Siege Watch lists around 40 communities under siege in Syria, mostly besieged by the Assad regime, with many more hard to reach areas on its watch list. This report focuses on Al-Waer, Madaya and Zabadani, Wadi Barada, and Douma in Eastern Ghouta, all areas at particular risk.

  Fuaa and Kefraya are the only two towns under siege by the armed opposition. Along with Madaya and Zabadani, two towns under siege by regime ally Hezbollah, Fuaa and Kefraya have formed part of the Four Towns agreement, a tit for tat arrangement which links humanitarian access agreements for all four towns.

After Aleppo: Civilian areas targeted by pro regime forces

Report by the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria, 2 January 2017.

View and download the report (PDF).


How and why civilian areas are being targeted, and how the UK might consider responding.

Following the forced displacement of residents from eastern Aleppo city by the combined forces of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime, this report looks at which communities will be targeted next.

The most recent Siege Watch report points to Al-Waer in Homs, Douma in Eastern Ghouta, and Madaya, Zabadani and Wadi Barada between Damascus and the Lebanese border, as being at particular risk. The last three named—Madaya, Zabadani and Wadi Barada—are besieged by Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist organisation proscribed by the UK and its allies. Hezbollah fights in support of the Assad regime and is dependent on Iran for military supplies. These three besieged areas are of particular strategic interest to Hezbollah as they lie along its military supply line from Damascus to Lebanon.

The Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire of 30th December has in its first days been repeatedly violated by Hezbollah and the Assad regime as they continue to attack besieged areas, and in particular as they press the besieged areas between Damascus and the Lebanon border. Concern about disparities between different versions of the ceasefire text as well as ongoing violations by pro regime forces led the UK and other UN Security Council members to refrain from endorsing Russia’s text of the agreement. Instead UN Security Council Resolution 2336 took note of Russia’s agreement documents and stressed ‘the importance of the full implementation of all relevant Security Council resolutions,’ particularly 2254 and 2268.

A successful implementation of the 30th December ceasefire would be a great relief to civilians, were it to include in the besieged areas focused on in this report, and were it to include unhindered ground access for humanitarian aid as demanded in successive UN Security Council resolutions. However all signs are that the Assad regime and its allies fully intend to manipulate and violate the ceasefire so as to further their war aims of displacement and eradication of besieged civilian communities.

Options that the UK Government might now consider include pressing for a UN monitoring mission to areas under threat of forced displacement building on the precedent of the belated UN monitoring mission to Aleppo. However without some means of applying pressure, diplomatic calls for UN access are highly unlikely to be effective.

In order to press for a successful comprehensive ceasefire implementation, the UK Government might consider making active preparations for UK humanitarian aid deliveries by airdrop to besieged areas, whether by GPS guided systems dropped from a distance or by other RAF systems, including bringing any necessary motion before Parliament in order to carry out airdrops and to protect RAF crews carrying out aid deliveries.

Further options the UK Government might consider include preparing sanctions against Russia and Iran in the event that ceasefire violations continue, and extending the UK’s current antiterrorism mission in Syria to act against the Hizballah Military Wing in order to stop its attacks against civilian communities in Syria.

Civilian populations targeted after Aleppo

As eastern Aleppo city fell to the combined forces of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime, and as residents were forcibly displaced to the west Aleppo countryside and to Idlib province, concern grew as to what might be the next target.

Rural Aleppo and Idlib province continue to be targeted by Russian and Assad regime airstrikes, probably intending to make the area unliveable, and to eventually drive a large part of the population in those areas out of the country.

It seems likely however that the pro regime powers will focus on other besieged areas in the south before attempting a major push against people in Idlib. Pro regime forces have limited capacity, as shown by their inability to maintain a defence of Palmyra against ISIS while simultaneously attacking the Syrian opposition in Aleppo. Smaller areas in the south may be judged by pro regime forces as an easier target and a higher priority than taking territory in Idlib.

In their most recent report on besieged areas in Syria, covering August to October 2016, Siege Watch wrote that four communities—eastern Aleppo city, Madaya and Douma in Rural Damascus and Al-Waer in Homs—require immediate international assistance to prevent looming humanitarian catastrophes. 1 With the fall of Aleppo, the remaining areas named are expected to face increased pressure.

Any hope placed in the 30th December ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey must be tempered by past experience. Rather than bring relief to besieged communities, the ceasefire may instead allow pro regime forces to redeploy for the next stage in their campaign of displacement and eradication. Already there have been numerous serious violations by the regime, including attacks on areas focused on in this report.

The UK and its allies should look to measures both to increase pressure in support of the ceasefire and to prepare options to protect besieged communities in the most likely event of the ceasefire failing.

Madaya and Zabadani

Madaya and Zabadani are two besieged towns between Damascus and the Lebanese border. Siege Watch report the population of Madaya as 41,000, but other reports give lower numbers in the tens of thousands. Zabadani’s population is in the hundreds.

Both towns are besieged by Hezbollah, a proscribed terrorist organisation from Lebanon that is allied with the Assad regime. Hezbollah relies on military support from Iran via Damascus and so the location of these two towns along Hezbollah supply routes makes them of strategic importance to Hezbollah and to the Iranian military.

Several people from the surrounding area have been forcibly moved into the besieged town. Approximately 40 families were forced into the besieged area of Madaya on 19th October, according to Siege Watch. There is a widespread belief that this border area is the focus of demographic engineering efforts aimed at replacing the native populations with pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad Shia populations.

Sources on the ground told APPG researchers that there are 253 checkpoints forming circles around Madaya. The first circle consists of 36 checkpoints around the area. All checkpoints include Hezbollah forces. The opposition armed forces controlling Madaya consist of three military factions. The first and biggest military faction is Ahrar Al-Sham. The second military faction is a small one, Fath Al-Sham. The third military faction is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The total number of fighters in Madaya is 600 fighters only. Their military situation is bad since there is no way to supply them.

World attention focused on Madaya in January 2016 when extreme starvation was revealed in photographs and video from the town. Pressure build for action to break the sieges, including calls for emergency aid airdrops. Madaya never received airdrops, but the pressure behind the demand led to the regime allowing ground access to UN aid convoys. However these convoys have been intermittent and subject to severe restrictions.

In the period covered by the latest Siege Watch report, one UN interagency aid convoy managed to reach Madaya and Zabadani on 25th September. The shipment included basic food supplies and non-essential medical items, but lacked necessary goods such as fuel, critical medical supplies, protein, baby milk, and salt.

Mirna Yacoub, deputy representative for UNICEF in Syria, who was part of the aid convoy, told the BBC that while there wasn’t the level of starvation seen in January, ‘they are malnourished, there is a severe lack of vitamins, they don’t have protein.’2

Siege Watch reports that on 27th October the only remaining medical point in Madaya announced that it was ceasing all activities due to lack of supplies. The following day 10-year old Mohammad al-Maleh fell off of a roof, reportedly after being startled by the sound of a sniper, and incurred a critical head injury. He later died when he could not be evacuated for treatment. By the end of October 27 kidney failure patients were trapped in Madaya unable to receive dialysis due to lack of supplies. Highly contagious bacterial meningitis is also widespread and there are no infant vaccines available.

Siege Watch report that civilian shootings by Hezbollah snipers have increased. Snipers are stationed in buildings near the al-Asali checkpoint that overlooks the town. The snipers target anyone within range including civilians. In early August, a 9-year old girl was shot in the leg; the wound became infected and required medical evacuation. On 11 August, a 70-year old woman was shot and killed. Mourners at her funeral were later targeted by the snipers as well.

The Four Towns Agreement paired Madaya and Zabadani with the only two towns besieged by Syrian armed opposition forces, Fuaa and Kefraya in Idlib province. This agreement linked negotiations for aid and medical evacuations in Madaya and Zabadani with parallel measures in Fuaa and Kefraya. According to Siege Watch, the Four Towns Agreement completely broke down towards the end of October.

In December’s Aleppo deal, Hezbollah forces there pressed for medical evacuations from Fuaa and Kefraya as a condition for allowing people to leave Aleppo city. It was announced that medical evacuations from Madaya would also be included in line with the Four Towns agreement, but contacts in Madaya reported to APPG researchers that they hadn’t received word on evacuations:

‘We have heard this morning that there will be a link between Madaya, Foua and Aleppo. So far, no one has contacted us or sent anything to Madaya. We have contacted the health professionals and the people here but no one have received any information and no one has demanded any lists.’

Contacts told APPG researchers that even if opposition forces would agree to leave Madaya, Hezbollah refused to then agree to lift the siege and withdraw to allow normal life to resume for Madaya’s residents. About 1,500 residents wish to leave—perhaps as many as 2,200 including activists, medical professionals, and fighters from all factions. Many women, children, and elderly don’t want to leave. People don’t want to go and leave the rest of the civilians to stay without any guarantee of safety.

People in Madaya are hearing reports from Idlib that there is no capacity in Idlib to host displaced people from Madaya, and they will put them in camps, and therefore many people say they would rather stay in Madaya. ‘We don’t know what is going on,’ says a source. ‘It is a real dilemma and no one can give an official statement.’

Wadi Barada

Wadi Barada is an area of small towns along the Barada River, northwest of Damascus. The area effectively controls the water supply to Damascus city. In late July Hezbollah and Assad regime forces closed all access points to the area attempted to gain control of the springs. According to Siege Watch, the violence caused significant internal displacement within Wadi Barada.

On 23rd December, sources on the ground contacted by APPG researchers said that pro regime airstrikes hadn’t stopped since the morning of that day, with more than 20 airstrikes on Ein Al-Fejeh and Bassemeh town. Machine gun fire was preventing anyone from going toward Ein Al Fejeh. The rebel battalion in the area had attacked the Syrian regime military barracks and the special forces which surround the area.

On 26th December, the Assad regime pressed its attacks on the Wadi Barada area with bombardment, shelling, and a ground assault, according to EA WorldView.3 The regime put out the unsupported claim that rebels had poisoned the al-Fija spring with diesel fuel. Rebutting the story, a resident and rebels said bombing knocked out a pumping station for an underground pipeline supplying about 65% of Damascus’s water. A photograph showed the pumping station’s ceiling has collapsed, and videos verified damage and fires.

On 29th December, UN OCHA announced that four million people in Damascus were without safe drinking water as supplies from the Wadi Barada and Ain al-Fija springs which serve 70 percent of Damascus and its surroundings had been cut because ‘infrastructure was deliberately targeted and damaged.’4

On 30th December, the Local Council in Wadi Barada, the local branch of Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) and local medical and relief groups, issued a joint statement saying that the Assad regime and Hezbollah were continuing to attack the area in violation of the ceasefire, dropping more than 35 barrel bombs against civilian areas, and making several attempts to advance with ground forces from different axes.5

The statement declared that the defending armed opposition groups were taking the most limited response in an attempt to maintain the ceasefire, which they believe it is an opportunity to bring peace to Syria. The statement rejected regime claims that the regime was targeting extremists, saying that the local armed opposition is made up of a Free Syrian Army group and local people from Wadi Barada who are holding weapons to defend their houses.

The statement declared that as soon as the ceasefire agreement was respected, the signatories, along with the armed opposition groups in Wadi Barada, would work immediately on facilitating the entry of maintenance teams to the water facility in Fijeh Spring and would make every effort to assist in restoring the water supply to people in Damascus city. The signatories called on representatives from the sponsoring states and the UN and ICRC to enter the Wadi Barada valley to assess the humanitarian situation and facilitate humanitarian access.

Wadi Barada lacks sufficient food, fuel, and medical supplies. Siege Watch contacts noted the spread of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune disease sometimes triggered by infection, withat least five deaths and 30 patients infected.

Contacts on the ground contacted by APPG researchers reported the number of besieged civilians in Barada valley as 125,000 people, and said that the situation was very bad. They said the Syrian regime is seeking a forced evacuation as seen in Daraya, Qudsaya, Khan Alsheh, and Al-Tal:

‘They offered as a settlement similar to the one for Al-Tal and Qudsaya, and whoever wants the settlement can stay and whoever doesn’t can leave to Idlib, and the Syrian regime military will enter the area.’

Contacts told APPG researchers that the local opposition rejected this settlement, replying to the negotiators that ‘the way to the graveyard in our own area is shorter and more honourable than leaving to Idlib.’


Douma is one of a number of besieged communities in Eastern Ghouta. Siege Watch reported significantly increased attacks on Eastern Ghouta by pro Assad regime forces during August-October. Continued territorial gains by pro-regime forces caused further displacement and deprived the area of arable land—an important coping mechanism. The use of internationally banned weapons such as cluster munitions, as well as the targeting of civilians, was rampant. According to Siege Watch, the regime military campaign appears designed to isolate the communities of Douma and Harasta from the rest of Eastern Ghouta and force them to surrender.

Siege Watch counts at least 22 besieged communities in Eastern Ghouta, of which Douma was one of only two to receive any UN aid in the August-October reporting period. Douma was scheduled to receive UN humanitarian assistance in late September but pro-regime forces blocked the convoy. On 19th October, a UN convoy reached Douma, but the aid it contained was sufficient for less than one quarter of the population and lacked critically needed baby milk. The total population of Eastern Ghouta’s besieged communities is put at over 405,975 by Siege Watch, significantly more than the number of people previously estimated to be living in the then besieged parts of Aleppo city.

Media reports have detailed fears by Douma residents that the Assad regime will now turn its focus on Eastern Ghouta.6 Some reporting of negotiations leading to the Russian-Turkish brokered 30th December ceasefire claimed that the Assad regime had sought to exclude Eastern Ghouta from its terms, indicating an intention by the regime to concentrate its forces in a campaign against communities there.7

As in Wadi Barada, attacks by pro regime forces have continued despite the 30th December ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey. The Syrian Network for Human Rights recorded four incidents of regime forces shelling Douma on the first day of the ceasefire.8


Al-Waer is a community on the outskirts of Homs city, the crossroads of Syria’s north-south axis and its primary route to the coast. Homs itself was the scene of the Assad regime’s earliest use of all out war against a civilian population as they used heavy artillery to lay siege to the neighbourhood of Baba Amr in 2011-2012.9

After the fall of the Baba Amr neighbourhood, opposition forces held on in other parts of Homs city until 2014, when forced evacuations moved people from the last opposition controlled neighbourhoods to Al-Waer outside the main city.

According to the latest Siege Watch report, the situation in Al-Waer remains critical. The population estimate has been lowered to 75,000 as a result of forcible transfers to northern Homs. During August-October period, Al-Waer was subject to intense military escalation, threats, misinformation, and aid restriction, as regime forces and pro-regime militias continued to try and push the neighbourhood to abandon earlier negotiation terms that included a demand for the release of political prisoners.

The issue of political prisoners is central to negotiations in Al-Waer. The Assad regime agreed to release over 7,000 listed detainees in return for the departure of opposition fighters from the area, but have neither delivered on their undertaking, nor been able to account for the location of the detainees.

In late September, a batch of approximately 250 fighters and their families were forcibly transferred from Al-Waer to the besieged northern Homs countryside. followed by another transfer of around 100 fighters and their families. As in other besieged areas, the local negotiating committee requested, but did not receive, oversight from the UN during the transfer. In return, the regime released 194 detainees, most of whom were reportedly not on the previously agreed list of more than 7,000 detainees.

Al-Waer was reached on several occasions by UN interagency aid convoys during August-October, but these convoys did not contain the most critically needed supplies. At the very end of October, regime forces increased access restrictions.

In November, negotiations broke down when the local committee refused to submit names of fighters unless the regime followed through on its promise to provide information on detainees. Al-Waer is once again being subjected to airstrikes and attacks.

The disputed Russian-Turkish ceasefire

The Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire of 30th December followed what was seen as a quid pro quo between President Putin of Russia and President Erdogan of Turkey, where Russia allowed Turkey’s Euphrates Shield joint operation with opposition Free Syrian Army forces to advance against ISIS in northern Syria, and in return Turkey didn’t actively oppose Russia’s taking of eastern Aleppo city.

Prior to Russia’s intervention in Syria, Turkey had failed to gain US backing for such an operation. The Obama administration had preferred to back the Kurdish YPG as an anti ISIS force as the YPG was not in conflict with the Assad regime. This threatened Turkish interests as the YPG are associated with the PKK, a proscribed terrorist organisation active in Turkey. Consequently Turkey now cooperates with Russia in order to counter the YPG despite Russia and Turkey’s opposing views of the Assad regime.

The Turkish-FSA Euphrates Shield operation serves multiple functions in pushing back ISIS from Turkey’s border, dividing areas of YPG control, and establishing an area within Syria where internally displaced Syrians may be able to live in relative safety outside regime control.

The terms of the 30th December ceasefire agreement are disputed, with opposition signatories saying that the version they signed was different to the one presented to the UN Security Council by Russia and the Assad regime.10 Opposition signatories insist the ceasefire was to cover all of Syria with the only exception being action against ISIS. The version presented to the Security Council extends to exception to areas of operations against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham AKA Jabhat al Nusra.11 The Assad regime and its allies have repeatedly broken previous ceasefire and cessation of hostilities agreements on the pretext of fighting the Al Qaeda-associated Jabhat al Nusra.

From the first day of the ceasefire there were numerous serious violations in several areas by pro regime forces. Representatives of the Russian military and of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards maintained these attacks were targeting Jabhat al Nusra.12 The Wadi Barada area in particular was subject to barrel bombs, air strikes, and ground attacks by Hezbollah forces. As detailed earlier, civil society groups and local government in Wadi Barada wholly reject claims that any Al Nusra forces are present in the area.

Due to the ongoing violations and ‘confusion over the discrepancies between some of the key texts,’13 the UK and other members of the UN Security Council refrained from endorsing the ceasefire documents issued by Russia and Turkey, and in the revised text of Resolution 2336 instead took note of the documents. Where the original draft stressed ‘the importance of their full and immediate implementation and calls upon all parties to be guided by the aforementioned documents and provide support to their implementation,’ the final text of UNSCR 2336 stressed ‘the importance of the full implementation of all relevant Security Council resolutions,’ particularly 2254 and 2268.

The risks in a flawed ceasefire are: That it helps the Assad regime and its allies Hezbollah, Iran and Russia to forcibly displace more communities in around Damascus and the Lebanese border; That accepting violations by the regime and its allies weakens those armed opposition groups that signed the document and strengthens groups that rejected it, and strengthens in particular Jabhat al Nusra who forcefully rejected the ceasefire; And that a perception of Turkish betrayal of opposition groups further drives disillusion and extremism.

UK policy options

In order to help protect civilians in besieged and hard to reach areas, the UK and its allies should now consider measures both to increase pressure in support of a ceasefire including all opposition held areas, and to prepare options to protect besieged communities in the event of the ceasefire failing.

Experience over the past year has shown that the Assad regime has been more inclined to allow ground access for aid when there appears to be a credible threat of aid airdrops taking place without regime consent. That threat faded when the June 2016 aid access deadline was broken without any consequences, and so the regime again became more brazen in denying humanitarian access. The UK and its allies may need to be prepared to defy the Assad regime and force aid access by air if the cat and mouse games over humanitarian aid are to end.

Options for the UK Government to consider could include the following:

1.     Making practical and political preparations for UK humanitarian airdrops to besieged communities in the event the ceasefire fails to bring full ground access for aid deliveries.
        Practical preparations would include assessment and readying of options for aid delivery whether by JPAD guided airdrop system or by other systems used by the RAF in Afghanistan and Iraq; options for protection of UK personnel and aircraft engaged in deliveries of humanitarian aid; options for coordination with medical, civil defence, and other local partners on the ground; and surveillance of potential drop zones and landing sites for airdrops and airlifts.
        Political preparations would be calling a vote in the House of Commons to approve UK humanitarian aid deliveries by air to besieged and hard to reach areas in Syria, including any necessary measures to protect and defend UK personnel and aircraft engaged in humanitarian aid delivery.

2.     Preparing sanctions against Russia and Iran for implementation in the event the ceasefire fails and attacks against civilian communities resume.
        Sanctions options could include targeted sanctions and travel bans against individuals connected to Russia’s military action in Syria, in particular individuals implicated in likely war crimes or crimes against humanity, and individuals implicated in the supply of particular weapons systems such as cluster bombs and incendiary weapons.
        Other options could include sanctions against Russian aviation businesses, and sanctions against Iranian airlines implicated in supplying the Assad regime or in providing transport for Iran’s military in Syria.

3.     Calling for a UN monitoring mission to areas where civilians are currently under threat of forced displacement, and for establishing a resident UN presence including medical support wherever civilian communities are under threat of siege or forced displacement.

4.     Calling for the UN monitoring mission in Aleppo under UNSCR 2328 to include gathering reports of detentions of civilians and demanding information on detainees from all parties and inspection of detention facilities to determine the location and condition of detainees.
        Resolution 2328 states that ‘protection must be provided to all civilians who choose or who have been forced to be evacuated and those who opt to remain in their homes,’ and therefore the UN observer mission should seek to ensure the safety of any civilians during or since the forced displacement in Aleppo.

UNSCR 2328 states, ‘evacuations of civilians must be voluntary and to final destinations of their choice.’ Consideration could be given as to how UN monitors can practically reinforce the principle that all evacuated civilians have the right to return to their homes.

Finally, the UK Government can consider whether to extend current anti terrorist military intervention in Syria targeting ISIS to also act against other terrorist organisations that are attacking civilians and are contributing to the destabilisation of the wider region. In particular the UK Government can consider whether to take military action against the Hizballah Military Wing which was proscribed in 2008,14 and which is the main group responsible for enforcing the siege against Madaya, Zabadani, and Wadi Barada.

It is notable that Israel has repeatedly demonstrated the viability of striking Hezbollah targets in Syria over the past years, but Israel’s actions have been limited to attacks on Hezbollah arms supplies and have not been aimed at protecting civilian communities in Syria that are under attack by Hezbollah.

Any consideration of UK military action against Hezbollah would have to examine the legal basis for action. This would most likely be justified as an emergency humanitarian intervention limited to ending the threat against civilian areas.15


1.  Siege Watch Fourth Quarterly Report, August-October 2016.

2.  Syria war: Hunger stalks besieged Madaya, by Hugo Bachega, BBC News, 8 October 2016.

3.  Syria Daily: Regime Presses Attacks Northwest of Damascus, by Scott Lucas, EA WorldView, 27 December 2016.

4.  UN: Four million in Damascus without mains water after springs targeted, Reuters, 29 December 2016.

5.  Statement by civil society groups and local government in Wadi Barada, 30 December 2016.

6.  The next Aleppo? By Olivia Alabaster, Vice News, 27 December 2016.

7.  Turkey and Russia have ceasefire plan for Syria says Ankara, by Orhan Coskun and Ellen Francis, Reuters, 29 December 2016.

8.  No less than 28 Breaches on the First Day following Ankara Ceasefire Agreement, Syrian Network for Human Rights, 31 December 2016.

9.  Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment, Paul Conroy, Quercus, 2013.

10. Russia and regime cheat on FSA, Yalla Souria, 31 December 2016.

11. Annex I to the letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council.

12. Syria Daily: Assad Regime Exploits “Ceasefire” to Attack Near Damascus, by Scott Lucas, EA WorldView, 1 January 2017.

13. United Nations Security Council welcomes efforts to end violence in Syria: An explanation of the UK’s vote as delivered by Peter Wilson Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the UN, New York, 31 December 2016.

14. Proscribed terrorist groups or organisations, Home Office, updated 16 December 2016.

15. Syria: Humanitarian intervention outside the Security Council, APPG Secretariat report, 5 December 2016.