Thursday, 18 December 2014

This Saturday: Syria vigils in London, Manchester, and online

In the past year, press attention on Syria largely shifted from Assad’s campaign of terror to the terror of ISIS as they first expanded their reach from eastern Syria into northern Iraq, and then went on to lay siege to the largely Kurdish town of Kobane in north Syria, a battle that ranged within sight of Western media across the border in Turkey.

The TV crews have mostly moved on, but the battle for Kobane continues, with Kurdish and Free Syrian Army forces still fighting together to beat back ISIS. And Kobane is not alone: Across Syria towns and villages are fighting for their lives – against ISIS, against the Assad regime, and in some cases against both at the same time.

And while ISIS adopts the Assad regime’s methods of torture and oppression*, the regime goes on killing Syrians on a scale that ISIS still only dreams of**.

In the past few weeks, the Syria’s Forgotten Cities campaign has aimed to raise awareness of the many other Kobanes: focusing on Aleppo, Homs, Raqqa, and remembering the many more, Daraa, Daraya, Deir Ez-Zour, Douma, Hama, Jobar, Idlib, Yarmouk, Zamalka – places battered but not beaten, cities and towns where the fight for freedom and dignity goes on.

As Syrians face another winter of bombing, siege, starvation, and terror, we must resist the temptation to turn away in despair, so we are holding vigils in London and Manchester this Saturday, and we invite you to join us.

Saturday 20th December, 6 to 8:00 pm in Trafalgar Square.
Facebook event page.

Saturday 20th December, 5 to 6:00 pm in Piccadilly Gardens.
Facebook event page.

Press release PDF.

For anyone unable to be present in either of these two cities, we are also holding an online vigil. Please help show solidarity with Syrians in this fourth winter of war by lighting a candle wherever you are and posting a picture of it on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, with the hashtag #SyriasForgottenCities. More details here.

* See: Islamic State adopts Assad’s methods of torture, Richard Spencer, The Telegraph, 13 December 2014.
** See: Syrian Network for Human Rights on civilian deaths since the start of the US-led intervention against ISIS in Syria.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Deter and Retaliate

Cross-posted from


The week from Sunday 30th November to Sunday 7th December started with a lot of words published on the possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria, and ended with a practical demonstration of the feasibility of imposing one. It began with three news stories, all based on leaks or off-record conversations by US officials about ongoing negotiations between retired Marine Gen. John Allen, US special presidential envoy, and Turkish officials on the possibility of establishing a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria where civilians and rebels would have a degree of protection from both Assad forces and ISIS.
All three stories noted that a proposal had been brought to President Obama, but that no decision had yet been made. That these leaks may have been made by officials hoping to pressure the administration’s leadership into moving forward on the plan seemed confirmed by the push-back response to the stories:
  • Colonel Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesperson, 1st December:
    “Right now, we don’t believe a buffer zone is the best way to relieve the humanitarian crisis there in northern Syria.”

  • Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson, 1st December:
    “… At this point, we don’t believe that a no-fly zone fits the bill here.”

  • Susan Rice, National Security Advisor to President Obama, 2nd December:
    “We are not moving in the direction of a no-fly zone or a safe haven at this point,” and “We think the establishment of a no-fly zone or a safe zone, at this point, is at best premature, and would be a major investment of resources that would be something, frankly, of a diversion from the primary task at hand.”

In contrast, Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State under Obama and likely Presidential candidate for 2016, seemed to be in support of the proposal, and The Washington Post published an editorial arguing in its favour. At a Brussels conference on fighting ISIS, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu continued to maintain that the proposal was gaining understanding in the US.

And then on Sunday the 7th of December Israel again demonstrated how vulnerable the Assad regime is to air attack by carrying out daylight strikes on the outskirts of Damascus.


Worth noting in the three initial news reports about safe zone negotiations is that the plan they describe envisages a no-fly zone maintained by deterrence and retaliation rather than by either air patrol and interception as seen in Bosnia and Iraq in the 1990s, or eradication of regime air assets as seen in Libya in 2011. From the Wall Street Journal version:
In contrast to a formal no-fly zone, the narrower safe zone along the border under discussion wouldn’t require any strikes to take out Syrian air defenses. Instead, the U.S. and its coalition partners could send a quiet warning to the Assad regime to stay away from the zone or risk retaliation.

While there’s an implication in the article that a Deter and Retaliate approach can only work for a limited scale no-fly zone, recent events in Syria suggest that it would work for a no-fly zone over the entire country. Three experiences point to Assad being susceptible to deterrence: his agreement to allow the removal of chemical weapons following the threat of military action; the lack of any military response by Assad to US-led forces carrying out strikes in Syrian territory; and the lack of any direct military response by Assad to Israel’s repeated strikes against his military. Assad clearly knows he is unlikely to survive a direct military conflict with the US or its allies, and will go as far as possible to avoid one. As to retaliation, yesterday’s daylight strikes by Israel against Assad’s military in the Damascus area once again make clear that it is well within the means of the US and its allies to retaliate should Assad defy a no-fly zone.

Finally, how would a Deter and Retaliate no-fly zone work, and why might it be preferable to a patrolled no-fly zone, or to eradicating Assad’s air force?

The US and its allies already have the means to monitor Syrian territory to detect air attacks, and have the means available to retaliate in the event of any attacks taking place, so the next step would be to demand an immediate end to air attacks by Assad’s air force, and declare that any further attacks will be met with a punitive military response. There is a good chance the Assad regime would comply fully with this demand in order not to risk being hit by US strikes. If however the Assad regime decided to test US resolve by carrying out one or more air attacks, the US and its allies would not seek to intercept the particular aircraft violating the no-fly zone; instead they would first verify that an attack had taken place, and then respond with an attack against a target of their choice, for example Assad aircraft on the ground or other similar military targets.

There are major advantages in this Deter and Retaliate approach compared to patrols or eradication. Not engaging in patrolling or interception is safer for air crews. Avoiding the wide-scale strikes needed to eradicate Assad’s air force lowers the risk of unintended civilian casualties as well as lowering risk to air crews. And of course avoiding patrols and wide-scale strikes also makes Deter and Retaliate cheaper. It could cost as little as a phone call.

There would be three justifications for declaring such a no-fly zone. One, as with earlier chemical attacks by Assad forces, the regime’s deliberate targeting of civilian areas blatantly contravenes established international humanitarian law. Two, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, passed in February, demanded an end to such attacks. Three, such attacks hamper efforts by the US and its allies to combat ISIS.


Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Over 23,000 civilians killed since the UK Parliament’s Syria vote

Cross-posted from

In August 2013, Labour’s Ed Miliband led his party in voting along with Conservative backbenchers to block any military option in the UK’s response to Assad’s chemical weapons massacre.

Since then the Violations Documentation Center in Syria has listed 23,255 civilians killed. (A minimum count of confirmed violent deaths; the true total is certain to be significantly higher.)

Since then, untold numbers have lost limbs in bombing and artillery attacks.

Since then, Assad’s forces have carried on using chemical weapons attacks, repeatedly bombing civilians with chlorine gas weapons.

Since then, aerial attacks by Assad’s air force have surged, killing at least 8,663 civilians by a minimum count.

Since then, Ed Miliband and his Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander have said as little as possible on Syria. What they have said has seemed wholly disconnected from reality: promoting the doomed Geneva II talks as “Syria’s best chance for securing peace,” calling on the Government to admit “just a few hundred refugees” out of the over 3 million that have fled Syria, and, after the US attacked ISIS in Syria, calling for a UN Security Council resolution that they knew would be doomed and that they themselves seemed to think legally unnecessary.

I’ve heard it suggested that the Labour leadership never expected to win the August 2013 vote, but if they have since regretted the consequences they have never said so publicly, nor done anything to turn things around by building cross-party unity behind a more effective policy.

And so the killing goes on. What can we expect the tallies to be on 7 May 2015? And how will the British electorate weigh this disastrous foreign policy performance in opposition when judging Labour’s competency for power?

• Related post: A letter to Ed Miliband

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Raqqa: to appease Iran, Obama gives Assad’s air force a free pass for slaughter

Cross-posted from

Along with barrel bombings in towns and cities across Syria, this last week saw a series of attacks by Assad’s air force on civilian targets in the northern town of Raqqa. These regime air attacks were sandwiched between two weekends of airstrikes by the US-led coalition on ISIS targets in Raqqa.

When US and allied air forces first began strikes in Syria, there was speculation that their presence would deter attacks by Assad’s air force against civilians, at least in the US area of operations. This past week’s events demonstrates that any such deterrent effect is fading if not over. The taking of turns in Raqqa’s airspace by Assad’s air force and US-led forces further undermines US claims of concern for the fate of Syrian civilians.


On Sunday 23 November, US warplanes carried out two strikes against an ISIS-occupied building in the city of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria. No civilian casualties were reported.

On Tuesday 25 November, Assad’s air force carried out ten air attacks on Raqqa, reportedly killing as many as 209 people, most if not all civilians. Targets were reported to include a busy marketplace, a bus depot, and a mosque where dozens of people were gathered for prayers.

On Thursday 27 November, Assad’s air force carried out between seven and ten further attacks, including one at the city’s National Hospital, reportedly killing at least seven more people.

On Friday 28 November, Assad’s air force carried out three attacks in Raqqa, killing at least five people including three children.

On Saturday 29 November, Assad’s air force again attacked Raqqa’s National Hospital. LCC Syria named five people killed.

In the evening of Saturday 29 November, US-led coalition aircraft were reported to have carried out at least 15 airstrikes. Later reports said the total had exceeded 30 airstrikes. The activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that all the targets of the US-led coalition were ISIS bases, hitting a high number of ISIS fighters.


The following are press reports of casualties from Tuesday’s attacks in Raqqa. Numbers given for people killed rose over time. No press reports gave precise numbers for people maimed and injured.


The above tweet from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations was widely retweeted, reproduced, and criticised for characterising the Assad air force attacks as a misfired attempt to target ISIS when there was no evidence given in the linked story or elsewhere that the intended target was ISIS rather than the civilian victims.

The next day State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki did her best to convince the world that the US opposed the strikes:

Unsurprisingly, words without action did little to stem criticism.


Officials note, for example, that the American-led coalition, with its heavy rotation of flights and airstrikes, has effectively imposed a no-fly zone over northern Syria already…

The above assertion by un-named Obama administration officials reported October 7th was refuted the following day by New York Times journalist Anne Barnard in an article titled US Focus on ISIS Frees Syria to Battle Rebels, where she gave a taste of the ongoing air attacks being carried out by Assad’s air force from the same air space being flown by US and allied air forces.

There is some evidence that Assad scaled back air attacks following the start of US strikes within Syria. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, recorded numbers of people confirmed killed by air attacks in the first twelve days from 23 September showed a dramatic drop compared to the period before US strikes began. In the weeks following the recorded numbers of daily deaths rose again, but the number confirmed killed in October was still lower than in September.

It should be noted that VDC figures are minimum counts of confirmed violent deaths, and are by their nature most likely to be an undercount of the true total killed. For details see two posts by @lopforum:
Numbers of people recorded killed by ground forces (shelling and shooting) also fell in this period, suggesting that the drop in killing by Assad’s air force wasn’t purely because of it operating in a restricted space to avoid US and allied air forces, but may have been part of a wider strategic decision by the Assad regime to reduce the level of violence following the start of the US-led intervention.

It’s hard to draw clear conclusions on regime intentions from numbers of violent deaths alone. Since the peak number for violent deaths recorded in August 2012, vast numbers of Syrians have fled the country, consequently reducing the number at risk of being killed in any attack. Also, since that 2012 peak in killing, Syrian ground forces and militia have been reinforced by Iranian and Hezbollah forces, who may be more professional and militarily focused in their approach.

Chart by @lopforum based on VDC Syria data

However, looking just at deaths from air attacks, one can see that a rise up to August 2013 seems to have been interrupted by the threat of an international response to the Ghouta chemical weapons attack, only to be resumed with increased ferocity once that threat had clearly passed in December 2013. Killings by air attacks peaked in February 2014, but dropped following the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2139 which explicitly demanded an end to barrel bombing and threatened further action in the event of non-compliance. As that threat of UN Security Council action faded, the rate of killing by air was again rising in September 2014 before the US-led Coalition action against ISIS in Syria began.

It was reasonable then to expect the post-intervention lull in killing to be short-lived—for it to be followed by a tentative escalation to test the risk of a US response, then greater escalation as no US substantial response came—and short-lived it now seems to have been.

Targeting civilians is the rule rather than the exception for Assad’s air force. Most attacks are too inaccurate for the regime to risk striking front-line rebel fighters as they could just as easily hit Assad’s own forces, so instead air attacks are used to terrorise, destabilise, and depopulate areas outside of regime control. Historically Assad’s air force has focused these attacks on areas under rebel control, not areas under ISIS control, as the regime apparently sees ISIS as less of a threat to its rule, and according to many reports actively colludes with ISIS to weaken rebel forces. As ISIS in Raqqa has come under US attack, it may be that the Assad regime sees a danger of Raqqa again becoming independent of both ISIS and the regime, and has therefore decided to target the city with increased ferocity.

For an analysis of the Assad regime’s air bombardment strategy see Barrel Bombs: A tool to force displacement in Eastern Aleppo, by Ryan O’Farrell, Tahrir Souri, via EA WorldView.


Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama, points to two reasons the Obama Administration does not want to strike Assad’s air force, both related to Iran. One reason is the fear, voiced to him by “a senior administration official” that any direct attack on Assad by the US would be met with retaliation by Iran’s militia proxies against US forces in Iraq. The other reason is Obama’s desire to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.

According to leaked accounts, a recent letter from President Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the nuclear negotiations included an assurance that the US didn’t intend to strike Assad’s forces in Syria. When those negotiations, supposed to conclude on Monday 24 November, were instead extended to a completion deadline of 1 June 2015, Assad would have had good reason to believe that Obama’s assurance not to use direct military force against him was now similarly extended.

Such a belief would no doubt have been reinforced by the dismissal of Chuck Hagel, US Defense Secretary, which also came on Monday 24 November. This was generally believed to be linked to Hagel’s criticism of Obama’s hands-off policy towards Assad. With the reassurance of these two events, it seems Assad felt safe to proceed the next day with his wave of attacks against Raqqa’s population.

The term appeasement is often overused. To negotiate with an enemy, to try and reach a peaceful settlement, is not in itself appeasement. But to trade the life and liberty of another country’s citizens in the pursuit of a hoped-for settlement that doesn’t serve their interests, that is a trade-off that deserves the name appeasement.

Obama’s free pass to Assad’s air force in exchange for a hoped-for nuclear deal with Iran is appeasement, and no form of public relations statement from the State Department’s spokesperson can alter that harsh fact.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Syria’s Forgotten Cities

Syria’s Forgotten Cities is a campaign by the Syria Solidarity Movement UK. From their website:

For the past two months international attention has been focused on the heroic battle going on in Kobane in northern Syria, where the forces of the Kurdish People’s Protection Brigades (YPG) and the Free Syrian Army have successfully withstood an onslaught by the brutal ISIS organisation.

But Syria is a country with many Kobanes, as blogger Leilashrooms has pointed out. Across its length and breadth cities, towns and villages are fighting for their lives – against ISIS, against the equally brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, and in some cases against both at the same time.

The Syria Solidarity Movement UK has launched a campaign under the banner of “Syria’s Forgotten Cities” to inform people of the realities of these ongoing struggles and to encourage support for their cause.

This site is part of that campaign. Here we will tell you the stories of three Syrian cities involved in these struggles – ALEPPO, HOMS, and RAQQA (the city which ISIS has declared its “capital” but where resistance to its repressive rule goes on). Just follow the links at the top of this page.

But there is a much longer roll of honour – Daraa, Daraya, Deir Ez-Zour, Douma, Hama, Jobar, Idlib, Yarmouk, Zamalka (to name a few) – places battered but not beaten, and where the fight for freedom and dignity goes on.

Let us remember all those “forgotten cities” in the coming weeks and do whatever we can to support their struggles.

You can also follow Syria’s Forgotten Cities on Facebook and on Twitter.

The photo used above is The Ancient Souq Market in Homs, 3 January 2014, by Lens Young Homsi.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Italy must not block EU sanctions on aviation fuel sales to Syria

The Italian government is reportedly blocking proposed EU sanctions against aviation fuel sales to the Syrian regime. A vote is expected on Monday. The Syria Campaign has an urgent action page with a form to email Italy's Foreign Minister.

UPDATE Monday 20 October – the measure has been passed.

EU governments agree to ban jet fuel exports to Syria, Reuters 20 October 2014.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Justice with her axe

For the John Dog song sheet project.

Saturday, 4 October 2014