1. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Local agreements have increasingly become one of the Syrian government’s key strategies to force the opposition’s surrender. The agreements are presented by the government and its allies as a “reconciliation” effort, but, in reality, they come after prolonged unlawful sieges and bombardment and typically result not only in the evacuation of members of non-state armed groups but also in the mass displacement of civilians. In essence, the deals have enabled the government to reclaim control of territory by first starving and then removing inhabitants who rejected its rule. The population transfers on the now-infamous green buses have come to symbolise the dispossession and defeat.
These agreements must be viewed in the context of the myriad of international humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses preceding, during, and after their implementation. The conflict in Syria has caused immense suffering to civilians, leaving tens of thousands killed and displacing half of the pre-war population inside and outside the country. Millions are in need of humanitarian assistance, including the more than 500,000 people who remain trapped in besieged areas. All parties have committed serious violations and crimes under international law, with government forces responsible for the majority of crimes and abuses.
Over the past five years, the Syrian government and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition groups have enforced sieges on densely populated areas, depriving civilians of food, medicine and other basic necessities in violation of international humanitarian law. Besieged civilians have further endured relentless, unlawful attacks from the ground and the air. The systematic use of this policy by the government has become widely referred to, including by the United Nations (UN), as a “surrender or starve” strategy.
Amnesty International has examined in detail four local agreements concluded between the Syrian government and armed opposition groups as a result of this coercive military strategy, and documented associated violations dating back to 2012. Three of the agreements were negotiated and implemented under the auspices of international sponsors such as Russia and Iran. Reached between August 2016 and March 2017, the agreements led to the displacement of thousands of residents from the following areas: Daraya, eastern Aleppo city, al-Waer, Madaya, Zabadani, Kefraya, and Foua. While there are some differences between the agreements, they have all been preceded by a pattern of sieges and bombardments and followed by mass displacements.
Amnesty International researchers conducted this research between April and September 2017, interviewing 134 people, including displaced residents who lived through the siege and attacks, international humanitarian workers and experts, journalists and UN officials with knowledge of relevant events. The interviews were conducted either in person or by phone, email or online chat and messaging applications. In addition, Amnesty International reviewed dozens of videos and analysed satellite imagery in order to assess consistency with witness accounts. In October 2017 Amnesty International sent letters to the Syrian and Russian governments, as well as the armed group called the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, requesting clarifications regarding the allegations raised in this report. At the time of publication there had been no response from the Syrian or Russian government. The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement replied in a letter dated 29 October 2017.
Amnesty International’s findings provide evidence that the Syrian government systematically subjected civilians in Daraya, Madaya, eastern Aleppo city, and the al-Waer neighbourhood in Homs city to unlawful sieges, arbitrarily restricting access to humanitarian and medical aid indispensable for the survival of civilians. Furthermore, the government conducted air and ground assaults on civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals, markets and residential buildings, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, based on documentation by local monitoring groups. The figure is likely higher; it has been difficult to document casualty figures during the conflict. These assaults constituted either direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas. They therefore violated international humanitarian law and, in many cases, amounted to war crimes.
The evidence also shows that armed opposition groups unlawfully besieged Kefraya and Foua, arbitrarily restricting access to humanitarian and medical aid and confiscating medical supplies from aid convoys. They shelled civilian areas using explosive weapons with wide area effects in what amounted to indiscriminate attacks, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. These attacks violated international humanitarian law and, in many cases, amounted to war crimes.
After years of sieges and bombardment, civilians from these areas were either ordered to evacuate or the actions of the government compelled them to surrender. Many told Amnesty International they had no choice and recounted bitter moments of scrambling to leave their homes with minimal belongings. In most instances this displacement was not carried out for civilians’ security or an imperative military necessity. That means it violated the prohibition of forced displacement under international humanitarian law, amounting to a war crime. Furthermore, Amnesty International has concluded that the sieges, unlawful killings and forced displacement by government forces are part of a systematic as well as widespread attack on the civilian population, therefore constituting crimes against humanity.
Thousands of civilians forcibly displaced by these agreements are now suffering dire conditions; some are living in makeshift camps with minimum access to humanitarian aid and essential services, while others are struggling to cover their rent and other expenses such as water and electricity. The vast majority of them are unable to return to their homes. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is pressing ahead with measures that include requiring security checks for land and property transactions, seizing the homes of some of those displaced, and replacing old records, making it hard to prove ownership rights or to demand remedies. Furthermore, the government is undertaking controversial reconstruction plans that may alter several affected areas in the absence of their original inhabitants, undermining those displaced inhabitants’ right to return.