Tag Archives: Syria

1000 days of war in Syria

Today marks 1000 days of conflict in Syria. The British Embassy in Syria released this shocking infographic today highlighting the human cost to this man-made war.

Syria 1000 days

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It’s quite possible that both sides have used chemical weapons in Syria

What happened in the suburb of Damascus that resulted in the death of 1,429 Syrians on the 21st August?

This question sits at the heart of the debate about what the International Community should do in response to the attack.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry is pretty clear that he thinks he knows what happens and what needs to happen. In short, he believes Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on its own people – an act constituting a war crime. Commenting on a declassified report Kerry said that the findings are “are as clear as they are compelling.”

His suggested course of action  is immediate air-strikes.

The UK knows that the Assad regime has stockpiles of chemical weapons partly because 10 months after the outbreak of the most recent conflict the UK government sold nerve gas chemicals to the regime.

Despite all this, many are still claiming that there is not sufficient evidence that the Assad regime is definitely responsible for these attacks. Natalie Bennett, leader of The Green Party, writing on Liberal Conspiracy said: “no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21.”

The UN inspectors are still compiling their evidence and have given no indication of when they will announce their results.

Bennett’s suggested course of action  involves the ICC. She comments, “The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”

Of course, none of this is anything new in Syria.

We know that there have been reports of deaths after chemical attacks for months before this most recent attack. For example, in March this year 26 people died in the Khan al-Assal area (just outside Aleppo) after an attack that is believed to have involved Sarin. On this occasion, the Russian government produced a report suggesting rebel forces were responsible for the attack- a reported that was contradicted by US evidence.

We also know that rebel forces have been in possession of chemicals such as Sarin. In May this year, Turksih forces “found a 2kg cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front” .

It is worth reminding ourselves that Al-Nusra is a listed terrorist organisation that is a splinter of AL-Qaeda and is also widely considered to be the most powerful military force currently fighting Assad’s regime. We also know that Al-Nusra have claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians areas – a failure of the principle of distinction and itself a war crime. This, when combined with a series of brutal killings, starts to paint a bleak picture of what some within the opposition stand for.

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons but I am under no pretence that some of those who are opposing Assad are just as capable of such atrocities.

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How will the UK ensure only the good guys shoot the bad guys with the guns they are thinking of giving to the people they think are good guys?

If the UK government proceed and arm Syrian rebels, the very minimum they have to do is provide detailed answers to Amnesty International activist Kristyan Benedict’s 10 questions. 

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, [the ending of the arms embargo] gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” 

This was William Hague’s response to the EU’s failure to reach agreement around renewing the arms embargo on Syria.

The New York Times summarized the in rifts within the EU over arming rebels saying:

efforts to ease the arms embargo, led by Britain, exposed deep rifts on Monday over the issue of arming the rebels… Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden came to the meeting strongly opposing arms shipments. They distrust large parts of the Syrian opposition and said they feared that the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadist groups.”

Many met this news with dismay:

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Minister was unequivocal in his government’s analysis of the situation saying:

“The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,”

Timmermans hits on the same point that Kristyan Benedict asks in his article “10 questions“. The last of these 10 questions to the UK government about arming the Syrian opposition reads:

“What is the likelihood of an arms race occurring from increased arms supplies to the armed opposition?”

It is an important question.

It is widely understood that the UK and France are eager to provide armed support to the rebels.  As such, the crux of Benedict’s questions, “what adequate safeguards would the UK Government put in place to ensure any arms transferred would not be used to commit human rights abuses.” is more relevant than ever.

If the UK government does go ahead and arm the rebels, despite the very vocal criticism, the very minimum it has to do is to be able show it can effectively answer each of Benedict’s questions. How will they ensure rebels use the weapons in line with IHL? How will they ensure they do not fall into the wrong hands? etc etc…

Without these basic safeguards they leave themselves open to accusations of negligence and (according to the Austrian government) violations of International Law.

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Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror” – and it’s only going to get worse

Today’s papers are filled with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League peace envoy, comments to the UN Security Council that Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror”.

His comments come in the aftermath of the UN estimate that 60,000 have now died in the conflict. Although the actual death toll is likely to much higher as the UN excluded any partial or unverifiable reports of killings.

Last summer Amnesty International reported of a “tide of increasingly widespread attacks on civilians by government forces and militias which act with utter impunity”. Significantly, Amnesty International highlighted evidence that war crimes had been committed by both the opposition and government forces.

In November the human rights organisation made a direct plea to William Hague to try and curb the pattern of abuse against civilians being perpetrated by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

It is hard to imagine the situation getting worse.

Worryingly, some of Mr Brahimi’s comments that went less reported suggest just that. He commented, “The region is being pushed into a situation that is extremely bad”.

This is an understatement.

Firstly there is Iran. A key player in the conflict that is desperate to keep a Shi’a regional ally – not least as a potential arms link export market for terror organisations working in and around Palestine and Lebanon. Many, including the West’s regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, see a functional transition of power from Assad as a way of reducing Iran’s regional influence.

With neither side strong enough to win the war outright, the regional external players are only likely to increase the bloodshed. There is a growing possibility that the fighting will cross borders to draw in more concrete action from regional players.

Secondly, where there is war, there is a killing to be made through arms exports. This opportunity hasn’t passed the UK and US. Currently using routes through Jordan, the UK and the US is ensuring that arms reach their favoured groups – ignoring the above mentioned war crimes. Of course the UK would argue they are acting to ‘protect civilians’ and the arms trade is an inconsequential side note. Whether or not we believe them is a different question.

Either way, the arms industry (which we know to have a small influence on our government) is more than happy to see this war drag out.

Finally, the West’s aim, the overthrow of Assad, also has the chance to further increase the bloodshed. Haytham Manna writing in the Guardian highlights the thorny side of the armed opposition including al-Nusra who Obama has labelled a “foreign terrorist organisation” and who Manna said “indiscriminately targeted non-Sunni people”. Will they and other Islamist groups form part of the new government when they are playing such a pivotal role in the armed resistance?

Even after the overthrow of Assad, will this end the civil war?

Bahimi’s warnings are clear and should act as a warning, not just to the Russians and Chinese who continue to block calls for sanctions against Assad, but also to the West who seem all too eager to jump into bed with those who fulfil their short term goals.

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Walking in the (Occupied) Golan Heights

“This really is paradise” said Ziv, a twenty four year old Israeli ranger working in the Yehudiya National Park. He flicks back his dreadlocks and smiles at us looking for confirmation. My colleague, good friend and fellow hiker, Helene responds, “It really is”. We were stood overlooking the impressive Zavitan waterfall which cuts into the incredible landscape that’s rich in fauna and wildlife. In the immediate vicinity of the waterfalls it is hard to disagree with either of their assessments.

Helene and I walked for hours through deep gorges, stopping only occasionally to swim in the natural pools. Sporadically however we would hear in the background the unmistakable sound of explosions. A reminder that the Yehudiya National Park is surrounded by Israeli military areas. At one point as we were sat by a pool side a flock of birds flew from the tree in which they were perched at the sound of an especially loud explosion.

With every explosion, I was reminded that we were enjoying ourselves in an Occupied Territory. This mixture of unworldly beauty combined with occupation followed by an illegal annexation is what I spent three days thinking about as I walked in the Occupied Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war and as such they were internationally considered to be “Occupied Territories”. In 1981 Israel formally annexed the territory and argued this changed the territory’s legal status. Despite this annexation and subsequent claim, the law of belligerent occupation continues to apply until the international community acknowledges a political-legal settlement between the parties. This did not happen in 1981 and has not occurred since.

The UN Security Council Resolution 497 of December 17, 1981 summarises the international community’s response to the annexation stating, “(The UN) Strongly condemns Israeli annexationist policies and practices in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, the establishment of settlements, the confiscation of lands, the diversion of water resources, the intensification of repressive measures against the Syrian citizens therein and the forcible imposition of the Israeli citizenship on Syrian nationals, and declares all these measures as null and void as they constitute violations of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”

As such, as an Occupying Power, Israel is obligated to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law, notably the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, and must also adhere to the principles of the international human rights law. This position has been repeatedly upheld by the UN and international human rights organisations.

Despite this clear status the occupied Golan Heights is often ignored by the media covering the “Israel/Palestine conflict”. Journalist and author Mya Guarnieri commented on this saying, “Perhaps it’s easier for journalists to talk about ‘Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ or the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ But to do so is an oversimplification that ignores the broader regional context that includes the Golan Heights”. Living in the West Bank, reporting on what I see, this is a criticism that I am acutely aware of. To understand the current struggle for the realisation of human rights in the oPT you must also have an understanding of the Golan Heights.

After the occupation of 1967 130,000 Syrians were forcibly displaced from the territory leaving only 6,000 behind. A report by The Arab Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Syrian Golan, highlights human rights abuses from expropriation of land and water resources through to settlement expansion. A report well worth reading.

What troubled me during my time in the Golan however was that all of this that I had read about human rights before visiting the Golan seemed a million miles from what I actually saw. Visiting the Golan Heights felt, as a tourist, to be no different from visiting any other part of Israel.

Hitch hiking to start a walk one day an Israeli picked us up, drove us no more than 5 minutes and insisted we take her number in case we were in the area and wanted to spend Shabbat with her family. I was met with a well maintained tourist industry and extreme kindness and hospitality – this was comparable to my experience in the rest of Israel.

My time in the Golan left me confused, it didn’t feel as oppressive as the oPT but I knew, in many ways, that it was comparable. My resolve from the trip is to return, to speak to more Israelis living in the Golan and to search out the small number of Syrians still living there, still resisting the occupation. What I witnessed, mainly from an Israeli perspective, was a complete normalisation of life, including the military presence. I left wondering what I would have experienced if I had spent time with the remaining Syrian communities in the area.

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