The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2011, released a report on 29 May 2018, “Sieges as a Weapon of War: Encircle, Starve, Surrender, Evacuate”. The report examined the effects of the sieges and “evacuation agreements”—deportations—between November 2012 and April 2018.
The Commission notes that the report is based on “over 400 interviews”, though the Commission continues to struggle in gathering information because it is banned from Syria by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and because of the threat the regime poses to potential interviewees.
THE ASAD REGIME IS THE WORST OFFENDER
The Commission documents that the Asad regime is the principal offender: “These sieges have mostly been carried out by the Syrian state and its affiliates”.
The first siege was laid against Daraya, near Damascus, in November 2012, the Commission reports: “Government forces … cut water lines to the suburb in 2013, forcing inhabitants to use unsanitary wells for both hygiene and consumption. … Residents described subsisting on harvest crops and living without electricity until a local truce was reached in August 2015, followed by a full ‘evacuation’ of all residents.” The whole of East Ghuta, al-Waer district in Homs, Madaya and Zabadani west of Damascus, and eastern Aleppo city all came under siege by pro-Asad forces and were beaten into submission.
The character of these sieges is as follows:
Syrian civilians in besieged areas countrywide have been encircled, trapped, and prevented from leaving; indiscriminately bombed and killed; starved, and routinely denied medical evacuations, the delivery of vital foodstuffs, health items, and other essential supplies—all in an effort to compel the surrender of those “governing” or in control of the areas in which they live. …
After hostilities cease and local truces are implemented, pro-Government forces require certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. In effect, the reconciliation process allows Government forces to categorise populations on the basis of allegiance. Not all civilians, however, have been offered the option to reconcile.
Often, no reconciliation option is offered to healthcare personnel because of their medical work. Indeed, Syrian anti-terrorism laws issued on 2 July 2012 effectively criminalised medical aid to the opposition, and Government intelligence and law enforcement agencies have forcibly disappeared medical personnel providing treatment to perceived opposition supporters. Those not offered this option have further included members of the local council, relief workers, activists, and family members of fighters. …
Civilians able to remain in their homes have been frequently required to fingerprint statements of loyalty to the Government. Others also underwent background checks, while those of military age have been ordered to report for conscription. The evacuation of civilians who are perceived to be sympathetic to opposition factions appears also to serve a Government strategy of punishing those individuals. Taken alongside other steps such as the recent enactment of Presidential Decree no. 10, such acts may fit into a wider plan to strip the displaced of their property rights with the aim of transferring populations or enriching the state and its closest allies.
ANTI-ASAD FORCES AND SIEGES
There have been anti-regime forces that have laid sieges, though many fewer such instances and most of these sieges have been imposed by insurgent organisations outside the mainstream rebellion that are also designated terrorist groups, notably the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The three significant instances of insurgent sieges are: (1) Nubl and Zahra villages in Aleppo; (2) al-Fua and Kafraya in Idlib; and (3) the Jabal, al-Joura, al-Ahrabish, and al-Qusour areas of Deir Ezzor city.
“As early as July 2012, multiple armed groups encircled the majority Shi’a towns of Nubl and Zahra”, the Commission reports, “blocking the entry of food, fuel, and medical supplies to its residents. Liwa al-Tawheed, Liwa Ahrar Sourya, Liwa al-Fatih, and members of terrorist organisation Jabhat al-Nusra, among other groups enforced the siege using violence. Government forces periodically delivered aid to the towns by helicopter. As a result of a heightened offensive by Government forces, the siege was lifted in February 2016, and no evacuations were carried out.”
Al-Fua and Kafraya came under siege after Jaysh al-Fatah—a coalition led by al-Nusra and its former ally Ahrar al-Sham—ejected pro-regime forces from Idlib city in March 2015. Jaysh al-Fatah “immediately cut-off water and electricity to the besieged population” in al-Fua and Kafraya, the Commission notes. “Though Government forces occasionally airdropped aid, armed groups only allowed humanitarian aid convoys to enter the enclaves sporadically over the previous three years, leaving tens of thousands of individuals in a perilous situation. Hospitals and clinics had no supplies, which led to some women dying while giving birth. Subject to a local truce with Government forces, around 5,000 civilians were evacuated from the besieged towns in April 2017.”
The siege of the regime-held areas of Deir Ezzor city by IS began in July 2014, after the jihadists poured the captured resources from Mosul into eastern Syria and overran Deir Ezzor province. This densely-packed pocket of regime territory, with 200,000 residents, held on, improbably, with air drops of supplies food (including from the World Health Organization), until the siege was broken by the pro-Asad coalition in September 2017.
“Though not subject to an ‘evacuation agreement’, aerial and ground operations to combat and ultimately defeat ISIL in Dayr al-Zawr triggered one of the single largest waves of internally displaced persons since the inception of the conflict”, the Commission notes. The SDF, backed by the U.S. and the coalition, began the operation to expel IS from its Syrian capital, Raqqa city, in June 2017 (ending in October 2017). The SDF-U.S. then began the move into Deir Ezzor from the north in September 2017, and the regime coalition came in from the south the same month. Since July 2017, nearly 230,000 people have fled Deir Ezzor province to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Raqqa and Hasaka run by the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the Commission documents. These SDF-administered IDP camps have been highly controversial, places where “tens of thousands are being unlawfully interned”, as the Commission puts it.
There were, in addition, abuses by armed groups in enclaves besieged by the pro-Asad coalition. Some of the armed opposition groups “have confiscated or hid food items, distributing them preferentially to those within their ranks, their family members, and confidants over the civilian population at large”, the Commission reports. “In other instances, those in control of besieged areas have prevented civilians from leaving, by using them as human shields.”
“While siege warfare is not in itself prohibited under [international humanitarian law (IHL)]”, says the Commission, “the laying of sieges must be in conformity with all relevant IHL rules. The methods employed in Syria to carry out sieges, as documented by the Commission since 2012, however, have amounted to egregious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and, in some instances, to war crimes. They have repeatedly been carried out in a deliberate, coordinated, and systematic manner.” Basic rights—like freedom from torture, uncoerced movement, and access to medical care—have been routinely violated, the Commission adds.
Perhaps the most notable thing about these “evacuation agreements” is that they are carried out under the threat of murder and worse: “Civilians interviewed by the Commission consistently echoed how their decision to evacuate previously besieged areas was involuntary in nature and that they had accepted to leave because they feared reprisals or ‘had no choice’.” In short, there is no “agreement” here and “evacuation” mischaracterises the nature of a forcible transfer, something that has been treated as a crime against humanity and a tactic often referred to as “ethnic cleansing”.
Civilians can be removed from militarily sensitive areas for their own protection, but expulsions as a means of achieving political-military objectives are not within the laws of war, the Commission notes. “Overall, the pattern of evacuations occurring countrywide appears intended to engineer changes to the political demographies of previously besieged enclaves, by redrawing and consolidating bases of political support”, the Commission concludes. From the defeat and deportation of Daraya in August 2015, to “eastern Aleppo city in December 2016, Madaya (Rif Damascus) in April 2017, Barza, Tishreen, and Qabun (eastern Damascus) in May 2017, and Fu’ah and Kafraya villages (Idlib) in May 2017”, the Commission says it has “reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict committed the war crime of forced displacement”.