This is part 2 of the tenth and final quarterly report by Siege Watch, a project of PAX, which aims to provide the international community with timely and accurate information on conditions in Syria’s besieged communities. This report focuses primarily on developments in northern Homs and the Southern Damascus Suburbs from February – May 2018, during which period both besieged enclaves surrendered to the Syrian government and its allies, marking the end of the government’s ruthless “surrender or die” campaign against Syrian civilians. It follows a part 1 report which covered the fall of Eastern Ghouta. Information collected during the quarter from a network of contacts on the ground and other sources showed that:
Northern Homs and parts of the Southern Damascus Suburbs came under intense political and military pressure as the scorched earth campaign in Eastern Ghouta was winding down, leading negotiators in al-Rastan, Talbiseh, al-Houleh, Yelda, Babbila, and Beit Sahm to surrender to the terms imposed upon them.
The ISIS-controlled neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk were subjected to a scorched earth military campaign by pro-government forces. As a result, both neighborhoods were completely depopulated and largely destroyed, and ISIS forces were transferred to the Badiya area through a deal with Syrian government forces.
Opposition forces in al-Qadam surrendered to the Syrian government and most of the remaining residents and fighters were forcibly transferred to northern Syria. The neighborhood was quickly attacked and taken over by ISIS, and the few remaining civilians were displaced in the subsequent scorched earth campaign.
Around 45,000 people, most of them civilians, were forcibly displaced to Idlib and Aleppo under the terms of the surrender agreements.
Russia took complete ownership of the final stages of the “surrender or die” strategy, cutting other pro-government forces out of the process, and committing Russian forces to maintaining security in post-surrender communities for at least six months.
Fuaa and Kefraya – pro-government towns besieged by opposition and extremist forces in Idlib – were the only remaining long-term sieges in the country by the end of the reporting period in May. Subsequently, all remaining civilians and fighters were forcibly displaced from both towns in July as part of a prisoner exchange deal between the Syrian government and the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The end of the sieges of Fuaa and Kefraya marked the end of all long-term sieges in Syria.
The surrenders of northern Homs and the Southern Damascus Suburbs, and subsequent forced population transfers, took place immediately after the scorched earth campaign in Eastern Ghouta. The devastation of Eastern Ghouta, and the lack of international efforts to stop it, played a decisive role in the decision by both remaining besieged enclaves to surrender. The end result of the sieges covered in this report was both foreseeable and preventable, and yet actors at all levels of the international system failed either to heed early warnings or to appropriately adjust their responses as the sieges evolved.
The “surrender or die” campaigns waged against northern Homs and the Southern Damascus Suburbs were allowed to proceed for years unhindered. The culmination of this strategy involved the forcible displacement of tens of thousands of additional civilians from their homes, a gross violation of the Geneva Conventions that the Assad government and its allies knew they could carry out without consequence because they have done so many times before.
Highlighting the degree of impunity that developed, Russia – a Security Council permanent member and active leader of current international negotiation efforts – took the lead role in the culmination of the Syrian siege strategy and its accompanying crimes against civilians.
“Post-surrender” does not necessarily mean “post-conflict,” nor does it signify the end of international community’s duty to protect and support siege victims. Instead, the end of the sieges brings with it a whole new array of issues. In northern Syria where humanitarian response mechanisms are already overwhelmed, the recent internally displaced persons (IDPs)from northern Homs and the Southern Damascus Suburbs are not getting the level or type of support that they require. In addition to immediate humanitarian assistance, these forcibly displaced siege victims require significant psychosocial support and assistance integrating into host communities and seeking asylum, because most will never be able to go home. The end of the sieges represents the transition to a new phase in the Syrian government’s punishment of the civilians who rose up against it. It is imperative that the international actors recognizes this reality and adjusts all interventions, especially those involving coordination with the Syrian government in post-surrender enclaves, to avoid becoming a tacit partner in this ongoing persecution.
International actors must do better in the post-siege era to protect and support civilians, and take steps to restore international norms and the credibility of the UN system to prevent these brutal collective punishment campaigns from becoming normalized.
Independent third-party monitors must be deployed to post-surrender communities to ensure that vulnerable civilians are not being subjected to further human rights violations.
Measures must be taken to protect civilians in northern Syria and ensure that they have a path to safety, given the growing threat of a major military offensive against Idlib.
Pressure must be increased on the Syrian and Russian governments to allow and facilitate unrestricted access for international humanitarian agencies to post-surrender communities. Pressure must also be increased on the Turkish government to allow and facilitate unrestricted humanitarian access to IDP camps in parts of Aleppo under its control.
The level of humanitarian support available to IDPs in Idlib and Aleppo must be significantly increased. Donors and humanitarian actors should implement programs that focus on the unique needs of this population, including specialized psychosocial support, and on the challenges surrounding missing civil status documentation and Housing Land and Property rights.
Conflict sensitivity guidelines must be put in place for all humanitarian, early recovery, and livelihood programs in post-surrender communities.
The UN Commission of Inquiry and other competent independent parties should immediately open investigations into all incidents where there is clear evidence that war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed against besieged populations – not only those involving the use chemical weapons.
The Secretary-General should appoint a panel to conduct an internal review of United Nations actions in Syria related to the sieges.