This report is the ninth 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 November 2017
– January 2018. Data collected during the quarter from an extensive network of contacts on the ground found that:
An estimated 714,345 people remain trapped in at least 33 besieged communities across the country and more than one 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.
The situation in Eastern Ghouta deteriorated dramatically due to an unprecedented increase in attacks combined with intense siege conditions, precipitating a humanitarian crisis. In November, all of the communities in Eastern Ghouta were elevated to Tier 1 critically besieged status for the first time.
At least four new suspected chemical attacks were recorded during the reporting period, all of them launched by pro-government forces against Eastern Ghouta.
Deir Ezzor city was removed from the Siege Watch “Watchlist,” as there is a low risk that the city will revert to a state of siege. Eastern Aleppo may be removed in the coming quarter.
A new community, Beit Jinn, was added to the “Watchlist” for the first time during the reporting period. After an intensified assault by pro-government forces the area capitulated, and was subjected to a forced population transfer of fighters and civilians.
The conditions facing civilians in post-surrender communities that surrendered in prior Siege Watch reporting periods remained a significant concern.
During the November – January reporting period, Eastern Ghouta became the next target of the Syrian government’s series of “surrender or die” scorched earth campaigns. Violence against the besieged enclave escalated to unprecedented levels. In addition to conventional munitions, there were reports of prolific cluster and incendiary munition attacks by pro-government forces and at least four suspected chemical attacks. Hospitals, schools, and first responders were systematically targeted. Supplies of basic goods including medications, food, and fuel ran critically low after months of intensified siege and access cuts. As a result, conditions in Eastern Ghouta deteriorated rapidly, precipitating the humanitarian disaster that Siege Watch has warned of for the past two quarters. This reporting period saw the highest number of civilian deaths due to malnutrition and lack of access to medical care since Siege Watch monitoring began. With violence escalating even further in February, after the end of the reporting period, the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Eastern Ghouta may surpass that seen in Eastern Aleppo.
Conditions in the other remaining besieged enclaves in Idlib, Homs, and the Southern Damascus Suburbs remained relatively stable throughout the reporting period, and violence levels in northern Homs decreased. Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias continued to play a central role in enforcing the Syrian government’s sieges. Russia took the lead in most ongoing surrender negotiations, although Iranian influence still appeared relevant in parts of the Southern Damascus Suburbs.
Civilians in post-surrender communities on the Siege Watch “Watchlist” continued to be vulnerable to reprisals and abuse from pro-government forces. Many people faced movement restrictions due to the threat of detention at government checkpoints, and access for humanitarian agencies remained limited. Communications also remained limited due to the heavy surveillance, preventing civilians from safely reporting on the challenges they faced.
Despite international diplomatic initiatives that took place during the reporting period, including UN-sponsored talks in Geneva and Vienna, and a Russian conference in Sochi, there was little visible progress towards ending the sieges. The “de-escalation zones” announced at Astana made no impact on Eastern Ghouta, where attacks actually escalated after local opposition groups signed onto the agreement in July and August 2017. In northern Homs, Russia and the Syrian government threatened to end the “de-escalation zone” in February 2018 and take the besieged enclave by force. This suggests that the Syrian government and its allies have been using the “de-escalation” zones as a tool of war – allowing them to put some frontlines on pause and focus their efforts on one or two areas at a time – and not a path to peace.
The Syrian government’s strategy for capturing besieged communities has become a wellestablished pattern: intensified siege and military escalation in order to push besieged enclaves to the point of collapse, followed by a bloody surrender and forced population transfers. The current assault on Eastern Ghouta is the latest step. Unless action is taken to stop the attacks on Eastern Ghouta and enforce the basic principles of international humanitarian and human rights law, this pattern of “surrender or die” scorched early campaigns will continue, and more besieged communities may face a similar fate.
Since UNSC Resolution 2401 (2018) and all prior Security Council resolutions demanding access to and protection of civilians in besieged areas remain unimplemented, the international community must take further measures. All UN member states – whether on the Security Council or not – have a responsibility to take swift action against non-compliant parties, including through more forceful measures such as a framework of escalating sanctions.
Members of the international community must take steps to prevent forced population transfers of civilians from Eastern Ghouta under the pretense of “evacuations.” In light of Russia’s role in prior forced surrender negotiations and in the current fighting in Eastern Ghouta, it cannot be considered a good faith negotiator. It is therefore incumbent on other countries to step in and play a role in oversight of local negotiations to end the sieges, to ensure that any agreements comply with international humanitarian and human rights law.
International stakeholders should take pre-emptive measures now to avert yet another “surrender or die” campaign against the besieged communities in northern Homs and the Southern Damascus Suburbs.
International monitors – whether from the UN or another third-party stakeholder – should be immediately deployed into all communities that have been previously forced to surrender to the Syrian government, to ensure that vulnerable civilians are not being subjected to continuing human rights violations.
Humanitarian actors must approach post-surrender communities with the knowledge that “post-surrender” does not necessarily mean “post-conflict.” Proper conflict sensitivity measures must be put in place to ensure that recovery programming in these areas does not pay war crimes dividends to the Syrian government or contribute to deepening sectarian grievances.
The international community must take action to hold those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable by pushing for a referral to the International Criminal Court and supporting the IIIM and other accountability initiatives.