Under siege: Humanitarian access in Syria 

On Tuesday 12th December, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria held a meeting on the issue of humanitarian access.

Speaking were:

Paul Musiol of PAX, the Dutch peacebuilding organisation which along with The Syria Institute runs the Siege Watch project, monitoring sieges of civilian communities by all parties in Syria;

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, a Research Fellow at the European University Institute, Fiesole, working on the Individualisation of War Project, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict;

Emma Beals, who has reported on Syria for The Guardian, The Daily Beast, USA Today, and Fox News amongst others, and contributed to the Atlantic Council report on the Aleppo siege, ‘Breaking Aleppo.’

The meeting was chaired by Alison McGovern, Member of Parliament for Wirral South and co-chair of the APPG Friends of Syria.

Below is a transcript edited for length.

Paul Musiol:

Thank you Alison and thanks for the opportunity to speak to you here today. I represent PAX, a peacebuilding organisation based in the Netherlands. We’ve worked in Syria since 2003, and have been working on the issue of starvation as a weapon of war in Syria since 2013 with policy alerts and advocacy. Since 2015, with The Syria Institute in Washington DC, we have produced Siege Watch, which monitors the situation in besieged areas in Syria.

I want to be clear that neither ourselves nor The Syria Institute are operational humanitarian agencies, we don’t deliver aid on the ground ourselves, and I’m looking forward to hearing NRC’s perspective on the operational aspects of humanitarian response. Instead we gather information from our network of contacts—civil society, local councils, humanitarians and first responders—and from open sources, to make an independent assessment of the scale of besiegement in Syria.

Initially we did this because our contacts on the ground were telling us that there were places which were besieged but not officially recognised as such by the UN in their monthly reports to the Secretary General. We were concerned that this discrepancy would lead to these places being lower priorities in negotiations over aid access, even though conditions were as bad as in the officially designated besieged areas. Initially this discrepancy was quite large, with the UN reporting something like only 400,000 people in besieged areas whereas we assessed there to be over one million people besieged.

At that time our assumption was that if the reporting more closely reflected the reality on the ground, the international community would be under more pressure to act to lift the sieges and to protect civilians.

Unfortunately we’ve been shocked at the extent to which there’s been a lack of translation, from just acknowledging the problem to the urgency to deal with it, and the ineffectiveness, and in some cases the non-existence of real high priority given to this appalling situation.

So for us, we use the exact same criteria that the UN does, to define a siege, which is military encirclement of an area, no free movement of people or goods in or out, and that situation exists for three months or more. That’s our definition and that’s the UN’s definition.

And I’m going to present you just a quick overview of our forthcoming report which will be published later this week. They come out every three months, and so in our new report we estimate around 745,000 people are apparently besieged in Syria.

These are some of the top line figures from the new report:

At least 33 different communities are experiencing this, some isolated, some grouped together like in the eastern Ghouta which has seen a lot of violence in the last couple of weeks.

As well as these 745-odd-thousand people besieged, there are about a million more experiencing siege-like conditions, where access is restricted or limited, and where we believe that there is a particular risk that they may fall under siege as part of particularly the government’s strategy to starve and deprive communities into submission.

Over 96% of the besieged Syrians are besieged by the government of Syria and its allies, the vast majority of those in Eastern Ghouta which I’ll discuss more in a moment. We also assess the northern Homs countryside, three towns there, as besieged as well, which the UN doesn’t. That’s the main reason for the discrepancy between our figures and OCHA’s at the moment.

And of the remaining 4%, 2½ are besieged by a mixture of armed groups and the government, and 1½ entirely by the armed opposition groups in Fuaa and Kefraya, the two opposition-besieged towns that were part of the Four Towns Agreement. I think everybody is probably familiar with those.

In terms of trends, the most important thing to say before detailing some of the particulars of the trends, is we believe that the violations we see happening as part of the siege strategy in Syria amount to crimes against humanity. We were very happy to see Amnesty International come out with a report that concluded the same—the ‘We leave or we die’ report—if you haven’t seen it I strongly recommend that you give it a read.

We think it’s important to place the appropriate sort of focus on just how awful these tactics are. So we see persistent denial of humanitarian access, particularly at the moment denial of medical evacuations that are urgently needed from Eastern Ghouta, and obviously targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, humanitarian first responders, aid storage facilities, all hit in the last couple of weeks as well.

In Eastern Ghouta, one of the main challenges in the reporting period August to October has been fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, which has really impacted on civil society in that besieged community. There’s movement restrictions within Eastern Ghouta, there are attempts by the armed groups to exert control, to take over local councils and civilian governance, and to crack down on civil society. So civil society in Syria, particularly in the besieged areas, is really left behind, has no strong allies on the ground in many areas it seems.

Map via Siege Watch

Overall we see obviously a very clear strategy from the government in particular forcing besieged areas to surrender, in many cases forcing the entire population to be displaced. You can see all those ‘do not enter’ signs on that map, they are all areas that have been fully depopulated. So Daraya’s down there to the bottom left. Eastern Ghouta is the large red area where all those little red ‘one’s are. The other cluster to the south of Damascus is Yarmouk, Hajar al-Aswad, and other Southern Damascus suburbs, which are also long-term besieged. Yarmouk in particular is that little red balloon, besieged by ISIS and opposition groups and government, so a particularly severe situation there.

But the real concern at the moment obviously is this large area, Eastern Ghouta, which has been completely cut off since September, which has seen daily bombardments, more or less daily bombardments since the 14th of November, 424,000 people live there, which is more than Eastern Aleppo by the end of the siege we saw last year. This really is a catastrophic assault on this area of Syria, receiving from our point of view nowhere near enough international attention.

On efforts to access, we know that those are ongoing, and as I say we’re not operational humanitarians, and we hear good messaging coming from the likes of Jan Egeland and the likes of Mark Lowcock and so on, but it remains very ineffectual to try and negotiate your way into an area where one of the parties just is deliberately depriving people, and maybe one of the conversations we can have in Q & A would be about how to deal with that.

The final thing on trends, post surrender communities obviously face their own unique challenges; PAX and the Syria Institute together published a report in February about Homs, and what happened in Homs in 2014 in terms of forced population displacement, in terms of destruction of property records, appropriation of property, crackdown on civil society, and just crackdown in general on all the aspects of life that give people resilience and give people ability to stand up for their rights and to live independently of this brutal regime.

So you can see the other kind of grey balloons there, not the ones with the do not enter sign, but the other ones are areas that have been retaken and which have effectively become information black holes, at least for the purposes of our reporting, we find it very difficult to get people in these communities that have been retaken by the government to tell us about the conditions there. And in some cases, people who’ve been displaced out in the kind of post surrender phase tell us that they were just too afraid for themselves, for their loved ones, to speak out or provide information in any way.

I’ve already in part covered what’s happening in Eastern Ghouta. It looks very much like the same strategy as we saw in Aleppo and Daraya, not only ‘surrender or starve’ but ‘surrender or die,’ a really extreme effort to force the population there to submit. Apart from indiscriminate attacks and attacks targeting civilians, of which there are many, and we’ve dates and locations coming in the new report, the main feature of this phase of the siege of Eastern Ghouta is extreme medical need, and extreme lack of access to medical care, and interference with the delivery of medicines into the enclave. So just to take one example, on the 17th of August we have reports of 143,000 medical treatments being removed from a convoy on its way to Douma by government forces. There are probably a dozen more examples detailed in the report but that’s one particularly massive one that deserves to be singled out.

I have a list of recommendations here all around the urgent action needed for Eastern Ghouta, but I feel I’m going over my time, but I think the most important is definitely medical evacuations. As of today I think there are 520 people on a waiting list of most urgent cases in Eastern Ghouta. 13 people have already died while they’re on that waiting list. There are hospitals not far away that could provide this care. Some of the people on that waiting list have been outside the enclave before and come back in, and are now stuck, and were receiving the care they need before and now can’t. And it’s overwhelmingly women and children, these are all civilians on this list, but overwhelmingly women and children and elderly, people who pose no threat. No one deserves to be treated like this, but especially people undergoing extreme medical duress at the same time as all the other stresses they’ve been under as part of this brutal strategy.

I think I’ll leave it there for the moment. There is a lot more to be said about other areas in Syria, but I just wanted to focus on this as the most urgent situation.


That’s really helpful. We’ll move on without hesitation to you Emanuela, Research Fellow from the European University Institute, Fiesole, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard:

Thank you, it’s an honour and a pleasure to be here today. Since September I have been commissioned by the Norwegian Refugee Council to do some independent research on access to and within Syria, and what I was planning to do was to provide a general overview on the access situation. Humanitarian needs in Syria today remain extremely severe. A third of the population, over six million people, are internally displaced. A similar figure have sought refuge abroad. 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. And 85% of the population is living in poverty.

There are four principle modalities for humanitarians to reach people in need, and I’m going to go through them in turn: the first is so-called regular programming in areas that have remained within the control of the government throughout; second is assistance in so-called reconciled areas; cross-line operations which take place essentially by convoys; and finally cross-border operations from neighbouring countries.

Before I go into the details, I thought it would be very useful just to remind everyone of the legal regime regulating humanitarian relief operations. Primary responsibility for meeting the needs of the civilian population lies with the party that has control over them. If they are unable or unwilling to meet these needs, offers of humanitarian assistance that is impartial in nature can be made. The consent of the state is required, but may not be arbitrarily withheld, and once this consent has been obtained the parties have an obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of relief operations, and may impose technical measures of control for the passage of these operations.

That’s the legal framework. What we have seen in Syria is an unprecedented involvement of the Security Council in view of the persistent refusal of the government to meet the needs or to allow relief operations. In July of 2014, the Security Council adopted Security Council Resolution 2165 where it took the unprecedented step of imposing cross border and cross line relief operations. The consent of the government was no longer required, it changed the legal framework, the consent of was no longer required, all that was necessary was notification.

Is this an infringement of sovereignty? This is what we frequently hear, that this resolution is an infringement of sovereignty. Yes it is, but there’s a reason for it: with sovereignty comes responsibility, responsibility to meet the needs of the population, or to allow others to do so in an impartial manner, and this is what’s not happening in Syria, and it was for this reason that the Security Council took this unprecedented measure.

Looking at the different modalities that we’re seeing today, if we start off with regular programming, a number of international and national NGOs, a small number are registered in Damascus, operating in areas that have always remained in government control, and this regular programming usually occurs by direct implementation of relief operations by the actors.

As was already the case before the start of the conflict, regular programming in Syria is closely controlled and restricted. The government doesn’t have a uniform or consistent policy for all actors conducting these operations; for example they’re different for NGOs and the UN, and the margin of manoeuvre and degree of government oversight depends on what these organisations manage to negotiate, which in turn depends on their reputation and also the types of operation that they conduct. Their capacity to operate waxes and wanes all the time; sometimes they obtain good access, the benefit leads to much visibility, it may lead to restrictions on operations.

The process for obtaining approval for operations is complex. Some NGOs have managed to obtain blanket approval for operations, which then mean they no longer need authorisation to conduct even field trips, but most frequently they require additional weekly authorisations for their operations, as well as every time their staff wants to move. And I mention this because it gives you an idea of what the programming is like in Syria, what it was like before the conflict and what it looks like today, even in situations where there’s no question of going into opposition held areas.

The second type of operations I wanted to highlight are those in so-called reconciled areas, and these are areas that since the second half of 2016 have been reconciled by means of localised agreements, and reconciliation is a euphemism for surrender and reintegration of these areas into government control. And the experience of assistance in reconciled areas is instructive in a number of ways, first in terms of political use of relief. Humanitarian assistance is used as an instrument in the so-called starve and surrender tactics of the reconciliation process, and also after surrender to continue to exert pressure on the population. Damascus allows UN cross-line convoys to reach those communities that are compliant, to reward them, and withholds it from the communities that are not, or that did not surrender voluntarily. The UN response is not impartial in terms of reaching the populations that are most in need, and is in fact perceived as a tool of the regime’s.

It’s also instructive in terms of the fate of local councils, community based organisations, and local actors that have provided assistance. The councils have been dissolved, organisations that are usually not registered in Damascus have ceased operating. At best their staff have simply stopped working in the hope of not being identified and penalised for their activities, but at worst they’ve been forcibly relocated along with fighters and others who have been refused to reconcile. And apart from the security risk that this poses for the humanitarian providers, it’s also severely impacted humanitarian operations, the humanitarian response, just because the service providers have gone.

And finally I think the experience is also telling in terms of delivery of services by Damascus, and while the precise situation varies from area to area, it’s apparent that at present the government lacks the capacity to resume the provision of basic services. Water and electricity remain non-functional, or operate at severely reduced capacity, and health services remain insufficient, and many medical practitioners have been forcibly relocated. There’s also concerns about the impartiality of the new responders, in terms of actually meeting the needs and not giving preferential treatment to populations perceived as supportive of the government.

The third type I want to turn to is the cross-line operations. As I mentioned earlier, what the Security Council did was essentially remove the requirement of consent from the government, both for cross-line and for cross-border operations. However in relation to cross-line, operations have never been without the consent, on the contrary they’ve been subject to an extremely cumbersome approval procedure that takes a number of weeks and is tightly regulated by the government. The procedures are complex, time consuming, laborious: submission of bi-monthly plans several weeks in advance, identifying beneficiaries in intended areas, types of relief items that are being provided, and they require approval by line ministries, by the security apparatus, and also at government level.

And it’s not just the process that’s cumbersome, when authorisation is actually granted it frequently relates to just a fraction of the operations that have been requested. By way of example, in the period from January to July 2017, authorisation was granted for just over a quarter of the beneficiaries requested, and in addition, and extremely problematically, even though they had been approved during this authorisation process, medical supplies and items had been systematically removed from these convoys, or never even loaded on them.

So what does this mean? That the cross-line response is extremely limited, even if we don’t look at the cumbersome authorisation process, it only provides a very partial response: partial in terms of the areas and beneficiaries that are reached by cross-line operations; partial in terms of the types of supplies that are provided where the systematic removal of medical items is particularly problematic; partial in terms of the type of response that only provides items but not services; and finally and most fundamentally partial in the sense that it doesn’t comply with the humanitarian principle of impartiality. It doesn’t reach the people most in need.

Just a final mode, which is the cross-border. These have been taking place from Jordan, from Turkey, and in the north-east. In the first eight months of this year some 2.8 million people have been reached per month thanks to these operations. They’re extremely significant not just in terms of the quantities but also in terms of types of goods; as I said, the problems with medical relief items doesn’t occur in the cross-border operations. Also important is that it’s not just goods, it’s also services that can be provided thanks to cross-border operations. And extremely important is the reliance on the local actors for the actual implementation of the operation, something that does not occur with the cross-line operations, so an extremely important range of local actors trusted by the communities actually deliver them the services.

So I suppose to conclude, the unanimous feedback that I received from the range of humanitarian actors, UN, INGOs, NGOs operating within Syria and outside, is that in the present situation in Syria, in order to try to meet needs in an impartial manner, it is essential that the range of modalities continue to exist.


Thank you Emanuela, very interesting. Now let me just see if Emma Beals, who’s reported extensively on Syria, can hear me… It would be great if you could share your thoughts with us.

Emma Beals (via Skype):

Thank you for having me here today to speak about these issues. I won’t repeat things covered by my co-speakers who have done a wonderful job in explaining the sieges and the broader way the humanitarian crisis is working in Syria, and the response to that crisis, and the ethical and legal concerns around that.

As mentioned in the meeting notes that I’ve read, Syria has highlighted a huge challenge with regard to the role of the UN and UN agencies. And as an organisation made up of member states and working with governments, it has, in Syria, privileged that fact over working on behalf of the people who make up this state. Eastern Ghouta which you’ve heard about today is just the latest example.

In my research there are three major issues which I think paved the way to what we’re seeing, particularly from the Damascus based operation of the UN agencies, which is what I’ve primarily been looking at.

There was a pre-war development programme which worked with the government, and there are many hold overs staff-wise, who seem to see the conflict and the humanitarian crisis as an interruption to their good work. And it also means that many have a long standing relationship with people in the government, and a history of cooperation. They are also very enthusiastic to steer that ship back toward a development programme, now that they see the immediate violence starting to subside in some areas of the country.

We have also encountered the limits of global governance and the manner in which the international community is unable to intervene on humanitarian lines against a host government and permanent members of the Security Council who don’t want to see that intervention. There is also a blindness within Damascus, which is caused both by the security situation and the wishes of the government, and that means it is impossible for those working from Damascus to see or to understand the conflict and the humanitarian situation accurately. It’s not necessarily malicious on their part is what I’m saying, they’re doing their best, they’re in an imperfect situation.

This is combined with a kleptocratic patronage system that rewards associates of the government with financial rewards and contracts, including the right to run NGOs and businesses that bid for the lucrative aid contracts, and then you have the vice-like grip of the government that uses food and healthcare as a weapon, and has led all in all to a very problematic situation.

To move anywhere in government controlled Syria, the UN and the NGOs must seek extensive, multi-layered permissions from the government, and the municipalities, the security services, and as you’ve heard these are often not granted, in particular if the area is being ‘punished’ as we’ve seen in Eastern Ghouta.

I’ve written a lot about the way UN money has been falling into the hands of those aligned with the government of Syria, and of the inherent problems with reporting systems, and the manipulation and control of the UN system within Syria. This has seen organisations benefit like the al-Bustan charity, which is run by the president’s cousin Rami Mahklouf, which funds militias and has seen both Mr Mahklouf and the charity face international sanctions. But today, I’d like to look at the present and the future very quickly.

There’s a lot that is problematic about the way we’re looking at these so-called deescalation zones. There are four of them in the country, and they are part of the Astana peace process. We have heard already about Eastern Ghouta, but what is important to note is that these are part of the ongoing peace talks, and while Geneva continues, we can see that the discussion about transition through elections is being conducted on the basis of a successful Astana political process, and what we can see when we look at it from a humanitarian perspective is that it is not successful.

In terms of framing, de-escalation has been seen as a new initiative, rather than a politically sanctioned version of the ongoing ‘reconciliation’ process we have seen the government undertake, which has led to the war crime of forced displacement after months and even years of siege and military bombardment. We have heard already that ‘reconciled’ areas are not receiving aid, some are still classified as besieged and receive cross-line convoys, despite having supposedly reconciled with the government of Syria. And secondly I wanted to speak about a couple of examples that are taking place right now, that speak to the future issues with the way the humanitarian response is being undertaken. One is Wadi Barada and the other is Eastern Aleppo, and what we are seeing in each is similar.

So for a multi-sectoral planning process, various UN departments are planning a humanitarian response. In Wadi Barada this was done through something called ‘micro-planning’ which was a new plan for six-month long post-reconciliation multi-sectoral interventions. Wadi Barada is not the only place that this has taken place. If you recall, it was evacuated after bombardment and siege in January of 2017.

Obviously aid was needed. However, the plans excluded towns within the body of Wadi Barada region that the government hopes not to repopulate with returning refugees and IDPs, and the WASH section of the plan consolidates the use of local private wells as a water source. Both of these activities consolidate pre-war grievances and will help entrench displacement and to ensure the water access issues regarding the springs will continue to be a source of conflict.

The conflict sensitivity planning that was conducted on that particular micro-plan included mitigations such as ‘be aware.’

In Aleppo, following the initial humanitarian intervention, the work is being led by the ‘shelter cluster.’ I wrote in a recent article, having seen the system for prioritisation for areas within east Aleppo to act within, that the process involved the government line ministry, who partners with UNHCR as the cluster lead, outlining their priority areas for eastern Aleppo. The UN and NGO partners then identified their own priorities, and they overlaid the two maps to find the common areas to prioritise. Within these a small cluster of three adjacent neighbourhoods were chosen as the pilot priority area.

Again, as in Homs and Wadi Barada, areas and neighbourhoods the government would like to see repopulated and rebuilt, predominantly informal housing, and opposition supporting areas, are not being prioritised, and are marked for redevelopment projects. By acting in this way, the UN is helping to consolidate pre-conflict and conflict drivers, and have hugely helped to entrench the displacement of the people that formerly lived in those areas.

Added to this is an increasing emphasis on development work. So through the strategic framework, the UN is working on development projects with the government of Syria. This work covers a lot of work capacity building line ministries. Humanitarian intervention has worked closely with the so-called benign ministries like health and education, but the strategic framework looks at other ministries, like the interior ministry.

Donors are hesitant to fund this work, so a lot of it is being funded either bilaterally, or as early recovery and livelihoods work within the humanitarian response plan. Many donors are uncomfortable with how much of this work is being carried out under a humanitarian tag, because the work covers everything from small business grants and training to the repair of infrastructure like power stations and water springs.

Within this work, it’s not just the way that it’s designed, and the broader structural concerns that that plays into, that’s inherently problematic, the government’s tight grip on who can do the work is problematic too.

The Syria Trust, for example, is an NGO that was started by Asma al-Assad, the first lady. They are conducting the very sensitive psychosocial support interviews of people coming out of ‘reconciled’ areas that have been besieged and bombed by her husband’s regime. They are also providing the legal aid clinics to help HLP guidance to the displaced; all the while the government is passing law after law undermining their land and property rights and risking their ability to return home.

We have seen the extent to which the humanitarian operation has been manipulated and weaponised. And we are now reaching a point where the response is moving into a new phase. Unless there is a step change in the way the UN is conducting this work, that sees impartiality as a verb, and an activity that requires constant consideration and analysis to ensure it’s not fulfilling the government’s inequitable plans, there is a real risk that the UN itself will be undermining the long term peace building process in Syria.


Thank you for the presentation. If it’s okay we’ll have just a short period of time for questions, if anybody would like to ask our three contributors any questions?

John Woodcock:

Thanks. John Woodcock, MP for Barrow. Forgive me for having come in so late. If this has been covered you can just tell me to shut up and I’ll catch up at the end, but specifically I wanted to ask about the situation in neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey. I’m going to be there from Thursday over the weekend, meeting ministers and hopefully getting out to one of the camps in Gaziantep, and anything I should be asking or pushing for would be very helpful.

Paul Musiol:

Just briefly in response to your question, and I think maybe NRC can speak to it as well, we know from the Syrians we work with there that they face a lot of challenges just with registration and with actual operating within Turkey, to be able to conduct a response from Turkey. I wouldn’t be able to say the specifics, but maybe NRC could?

Martin Hartberg:

We can send you some points on the key challenges in Turkey, in terms of Turkey’s response to the work in Syria.

John Woodcock:

Yes please, that would be very helpful, thank you.

Bronwen Griffiths:

I just wanted to ask one question, when you were talking about cross-line operations, and you said that due to the UN resolution that didn’t have to have approval, but then you said but it still has to have approval? I didn’t understand quite what that meant?

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard:

Certainly. The resolution I mentioned, 2165, foresaw the possibility for a humanitarian act of the UN and implementing partners to conduct operations without the need for consent of the government, both cross-border which has in fact happened, and cross-line. But what we have seen is that the UN never actually attempted to operate cross-line by mere notification. Now this is something that they should have pushed for in 2014, it’s extremely difficult in 2017 to put the clock back, so that’s the difference. But the intent had been exactly the same, because the problem was exactly the same.


Emma, on Turkey? Or on anything else, was there anything you wanted to add?

Emma Beals:

I would just reiterate the importance of 2165 in that context, and sort of try and remind people that even before that regulation was passed, it was quote-unquote illegal for humanitarian intervention going into the north outside of that, and that regulation was primarily to legitimise something that was already happening, it wasn’t something that created that system, and via that legal framework I think that there has been perhaps a lack of imagination about intervening, either about doing cross-line work with notification, or by acquiescing to the government’s interpretation of that particular resolution which which was that it was the named border crossings only, and not all other crossings. And so I think that pulling things back to what needs to be done where is very important, and ensuring that those frameworks stay in place.

What we’re seeing here is that we have this talking out of one side of our mouths situation going on with the political process where Geneva is saying that Astana is working, and from a humanitarian perspective it’s not. None of the humanitarian aid access parts of that process have been upheld by the parties, and so taking anybody who is involved in the Astana process’s word for the fact that humanitarian access will be granted outside any external legal process would be deeply problematic, because it’s not even happening now.

Matthew Hemsley:

My name is Matt Hemsley, I work with Oxfam. I’ve been in Jordan the past four months, and hopefully moving to Damascus next year. I was just going to ask a quick question. You obviously, as you highlighted, have a different number of people living under siege than the UN does, and I’ve spoken to PAX colleagues before about why that is, and you touched on it. I just wondered how that might impact the UN humanitarian response, or how that impacts on aid getting to those communities that you might class as besieged but the UN doesn’t?

And then I don’t know if Emma can hear me, and I might regret asking this, because we’re a Damascus-registered agency, operating through that modality with the challenges that are incumbent. I would share a lot of your criticism of the UN response with regards to Damascus, but would be interested if you have any—I mean something we’re very critical of is that we would like the UN to open up more space for the INGOs to respond through Damascus and don’t feel that they’re helping us to do that, so from the cross-border aspect a lot more of the aid is coming from INGOs, but from Damascus about 90% of the aid is UN and only 10% or so is INGO. We’re constantly frustrated by the UN machinery I think in that. I just wonder if in your work you’ve got any reflections on the INGOs’ response and how the UN managers are working together, and I hope I don’t regret asking that too much!


But there are no bad questions. Emma, would you like to respond on that?

Emma Beals:

I think that where there is room for movement, and this is what organisations like PAX have shown and what my reporting has shown, is that when you highlight some of the concerns that are moveable there is movement. So with Siege Watch we’ve seen that the numbers of people in besieged areas has been reassessed by the UN because it was externally monitored and they were pressured to do so, and with that has come a greater ability to politicise what they had said was already politicised, and get some traction in some places where it’s necessary, and we’ve seen the same thing where I’ve criticised the reporting of the UN to the Security Council by saying well, if you bury the lede how is anyone at that table going to know what the extent of the problem is, and be able to change it? And when that was highlighted it was changed.

So I think that some of the outstanding issues and where there is room for movement within a very imperfect system, I mean I’m obviously not going to say well let’s all go wherever we want because we know that we’re working within a very restricted framework, but there are things like how we talk about things, so from the Damascus hub you’ll find that post reconciled areas are referred to as newly accessible areas, which has a positive connotation and really upsets a lot of people. It doesn’t speak about what the area has been through, it doesn’t speak about what the area needs. It sees it like it’s a new opportunity when actually this is an area which has undergone war crimes, and as we’ve seen a lot of these areas aren’t newly accessible, they’re still not accessible. So being careful about the language that’s being used from the Damascus hub has a great impact on the political process, on the understanding of political figures.

And when we’re discussing issues of should we work in reconciled areas or not, I know that has become politicised not just by the UN but by other actors who say well, something terrible happened here and we shouldn’t engage. Try to push people back to those first principles of humanitarian intervention. Ask are there needs? Are there needs in those areas? Do those people deserve to suffer again just because something was carried out that wasn’t lawful or ethical? It doesn’t mean that we should re-traumatise those people for some political gain.

Try to find ways where you can create a matrix around access. We talk a lot about access, but what kind of access are we talking about? We talk about modality, but let’s break that down a little more. When you go cross-line, are you throwing things off the back of a truck or are you able to speak to the beneficiaries, are you able to understand the community makeup? Try to push into some of those areas which are still imperfect, they’re small steps, but they’re still steps nonetheless, and keeping on pushing and pushing as an INGO that’s working in Damascus, pushing by saying it’s not really accessible, it’s post reconciled but we’re not able to get there. Just staying on top of some of those smaller things I think actually does make small changes over the long term.


Thanks, that’s really helpful. Paul, do you want to come in?

Paul Musiol:

Sure. I think Emma already answered part of your question towards me actually, in terms of what does it lead to in terms of status. A lot of it is to do with the frustration of people in these areas, and their faith in the international community to do something to help them. It’s not merely a logistical and political exercise to try and get access for its own sake, but it’s also that the people there want to know that they’re not forgotten. That’s one of the main reasons why we started our project and why we focused on the numbers at the beginning. I suppose Syrians have lots of reasons to feel a lack of confidence in the international community, but this was a big one for the partners that we were working with.

So that’s on one end, I guess mainly about solidarity really. And the other then is around trying to just, as Emma said, to just find that little space for movement, better recognition of the situation on the ground, more accurate reporting to the Security Council which ultimately has in a case like Syria the responsibility for the security of the people there when the government is failing in its responsibilities to such an extent, and there is the practical thing then of are these areas prioritised enough by OCHA on behalf of the UN system on the ground, are they receiving the attention that they need? So these are all the reasons why this discrepancy is important.

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard:

Can I come in on a slightly different point? As I was preparing for today, I was wondering what my ask would be. The reality is I wonder how helpful it is to shine political light on many of these issues. I feel that negotiation of humanitarian access tends to be best left to the parties involved. But something that struck me as a lawyer as very problematic has been the criminalisation of those who have provided humanitarian assistance. And we’ve seen that they have both been tried under this counterterrorism law, that they’ve been forcibly displaced, and I think that’s a general point that is extremely problematic, we’ve seen it in Syria, we’ve seen it in other contexts as well. And that is an area where it could be useful to be vocal, just to remind everyone of the fundamental principles that people are entitled to receive humanitarian assistance, medical assistance, and that those who provide this assistance are not criminal. It’s something that’s above the politics of the negotiations, a foundational principle.


We’re coming close to our time now, so we’ve just got time now for very brief comments or questions, very brief.

Marjorie Bahhaj:

I’m very International Criminal Court aware now, I will be happy when we get Assad in there, so this making it awkward for humanitarian aid to get through, and you’ve beautifully gone through the UN resolution and all the excessive bureaucracy, can we then use that in the courts as clear evidence that siege is going on?

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard:

I think it’s very difficult to determine that the series of impediments are a violation of international law, because parties actually have considerable leeway in terms of measures they can take, but there are certain things that are incontestable violations of international law, and the example I continue to give is the removal of medical items. That clearly violates a foundational principle of international humanitarian law. That’s the easiest one to pick upon as a matter of law.

Amr Salahi:

I wanted to ask if Siege Watch and the UN have the same criteria for a besieged area, are there zones which Siege Watch considers besieged and the UN doesn’t? And secondly, following the de-escalation agreement, have some areas had access to food and medicine and are no longer considered besieged because of the de-escalation agreements?

Paul Musiol:

So briefly, yes there are areas which we assess as besieged and which the UN does not, and they are mainly the northern Homs countryside. There is roughly I think 200,000 people in three towns north of Homs, and there is a discrepancy there, the UN doesn’t look at those areas as besieged, and all the indications we have from the people that we’re dealing with inside those areas says that access is so restricted that they are besieged. So that’s one of the main areas in which we disagree with the UN.

The other is in the southern Damascus suburbs. At the core of the southern Damascus suburbs you have Yarmouk, which is obviously very well known after the photographs that came out of there of enormous queues of people waiting for food. But other suburbs around that, like Hajar al-Aswad, those areas we also assess as besieged because there’s no movement in or out, no free movement of goods, everything is controlled like northern Homs.

And the second part of your question—no, Eastern Ghouta itself is a de-escalation zone and has obviously seen no improvement whatsoever, quite the opposite. We have reports, although they’re not confirmed, but reports of use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta in the last couple of months, several reports of use of cluster munitions, and the interference we’ve focused on particularly on medicines, and people continue to be prevented from moving in or out freely, so no. The overwhelming way in which sieges end is violently, unfortunately.


Okay, we’re going to have to leave it there for today. Can I just offer my sincere thanks to our speakers, to Emanuela, to Paul, and especially to Emma for joining us via Skype, it’s very much appreciated. I think the technology just about held up. So thank you for joining us, it’s been a very helpful session.