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Wednesday 28 February 2018

Don’t let humanitarian corridors be a cover for forcing Syrians from their homes

On ‘safe’ passage out of Eastern Ghouta, by Bronwen Griffiths, SyriaUK

“When we talk about an ‘agreement’, in reality there was no agreement at all; it was either we leave or we die.” (Activist from Daraya)

On Monday 26th February, Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, asked the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, what discussions have taken place at the UN to enable the opening up of a corridor in Eastern Ghouta for humanitarian relief and “to allow civilian safe passage out of the city.”

On the surface, Thornberry’s comment seems eminently sensible. Who would not wish for the people of Eastern Ghouta, who have suffered so terribly, a means to escape? But there are a number of very serious questions which must be asked. For one, where will they go to? Are there safe places in Syria for them to go to? When will they be able to return to their homes? Will those who overtly oppose the regime—such as citizen journalists—be able to leave without fear of arrest and imprisonment?

A report from Amnesty International in 2017, We Leave or We Die—forced displacement under Syria’s reconciliation agreements, states that:
“Over the past five years, the Syrian government and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition groups have enforced sieges on densely populated areas, depriving civilians of food, medicine and other basic necessities in violation of international humanitarian law. Besieged civilians have further endured relentless, unlawful attacks from the ground and the air. The systematic use of this policy by the government has become widely referred to, including by the United Nations (UN), as a ‘surrender or starve’ strategy.”

‘Reconciliation’ agreements were agreed between August 2016 and March 2017 in the following areas: Daraya, eastern Aleppo city, al-Waer, Madaya, Zabadani, Kefraya, and Foua. These agreements are presented by the government and its allies as a ‘reconciliation’ effort, but, in reality, they come after prolonged unlawful sieges and bombardment and typically result not only in the evacuation of members of non-state armed groups but also in the mass displacement of civilians. The deals have enabled the government to reclaim control of territory by first starving and then removing inhabitants who rejected its rule.

Photo: Forced displacement from Aleppo, December 2016, via The Guardian.

During the recapture of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, pro-regime forces arrested doctors and aid workers and committed reprisal executions. The same is likely to happen in Eastern Ghouta.

A United Nations report (March 2017) concluded that the Aleppo evacuation agreement (which was overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross) amounted to the “war crime of forced displacement”.

The population ‘transfers’ in Syria on the now-infamous green buses have come to symbolise dispossession and defeat. These ‘reconciliation agreements’ must be viewed in the context of the myriad of international humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses preceding, during, and after their implementation. Forced displacement of large numbers of people cannot be viewed as anything but a war crime.

A just end to this siege means not just allowing humanitarian access and medical evacuations, it also means Eastern Ghouta’s people being able to live in their homes in safety, and being free to come and go as they please.