Eighth Quarterly Report on Besieged Areas in Syria August - October 2017

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Executive Summary

This report is the eighth in a series of quarterly reports by Siege Watch – a joint initiative of PAX and The Syria Institute that aims to provide the international community with timely and accurate information on conditions in Syria’s besieged communities. This report focuses on developments from August – October 2017. Data collected during the quarter from an extensive network of contacts on the ground found that:

An estimated 744,860 people remain trapped in at least 33 besieged communities across the country and more than 1 million additional Syrians live in “Watchlist” areas, under threat of intensified siege and abuse.

  • The Syrian government and its allies remain responsible for the vast majority of all of the sieges in Syria and all of the threats to “Watchlist” communities.

  • Al-Raqqa city was first elevated to Tier 1 critically besieged during the reporting period and then removed from monitoring efforts altogether in October after it was almost entirely depopulated by the US-led Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during their campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

  • The siege of Deir Ezzor was broken by pro-government forces with heavy Russian support, and the city was subsequently reclassified as a “Watchlist” community.

  • Conditions deteriorated significantly in Eastern Ghouta – the largest remaining besieged enclave in the country – due to intensified siege conditions and increased violence. In November, after the end of the eighth reporting period, all of the communities in Eastern Ghouta were elevated to Tier 1 critically besieged status for the first time. More than 420,000 people are at urgent risk.

  • Two new suspected chemical attacks were recorded during the reporting period: one by pro-government forces against against opposition fighters in Eastern Ghouta, and the other by ISIS against opposition fighters in the Southern Damascus Suburbs.

  • There were no new surrenders or forced population transfers during the reporting period, but the conditions facing civilians in “Watchlist” communities that surrendered in prior quarters remains a concern.

During the August – October reporting period the Syrian government and its allies continued their “surrender or die” strategy. Attacks targeted civilian residential areas, hospitals, schools, and Civil Defense centers in besieged communities. Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias play a central role in enforcing the Syrian government’s sieges, and both countries played a role in ongoing surrender negotiations. Humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate in besieged areas, most notably in Eastern Ghouta, which is facing a humanitarian disaster this winter as a result.
The deteriorating siege conditions in Eastern Ghouta were once again exacerbated by warring armed opposition groups (AOGs), which continued to restrict civilian movement between besieged communities. In addition to direct attacks on civil society, there were increasing reports of AOGs taking over local governance institutions in their efforts to consolidate power Civilians protested the AOG crackdowns and the presence of a small Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) contingent in Eastern Ghouta, but with little result. The shrinking space for civil society and grassroots local governance institutions in Eastern Ghouta is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

This quarter, two sieges - Deir Ezzor and al-Raqqa - came to an end this quarter with very different results. The siege of al-Raqqa city escalated dramatically as a result of the final offensive against ISIS by the SDF and the US-led Global Coalition. Al-Raqqa was first moved from the Siege Watch “Watchlist” and classified as a Tier 1 fully besieged area in September.

By the time the siege was “broken” in October, the city was in ruins and almost entirely depopulated, as a result al-Raqqa was removed from Siege Watch monitoring efforts.

The siege of Deir Ezzor by ISIS was broken in September by pro-government ground forces, which were spearheaded by an elite Russian military unit and supported by Russian airstrikes.
Quickly after pro-government forces reached Deir Ezzor city, the UN responded by sending a steady stream of humanitarian aid convoys. Deir Ezzor was subsequently removed from the Siege Watch besieged list, and classified as a “Watchlist” area for continued monitoring.

The “de-escalation zones” announced earlier in the year at Astana, and a series of local agreements backed by Russia, delivered few – if any – results on the ground in besieged areas.

It remains unclear whether Russia can be a credible negotiator for besieging pro-government forces, as it remains either unable or unwilling to enforce the terms of the deals announced up until this point.
The current trajectory of developments will lead to deepening humanitarian crises in besieged areas, as hundreds of thousands of civilians face suffering, loss, and forced displacement at the hands of the Syrian government, armed opposition groups, and ISIS. Eastern Ghouta is at the highest immediate risk. International community stakeholders must take real steps towards ending the sieges to avert the looming catastrophe.

Key recommendations:

  • Eastern Ghouta is facing a man-made humanitarian disaster and an estimated 424,260 people are at risk. Urgent action, including increased political pressure, is needed to stop the bombardments, allow for medical evacuations, and secure the sustained entry of food and medicine. International stakeholders including the UN Secretary General, the UN Security Council, and member states, must immediately identify steps they can take to prevent Eastern Ghouta from becoming the next eastern Aleppo.

  • International development donors should increase their support of Local Councils, charity organizations, media reporting networks, and other civil society actors in besieged communities. The actors serve critical roles in maintaining community resilience and stemming the growth of extremist ideology.

  • The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN Habitat, and other agencies should undertake comprehensive protection analyses before beginning any early recovery initiatives in post-surrender communities in cooperation with the Syrian government. When any early recovery efforts are undertaken, these agencies should take measures to protect the housing, land, and property rights of forcibly displaced civilians.

  • Since the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism was vetoed in November, it has become critical that UN member states take the lead in addressing the continued use of chemical weapons. Individual countries should support independent investigations, call for a comprehensive study of all suspected chemical attacks in Syria, and actively engage with the OPCW to identify new mechanisms for investigation and accountability.

  • The US-led Coalition and its local SDF partners should undertake a comprehensive review of its civilian casualty findings from the offensive to defeat ISIS in al-Raqqa. Ex gratia redress payments should be made to the family members of Syrian civilians who were killed in US-led combat operations.