Syria Notes’ Diary


We in the Syria Notes team have been away from our desks more often than usual in these Autumn months, going to events, listening, learning, discussing, and distributing copies of our most recent issue on the targeting of hospitals in Syria. Too much has happened in these few weeks and months to be contained in one entry, but here is a first instalment.

To begin, some events in Parliament.

Syria Notes began life as a publication for the All-Party Parliamentary Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria, a group bringing together members of both UK Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and House of Lords, with the declared purpose of building a greater understanding in Parliament of the conflict in Syria, and allowing parliamentarians to discuss the diplomatic, humanitarian and military options for UK policy. That APPG is no longer active, and Syria Notes is now an independent journal, but we still see it as a key mission to inform Parliament on human rights issues in Syria.

More than that, we want to give parliamentarians opportunity to read the thoughts of Syrians who support and work for human rights and democracy, and so we welcome opportunities to engage with MPs—members of the House of Commons—and Peers—members of the House of Lords.

An election has now been called, and all those described below as MPs—Members of Parliament—are no longer MPs. Most are candidates in the election.

The power to go to war

On 9 September one of our team attended an event organised by the Conservative Middle East Council. The event took place in one of the committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster, the building that contains both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Committee rooms are primarily for the use of parliamentary committees, but when otherwise available are also booked by individual parliamentarians for events such as APPG meetings, or such as this CMEC discussion, which was on the role of Parliament in authorising the use of military force by the UK Government.

The presentation was by Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, hosted by Charlotte Leslie, Director of the Conservative Middle East Council. The topic is highly relevant to the UK Government’s policy on Syria. The vote by the House of Commons in August 2019 rejecting the possibility of a UK military response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill some 1,400 people or more in the suburbs of Damascus was a key moment in the Syrian crisis, and was central to Sir Bernard’s discussion of the issue.

Answering a question, Sir Bernard talked about his memory of the moment when the Government lost that vote in the House of Commons in 2013, and watching David Cameron, then Prime Minister, respond to the defeat:

‘I sat there thinking, the Government’s main foreign policy issue has been blown out of the water by this vote—how can the Government carry on? And he just got up and said, don’t worry, I get it. And that was the end of that. I was staggered.’

Sir Bernard said that he felt the Government was giving up responsibility to the House of Commons when it shouldn’t have done so. When five years later in 2018, Theresa May, David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, faced the question of how to respond to another chemical weapons massacre by the Assad regime, she ordered a military strike without first consulting Parliament. ‘And I rang her up,’ Sir Bernard said, ‘and I said you’ve done the right thing, because you’ve exercised your responsibility, and if Parliament doesn’t like it they can deal with it afterwards.’

The House of Commons had in the meantime approved UK Government military action against ISIS in Syria, with a vote in December 2015. As well as extensive air attacks against ISIS and a couple against the Assad regime, the presence of UK special forces in Syria has also been widely reported, though the UK Government has a policy of not openly discussing the actions of its special forces.

Read Sir Bernard Jenkin’s remarks here.

The CMEC event took place the same evening that the UK Government was to ‘prorogue’ Parliament, to close Parliament. This controversial move by Boris Johnson’s government would later be overturned by the Supreme Court. Leaving the CMEC meeting via the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster, we met Anna Turley MP along with Peter Kyle MP. She was lamenting the Government’s move to interrupt the work of Parliament. Anna Turley takes a strong interest in Syria, and was one of the MPs who took part an APPG Friends of Syria meeting with the regime defector and whistleblower ‘Caesar’ back in 2017. Looking through the latest issue of Syria Notes, she talked of how distressing she finds it to follow Syria news on social media.

International development and the Labour Party

On 10 September, the Syria Notes team was invited to a reception in the Palace of Westminster to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Labour Campaign for International Development.

Speakers there to mark LCID’s first decade included former Labour Party leader Gordon Brown, Labour’s Shadow International Development team Dan Carden MP and Preet Kaur Gill MP, the Chair of the Commons International Development Committee Stephen Twigg MP, former co-chair of the APPG Friends of Syria Alison McGovern MP, LCID Vice-President and former Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn MP, and LCID Vice-Presidents Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP and Stephen Doughty MP. A key theme for many of the speakers was the need to work cross-party to preserve the UK Government’s commitments on international development.

As well as the Syria Notes editors, representatives of the Syrian Legal Development Programme and the Syrian British Council were also there. The presence of members of Syrian civil society stimulated several of the speakers to mention Syria in their speeches.

LCID has taken a stance on Syria policy which is sometimes in contrast to the current Labour Party leadership, calling on Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to take a clearer stand against the Assad regime, and calling on Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott to disassociate herself from David Miller, a political sociology professor accused of being pro Assad.

David Taylor is founder and current vice-chair of Labour Campaign for International Development. He gave his views on the Labour Party and Syria at a conference held by Syrian civil society organisations at Amnesty International UK in July. In a discussion on legal accountability and Syria, David Taylor said:

‘We’re sorry that we’re not with you in this fight as a party. We think about the great tradition in the Labour Party of being on the side of oppressed people. It was a Labour government that granted India independence, and set off on the path to decolonisation. It was Labour activists who were standing up against apartheid.

‘And it’s just been—and actually I will talk at length about the current regime, but I volunteered with Ed Miliband’s campaign, and I have to say I was appalled by the 2013 vote. I was appalled that people cheered it in the chamber when it happened. It came from, I’m afraid—I do think that Ed Miliband is a good person, I think that some of the people around him are—but there was a cynicism, there was a playing to the gallery of the Labour membership, to try and appeal to them.

‘And actually, because of Iraq, which I marched against, because of Iraq there has been a sort of shift, a pandering, amongst the Labour party, amongst Labour politicians, to the sort of Stop the War base of the party, when we should have been taking it on and calling them out on the inconsistencies in their views. And unfortunately that has grown and grown and grown, and it’s led to the current party.’

For Sama screenings, and taking action on hospital bombings

Also on 10 September, we went to the British Film Institute preview screening of the documentary For Sama, directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, and showing Waad’s life in Aleppo city from the demonstrations of 2011 to the siege of 2016, through her romance and marriage with Dr Hamza al-Kateab, the birth of their daughter Sama, and their time surviving together under bombing in one of Aleppo’s hospitals.

We had interviewed Waad and Hamza for our Autumn 2019 issue on the targeting of hospitals. The BFI preview was the first of several screenings where the film makers gave us the opportunity to distribute copies of Syria Notes to their audiences. One of our team was also able to join Q&A panels at three of the screenings over the following weeks, in Newcastle, London, and Brighton. The emotion of the film is overwhelming on first viewing. Its horror is not lessened on re-watching, and its storytelling craft shines through.

As the targeting of hospitals is continuing in northwest Syria, audience members at several screenings raised the question of what can be done now. We hope that some insight on this may be found in our articles on investigating hospital attacks and on how the UK and its allies can track the air forces responsible, on identifying military officers with command responsibility, and on what a red line on hospital attacks might mean in practice.

On 8 October, For Sama came to Parliament with a screening in Portcullis House, the building next to the Palace of Westminster which houses the offices of over two hundred MPs. The number attending the screening was significantly lower than that, but did include Damian Collins MP, who hosted the event, Chair of the Commons International Development Committee Stephen Twigg MP, whose committee recently reported on attacks against aid workers, and Alison McGovern MP and Andrew Mitchell MP, both former co-chairs of the APPG Friends of Syria.

During the Q&A at the end of the Parliament screening, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts talked about their hope for the film to have a practical effect.

Waad al-Kateab said: ‘We know that the impact of being in front of people like you, and the tools that you have, the power that you have, this is much, much more than any other audience can have. It’s not just a film for me, it’s my life. But it’s not about what happened three years ago—it’s about what is happening right now in these days. Because I’m not just speaking about accountability and justice—we are speaking about something very urgent, about what’s happening right now by the same Assad regime and Russian forces.’

The film makers have begun an advocacy campaign around the film, called Action for Sama. Their campaign website says, ‘The Action For Sama Impact Campaign will focus on increasing awareness of the continued targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria and build pressure for this to end.’

On the current UN inquiry into attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets in the Idlib area, Edward Watts said: ‘There is a very simple thing that we in the West can do, which is we can help provide the tracking data that the Coalition has in and around this area, to that board of inquiry. The last time there was a board of inquiry in 2016, when the Russians attacked a UN convoy going to Aleppo, we didn’t provide that data.’

Andrew Mitchell MP agreed, saying, ‘What Britain can do I think is really what you said, which is to try and make sure that evidence is kept,’ adding that ‘The Government is supposed to be keeping—the Foreign Office was asked to do this by the National Security Council in 2012—is supposed to be keeping evidence of civilian infractions, breaches of human rights, war crimes and so on.’

‘I think the Russian convoy [attack] is a very good example,’ Andrew Mitchell continued, ‘We do know the squadrons and the plane type and the people who were there because of the electronic communications, the ability to track that, we can tell where the people are and who they are, and it may be possible to hold them to account.’

‘If we got the data with which we could say, very specifically, here is the hospital which was bombed, and here is the Russian jet,’ Edward Watts replied.

Andrew Mitchell said, ‘I think that is what we should try to do, and I believe it is possible. And I think already there is culpability attached to unit commanders of the Syrian and Russian army.’

Syrian civil society round table at the Foreign Office

On 11 September, the Syria Notes team took part in a Syrian civil society round table discussion at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Dr Andrew Murrison and a number of Foreign Office officials.

With the large numbers of people forcibly displaced inside and outside Syria, primarily by the Assad regime’s strategy of targeting the civilian population, an increased number of Syrian civil society organisations now have members based in the UK. Meeting with them gives UK Government officials an opportunity to argue the virtues of current UK policy towards Syria while listening to the concerns of Syrians in exile.

In this, and in a further civil society round table discussion in October, as the meeting was hosted by the Foreign Office, the emphasis was on UK diplomatic policy, on accountability and sanctions, and in the October meeting on UK diplomatic responses to the current Turkish invasion along a section of Syria’s northeastern border, attacking the anti-ISIS Coalition’s local partners the Syrian Democratic Forces. Officials from the Department For International Development joined in the October meeting to talk about the UK’s aid effort. Notable by their absence were any representatives of the third part of UK policy towards Syria, the military.

The Syria Notes editors welcomed the chance to share our issue on the targeting of hospitals in Syria. Discussion included topics covered in our issue: the current UN investigation into hospital attacks; the question of whether the UK and allies will share aircraft tracking data with UN investigators; the possibility of sanctioning Russian officers with command responsibility; and the question of whether to extend the UK’s red line on chemical attacks to other attacks on civilians such as barrel bomb attacks or attacks targeting hospitals.

On these topics, and on topics raised by other Syrian civil society organisations present, this was not a forum where any development or change of policy could be expected to take place, but was instead an opportunity for an exchange of views, and there were probably no surprises in the views expressed.

The UK Government has in general resisted calls to publish aircraft tracking data, something that has been raised by Members of Parliament from several parties in written questions to ministers, and Foreign Office officials have pushed back against any suggestion that they might hold significant information which they are not sharing with investigators. At the same time, it’s not clear that the Foreign Office has a full picture from the Ministry of Defence of what is possible in this area.

In our recent issue we published details of how NATO AWACS aircraft and other Coalition aircraft ‘track and share the locations of Russian and Syrian aircraft from the time that they take off to the time they land,’ according to Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute. Websites of NATO, the Royal Air Force, and the United States Air Force provide more details. The US Air Force’s website shows the UK presence at the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, where the anti-ISIS Coalition coordinates tracking of aircraft across Syria and the region. Reporting by The New York Times and NBC News confirms that NATO and the Coalition track Russian and Assad regime aircraft as part of their joint deconfliction effort.

On sanctioning Russian individuals with command responsibility for the targeting of hospitals and other crimes, there is a disparity between the lack of sanctions against these individuals and the comprehensive sanctioning of Syrian regime officers for their part in war crimes and crimes against humanity. One possible explanation is expected resistance on the part of some other European governments, as up to now UK sanctions have been coordinated with the EU. As UK Government policy is to leave the EU, the Government argues that it can revisit this after it leaves.

A number of Members of Parliament, notably Chris Bryant MP, have argued that the Government is failing to use powers it already has to impose unilateral sanctions against individual human rights abusers under the Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Under that act, an appropriate Minister may make sanctions regulations to ‘provide accountability for or be a deterrent to gross violations of human rights,’ which specifically concerns torture carried out by a person acting in an official capacity, as in the case of the 2009 killing of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison. But also, a Minister can impose sanctions for the purpose of promoting compliance with international humanitarian law, or with international human rights law, or to promote respect for human rights, all of which would seem to allow sanctions for the targeting of hospitals.

The UK’s red line on chemical weapons

Other issues that came up in these civil society round table discussions were forced displacement and also forced returns of refugees, something that has happened to Syrian refugees seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and most recently Turkey.

As well as the direct impact on civilians of the current Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, concerns were raised over whether the Assad regime would be allowed to advance in Idlib as part of whatever agreement was reached between the Russian and Turkish presidents Putin and Erdogan over the Turkish advance in the northeast.

The UK’s red line on chemical weapons use was raised by officials in relation to fears over Idlib. Since 2017, the UK Government has reestablished its threat to use force in retaliation for any chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. Following a lethal chemical attack by the Assad regime on 7 April 2019, the UK’s Royal Air Force, along with French and US forces, carried out coordinated strikes against Assad regime military targets.

The 7 April 2018 chemical attack had come towards the end of a months-long final Assad regime and Russian assault on the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. A residential building in the town of Douma was attacked with chemical weapons dropped by the Syrian regime’s air force, according to witnesses, killing 43 people. At the time of the 7 April 2018 attack there were conflicting reports of whether nerve agent or chlorine was used. Two gas cylinders dropped on the building matched chlorine cylinders dropped by the Assad regime helicopters in earlier attacks elsewhere in Syria. An OPCW investigation reported in March 2019 that ‘the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.’

The legal justification given by the UK Government for its military response in 2018 was based on arguing that by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their further use, following the chemical weapons attack in Douma on 7 April 2018, it was alleviating the extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people.

The target struck by the RAF however had no effect on the Assad regime’s capacity to carry out chlorine attacks using helicopters. According to the UK’s Ministry of Defence, the Syrian military facility targeted was a former missile base where the regime was assessed to keep chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. In other words this was not a storage facility for chlorine, which is not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention as it has legitimate civilian uses.

The only sure way to prevent the kind of chlorine attack carried out by the Assad regime in Douma is to deny the Assad regime the means of delivery—in this case the Assad regime’s fleet of helicopters. These are the same helicopters used by the Assad regime to carry out barrel bomb attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets. These helicopters were left untouched in the UK’s response to the Douma chemical attack, and the Assad regime has continued to use them in attacks on civilians in Idlib.

The Assad regime has also been recently accused of using chemical weapons against fighters in Idlib. In September the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US had concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine shells in a non-fatal rocket artillery attack against opposition forces in Idlib on 19 May 2019. According to analyst Tobias Schneider, the munitions alleged to have been used are ‘commonly associated with a Syrian government formation called the 4th Armored Division—under command of Bashar's brother Maher Al-Assad.’ There has been no military response to this attack by the UK or its allies.

Assad achieved his aim in the 7 April 2018 attack of forcing opposition fighters in Douma to surrender, and of forcing the displacement of the civilian population. And Assad kept his helicopters and artillery, kept the means to deliver chemical as well as conventional weapons. And as we have seen, he has kept on using them.

So a question must be asked: Can the UK’s 2018 response now be considered to have failed? That is, failed in its declared aim to deter further use of chemical weapons, and failed to provide any protection to civilians?

—To be continued—