Syria Notes Autumn 2018

Idlib pocket: Holding on to the revolution in Syria’s northwest

Idlib has become the stage for a contest to preserve Syria’s revolution. Several weeks of Friday demonstrations across the Idlib pocket have presented a revival of civil activism. But as this popular revival faces threats both from Assad and his international allies, and from jihadist armed groups, once again, Syrians’ fate rests on decisions taken in foreign capitals.

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Cover photograph: ‘No matter how many of us you kill, Bashar, we will go on,’ said Syrian-American activist Rania Kisar in a video message from a demonstration in Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Idlib, 14 September 2018.

Printing of this issue has been funded by Lush Charity Pot.

Our Summer 2018 issue on the reconstruction debate is here.

An archive of earlier issues of Syria Notes is here.

Death and life in the Idlib pocket

A reprieve for people in Idlib and western Aleppo

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

Beginning on 4 September 2018, Assad regime and Russian forces escalated air and artillery attacks against people in the Idlib pocket. The wave of attacks came after three weeks of regime ground deployments towards Idlib, as well as of armed opposition groups strengthening defences against a feared all-out assault, and of the Turkish military strengthening their observation posts around the pocket.

On that first day, at least five children from one family in al Basatin, south of Jisr al-Shughur city, were reported killed by Russian aircraft, as were a woman and her husband in Jisr al-Shughur, and a woman, Mrs Lama al Saeed, and her daughter Walaa al Taha, in Mhambel village in Idlib suburbs, the Syrian Network For Human Rights reported. Al Badriya Primary School in Idlib suburbs was reported bombed by Russian aircraft.

Most Russian air attacks on the first day came near the M4 Highway between Jisr al-Shughur and Arihah. The M4 and M5 are the two major road routes running through the Idlib pocket, and so have a strategic value.

An Mi-8 Hip helicopter dropping a barrel bomb on the town of Al-Lataminah on 8 September 2018. The same day, Hass underground hospital, 20km to the north, was also bombed by Mi-8 Hip helicopters.

A couple of months earlier, rebel control in Daraa province, southwestern Syria, had suffered a rapid collapse when the US and Israel withdrew any form of deterrence against a regime advance, and Russian and regime forces took control of the entire southwest. As a result, the Idlib pocket was left as the last remaining opposition-held territory in Syria without explicit protection from a foreign power.

The Idlib pocket consists of a large part of Idlib province, parts of western Aleppo province, and a small margin of northern Hama province. In the last year, Turkey has established a series of observation posts around the pocket through negotiations with Russia, but it has been unclear whether these will impede a regime ground attack, as they haven’t prevented air and artillery attacks by Russia and the Assad regime from continuing.

A REACH report of 31 July surveyed the conditions of 1.2 million displaced people in the Idlib pocket, and found that internally displaced people continue to have limited or no access to basic services such as healthcare, water and electricity, and that almost 20% of IDPs live in overcrowded or unsuitable shelters. Very many of the displaced are people forcibly transferred by the Assad regime from besieged communities elsewhere in Syria. REACH reported that airstrikes, shelling and tensions between armed opposition groups are likely to trigger further displacements.

Military control on the ground in Idlib is divided between two coalitions of armed groups: one being Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group descended from the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra; and the other being the National Liberation Front, a coalition supported by Turkey. Competition between the groups has most recently been seen in a series of assassinations.

Political control has been through local councils, some of them elected, working with the Syrian Interim Government. However since November 2017, HTS has moved to seize control of many councils and incorporate them into its alternative Syrian Salvation Government.

Civil society groups have led popular opposition to HTS, as well as opposition to Assad regime attacks. The escalating threats of a regime assault were answered with a series of large popular demonstrations across the Idlib pocket opposing Assad, supporting the Syrian revolution, and rejecting HTS.

Russian and Assad regime attacks continued through the first half of September. On 6 September a Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) centre in Taman’a, Idlib, was bombed while both Russian and Syrian regime aircraft were reported circling the town. According to Amnesty, at least thirteen attacks were reported between 7 and 10 September in the southern part of Idlib governorate targeting the villages of al-Tah, Jarjanaz, Hbit, Hass, Abdin as well as the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun, killing 14 civilians and injuring 35 more. Internationally banned cluster munitions and unguided barrel bombs were used.

The UK, US, and French response focused on sending a clear deterrent message against any chemical weapons use, but was noncommittal on whether they might impose consequences for more conventional assad regime attacks. Turkish deterrence against a ground assault included sending more weapons to National Liberation Front groups, as well as deploying Turkish armour along the Turkish-Syrian border, and in some cases over the border.

On Monday 17 September, Russian and Turkish leaders Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting in Sochi, Russia, announced a deal to establish a demilitarised zone along the perimeter of the Idlib pocket separating pro and anti regime forces.

After the Putin-Erdogan talks, the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said there would not now be an offensive, Reuters reported.

Heavy weapons are to be withdrawn from the zone by 10 October, and ‘all radical terrorist groups’ are to be removed from the zone by 15 October. Turkish and Russian forces are to conduct patrols along the zone’s boundaries. Traffic on the M4 and M5 routes is to be restored by year’s end.

Alistair Burt, UK Minister for the Middle East, welcomed the Idlib agreement on a visit to Turkey in the days following its announcement.

Weekly demonstrations in the Idlib pocket continued, sidelining HTS, and calling for the release of detainees. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, no less than 118,829 individuals are still under arrest or forcibly disappeared by parties to the conflict, nearly 88% of them taken by the Assad regime.

Towards the end of September, the US and UK stopped sending aid into Idlib via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, in order to stop HTS—who control the crossing—imposing charges on aid trucks. Ben Parker of IRIN reported that the HTS administration, the Salvation Government, responded shortly after by promising to stop the practice.

Earlier IRIN reports had detailed how reinforced US counter-terror controls on aid operations were complicating aid for millions in Idlib. UN-appointed human rights watchdog Agnès Callamard told IRIN that counter-terror legislation towards aid is ‘out of control’ and leading to ‘arbitrary deprivation of life.’

As the 10 October deadline arrived, various groups were reported to have removed heavy weapons from the agreed Russian-Turkish DMZ, despite objections from some groups over some of the terms of the agreement.

Civil resistance to extremism in Idlib

Idlib protesters calling for the release of detainees, with posters of the Douma Four. Armed group Jaish al-Islam are widely held to be responsible for the 2013 Douma Four kidnapping.
Julia Taleb

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

For the past five weeks, thousands of people have been demonstrating every Friday in communities across Idlib province, northern Hama and Aleppo provinces. ‘We will stay in the streets until we bring the revolution back on track—a call for rights and freedom,’ said Ahmed, one of the participants in Marat al-Numan demonstrations. He asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, an armed group formed by the former al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. ‘We will kick the terrorists out, so the regime cannot use their presence as a pretext for an attack.’

Read the full article online at Waging Nonviolence.

Lawyer Yaser al-Saleem at a demonstration in Kafranbel on 21 September, holding a sign calling for the release of people kidnapped by ISIS in Sweida, and accusing the Assad regime of complicity in ISIS attacks on Druze people in southern Syria. The following day, Yaser al-Saleem was arrested by the jihadist armed group HTS.

Fears as UK cuts Free Police funds

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim & Barrett Limoges for Syria Direct

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

For the past six years in Syria’s rebel-held northwest, the Free Syrian Police has tried to maintain law and order in amongst armed clashes and shifting alliances between rebel factions. Since its founding in 2012, the network of community police officers has been going after criminals and protecting civil institutions in areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces where the rules are all too often determined by armed groups. The force’s approach to policing has been described as ‘policing by consent’: by building networks of trust among communities where the force works and, above all, refusing to carry weapons.

Read the full article online at Syria Direct.

Arrest of a suspected drug dealer in Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Idlib.

Command responsibility

Brian Slocock researches the regime officers named at the Security Council.

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

Speaking to the UN Security Council on 7 September, the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Karen Pierce named several Assad regime officers, saying they would be held accountable for their part in the anticipated major regime offensive on Idlib:
‘Last time we discussed this issue, Madam President, the military side, we were in the Consultations Room and then I read out our understanding of which Syrian military units are in the vicinity of Idlib. And echoing the Secretary-General’s call, I’d like to read these units out in the Chamber, and I’d like to make very clear that if there is a major offensive against civilians with massive civilian casualties in Idlib, then these are the people that the international community will be holding accountable for those abuses and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

‘Our understanding is that the overall head of the Syrian army is the Minister of Defence General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, but the primary unit deployed to the Idlib area are the Fourth Armoured Division to the west side of Idlib and Maher-al-Assad is the overall commander of that unit, but we believe that Major General Ali Mahmoud is the Deputy Commander. We understand the Republican Guard are probably deployed to the east side around Abu Duhr and their commander is Major General Talal Makhluf. Tiger Forces are likely deployed to the southeast side and their commander is Brigadier General Suhayl ‘Tiger’ Hasan. And then we think that there are also 2nd Corps and 5th Corps units in the area and the commander we know about for that is Major General Aous Aslan. So as I say Madam President, if there is a major offensive against Idlib, then, in addition to the Syrian regime, these commanders, these units will be held accountable by the international community.’

General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub in mid September visiting front lines for a regime assault on Idlib.

Who are the Assad regime officers named by Ambassador Pierce?

General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub (above) has been Chief of General Staff of Syrian Arab Army since 2012, and Minister of Defence since 1 January 2018. He is sanctioned by the EU as responsible for ‘repression and violence against the civilian population in Syria.’ Born in the city of Latakia on 28 April 1952, he is married with three children.

Maher-al-Assad (right) is the younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad. As commander of the elite 4th division, he is ostensibly responsible for the security of the capital, but since 2011 has been central to the Syrian regime’s machinery of repression. For several years Maher was formally only a brigade commander, but viewed as effectively in command of the Division because of his family connection. In 2017 the he was promoted to the rank of major-general and the following year formally designated Commander of the 4th Division.

Maher al-Assad was linked to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in an unpublished early draft of the UN’s Mehlis Commission report on the killing.

In 2011, a video was released allegedly showing Maher photographing dismembered corpses of inmates killed at Sednaya prison in 2008.

Maher al-Assad was linked to some of the earliest violence against protesters in 2011. On 23 March 2011, troops shot dead five people including a doctor in the Omari mosque in Daraa. According to a PRI report, locals said the troops belonged to the 4th Division, under Maher al-Assad’s command:
‘By April 8, the fourth consecutive Friday of protests, the chants on the streets of Daraa were pure fury. “Hey Maher you coward, take your dogs to the Golan,” shouted the protestors, 25 of whom were killed on that one day.’
Maher’s sister-in-law Majd al-Jadaan, who now lives in exile in the US after coming into conflict with Maher, has described him to Reuters as a stubborn and ruthless man who beats his junior aides.

Maher has extensive business interests. He is sanctioned by both the US and the European Union.

Born in 1967, Maher al-Assad is married to Manal al-Jadaan. They have three children, two girls and a boy. They live in a villa near the presidential palace, and he also owns a ranch and horses in the Yaafour area near Damascus, according to an Associated Press report.

Major General Ali Mahmoud has reportedly succeeded Maher al-Assad as commander of the 4th Division’s 42nd Armoured Brigade, which could well make him deputy Commander (and even effective Commander) of the Division. He does not seem to be on any sanctions list.

Major General Talal Makhluf (right) is the Commander of the Republican Guard, ostensibly responsible for protecting the President but in recent years deployed for much broader purposes. He is Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, and a member of the powerful Makhluf family, which includes Syria’s wealthiest businessman, Rami Makhluf.

A December 2011 Human Rights Watch report, titled ‘By All Means Necessary,’ on individual and command responsibility for crimes against humanity in Syria, included testimony from army defectors that they had been ordered by Talal Makhluf to shoot and kill unarmed demonstrators.

Talal Makhluf was sanctioned by the US and the EU for his role in violent repression in Homs in 2011.

Brigadier General Suhayl ‘Tiger’ Hasan (right) is the head of a militia operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Arab Army—the eponymous ‘Tiger force.’ He led the ground forces in the 2018 attack on East Ghouta with air support from Russian forces, in which more than 2,000 civilians were killed—including over 300 children.

Hassan’s Tiger Force benefits from the patronage of the Russian military, who have provided it with equipment, including T-90 tanks. Tiger Force units have filmed themselves executing prisoners and displaying heads of captives.

He is a protégé of Major General Jamil Hassan (no relation), head of the notorious Air Force Intelligence. As a colonel, Hasan was Director of Operations in Air Force Intelligence in 2011 and commanded repressive operations against democracy protestors in Moadamiya, involving mass arrests and torture of detainees. There, he reportedly ordered forces under his command to fire on peaceful protesters. In 2012 he was implicated in military operations against protestors in Daraa, and in a massacre in the city of Tremseh in which 200 civilians were killed. He is sanctioned by the US and by the European Union.

Major General Aous Aslan is the son of former chief of staff General Ali Aslan. He is reportedly close to the Assad family, and graduated alongside the late Bassel al-Assad (right), older brother to Bashar and Maher. Formerly a battalion commander in the Republican Guard, in 2016 he was named Commander of the Syrian Arab Army’s 2nd Corps. He is sanctioned by the EU for involvement in ‘the crackdown on the civilian population across Syria.’

Five of the above six key commanders are members of the same Alawi sect as Bashar al-Assad, and two are close family members.

Notes on Accountability

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

Recovering the body of a victim of an incendiary attack in Arbin, Eastern Ghouta, 22 March 2018.
Photo: Syria Civil Defence via Siege Watch.


In February to April 2018, Assad regime and Russian forces took the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus by air and artillery attacks, cluster bombs, firebombing, and chemical attacks.

The assault came after over four years of siege against a population that by 2018 had dwindled to 393,000, down from 1.5 million in 2011.

According to the Atlantic Council’s new report, Breaking Ghouta, one single day, the 21st of February, saw 1,658 air and artillery attacks recorded. Locals said corpses and body parts were left rotting under rubble and strewn in the streets due to the danger in retrieving them. Many victims were buried in mass graves, with numbers put on their improvised shrouds. Relatives were unable to reach hospitals to identify them.

Medical centres that were attacked included two whose locations had been ‘deconflicted’ by sharing them with the Russian military via the UN.

There were at least 25 attacks with incendiary weapons, mostly upon urban areas behind the front lines.

Six suspected chemical attacks took place. The deadliest, on 7 April, killed at least 70 civilians in the town of Douma, precipitating its final surrender one day later. This attack led to limited retaliatory strikes by the US, UK, and France.

By 22 April 2018, more than 158,000 people had been forcibly dis­placed, approximately 66,000 of them to opposition-held areas in northwest Syria, including the Idlib pocket.

The full report is available online at:


In Spring, the last of Syria’s sieges ended in military assaults and forced displacements. Siege Watch published their final quarterly report in two parts: one on Eastern Ghouta; the second on southern Damascus, northern Homs, and on Fuaa and Kefraya, towns in Idlib besieged by opposition groups and HTS.

More than 1,700 civilians were estim­ated killed and 5,000 injured in the final offensive against Eastern Ghouta.

In southern Damascus, opposition-controlled neighbourhoods surrendered between February and May, and ISIS-held areas Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad were subjected to a scorched earth military campaign and depopulated.

Northern Homs

The cities of Talbiseh and al-Rastan in northern Homs, along with towns in al-Houleh, had been besieged by pro regime forces since 2013.

Russia’s de-escalation zone for the area showed itself to be a military strategy masquerading as a peace plan, according to Siege Watch. Instead of leading to good faith negotiations, the zone put military operations in Homs on pause, allowing the regime to strengthen positions elsewhere and focus on the opposition-held areas one at a time.

As operations in Damascus came to an end, regime forces deployed to Homs. On 24 April, the regime’s ‘reconciliation’ minister Ali Haidar (see photo) confirmed to Reuters that northern Homs was the regime’s next military target.

On 29 April, bombing escalated. Attacks on al-Rastan city killed civilians. A healthcare clinic in al-Zaafaraneh and al-Zaafaraneh Surgical Hospital were bombed. The hospital had been de-conflicted, meaning its location was shared with Russia. On 30 April, Al-Rastan field hospital was bombed.

Russia’s forces took part in attacks, even as the Russian military led talks with the local negotiating committee. Russian negotiators threatened committee members that their homes would be destroyed and children killed. On 2 May, the committee agreed to Russia’s terms, and 35,000 people were displaced from northern Homs to northwest Syria over the next fortnight.

Fuaa and Kefraya

Fuaa and Kefraya were a pocket of regime control within the opposition-controlled area of Idlib province. The two towns, including the civilian population, had been besieged by opposition groups and by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) since 2015.

Unlike the opposition-held areas besieged by pro regime forces, Fuaa and Kefraya received regular airdrops of aid by the Assad regime and its allies.

On 17 July, the regime announced a deal with HTS; a prisoner exchange, with all remaining fighters and civilians to be transferred out of the towns the next day. Around 7,000 people were forcibly displaced out of Fuaa and Kefraya to regime-held territory, as the regime released hundreds of detainees. The deal left the two towns completely depopulated and under HTS control.

HTS is sanctioned by the UN Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee.

The aftermath

A total of over 200,000 people were displaced in the first half of 2018, with 110,000 of them forcibly transferred to northern Syria, according to Siege Watch. Major parts of the Damascus suburbs were depopulated, with some areas 90% destroyed.

Months on, survivors are neglected. Post-surrender communities are isolated due to regime restrict­ions. As Siege Watch reporting ends, other sources tell of continuing repression in post-surrender areas. According to Ana Press, women who had worked as medical staff in Ghouta are being imprisoned by Syrian intelligence. According to researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, 18 former White Helmets were arrested in Homs.

There has been little improvement for displaced people in northwest Syria, according to Siege Watch. Under-resourced Syrian humanitarian groups are unable to meet the scale of the crisis, and calls for help go unanswered. International agencies are increasingly choosing to register with the regime in Damascus, which will give them access to areas that the regime wants to reward, but will obstruct them from giving aid to areas that most need support.

Victims face the possibility of permanent exile, with the Assad regime using new laws to confiscate and redev­elop the property of displaced people.

In July, Jamil Hassan, Head of Air Force Intelligence, made clear that perm­anent forced displacement is regime policy, saying, ‘A Syria with ten million trustworthy people obedient to the leader­ship is better than a Syria with thirty million vandals.’ He said that anyone getting in the way of the government’s plans will be considered a ‘terrorist’ and that more than three million displaced Syrians are already on their wanted list.

Justice and accountability

This final Siege Watch quarterly report closes with calls for action on justice and accountability:

Donor countries should fund and give diplomatic support to international justice and accountability mechanisms, the COI, the IIIM, and should support ICC referral. Donors should continue to support Syrian civil society groups to document violations, litigate criminal cases, and advocate for accountability.

States with universal jurisdiction should investigate crimes, strengthen the legal basis for universal jurisdiction, enhance capacity of relevant authorities, and increase cooperation with other states and investigative mechanisms.

The UN COI and others should open investigations into all incidents with clear evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity—not only on chemical weapons—including violations against the health sector, removal of medical supplies from convoys, bombing of medical facilities, as well as continuing abuses in post-surrender communities.

Victims and survivors should be supported, to organise and to take part in international political processes and justice and accountability initiatives.

The UN Secretary-General should appoint a panel to conduct an internal review of UN actions regarding besieged areas of Syria, similar to the 2012 review of UN actions in Sri Lanka.

An interna­tional mech­anism to document property claims of displaced people is needed to collect and preserve proof of property, and to prepare for justice including property restitution and reparations.

All Siege Watch reports are online here:


Speaking at ‘Alive in Graves,’ an event at Amnesty UK in September, Syrian lawyer Anwar Al-Bounni told of efforts to bring cases in European courts.

Anwar al-Bounni focuses on crimes against detainees. More than 150,000 people are imprisoned or disappeared in Syria, according to Anwar al-Bounni. Of those at least 60,000 are believed killed.

In June, Germany’s federal prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Air Force Intelligence chief Jamil Hassan (see photo) for his role in the deaths of ‘at least hundreds of people’ between 2011-2013 in Syrian prisons, acc­ording to Der Spiegel.

Anwar Al-Bounni and journalist Mazen Darwish interviewed dozens of survivors of detention and torture for the case. Germany’s federal prosecutor is charging that Jamil Hassan ordered his men to torture, rape, and murder prisoners.

Jamil Hassan has been under EU and US sanctions since 2011. According to Syria in Context, Hassan has a role in controlling aid flows via Damascus, as he personally signs facilitation letters that permit aid deliveries inside Syria. These letters also include signatures of the Head of Military Intelligence and other ministries. These permissions are sought by NGOs and UN agencies. Syrian government control of aid flowing via Damascus has allowed the regime to weaponise it, leading to malnutrition and deaths in besieged areas.

Speaking at the same event, Toby Cadman, of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, explained that cases are being pursued through national courts because a UN referral to the Interna­tional Criminal Court (ICC) has been vetoed by Russia, a party to the conflict itself responsible for war crimes.

While the ICC route is blocked, there are bodies to investigate crimes in Syria and to prepare cases.

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established in 2011 by a Human Rights Council resolution, has a mandate to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011.

A separate body, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), was established in 2016 by a UN General Assembly resolution to prepare cases for trial by national courts or by any international court that may have jurisdiction in future.

In a recent interview with Syria Untold (Part 1, Part 2) Anwar Al-Bounni pointed to the ongoing case in Argentina against the Franco dictatorship as an example of the power of universal jurisdiction. After the death of Spanish dictator Franco, a law was passed in Spain granting amnesty for crimes committed under the dictatorship. As Spanish courts have been unable to prosecute these crimes, Spanish victims have taken their cases to an Argentinian investigating judge.


Working with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, Anwar al-Bounni and colleagues have submitted four cases to prosecutors in Germany: one case targeting three military security branches—‘We call it the Death Branches’—together resp­onsible for the deaths of very many detainees; the second case is on Air Force Intelligence; the third case on the ‘Caesar’ photos, the tens of thousands of photographs smuggled out of Syria showing the dead bodies of victims of torture and abuse; and the fourth is about Sednaya Prison. ‘The last one could touch and target Bashar al-Assad himself, as a criminal, not as a head of state,’ Anwar al-Bounni said. Arrest warrants have been issued for several Syrian officers, but the federal prosecutor has revealed only one name so far, Jamil Hassan.


In Austria, Anwar al-Bounni and his colleagues have submitted a case against perpetrators in Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, and Daraa. The Austrian case has got off to a good start, with the prosecutor deciding to hear testimony from witnesses.


In Spain, Toby Cadman’s chambers, Guernica 37, are representing a Spanish citizen whose brother was killed in detention in Syria in a case against members of the Syrian regime’s security forces. The Spanish state successfully appealed against the case on grounds of jurisdiction, and the case has now gone to Spain’s supreme court.


In 2016 a case was filed in France against Air Force Intelligence for the forced disappearance in 2013 of two French-Syrian dual nationals, Patrick A. Dabbagh and Mazen Dabbagh.

There is also a French case open against the Syrian regime for the killing of French photojournalist Remi Ochlik and the attempted killing of French journalist Edith Bouvier in the same 2012 attack that killed Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and injured photographer Paul Conroy.

United Kingdom

A case of particular interest in the UK is that of British Doctor Abbas Khan, tortured and killed in detention in Syria in December 2013. A UK coroner’s court jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing on his death.

On the lack of progress in this case, Toby Cadman said, ‘The unit that is responsible for these cases, the Counter Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police, SO15 as it’s called, has very limited resources.’

‘They are required to investigate domestic terrorism cases, international terrorism cases that have a connection to the United Kingdom,’ Toby Cadman continued.

‘In the case of Dr Abbas Khan, initially the evidence that was available to them was in their view insufficient to launch an investigation; based on that it was unclear in what facility Dr Khan had been killed, and by extension who was responsible; and of course due to a lack of understanding by the Metropolitan Police as to whether there’s a reasonable basis for concluding that he could have been killed by rogue elements within the prison establishment.

‘We have made it very clear to the Metropolitan Police exactly where he was killed, and in any event it doesn’t matter if he was killed in facility one, two, or three, because the command structure is the same for all of these facilities, so it makes no difference.

‘And there are no rogue elements operating within these facilities. This is a policy, and there is a credible basis for bringing an investigation. Helped by individuals such as Anwar who helped to educate me on how the system operates, and who was responsible, we were able to identify a number of individuals who bear criminal responsibility.’


The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act passed another hurdle in the US Congress when it was approved by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 26 September.

The act will impose comprehensive sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses and attacks against civilians.

The act puts forward a list of 47 names, beginning with Bashar al-Assad, and requires the President to justify the non-inclusion of any person on the list in sanctions. Some but not all of these names are already on the US Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals list.

The act would also impose sanctions on individuals and entities that knowingly provide ‘significant financial, material or technological support’ to the Syrian regime’s gas and oil trade, or that provide aircraft, or provide goods, services, or technologies associated with the operation of aircraft or air carriers ‘to any foreign person operating in areas controlled by the Government of Syria or associated forces that are used, in whole or in part, for military purposes.’


On 26 September 2018, European Union ambassadors agreed a new faster mechanism to sanction people anywhere in the world responsible for using chemical weapons.

Names are to be added to a chemical weapons blacklist by EU diplomats in an ‘EU Council working group’ rather than at the level of EU leaders or ministers.

While the EU develops its new chemicals regime, the Dutch parliament called for a more extensive EU-wide ‘Magnitsky Act’ against Russian and other human rights abusers. But an EU diplomat told EUobserver that ‘we don’t necessarily see it as a follow-up to the new chemicals regime.’

In a written answer to a question from Sammy Wilson MP in April, the UK’s Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt wrote that ‘at present, no Russian individuals or entities are sanc­tioned under EU Syria sanctions.’

The Minister more recently had to correct himself on his response to an Emergency Question on Idlib in the House of Commons on 10 September. Stephen Doughty MP had asked, ‘What sanctions have been issued against individual Russians and others who command responsibility for operations in Syria?’

The Minister had replied ‘sanctions are already in place against Russian entities in relation to this’; in his letter of correction, Alistair Burt wrote that the correct response should have been, ‘sanctions are already in place against Syrian entities…’

In the same debate, a number of other MPs also focused on Russia.

Tom Tugendhat asked, ‘Should we not also stand up to the Russians, who are financing this war, and to banks such as VTB that are trading on our markets and raising debt in this country?’

Peter Grant asked, ‘Will the Minister give an assurance that the pursuit of all those responsible for war crimes in Syria will also apply to members of the Russian military who are involved, including, if necessary, the commander-in-chief who has given the orders for these atrocities to take place?’

Bob Seeley asked of the Minister, ‘Will he confirm that as well as naming and shaming those Syrian military units, he will name and shame individual Russian and Iranian units, pilots and chains of command?’

Tom Brake asked ‘how many Syrians, Russians and Iranians are subject to asset freezes and travel bans and of how many cases are being built against those people for prosecutions for alleged war crimes,’ and asked whether both Assad and Putin ‘fall into that category?’


In the 10 September debate on Idlib, Stephen Doughty asked the Minister, ‘Is he tracking, and will he publish details of, air attacks on civilians from wherever they come?’ Alistair Burt replied, ‘I am not sure it is technically possible to track every air strike. Certainly we know when they have happened, but I am not sure how we would be able to find out from where they are being directed…’

The idea of tracking aircraft to pin responsibility for individual attacks has been raised by several MPs. Publishing radar data could make a case for sanctions against individuals with command responsibility, be they Syrian or Russian, and could also provide evidence for prosecutions, particularly for attacks on hospitals and humanitarian workers.

In evidence to the Commons Defence Committee on 15 May 2018, Air Vice-Marshal Stringer told of how RAF E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft track Coalition, Russian, and Assad aircraft. The US also demonstrated what is possible when they published radar tracking data to show which Assad regime air base was responsible for the April 2017 chemical attack.

An alternative to radar tracking is now available from Hala Systems who provide early warning of air attacks through their Sentry Syria system. This uses data from aircraft spotters to rapidly predict where Assad regime or Russian aircraft will strike. UK support for this system was highlighted by Alistair Burt in the 10 September debate.

The bombing of Hass hospital

Eliot Higgins

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

Medical and rescue facilities in opposition held areas have frequently been the target of air strikes by pro-government forces, and what appeared to be the opening stages of the Battle for Idlib was no different. On September 6th 2018 the Syrian Civil Defence Twitter account posted images of what was described as a White Helmets centre that had gone out of service following a massive attack on the Idlib countryside. And on September 8th, Hass underground hospital was targeted in airstrikes, with multiple videos from the hospital shared online following the attack.

Read the full article online at Bellingcat.

14.54–15.13: Multiple Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopters sighted flying north from the Vehicles School helicopter base in Hama.

15.09: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted flying west near Taman’a, Idlib.

15.17: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted flying west near Taman’a.

15.20: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted circling near Heish, Idlib.

15.28: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted flying northwest near Taman’a.

15.30: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted circling near Heish.

15.34: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted circling near Kafranbel, Idlib.

15.37: First report of an airstrike against Sham Hospital in Hass, Idlib.

15.41: Syrian Regime Mi-8 helicopter sighted circling near Kafranbel.

15.48: Second report of an airstrike against Sham Hospital in Hass.

Data courtesy of Hala Systems.

‘She has big dreams’

Video journalism by Liberated T

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

Liberated T is a Syrian advocacy campaign aiming to change negative gender stereotypes, by focusing on Syrian women’s stories, and by exposing gender based violations in their daily life.

The campaign’s output includes a compelling series of short document­ary videos surveying popular opinion on gender issues. Made by a small permanent team, and some frequent collaborators, these short films try to show ways in which many of the Syrian public see women-related issues, and how gender roles and double standards are imposed on women who are still regarded as dependants.

In contrast, the videos featured below are interviews with individual women pushing against these boundaries. The revolution has brought changes both good and bad for women. ‘Many women got empowered because of the war, while others were weakened even further,’ says Zaina Erhaim, manager at Liberated T. One concern is that the challenges for women, and for the NGOs tackling these issues, may be under-appreciated or forgotten by other Syrians far from these communities.

While the campaign has received supportive and encouraging responses, it has also been met with threatening and bullying attacks. But the name of their campaign suggests they won’t be silenced: it comes from the ‘quiet T’ that in standard Arabic language is added to a verb to make it feminine, and so the campaign’s ‘Liberated T’ is a feminine T that is not content to remain quiet.

More of their short films can be found via the Liberated T website at, and on their YouTube channel, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

Video interview with Joudy Arsh, media activist:

‘My name is Joudy Arsh. I am twenty-four years old, from Homs city.

‘I started working in media in 2013, after being detained in 2012, and I was summoned for interrogation again after a little while. I had no choice but to continue working with the revolution through media.
‘I started working with local coordination bodies. At the time the Syrian media did not have the level of outreach it enjoys today. Then I started working with Reuters, I became a reporter in my town, and after that I worked as a reporter for Orient News, and also I worked for Anadolu News Agency.

‘Of course working in this field as a girl, particularly in the beginning, and especially as I was the only girl reporting in Homs city was very hard, because not many girls work in this field in our community. The majority of girls worked in relatively easier fields like the medical and relief fields. At the time, dealing with the community and how they looked at me was difficult. How could a girl work in such a field that requires socialising and being in direct contact with men? That required a lot of determination until I reached the level I am at now.’

Interview with Muzna al Jundi:

‘I am Muzna al Jundi. I am thirty years old, married, and a mother of two. I graduated in 2011 from the technical engineering school, and my specialisation is in biotechnology.

‘In March 2014 we opened the Women Now centre in Ma’arat al Numan. We started working on the educational empowerment of women by providing courses in literacy, English and French languages, and basic computer skills. Then we started on the financial empowerment of women by adding courses in hairdressing and nursing. We tried to add more courses every year, so as not to repeat ourselves.

‘Regarding challenges, frankly, personally I haven’t faced any. All those around me have been supportive and helpful: my father, brothers, and my husband. And the one who helps me most is my mother.

‘Regarding our local community, they were cooperative. Once they invited our centre to participate in the preparatory committee for the local council in 2016.

‘I dream that I will develop and grow along with Women Now, as I began with them. I am now the person responsible for all our work in the Idlib area. I wish that we’ll see peace and security in our homeland, and that everyone will live in peace and security. This is the most important thing.’

Video interview with Ghada Bakeer:

‘My name is Ghada Bakeer. I was a teacher, and now after the revolution I am still in education, however I’m running Baraa, a psycho-social support centre for children. I am also a trainer in the Afaq academy, and a coordinator in the Equality for Syrian Women network.

‘My family had a history of opposing the regime, however they were against me being a part of that because I am a woman. My brother participated in the demonstrations, but did not want me doing the same.

‘One of the main difficulties I faced then was that I was still married, but I was following my dream in taking part in the demonstrations, so I insisted on this. And I didn’t just take part in them; I also organised many women’s demonstrations in my town.

‘My marriage wasn’t successful from the beginning. We had plenty of disagreements. In 2015 these increased a lot as I started working in NGOs. The gap increased and it reached the point of him trying to kill me. That led to finally enabling me to get a divorce, after suffering for a whole year from the burns I sustained during his attempt to kill me. I was also paralysed during that year.

‘Until this crime, my family were against me and did not support my request for a divorce, but after that it became impossible for me to return to him, so I got the divorce.

‘Despite all that, I feel that my life is better for being active in the revolution, and after the divorce I became more successful. I didn’t lose anything; on the contrary, my divorce was on the table for the whole fifteen years of marriage. But for my family, that could not happen. In our society, for their daughter to be a divorcee was a shame they couldn’t handle, especially because I work. But for me it’s an accomplishment, given the harsh consequences I had to deal with.’

Interview with Ghalia Rahhal:

‘I’m Ghalia Rahhal from the town of Kafranbel, the founder of Mazaya women’s organisation in northern Syria, which includes eight women’s centres, in addition to children’s centres and Mazaya mag­azine. The women’s centres provide awareness, vocational, and educational courses, as well as mental support courses.

‘Like other Syrian mothers, my son Khaled was killed, my children travelled, and my house became empty. After that, my brother was killed, and my sister, the co-founder of Mazaya, travelled. But none of this stopped me.

‘I think a woman’s goals have no limits. She has big dreams. Mazaya’s goal is to increase awareness that women are no longer a burden, but a supporter. My biggest hope is to see more women holding jobs and having an impact on society.

‘Women faced major difficulties before the revolution. For example they were restricted to specific jobs, but during the revolution they had increased opportunities. Some women started working for civil society organisations, others in the field of relief, others in civil defence, others in health centres. They were involved in more professions.

‘Civil society organisations have to support women more because they are the ones who can build a modern Syria, from all the sects and religions. Women will build modern Syria in the coming phase as they can bring people together more than men.’

Liberated T have made two video interviews of Dr Amani Ballour; the first in February 2018 when Dr Ballour, a paediatrician, was director of a field hospital in the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, where she managed tens of staff, most of them men.

A follow up in May came after Dr Ballour, along with over 65,000 other people from Eastern Ghouta, had been forcibly displaced to northern Syria.

Dr Amani Ballour:

‘My name is Amani Ballour. I graduated from the Faculty of Med­icine at Damascus University at the end of 2012.

‘Of course by then, the revolution had already started. When violence erupted against Al-Ghouta, and against the people of Al-Ghouta, when the shelling and daily killings started, I chose to stay in Al-Ghouta. There were a lot of wounded here every day, and patients needing doctors.

‘I started working in this hospital and in other centres. The hospital was at a small field focal point, and it wasn’t even equipped properly. Working conditions were extremely difficult. Today, this hospital here has become a big hospital, and a sort of central hospital in the district. It carries the burden of the whole district, and it is one of the most important hospitals here.

‘I hear a lot of criticism from people here, for example, “Why is a woman is in charge of the hospital, don’t we have male doctors?” They say this openly. “Why don’t male doctors handle hospital management?” In my opinion, we can change this reality. Our society sees things from a particular perspective, and it will always be this way if we remain scared, staying home and subject to the decisions made by our society. These decisions are mostly illogical.

‘Women should be able to participate in all fields. Women in Al-Ghouta are the majority. Their numbers exceed those of men. They sacrificed and suffered more than men for the revolution.

‘On the personal level, I hope to obtain a specialisation diploma. I am now working as a paediatrician. I have been working for the last five years as a paediatrician, although I do not have a specialisation in this field. So I dream to have this diploma, because after the revolution all the work we have done, and all the experience we have gained, might not be recognised by anyone since we do not have such a diploma.’

Dr Amani Ballour, three months later:

‘Of course, Ghouta was besieged and bombarded a lot, but the escalation of attacks we suffered from during the last month and a half or so was unprecedented. Even the weapons used were different; they were capable of even more destruction.

‘They were able to drive us out from Ghouta just like that? From our homes, memories and lives? So in addition to the injustice we suffered, we were subject to an even worse kind of injustice after all these years, which is being expelled just like that, to leave everything behind. What gives them the right to do that?

‘I am thinking about continuing to study. I don’t know what to say to you. I no longer have much will to live and to continue studying, but at the end of the day having a diploma and learning is necessary.

‘We still have many weapons we haven’t used. In my opinion the revolution has gone back on the track it was supposed to be on in the first place. At the end of the day, the revolution is a thought, and we will use it in our struggle. The revolution was never about arms, and having armed revolutionaries. We did not want this war, it was imposed on us, but maybe now we are back on the right track.

‘When we first got out of Ghouta, I saw people living. We passed through the streets of Damascus, and people were living a few metres away from al-Ghouta, and children were playing, and they have the right to play and to go to school, but children of Ghouta did not have the right to play, to go out, breathe, or see anything.

To be honest, I discovered a world completely different to the world in al-Ghouta. Everything was different. Even here in the north, the situation is different: there are vast areas, and no siege—thank God there is no siege here—but perhaps the real revolution was in al-Ghouta.

‘Well, I love al-Ghouta a lot, and I have many memories there. It was very painful to be expelled, and until now I was not able to integrate in the society here. To be honest, we will study and work, God willing, and we will not be defeated. We will go back, but it needs time.’

Idlib Pocket
Holding on to the revolution in Syria’s northwest

Coping with displacement

Heba Ajami

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

The story of the Syrian crisis is most often told in terms of conflict between armies, air forces, competing armed groups, and international military powers. There is another story however, of a blossoming of civil society activism that began before the militarisation of the conflict, and continued through dark years of bombing and siege.

The past two years have seen one siege after another end in the forced displacement of thousands upon thousands of people to areas still outside regime control in northwest Syria, to the Idlib pocket and to northern Aleppo province.

At the same time, the area of Afrin has seen the displacement of thousands of its predominantly Kurdish population by a Turkish-led military takeover, and the arrival of displaced people from southern Syria; and also populations regarded as pro-regime have been displaced by HTS armed groups besieging the Idlib towns of Fuaa and Kefraya.

Civil society activists have themselves been displaced, and civil society groups have been faced with trying to help both displaced people and their host communities. Heba Ajami has spoken to two organisations about the challenges involved.

Photos: Space of Hope

Space of Hope

Hiba Brais, a co-founder and a programme manager at Space of Hope told us the story of the organisation, the work they have done so far, and the challenges they face as a civil society organisation operating inside Syria, in rural areas west and north of Aleppo city. Hiba is from Aleppo, and she currently lives in Gaziantep, southern Turkey.

Q: Can you tell us about Space of Hope?

Space of Hope is a non-profit civil society organisation established in Aleppo in July 2012 by a group of expatriates and friends to aid members of the community. It was registered with the Council of Free Aleppo Governorate in June 2013, and registered in Gaziantep, Turkey, in September 2015.

Q: Why Space of Hope? And what is it mission?

We believe that to help Syrian society in the quest to achieve freedom, dignity, justice and social solidarity, we should be working to create the right environment to help in the development of individuals. Especially children.

We are trying to achieve that through the following:

Provide suitable educational and knowledge environment to enhance education chances
Increase community awareness and contribution to protecting the most vulnerable groups and sensitising the most vulnerable groups about their rights
Providing opportunities and tools for the development of the individual and the society intellectually and culturally
Providing sustainable response to improve living conditions in affected areas at the individual and community levels

Q: How did Space of Hope start?

Our first mission started in 2012 in Aleppo city before registering the organisation. We were a group of people who took the initiative to provide support to orphaned children and their families. The funds initially came through our friends and families living outside the country who wanted to help. We then managed to build some wells for clean water and open a park for children.

In 2013, we decided to organise our work by starting a charity. By June 2013, the organisation got legal registration with the Aleppo Free Council, and we became an official civil society organisation. This helped us to expand our work within Aleppo and its surrounding areas.

In 2014, our organisation entered two new fields; child protection and education in addition to the previous livelihood and orphan sponsorship programmes. We opened a child-friendly centre in Bustan al-Qasr to provide psychological and educational support to the children.

The year of 2015 was a big success for our organisation. As we became registered in Turkey, we were then eligible to apply for international funding. Fortunately, we got our first programme with UNICEF. We started six new children’s centres and a centre for women’s development. However, this success did not last long as we had to leave Aleppo with so many others during the mass forced evacuation at the end of 2016.

Our work did not stop at this point, and we managed to move it to west rural Aleppo then to north rural Aleppo. Now we are still running women’s development centres, children’s centres, schools, and emergency campaigns in northern and western Aleppo province.

North Aleppo protection centre staff visit displaced people from Ghouta. Photos: Space of Hope

Q: What are the challenges you have been facing as a Syrian civil organisation operating inside Syria?

To be frank, we have been through a lot of obstacles and difficulties over the past two years. We fought the fear, the bombing, the hunger and the siege. However, funding cuts are the very worrying problem right now. After the US announcement of cutting funds to northern Syria, we are very scared that all of our work will be destroyed.

Let me tell you about our protection programme. We run a very crucial programme, in which we are trying to convince children who have been working with military groups to withdraw and to quit this field. The preparation of this programme has taken six months of research and data collection to reach our target. From this stage, we learned that poverty and revenge are the two main motives that drive a child to join the military, even if he is just a cleaning boy with them. Taking into account these reasons we offer the child cash and vocational training as an alternative to work with the military.

We managed to get sixty children out the military so far, most of whom had joined the military for economic reasons. Achieving success in cases motivated by revenge was more complicated. However, twenty-four of these children have been withdrawn from the military, and they have recovered from their revenge issues.
If funding stops, millions of children are in danger of being militarised and joining armed groups.

Q: What is your message to the international community?

We have been fighting more than seven years for a better Syria where people can live in freedom and peace. We endured hardships and disasters, but we never lost our hope. Please don’t allow our sacrifices and efforts to be wasted. Your support and your funding is essential to keep us going in fighting terrorism and oppression. You can’t fight terrorism without us, the civil society organisations.

Photo: Hooz Centre

Hooz Centre for Social Development

A March 2018 survey of northwest Syria by CCCM Cluster and REACH counted over 1.7 million displaced people out of a total population of 4.9 million living in the Idlib pocket, including parts of western Aleppo and northern Hama, and in opposition and Turkish controlled parts of northern Aleppo.

These numbers include families and individuals displaced by the Assad regime’s sieges and offensives against communities in the south, most recently Daraa, and before that the suburbs of Damascus, towns along the Lebanon border, in Homs and in Hama, as well as the many thousands displaced from Aleppo city in 2016. Also included are very many displaced by ISIS in eastern Syria, and then by the Coalition and SDF offensives against ISIS.

This scale of disruption presents challenges in maintaining social bonds and community cohesion.

Anas Al-Rawi, managing director of Hooz Centre for Social Development, spoke about the centre and the work they are doing, and the challenges they face. Anas is from Dier Ezzor and he lives currently in Azaz in North Syria.

Q: Please tell us about the centre.

The Hooz Centre for Social Development is a Syrian civil society organisation operating in Azaz and Al-Bab cities in North Syria. The idea of the centre started as a response to a rising number of disputes and quarrels between displaced people in North Syria. After all the displacements, people from different cities were forced to resettle in the areas of northern Syria and Idlib. Many of those people have never been outside their villages and are not used to the norms and the traditions of other cities. This has developed a very serious problem in the area of displacement: tolerance and integration.

The role of this centre is to resolve conflicts between different communities, and to create a safe and healthy environment.

Q: What is your mission?

The centre works on three approaches.

First, resolving conflicts.

In this approach, we facilitate the formation of community committees to be elected by the people in a democratic way, and to be approved by the councils and by all the military groups in the area. For example in Azaz, we formed a committee that represents the people from eastern Syria to talk in their name and to solve conflicts between them and people from other areas.

There is a common conception by people in northern Syria that every person from eastern Syria, from Raqqa and Dier Ezzor, is an ISIS ally, and he therefore is not welcomed in the area. Not to mention the cultural differences between east and west Syria.

After the formation of two committees, one in Azaz and the other in Al-Bab, the number of conflicts has dropped and only a few cases went to the administration of justice for further investigation.

Second is integration.

People from Aleppo, Daraa, Raqqa, Hama and other cities are living in isolated communities in the displacement areas in north Syria. To tackle this issue, our centre hosts different social activities, which aim to bring all people in the area together. Such as food gatherings, musical events, Ramadan Iftar, and many other activities Third is capacity building for youth initiatives.

Our centre provides space and logistical support and training for youth initiatives. For example, we built a public library in our centre to help a group of people to establish an initiative spreading reading culture amongst the youth. We also host many training courses, like photography, graphic design, and computer science, to help the youths in building their career and future.

Q: What are the challenges you have been facing as a Syrian civil organisation operating inside Syria?

At the internal level, inside Syria, getting a permission for any new project is very complicated and slow. We need to apply and submit many documents to the local police, who will then deliver our request to all security bodies working in the area, before we can get permission. This process might take several weeks and might be rejected At the external level, it is always difficult to get funding for social development projects; money goes to food and medicine. Despite how important these social activities are, donors tend to ignore this field.

Q: What is your message to the international community?

The displacement has already happened. We need to start focusing on the current phase with its own problems and characteristics. Our society needs development and leadership a lot more than relief.

Idlib Pocket
Holding on to the revolution in Syria’s northwest