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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.

Make the protection of civilians a primary aim of the UK’s mission:

The UK is not a bystander to the Syria crisis, but an active participant through its military and diplomatic engagement, through its aid policies, and through its policies on refugees. In each of these areas of policy the UK has a responsibility to protect civilians, but the UK has failed to put protection of civilians at the centre of its overall approach. The UK has as a result failed to deal effectively with the crisis and has in some regards contributed to increased suffering and loss.

On refugee policy, measures to prevent refugees travelling have increased suffering and increased the likelihood of fatalities. Restrictive policies have increased social, political, and economic exclusion of refugees, and have created conditions ripe for profiteering smugglers, sweatshop employers, and other predators exploiting the needs of refugees.

On chemical weapons, in 2013 and again in 2018, the Government’s legal justification for action was based on the concept of humanitarian protection as used in the case of Kosovo in 1999. Because the action only dealt with chemical weapons and not the other weapons causing suffering to even greater numbers of people in Syria, it could be argued that the action was not a true humanitarian intervention and that a more comprehensive strategy of civilian protection would be necessary to fully qualify.

On fighting ISIS, the UK’s justification for action in Syria given in 2015 was collective defence of the state of Iraq, not the protection of civilians in Syria. With collective defence of a state as the mission, we saw a vastly higher count of civilians reported to have been killed by the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria than was the case in Libya in 2011, where the NATO mission was legally defined as protection of civilians.

(Human Rights Watch counted 72 civilians killed by NATO strikes during the seven month intervention in 2011. The Syrian Network for Human Rights counted 1,058 civilians directly killed by Coalition action in Raqqa alone from June 2017 to October 2017.)

Before the 2015 vote, Syria Solidarity UK and Syrian community groups in the UK wrote to MPs, including the following:

“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.”

( http://www.togetherforsyria.org.uk/2015/11/mps-are-being-asked-wrong-question-on.html )

When along with Syrian community groups in the UK we wrote to the Government about the Coalition bombing of Al Badiya school on 20 March 2017, the Ministry of Defence rejected the suggestion that the UK bore joint responsibility for the actions of Coalition partners.

( http://www.togetherforsyria.org.uk/2017/03/letter-to-prime-minister-on-al-badiya.html )

We therefore call on the UK Government and Parliament to make the protection of civilians a primary aim for all future military actions rather than a secondary consideration; for this aim to be central to our own strategy and tactics; and for this aim to be central to agreements with allies on joint objectives and collective responsibility.

We need a fresh start for Syria:

In 2017, Syria Solidarity UK joined with the following Syrian community organisations in the UK—Rethink Rebuild Society, Syrian Association of Yorkshire, Syrian Platform for Peace, Syrian Welsh Society, Syrian Society of Nottinghamshire, Kurds House, Peace and Justice for Syria, and  Syrian Community of the South West—in publishing an overview of agreed policy calls to protect civilians.

The following draws on that document PROTECT CIVILIANS: We need a fresh start for Syria, with changes in light of more recent events. The full original document with references to sources was circulated to Members of Parliament in print, and is also available online.

( http://www.togetherforsyria.org.uk/p/protect-civilians.html#top )

The Violations Documentation Center in Syria recorded 111,236 individual civilians violently killed up to March 2017. Over 92% were killed by the Assad regime or its allies.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights was able to document 206,923 individual civilians killed in the same period. Over 94% were killed by the Assad regime or its allies.

The Assad regime and its ally Russia have systematically targeted civilian infrastructure: hospitals, schools, bakeries, and water facilities.

The UK and its allies need to act to deter all of the Assad regime’s attacks on civilians, not just chemical attacks.

The UK should track attacks on civilians by Russian forces and should publish details in order to make the case for international sanctions and to help bring accountability.

The Assad regime claims to be fighting terrorism, but has long supported and used non-state armed groups that are listed as terrorist organisations by the UK.

The UK should distinguish itself from authoritarian users of terrorism rhetoric such as Assad. The UK Government should ground its language and its actions in defending human rights and democratically accountable rule of law, and in protecting civilians.

Even if the bombing were to stop tomorrow, millions of Syrians would fear to return home. The Assad regime has detained, tortured and killed tens of thousands of civilians, and over 117,000 people are still believed to be held in Assad’s torture prisons.

The refugee crisis and the growth in extremism are products of Assad’s war on civilians. To end the refugee crisis—and to counter the threat of extremism—protect civilians.

The International Coalition against ISIS has failed to protect civilians:

Coalition bombing in Syria and Iraq in the first months of 2017 killed even more civilians than Russia did in that same period, according to monitors.

The UK is a senior partner in the Coalition. A British officer serves as Coalition deputy commander. The UK is co-responsible for Coalition actions and their consequences.

Coalition partners on the ground are accused of forced displacement, child recruitment, and political detentions. The UK and its Coalition allies have a responsibility to ensure that communities freed from ISIS are not delivered into new oppression.

The Coalition’s failure to protect civilians adds to the human misery in Syria, undermines the UK’s moral authority, and undermines the strategic aims of fighting extremism and resolving the refugee crisis.

There is a wide divergence in reporting practices amongst Coalition air forces. As a co-responsible senior partner, the UK should demand that all air forces in the Coalition comply with the highest standards of accountability. Every civilian casualty is an individual tragedy, and a defeat in the struggle against extremism.

The UK should demand higher Coalition standards of intelligence assessment when targeting.

The UK should demand a well-resourced proactive Coalition system to rapidly investigate and disclose civilian casualties. The Coalition response to civilian casualty reports has failed civilian victims, and failed to serve the best interest of the Coalition and the UK.

The UK should act responsibly with allies to bring accountability for the actions of Coalition partners on the ground in Syria, to end abuses and to protect civil and human rights.

Deter all Assad regime attacks that violate UNSCR 2139:

After the 2013 chemical weapons deal, Assad escalated the regime’s bombing of civilians with high explosive weapons. Civilian communities have been attacked with barrel bombs, cluster bombs, incendiaries, and artillery, mortars, and rockets of all sizes.

To protect civilians in Syria, rather than deterring ONLY chemical weapons attacks, the UK should lead in deterring ALL attacks on civilians that violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139 which demanded an end to ‘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.’

UN diplomacy without pressure has failed. Individual permanent members of the UN Security Council including the UK must act to end impunity.

The UK and its allies should enforce an end to Assad’s air and artillery attacks, if necessary by further strikes against Assad’s air bases and military installations.

Track and publish Russian air force violations to make the case for sanctions:

Russia, acting in support of the Assad regime, continues to systematically violate ceasefires, UN resolutions, and international humanitarian law. Since the direct military intervention by Russia began in 2015, Russia has targeted hospitals, schools, and aid workers.

The UK is failing to impose a cost on Russia for its systematic attacks on civilian targets. The EU has not imposed any sanctions on Russia for its actions in Syria.

The UK and NATO and Coalition allies track military flights across Syria for deconfliction purposes. Publishing flight data on Russian and regime military flights could help enable officers with command responsibility for war crimes to be identified and sanctioned.

The UK should track and publish violations by Russian and regime aircraft.

The UK should present international partners with evidence of Russian violations since 2015, and press for sanctions against Russian individuals and organisations until there is an end to air attacks, the release of detainees, and full cooperation on legal accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

To counter extremism, protect civilians and empower civil society:

From the start of the popular and peaceful mass demonstrations of 2011, Assad has accused all of his opponents of being terrorists. The Assad regime acted to make this rhetoric a reality: First by releasing violent jihadists in 2011 even at it locked up tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators; Then by focusing military attacks against the Free Syrian Army while leaving ISIS largely untouched.

Assad has long supported non-state armed groups that are listed as proscribed terrorist organisations by the UK. From 2003 to 2010, the regime supported Al Qaeda/Islamic State in Iraq. Earlier it backed the PKK to undermine Turkey. Now Assad’s ground forces include Iranian-backed armed groups, some of which are listed as proscribed terrorist organisations by the UK, most notably Lebanese Hezbollah.

Iranian-led sectarian militias have attacked UK-trained Coalition partners on the ground. The Iranian government transports fighters and arms to Syria using its commercial airlines Iran Air and Mahan Air. The EU allows both Iran Air and Mahan Air to do business in Europe.

The UK should distinguish itself from authoritarian users of terrorism rhetoric such as Assad. To maintain moral and strategic clarity in the struggle against extremism, the UK Government should ground its language and its actions in defending human rights and democratically accountable rule of law, and in protecting civilians.

The UK and EU should consider proscribing all groups pursuing a strategy of systematic attacks on civilians, including amongst pro-regime militias. The UK and EU should sanction Iranian airlines implicated in supporting proscribed organisations in Syria.

As the Coalition drives out ISIS, it must act to prevent post-ISIS areas from being handed over to other proscribed organisations or to Assad. The UK and its allies should partner with independent Syrian civil society groups to ensure inclusive accountable governance in post-ISIS areas.

Those who are most often victims of violent extremist groups in Syria are Syria’s own people, and the organised efforts of Syrian civil society are essential to the defeat of extremism in Syria. But rather than being empowered as allies by the Coalition, too often Syria’s civilians have also been victims of indiscriminate Coalition military action.

The UK has given some support to civil society and civil governance efforts in opposition areas to build an alternative both to Assad regime authoritarianism and also to the authoritarianism of extremist armed groups. It is vital that this non-military support for civilians continues and strengthens.

Above all, Syrian civil society needs to be able to operate free of domination by any unaccountable armed group. The UK and its allies need to protect civilians and support civil society and legitimate civilian governance in Syria over the long term to avoid a continued cycle of authoritarianism and violence.

On the refugee response, put human rights first:

Research has confirmed that most refugees fled Assad regime violence, and won’t return as long as the Assad regime remains.

The UK and EU have sought to contain the refugee crisis to the region both through aid and by means of fortified border policies. These policies have been hardest on the weakest, while benefiting those prepared to profit from others’ misery and desperation.

The cause of the refugee crisis is the large scale abuse of human rights in Syria and elsewhere. To have an enduring effect, the UK’s response needs at its centre a commitment to human rights at home and abroad.

Unless refugees in Europe and the UK are treated with full dignity, allowed to reunite with families, to learn and to work, they will not be able to give their hosts the benefit of their full economic and social potential.

Unless policy towards Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and other regional states puts primary value on respect for human rights, refugees will continue to seek escape to Europe.

Until Syrians can be confident of being able to live safely in Syria without fear of bombing, arbitrary detention, and torture, they will not return home.

The UK needs to set an example of a humane refugee policy, on resettlement of lone child refugees, on resettlement of refugees within Europe, and on speeding up family reunion.

The UK needs to play a positive role in European refugee policy. The UK should lead on making policy human rights centred rather than deterrence centred.

The UK should adopt a policy of civilian protection extending from the UK back along every stage of the refugee routes. Only when people feel safe, will people smugglers be denied a trade.

On detainees, the hidden victims in Syria:

Refugees are not only fleeing bombing, they are also fleeing a regime that has imprisoned thousands of peaceful civilians: for speaking out, for demonstrating, or simply for giving medical aid to the injured. Releasing detainees and opening detention centres to inspection are essential measures.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights lists 117,000 detainees, including thousands of children, but estimates the actual number to be over 215,000, with 99% of them detained by the Assad regime and its allies.

In 2013, a military defector codenamed Caesar smuggled over 50,000 photographs out of Syria showing numbered corpses of prisoners processed at two military hospitals in Damascus. Human Rights Watch say the photographs show at least 6,786 people who died as a result of torture and abuse.

Amnesty International report that as many as 13,000 people, most of them civilians, were hanged in secret at just one prison, Saydnaya, over a period of five years.

The tortures and killings of prisoners are crimes, and those responsible must be held accountable. The rights of those still detained as well as of survivors and families of victims must be protected.

The UK must insist on the fate of detainees being treated as both a humanitarian and a legal issue, and not allow them to be used as an instrument of political pressure.

The UK must also work with its political and military partners inside Syria to achieve transparent and accountable justice systems in areas outside regime control, including ensuring that prisoners’ rights are fully respected. The UK should help set an example of rule of law and of upholding human rights that can in future apply across all Syria.

As Russian and Chinese vetoes are blocking access to the International Criminal Court, the UK must support alternatives, whether via the UN General Assembly, or by enabling cases to be tried in British courts, or by other paths to justice.

As part of its efforts to bring accountability, the UK should take responsibility for trials of suspects who have been captured by local partners in Syria in cases where either the accused or the victims are associated with the UK.

On reconstruction:

Reconstruction without political accountability or legitimacy would reward violent repression, and perpetuate the Syrian conflict.
Hopes that reconstruction plans can be ‘a dividend for peace’ to entice parties into a political transition are misplaced. Having destroyed much of the country to maintain power, the Assad regime now seeks to use reconstruction as another means to that end.

Sanctions for war crimes and crimes against humanity must continue as long as the regime shelters the perpetrators. Rather than softening sanctions, a better incentive for progress would be to expand sanctions against Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran.

As ISIS is driven out, Syria is fractured into multiple areas of control: pro-regime control; Syrian opposition control; and SDF/YPG/PYD control.

UK policy is also fractured. Diplomats support the political opposition, while the British military joins the US in giving support to the SDF/YPG. The YPG has been in political and military conflict with both Kurdish and non-Kurdish opposition groups.

The UK needs a unified policy on Syria. Military action must serve the same political end as diplomacy—to establish legitimate government in Syria in order to end the refugee crisis and to counter extremism.

The UK needs to hold its political and military partners to account as well as the Assad regime.

In the absence of a political transition, the UK must ensure that areas it helps free from ISIS control are not handed back to the Assad regime or its allies.

As long as a political transition across all Syria is blocked by the Assad regime, the UK should aim for progress towards legitimate, representative, democratic government wherever it is possible within the separate areas of control.

There should be no reconstruction aid to regime areas so long as political transition is blocked by Assad. At the same time, the Assad regime should not be allowed a veto over progress in areas outside regime control.

The UK should continue to support aid and development work by Syrian civil society in order to maintain a viable alternative to the Assad regime, its allies, and other violent extremist forces.

The UK should work with Syrian civil society organisations in developing good legal, security, and governance standards that can eventually apply across Syria. These standards should protect the rights of displaced residents and empower local residents and civil society as the foundation of accountable reconstruction. In areas of control where administrations want to meet those standards, the UK should give practical help to build good governance.

Meeting these standards should then be a condition for beginning reconstruction aid in any of the areas of control. Common standards should allow separate efforts to be mutually compatible and mutually reinforcing so as to enable future reunification under a legitimate government.

 Where areas outside regime control meet the agreed legal, security, and governance standards, the UK should aid locally led reconstruction, and should help ease international barriers to economic recovery. By only supporting reconstruction in those areas of control that meet required standards of governance, pressure other areas to improve.


The UK’s failure to protect civilians is prolonging the war in Syria. Failure to protect civilians worsens the refugee crisis. Failure to protect civilians undermines the fight against extremism. We call on the UK Government to bring forward a new plan to protect civilians in Syria and create an opportunity for peace.

Syria Solidarity UK, May 2018