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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.