaths of ‘at least hundreds of people’ between 2011-2013 in Syrian prisons.

Jamil Hassan has been under EU and US sanctions since 2011.

Jamil Hassan personally signs the facilitation letters that permit UN agencies and NGOs to make aid deliveries inside Syria. No UN aid moves through Damascus without his signature. For years this meant that little or no UN aid was allowed to reach civilians under siege by the Assad regime.

Saturday’s UN aid convoy from Damascus was to Rukban, a camp of 50,000 or more civilians on the border with Jordan, outside of regime-controlled territory in the Tanf Deconfliction Zone, an area around the US-UK Coalition’s Tanf base. This UN convoy was the first aid delivered there since January, when aid was delivered across the Jordanian border by crane.

The government of Jordan (a UK ally and recipient of UK aid money) has been restricting cross-border aid to Rukban since 2016, while the Assad regime has been resisting calls to allow cross-line aid from Damascus.

Rukban camp is inside the Tanf Deconfliction Zone, an area militarily controlled by the US-UK Coalition. The zone is defended both against ISIS and against pro-Assad forces by the Royal Air Force and other Coalition forces. The zone  is patrolled on the ground by Maghaweir al-Thowra (MaT) which is a local Syrian militia trained at Tanf base by UK and US forces, and equipped and paid by the US-UK Coalition.

Under Geneva Convention IV, the US and UK as occupying powers have duties to civilians in the Tanf zone, including the duty to bring in food and medical aid themselves when UN cross-border and cross-line aid deliveries fail.

Despite this, the US-UK Coalition has sought to evade responsibility for Rukban camp. On 20 October 2018, the Financial Times reported Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for the US-UK Calition, as saying that Rukban camp was a “humanitarian concern but not technically part of our military operation.”

Rather than take full direct responsibility for civilians in the US-UK area of military occupation, the US and UK have left the civilians in Rukban dependent on the signature of Jamil Hassan, Assad’s torture chief in Damascus, the same criminal who is now subject to international arrest warrants from both Germany and France. Survivors of Assad’s starvation sieges in Daraya, Madaya, Moadamiya and elsewhere can testify to the immorality of this policy.

Today we see small steps forward on accountability for Syrian regime crimes. The US-UK Coalition also need to be held legally accountable for their actions and inactions. The UK and its allies must now do their duty towards civilians in the Tanf zone.

Read more: Rukban Camp in Syria: The UK is failing in its legal duty under the Geneva Conventions

Update: UK organisations write to Prime Minister Theresa May on Rukban camp

Monday 29 October 2018

Rukban Camp in Syria: The UK is failing in its legal duty under the Geneva Conventions

55,000 people are trapped without aid in Rukban Camp in southern Syria.

The camp is inside the Tanf deconfliction zone, effectively under US-UK Coalition military occupation.

As an Occupying Power, the UK has a LEGAL DUTY under the Geneva Conventions to ensure the population are able to receive food and medical aid.

The UK is failing in its legal duty under the Geneva Conventions.

Today we are sending MPs a full illustrated briefing (PDF) explaining the circumstances and the UK’s legal duty to the population.

Please write to your MP and call on them to end the UK’s failure in Rukban.

No UN aid for 55,000 civilians trapped in Rukban Camp

An aid convoy from Damascus to Rukban has been cancelled. UN aid from Damascus is subject to approval by the Assad regime. Rukban is on the Jordan border. UK ally Jordan blocks cross-border aid.

Rukban is inside the Coalition’s Tanf zone. The zone is patrolled by a local force trained by the UK and US, and is defended by the RAF.

As an Occupying Power, the UK has a LEGAL DUTY under the Geneva Conventions to ensure that the population can receive food and medical aid.

Questions UK MPs should be asking:
  1. Given the UK role in defending the Coalition’s Tanf zone, why is the UK failing to meet its obligations as an occupying power under Geneva Conventions towards the thousands of civilians trapped in the zone?
  2. Have ministers instructed the Royal Air Force to draw up plans for airlifting humanitarian aid to civilians trapped inside the Tanf deconfliction zone?
  3. Have UK officials discussed with Syria Civil Defence their offer to help provide aid to civilians trapped in the Tanf deconfliction zone?

The UK has a legal duty towards civilians in the ‘de facto besieged’ camp at Rukban.

Rukban camp is located just inside Syria along the border with Jordan. The camp began forming in late 2014 after Jordan closed its border to most asylum seekers.

Jordan has severely restricted aid access to the camp since a June 2016 ISIS suicide bomb attack on a Jordanian border post.

In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have fled to the camp from areas targeted by Russian and Coalition air strikes.

The most recent aid delivery in January was made over the border by crane. Since January, people in the camp have depended on a “trickle” of trade from the Syrian side, which the UN’s Jan Egeland says has been cut off in recent months, making it “one of the most desperate places in Syria.”

At least 55,000 people are at risk in Al Rukban refugee camp, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) reported this month. There are 150 cases in urgent need of medical care, and 15 people have died this month alone, among them two babies who died from malnutrition and lack of medical access.

This human suffering is taking place inside a military zone defended by Coalition forces, including by the Royal Air Force.

Rukban Camp is inside the Coalition’s Tanf deconfliction zone. The zone is patrolled by Syrian forces trained by the UK and US, and is defended by the Royal Air Force.

In Spring 2016, Syrian opposition forces captured the nearby Tanf border crossing from ISIS. Shortly after, UK, US, and Norwegian special forces established their base at Tanf.

In August 2016, BBC News reported on UK Special Forces at Tanf base, training local Syrian forces to fight ISIS.

Since then, US and UK forces have defended an area with a radius of 55 km around Tanf base both against ISIS and against pro-Assad forces. As recently as June 2018, a Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jet dropped a 500lb laser-guided bomb during a firefight with pro-Assad forces.

The Tanf zone is effectively under military occupation by UK and US forces. Consequently the UK and US have legal duties to the population within the zone under the Geneva Conventions.

In particular, the UK as an Occupying Power “has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.”

Syria Civil Defence (AKA the White Helmets) have declared their willingness to enter Rukban camp to assist civilians.

Maghaweir al-Thowra, the local forces trained by the UK and US, have declared they are ready to provide security for aid deliveries.

The UK has the capacity in the Royal Air Force to airlift aid into the Coalition’s Tanf zone.

Any UN aid from Damascus is dependent on facilitation letters signed by Assad regime authorities. The Assad regime has routinely blocked UN aid to areas outside regime control.

The Assad regime insists such facilitation letters be signed by Jamil Hassan, head of Air Force Intelligence, a man sanctioned by the UK and EU and subject to an international arrest warrant issued by Germany’s Federal Prosecutor for his part in the mass torture and killing of prisoners in Syria.

In leaving civilians in Rukban dependent on aid deliveries from Damascus, the UK and US governments and military forces are failing in their legal duty to civilians inside the Tanf zone.
  • Call on the UK government to airlift aid to the Tanf zone.
  • Bring the White Helmets to Rukban camp to help deliver food and medical aid.
  • End the Coalition’s shameful and illegal dereliction of duty towards civilians.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Concerns with the ‘Designated Area Offence’ in the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2018

Rethink Rebuild Society is a Manchester-based charity that works towards improving the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, in particular but not exclusively Syrians in the UK, helping them become positively established within British society.

On the basis of their work with Syrian and other refugees, they have written about their serious concerns regarding certain provisions of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2018, in particular those stipulating the proposed ‘Designated Area Offence’.

There has been a lack of engagement and consultation with the charity sector in general and the Syrian community in particular regarding the drafting of this proposed offence within the Bill, despite that these two communities will be directly affected by the Bill’s application.

Rethink Rebuild are concerned that parts of Syria or Syria itself may become a designated area should this law be passed, and that the proposed offence does not sufficiently acknowledge in detail that there are valid reasons (completely unrelated to terrorism) why individuals may travel to ‘designated areas’.

Read a submission on the bill by Rethink Rebuild here (PDF).

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Deaths at Rukban: The UK has a responsibility to protect

Video: Trailer for ‘The People Of No Man’s Land,’ a short documentary on Rukban camp by Daham Alasaad.

At least 55,000 people are at risk in Rukban Camp on the border with Jordan, according to medical organisation UOSSM. The Times reports that Rukban holds between 45,000 to 60,000 people who have fled Assad and ISIS.

According to community workers, 15 people have died this month alone, among them two babies. On October 8, in the space of less than 24 hours, two babies died in the camp. 4-month-old Huda Raslan died from malnutrition and lack of medical access. Munaf Al Mahmoud, a one year old baby, died due to the lack of adequate medical care.

There are now 150 cases in urgent need of medical care, UOSSM reports.

The UK has a direct responsibility to protect people trapped in Rukban.

UK ally Jordan is blocking access for medical and food aid.

Rukban Camp is near the Coalition’s Tanf base, used by the US and by the UK’s SAS to train Syrian anti-ISIS fighters.

The camp is inside a 55km deconfliction zone protected from Assad and ISIS forces by the RAF and US Air Force. As recently as June 2018, an RAF Typhoon fighter bombed Syrian regime forces that were threatening the Tanf deconfliction zone.

The UK has military access to the area—in the air and on the ground. The UK has close diplomatic relations with the Jordanian government. In April 2018, DFID committed to provide £110 million of UK aid funding for 2018/19, and to double its funding for economic resilience and reform.

For months and years, the UK and its allies Jordan and the US have been failing in their responsibility to protect people trapped in Rukban. Here, even more than in other parts of Syria, the UK has the means to act, by negotiating ground access, or by implementing air access for food and medical assistance.

End the UK’s shameful failure to protect people in Rukban camp.

Write to your MP here.

Read more from Syria Direct:
Below: Map of Rukban camp and the US-UK military base at Tanf, Map by the Carter Center via War on the Rocks.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on R2P and Syria

In 2016, children in Daraya sent an SOS message to the world.

Syria Solidarity UK was one of several groups and individuals to submit evidence to the recent House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on Responsibility to Protect and Syria. Our full evidence is below.

The Committee published its report on 10 September 2018. Read it here, or as a PDF here.

Syria Solidarity was one of twelve organisations welcoming the report in a joint letter, and calling on the UK to lead by example on R2P.

Much of the discussion in the UK over Syria and R2P has focused on the failure to act in 2013 following the Ghouta chemical massacre. The consequences of that decision are still being debated. This year, the UK joined the US and France in carrying out airstrikes in response to a fatal chemical attack in Douma. By taking this action, and by taking it without a vote, the current Government undid the 2013 Parliament’s decision. As a result we can see that limited strikes to deter chemical weapons attacks have not in themselves been enough to stop large scale violence, and they most likely wouldn’t have been enough in 2013. Arguably however they have made possible a wider deterrent effect by re-opening the possibility of further UK action, a possibility that was definitively shut down in the aftermath of the 2013 vote.

While a capacity to deter is part of what we argue is needed to stop large scale violence against civilians in Syria, as long as that deterrence is focused solely on the use of chemical weapons, it cannot be truly regarded as amounting to a strategy to protect civilians. For this reason, there is a need to reconsider the popular narrative of 2013 as the key failure of the UK and its allies on Syria. The more decisive failure was arguably the failure to militarily enforce the UN-negotiated ceasefire in Spring 2012. Reflecting on that failed ceasefire, Kofi Annan wrote that ‘sustained international support did not follow,’ and ‘the ceasefire quickly unravelled and the government, realising there would be no consequences if it returned to an overt military campaign, reverted to using heavy weapons on towns.’

The second major Parliamentary vote on Syria came in 2015, when MPs voted to support the widening of UK military action against ISIS to include military action in Syria. When the need to protect civilians was raised in debates prior to that vote, the Government emphasised that the RAF would take great care to avoid inflicting casualties. But avoiding taking civilian lives is a different proposition to actively protecting civilian lives. Nearly three years later, we see that while the UK military maintains it has no evidence that UK action has directly inflicted civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq, British officers and British ministers have at the same time trumpeted the UK’s integral role in a Coalition campaign that has cost several thousand civilian lives.

Jo Cox, who expressed a sharper understanding of the Syrian crisis than any other British parliamentarian, explained her decision to abstain in the 2015 vote by the following remarks on the Government’s declared strategy:

‘While much of the intent and language is there, the thing I am most concerned about and which in my view will most change the conflict dynamic is the protection of civilians, particularly from Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombs. This is relegated to second order status in the strategy, underdeveloped and unthought out. It is a fatal flaw in the strategy.’

Written evidence from Syria Solidarity UK (RTP0012)
  • We call for the protection of civilians to be a primary aim for all future UK military actions rather than a secondary consideration.
  • We call for the human rights of all of Syria’s population including those forcibly displaced and exiled to be the primary concern in UK policy towards the political future of Syria.
  • We call for human rights to be put at the centre of  refugee policy and humanitarian policy towards Syria and the region.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Sanction Russians with command responsibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Support and protect civilian local government.

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

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

Tuesday 24 July 2018

The killing of Mohammad and Yahya Sharbaji

Rethink Rebuild

Yahya Sharbaji, a prominent non-violent activist from Daraya detained by the Assad regime since 2011, has today been confirmed to have died while in detention. His family was informed by regime authorities earlier on Monday that both Yahya and his brother Mohammad had died in 2013 while in detention.

Yahya was a true leader of his community. He was known to be the mastermind behind non-violent protest tactics in Daraya’s revolutionary movement. Yahya firmly believed that the uprising must remain non-violent in order to truly achieve a transformation away from the regime’s coercive employment of violent methods. He was part of the ‘Darayya Youth’ group along with our Managing Director Haytham Alhamwi which was active in community work and promoting social change before the uprising in 2011, following the non-violent philosophy of Jawdat Said.

In Yahya’s own words, ‘I would rather be killed than be a killer.’

Yahya was a victim of the Syrian regime’s campaign early in the uprising of detaining front-line leaders of non-violent activism, which ultimately led militant enthusiasts and extremist groups to fill the void.

The Syrian regime is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed over the past seven years. Thousands of detainees have been killed in security branches and detention centres under torture. The fate of tens of thousands still in regime prisons remain unknown.

It is also responsible for devastatingly tarnishing a youth generation’s aspirations for progressive change to its country.

While international powers rush to contain the conflict without addressing underlying grievances through the current constitutional process, one thing is certain: there will be no peace without justice.

Rest in Peace Yahya and Mohammad.

Cross-posted from Rethink Rebuild’s Facebook page.

Rethink Rebuild Society is a Manchester-based charity that works towards improving the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, in particular but not exclusively Syrians in the UK, helping them become positively established within British society.

Monday 9 July 2018

Review: My Country

My Country, A Syrian Memoir
Kassem Eid, Bloomsbury, 2018

Review by Kellie Strom

On the early morning of 21 August 2013, the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta, and Moadamiya in Western Ghouta, were attacked with rockets loaded with Sarin nerve agent. An estimated 1,500 people were killed. Kassem Eid, then 27 years old, was amongst the survivors.

Friday 6 July 2018

Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on R2P and Syria

Laila Alodaat, Haid Haid, and Dr Farouq al Habib before the Committee.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention to protect civilian populations, with specific reference to Syria.

Witnesses at the most recent hearing (video) were Dr Farouq al Habib, Director, Mayday Rescue Foundation; Laila Alodaat, Middle East and North Africa Director, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and Haid Haid, Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London.

Thursday 5 July 2018

Review: The Burning Shores

Bronwen Griffiths

The 2011 Libyan and Syrian revolutions began within weeks of each other, and the Libya intervention profoundly affected international responses to Syria. Bronwen Griffiths reviews a new book by Frederic Wehrey on the Libyan experience.

The Burning Shores—Inside the Battle for the New Libya,
Frederic Wehrey, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2018

The NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which the UK took part in, is still contested. A report in 2016 by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee stated that the UK’s strategy was based on ‘erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence’, accusing the government of selectively taking the threats of Quadafi at face value. After the Government argued that its actions ‘undoubtedly’ saved civilian lives in Libya, the Committee accepted that ‘as the Government response suggests, UK policy in Libya was initially driven by a desire to protect civilians. However, we do not accept that it understood the implications of this, which included collapse of the state, failure of stabilisation, and the facilitation of Islamist extremism in Libya.’

The idea of an international ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and a possible enforcement of human rights is seen as a way of preventing authoritarian governments from hurting their own populations. In a contrast to Libya, the violent protests in Syria, which were met with extreme violence by the Assad regime, demonstrates the limits of this idea. This raises questions about the international context of the intervention in Libya, and possible reasons for differences between the two countries.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Southern Syria crisis: Why the UK must act

Elizabeth Tsurkov: “Over the past two days, sources in Quneitra tell me that Israel provided additional humanitarian assistance to camps for the displaced on the fence along the Golan, but situation there remains desperate.” Photo: Alaa al-Fakier.

  • The UK is again failing to protect civilians
  • The UK should call on allies to give refuge to civilians—not call on NGOs to do an impossible job in a war zone
  • The UK should publish evidence of Russian war crimes and sanction perpetrators
  • The UK should enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2139 by grounding Assad’s bombers
  • The UK should act against proscribed organisations threatening civilians in southern Syria

Today UNOCHA published their latest report on people fleeing renewed Assad regime violence in southern Syria:

“Sustained hostilities in south-west Syria since 17 June have led to the displacement of an estimated 271,800 individuals as of 2 July. Of those, approximately 60,000 displaced to areas in close proximity to the Nasib/Jaber border crossing with Jordan, including the free zone, and some 164,000 IDPs have moved towards camps and villages in Quneitra, close to the Golan Heights area.”

The UN has received reports of dozens deaths, including women and children, as well as reports of indiscriminate attacks on health facilities, schools, civil defence centres and offices of local NGOs. Health and educational facilities are closed due to airstrikes and ground hostilities.

According to the UN, “the displaced lack regular access to clean drinking water and healthcare, and local sources on the ground report that at least twelve children, two women, and one elderly man died in areas close to the Jordanian border due to scorpion bites, dehydration and diseases transmitted through contaminated water.”

The Governments of Jordan and Israel are keeping the borders closed to Syrian civilians fleeing the bombing.

In the case of Israel it is preventing displaced Syrians seeking shelter in the Golan Heights which is Syrian territory under international law, despite Israel’s control of the area.

UK DFID officials have expressed the view to multiple NGOs that it is not realistic that Jordan will be able to take in more people. But leading NGOs’ assessment of the situation in southern Syria is that it is currently impossible to provide adequate aid inside Syria to most people fleeing the fighting.

Aid agencies say they are ready to assist new arrivals in Jordan. Azraq Camp could be developed further to host another 80,000 new Syrian refugees.

Jordan is a UK ally, and the UK and US have close relations with Israel. The UK should call on allies to give refuge to civilians, and not call on NGOs to do an impossible job in a war zone.

The UK’s failure to protect

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry on Responsibility to Protect and Syria. In its most recent session, the Committee heard evidence that the cost of non-intervention and non-action in Syria included “further war crimes in Syria; the invasion and annexation of Crimea; the murder of hundreds of people inside Syria; aggression from Iran; and the exploitation of the Iranian people off the back of this,” as well as “the fundamental undermining of international rules.”

The Chair of the Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, summarised that “the cost of doing nothing is most immediately obvious in Syria, and among the murdered in Syria, but actually it fundamentally undermines the security position of the British people and is a fundamental threat to the rules that we have relied on for seventy years to keep us safe.”

Most discussion of the UK’s failure to protect civilians in Syria focuses on the August 2013 vote against action following the Ghouta chemical attack. But there have been many other points at which the UK could have chosen to act but didn’t, with dreadful consequences.

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

The UK failed to act to relieve the siege of Madaya imposed by Hezbollah, resulting in the death of civilians including children by starvation, mines, and gunshots, mass displacement, and the strengthening of an armed group proscribed by the UK as a terrorist organisation.

The UK failed to act on its own May 2016 proposal to airdrop humanitarian aid to besieged communities such as Daraya, resulting in the depopulation of entire towns.

The UK failed to publish radar tracking evidence of Russian attacks on hospitals and on a UN aid convoy during the siege of Aleppo, evidence that could have allowed Russian individuals with command responsibility to be sanctioned.

The UK failed to invest in UAVs that could have airdropped medical supplies and even food to besieged communities in eastern Ghouta, a besieged region that had large areas of open farmland suitable for airdrops.

The UK is failing now in southern Syria: Failing to publish evidence on culpability for hospital attacks, failing to sanction Russian individuals with command responsibility, failing to get aid through, failing to press allies and work with allis to give shelter to refugees, failing to act against proscribed organisations involved in attacks, and failing to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2139 by grounding Assad’s bombers.

As seen again in recent reporting by The Sunday Times, the RAF has the ability to act against the Assad regime when UK political leaders give them the green light.

And the UK’s allies have the means—with UK support—to give shelter to civilians.

We have seen some of the costs of not acting in the past. What will be the cost of not acting today?

Below: Map from the latest UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report.

Sunday 29 April 2018

Say no to the Russia War Cup

SyriaUK activists were at the London Stadium for the West Ham vs Man City game today, campaigning against Putin’s hosting of the World Cup. With ‘Russia War Cup’ balloons and leaflets, we got a good response from very many fans.

Also today, Rethink Rebuild, the Syrian community organisation in Manchester, are bringing the campaign to Old Trafford football ground, the home of Manchester United.

Syria Solidarity UK and Rethink Rebuild urge fans not to travel to Putin’s Russia. We call on FIFA to remove hosting rights from Russia, and call on all of the companies and organisations sponsoring the World Cup to pull out.

The World Cup has served as a symbol of unity and fair play among nations, but this year FIFA has decided to hold it in a country ruled by a regime which is a danger to world peace.

By giving the tournament to Putin, FIFA is offering legitimacy and prestige to a regime which is committing murder on a daily basis. Every day in Syria, Russian planes are bombing towns and cities, schools and hospitals in support of the genocidal dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The Russian state is complicit in the regime’s continued use of chlorine and sarin chemical weapons, and has carried out its own chemical attack in the UK.

Say NO to the Russia War Cup.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Why aren’t hospital attacks a red line?

Five-month-old Rukaya being treated for pneumonia at a SAMS-supported hospital in Idlib. Read more.

  • UK to spend £450 million on aid to alleviate suffering in Syria but won’t act to end hospital attacks.
  • UK aid includes blast proofing materials and sandbags to reinforce underground hospitals.
  • UK says Syria strikes were to protect civilians—but allows Assad’s attacks on hospitals to continue.
  • UK keeps evidence secret on Russian air force role in hospital attacks

The UK’s international development minister Penny Mordaunt has announced that the UK will provide at least £450 million this year to alleviate the extreme suffering in Syria. With at least 30,000 people currently injured every month in Syria, the Department for International Development (DFID) expects that around a quarter of this UK aid will be spent on healthcare.

Assad and Putin deliberately and systematically target civilian hospitals as part of their campaign to drive ordinary people out of opposition areas and out of Syria. This is why UK aid includes providing blast proofing materials and sandbags to reinforce underground medical facilities and limit the damage from attacks.

Hospital attacks should be a red line. The UK, US, and France should show the same determination to STOP these attacks on medics as they do to stop chemical attacks.

The UK claimed its response to the Douma chemical massacre was an emergency measure to protect civilians. If that is true, then extend the same protection to Syria’s doctors, nurses, and patients. Don’t just spend money picking up the pieces and reinforcing hospitals against attack.


British doctors have been amongst those targeted by the Assad regime. British surgeon David Nott has described the experience of being in the sights of one of Assad’s pilots and surviving.

Others have not been so lucky. The British doctor Abbas Khan was captured by Assad’s forces and eventually died in a regime prison. The jury at the inquest into his death found that ‘Dr Khan was deliberately and intentionally killed without any legal justification.’

Another British doctor, Isa Abdur Rahman, 26, died in May 2013 in a mortar attack on a hospital in Idlib province. Dr Rahman had left his position with the Royal free Hospital in north London to volunteer with a British charity working in Syria.

In 2016 two Conservative MPs, David Davis and Adam Holloway visited Syria and met Assad. Syria’s dictator gave David Davis a list of 783 people the regime was targeting for assassination. Assad’s ‘kill list’ included the same Dr Isa Abdur Rahman who had been killed in 2013, confirming again that Assad targets doctors.

Eastern Ghouta, March 2018. Photo via SAMS.


In the first months of this year, attacks on hospitals and medical facilities escalated to a rate of more than one a day:
  • At least 10 hospitals in rebel-held areas of Syria have suffered direct air or artillery attacks over the past 10 days, aid workers say—BBC News 6 January 2018
  • Attacks on medical facilities ‘jumped to an average of one a day’—NBC News 18 February 2018
  • Thirteen targeted attacks on hospitals in East Ghouta in 48 hours—SAMS 20 February 2018
Physicians for Human Rights counted 492 attacks on medical facilities in Syria up to the end of 2017.

446 of those attacks were by either Assad regime or Russian forces.

Now newly published research suggests the true total number of hospital attacks by Assad and Putin is even higher.

Dr. Rohini Haar, University of California, Berkeley, led a team that collected ground reports of attacks in 2016 in northern Syria, filed by civilians via cellphone text. The data shows a total of 200 health care-related attacks in the governorates of Aleppo, Idleb, Homs and Hama in 2016, an average of more than one attack every other day.

This is over twice the number (90) counted and verified by Physicians for Human Rights in those same areas in the same 2016 period.


A recent report by The Syrian Archive implicated the Russian air force in four hospital attacks in January in Idlib province, Syria. Using data from the aircraft spotters who provide early warning to Syria Civil Defence, the report concluded that Russian aircraft were most likely responsible in each case.

The UK and its military allies are in a position to provide corroborating evidence of Russian responsibility, but choose to keep this evidence secret. As part of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria, NATO’s AWACS aircraft track all military aircraft in Syrian airspace, including Russian and Assad regime war planes.

MPs of several parties have repeatedly asked the Government to find a way to publish radar tracking data relating to hospital attacks and other likely war crimes. When Assad’s air force dropped nerve agent on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, the US published tracking data to show the regime was responsible, but the same hasn’t been done for any of the hundreds of hospital attacks.

Most recently, Roger Godsiff MP asked the government to look again at “publishing tracking data on Russian violations of the Syrian ceasefire in a form that is compatible with security requirements,” only to once more receive the stock reply that it “would not be appropriate to publish” that kind of information.


With the UK and its allies unwilling to publish corroborating evidence from aircraft tracking data, medics under fire are dependent on their own reporting and the reporting of other civil society organisations like Syria Civil Defence, AKA The White Helmets.

The White Helmets have been targets of Russian propaganda since 2016 when they helped gather evidence of Russian attacks on a UN aid convoy. Now Russia is beginning to target doctors working in Syria with a similar disinformation campaign, apparently with the aim of undermining the credibility of their evidence in the eyes of the public, and of preparing for further attacks on hospitals and health workers.


The UK needs to stand by doctors, nurses, and patients, not just by writing cheques for ever more medical supplies and fortified underground hospitals, but by taking action to stop hospital attacks.

The UK needs to actively defend medics by publishing the evidence on hospital attacks to make the case for sanctioning Russia’s criminal war machine.

The UK needs to take enforcement action against Assad on hospital attacks as it has on chemical attacks.

Monday 23 April 2018

Don’t give up on Syrian civil society

We Exist is an alliance of Syrian civil society groups working inside Syria and in the diaspora. This week they are in Brussels taking part in the UN and EU’s second Brussels conference on Syria.

On UN peace efforts, they say peace is only possible if Syrian organisations and democratic institutions play a leading role in the humanitarian response and any rebuilding of the country.

Syrian civil society organisations are providing millions of people with education, food, water, healthcare and humanitarian aid, despite daily bombardment and fighting.

The organisations in We Exist call for the protection and involvement of Syrian human rights and civil society groups to ensure that abuses such as sexual violence, forced displacement and targeting of civilians are documented, monitored and ultimately, prevented. A Special Tribunal should be established for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.

Maria Alabdeh​ of one of the member organisations, Women Now for Development, said:
‘Investing in an active, vibrant and fully-funded civil society is the only hope for a peaceful and democratic Syria. As Syrian human rights and humanitarian workers, we are doing all we can to empower young men and women, train local leaders, document human rights abuses, advocate for property rights and treat traumatised children but we can’t do it alone.

‘International aid needs to help heal the emotional and physical wounds, hold perpetrators to account and stitch the fabric of society back together again. Our work is fighting extremism and challenging the continued war crimes but we are operating under fire from Russian and Syrian planes, on shoestring budgets, trying to make the books balance from one month to the next.’

We Exist’s demands:
  1. Stop the bombing of civilians and use of prohibited arms (not just chemical weapons), as well as the deliberate targeting of schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure.
  2. Halt the forced displacement of civilians. People have the right to remain in their homes, safe from bombardment or illegal detention.
  3. Guarantee safety for civil society organisations, including legal recognition and protection.
  4. Support survivors of sexual violence and prosecute the perpetrators.
  5. Ensure humanitarian programmes address the need of young men and offer alternatives to violence.
  6. Anyone who wishes to return home, needs support to do so—with health, psychological and education services, as well as reconciliation programmes.
  7. Pressure the Syrian government and all warring sides to release a list of names of all detainees, along with their current locations and statuses, and to immediately stop torture and mistreatment.
  8. Abolish exceptional courts, especially field, sharia law, war and counter-terrorism courts and guarantee fair trials under a supervision from the United Nations. Establish a Special Tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.
  9. Consider Civil Society a leading partner in all issues concerning the future of Syria—whether it is humanitarian or development work, reconstruction or rebuilding.
  10. Accountability should be ensured for all war crime committed and for the use of all prohibited arms, not just chemical weapons.

Full press release via Women Now For Development.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Questions to ask after UK action in Syria

  • What do Syrians say?
  • What does the British public think?
  • Did this action really protect people in Syria?
  • Was this action legal?
  • Will this action protect people in the UK, or put them in danger?
  • Will this action escalate the war?
  • Doesn’t Libya prove that anything we do makes things worse?
  • What effect will this have on the search for a political solution?
  • What does this mean for the fight against ISIS?
  • What next?

The UK Government has joined the governments of the United States and France in military action against the Assad regime in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than forty people, many of them children.

The action consisted of limited targeted missile and air strikes against three military targets carried out in the space of under an hour.

What questions should we ask in debating this action? Here are some to consider.

Is Theresa May in breach of international law?

By Clara Connolly

Whether the 13th April intervention in Syria by the US, France and the UK was within the parameters of international law is not the only nor perhaps even the most significant question. But it is the nub of the criticism of UK Government action by the Leader of the Opposition and internationally by Russia and the Syrian Arab Republic, so it is worth considering.

The legal justification is based on the concept of ‘humanitarian protection’ using arguments outlined by the Labour government in the case of Kosovo in 1998/9. The legal case for humanitarian intervention without UN Security Council approval was rehearsed again in 2013, when action against Syria was debated in Parliament after a major chemical attack on civilians.

Sir Bethlehem gives a useful reading list on the history and development of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. He makes clear that it is neither codified in international law, nor established in the UN Charter, which prioritises the sovereignty of states and the illegitimacy of interference by outside bodies. The UN makes an exception of self defence, and grants itself the power to intervene when ‘international peace and security’ is threatened. So where does that leave the justification for action outside the UN, when it cannot agree on what action to take?