Syria: the current state of play

This is the NCF’s update on the current state of play in war-torn Syria:

Military offensive in the South-West

In the last three weeks, Syrian government forces – with significant Russian air support – have been sweeping through Deraa province in the south-west of Syria, the birthplace of the first uprisings in 2011. Following military losses near Damascus and Homs in recent months, losing Deraa province leaves only Idlib in the north-west as a notable rebel stronghold. In recent days, a number of towns in the south-west, like Dael and al-Ghariya al-Gharbiya, struck surrender deals with government forces independently of the main rebel factions. Last Friday, the pressure finally told: Ibrahim Jabawi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army faction of the rebels, announced that surrender terms were agreed with Russia. Heavy weaponry will be handed over in return for a government retreat from a number of villages. This has paved the way for government forces to take control of the strategically important Nassib border crossing into Jordan, and reduces rebel held territory in the region to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

In the midst of the aerial bombardment of Tafas (northwest of Deraa) and Said (east of Deraa) on Wednesday, stop-start ceasefire talks failed to stem the flow of refugees out of the region. UN estimates put the number of people that have been uprooted since the offensive began at 320,000, though around 200,000 of them have now returned to their towns under Syrian government control. Those who fled for the Jordanian border had little luck: the Jordanian border has been closed since 2016 and the Jordanians maintain that they cannot take more than the 650,000 Syrians that have already arrived since the war began. Those headed towards the Golan border fence were extended humanitarian assistance, but expressly denied entry into Israel’s territory.

Turkish involvement in the North

In the coming months, attention will be turning to the likelihood that Idlib province in the north-west of Syria will experience a humanitarian disaster of even bigger proportions. The Free Syrian Army has been fortifying its defences in Idlib, with the help of Turkish troops who have been stationed along the front lines for over two months now. After the surrender negotiations in Deraa last week, the Free Syrian Army said they had been warned by the Russians that only slaughter awaited them in Idlib. The range of actors who will be involved in any armed conflict in Idlib means that it has the ingredients to become the most brutal, and likely the final military flashpoint in the Syrian War.

Turkey’s determination to remove what it regards as the threat posed by an autonomous Kurdish region on their southern frontier has meant that the Turkish presence in the north of Syria continues to be felt. This will be a great cause for concern for Syrian government forces once they start looking north again. Since the Turkish military and its Free Syrian Army allies led “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, YPG Kurdish fighters have been driven from Afrin along with much of the population and Turkey has quickly consolidated its hold on the region. The most recent UN estimates show that over 167,000 people have been displaced from Afrin since the Turkish offensive began. The city has been ravaged by looting and seizures of property by Turkish-backed rebels, with Turkish forces resettling their fighters into the empty homes belonging to the displaced people of Afrin.

Turkish-controlled areas of Syria now make up 3460 square kilometres of occupied land, including some 500 towns and villages. Furthermore, the way the Turkish language has come to dominate police training, schooling, and hospitals in Afrin indicates that President Erdogan has no intention of heeding the warning from US Senator Lindsey Graham and others against sustained Turkish involvement in Syria. This conflict has pitted America’s most reliable ally on the ground in Syria, the Kurdish YPG forces, against a NATO ally in Turkey. Managing this delicate balance will be crucial for any long-term settlements for the area: in the last month the US and Turkey have been working on a deal for a joint military presence in Northern Syria, “to ensure stability” in an area that was fairly stable before Turkey arrived – while keeping YPG fighters confined to an area well east of the Euphrates river.

Iranian influence

Meanwhile Iran’s presence in Syria shows no sign of waning. As much as the US and Israel may rail against a long-term Iranian presence in Syria – in particular anywhere near the Golan Heights – Iran’s investment in Syria is by now too deeply entrenched to be sacrificed in a withdrawal any time soon. Some estimates as to how much money Iran has ploughed into its Syrian project suggest it has been as much as $150bn.

Losing influence in Syria is not an option for Iran. To withdraw from Syria now would cut off the direct land route to Lebanon and Hezbollah, thereby threatening the collapse of Iran’s broader ambitions in countries such as Iraq and indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Israel’s anxiousness

As the fighting has veered towards the south-western region of Syria, Israel has become increasingly anxious. It has echoed UN complaints regarding Syrian armed incursions into the de-militarised zones on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line on the occupied Golan. Israel demonstrated militarily that it did not like having Iranian forces or their Hezbollah proxies near the current border on the Golan. Following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran launched a rocket attack on the part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. The next day, Israel responded with a carefully orchestrated missile attack on multiple Iranian targets in Syria with very modest numbers of casualties. Last week, Israel appears to have fired two further missiles at targets near Damascus airport.

Israel has also now reinforced its tank and artillery deployment on the Golan. Syria of course already deploys large forces on the Syrian side of the Golan cease fire line and has always done so. Indeed it was an area used to station forces that were predominantly Sunni. Only forces of the Syrian Army whose loyalty was beyond question have been used in the civil war. The rest have been barracked on the Golan throughout. It is possible that more Syrian government forces will move from Deraa towards Quneitra on the Golan. But it seems more likely that attention will turn to the north. While Hezbollah has been involved in the assault on Deraa, it has still maintained a relatively low profile on the Golan. In the unlikely event that this begins to change, we can expect to see Israeli wariness turn into hostility.  But it would seem more likely that Hezbollah’s eyes will turn to the Turkish invasion in the north.

Remains of ISIL

Once perceived as the most significant threat to the West in Syria, the presence of ISIL is now limited to al-Hajar al Aswad (south of Damascus) and Albu Kamal. It does, however, command the area of the triple border point between Israel, Syria and Jordan, with around 80,000 civilians under its control there.

The beginning of the end

As far as the Syrian Revolution goes, developments in the last few months have dealt it a series of telling blows. The more momentum that is gained on President Assad’s side, the fewer incentives there are for temporary ceasefires. The way the rebels have been abandoned by the United States during the south-western offensive stands in stark contrast to the decisive support provided to Assad by his Russian and Iranian allies.

For the first time since the war began, the Syrian government is removing several roadblocks that restricted the movement of its people. Russia are also aiming to bring stability to Damascus by dissolving various pro-government militias and integrating their members into government military units. There is a growing acceptance in the air that Free Syrian Army strongholds are all but disappearing, and the government is gearing towards a settlement from which Syria can begin its daunting rebuilding process. In the meantime, there will surely be more slaughter and more displacement. At this stage, international efforts must be focused on avoiding an even more dangerous escalation in the north in the coming months.


NCF presents on war avoidance in Iran – a breakdown of the key issues

Our interns, Ardi Janjeva, Angus Edwards and George Anscombe-Bell, gave a 20 minute presentation to senior diplomatic figures from around the world during a conference on Iran.

Using the mind-mapping software Thortspace, they covered the key issues concerning war avoidance in Iran: the nuclear issue, relations with terror groups, geopolitical ties in the Middle East, and domestic issues.

This presentation begins by laying out the recent history behind uranium enrichment in Iran, before looking more closely at the JCPOA and its implications. In the context of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands, it then traces the complexities behind Iran’s support for militia groups in the Middle East – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Moving onto the geopolitical demands, there is a summary of Iran’s regional influence in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, before a narrower focus on domestic demands concerning ballistic missile proliferation and Western political prisoners. The presentation concludes by looking at the current state of Iran’s relations with its two key rivals in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and, in particular, Israel.

We hope that this presentation is useful in clarifying your thoughts on the most pressing issues relating to Iran. Do let us know if you have any thoughts by commenting on the video via the YouTube link provided!

The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association: the UK and the impact of ‘kettling’

Much international attention is devoted to violations of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in the developing world, but here I wish to bring to light the regressive steps taken in this regard by developed democracies like the United Kingdom. This is aimed at ensuring that the standards on civil society space that countries like the UK demand abroad are also applied domestically.

As the supposed standard-bearers for the protection of fundamental human rights, some introspective reflection would reveal how Western police practices like ‘kettling’ are intrinsically detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. These are instances where the police deploy a cordon around a crowd of protestors, and in so doing determine their route or ability to leave. The kind of behaviour fostered by these suffocating methods represents one of the greatest threats to the expression of the right of freedom of assembly and association in the UK today. To maintain the high democratic standards countries like the UK set for themselves, the practice of kettling must be rigorously reviewed at the highest levels of human rights protection.

The importance of civil society and the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association

Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates the universal, indivisible and interdependent nature of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Moreover, the way this right is interrelated with other key rights makes it relevant in ways that may not be immediately obvious. The fact that it enables the exercise of many civil, political, economic, and social rights means that its violation can have severe repercussions on the degree to which people regard themselves as free more generally. If the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association is encouraged adequately, people become empowered to express their opinions and engage in debate, providing alternative perspectives to long-established interests. With a stronger civil society, there emerges a stronger, more united state.

For those societies whose democracies have flourished as a result of these freedoms, there is an increasing danger of complacency reversing the progress achieved until now. Worse still, there are strong elements of hypocrisy in the complaints of various UK politicians. While calling for young people to be more engaged and aware of key political and social issues, they fail to provide them with the adequate means of expressing it, even deliberately making the task more difficult through tactics like kettling.

The threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in the UK

Whether they be overt or covert, attempts to infringe on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in the UK are being observed at a worrying pace. Examples of the latter include the infiltration of law-abiding groups like Earth First by undercover police, which have left behind lasting trauma and suspicion. More broadly, there is a lack of transparency in the intelligence-gathering procedures by authorities during protests and assemblies. People who are not committing any kind of offence effectively run the risk of their information being harvested for no specified purpose, not just by the government but by private security companies too. The outcome – fear of what attending a protest may mean for one’s private freedoms – is a damning indictment of the efforts being made to encourage civic activity.

The primary issue at hand here, however, is the prevalence of kettling at demonstrations in the UK over a number of years. This is an overt course of action which is indiscriminate and disproportionate in nature in almost every single instance, meaning that the practice has come under numerous legal challenges all over the world. In the UK, a ruling which had deemed it illegal after the G20 protests in 2009 was overturned in 2012 – symptomatic of the lack of clarity over the issue. There is no clear level of actual or perceived violence which is deemed enough to impose a kettle; no defined threshold past which a restriction of liberty becomes a deprivation of liberty; no fair way of determining who to release from the containment; and no sensible balancing of the distress caused to ordinary citizens against the risk of disorder caused by others.

In theory police guidelines discourage kettling as a first port of call, yet the recent track record paints a different picture. At G20 summits in 2009, student tuition fee protests in 2010, austerity protests in 2011, and allegedly at the University of Birmingham campus in 2014, the repeated use of kettling at high-profile gatherings has accumulatively damaged the positive civic aspects of protest. Even more recently in the United States, journalists following President Trump’s inauguration and the St. Louis protests of 2017 have spoken of how routinely they may be kettled by virtue of doing their job. It means that people must prepare to be ‘kettled’ when heading to a protest, possibly trapped in a tight space for hours on end often without access to food, water, or sanitation facilities. This is an example of the damaging behavioural effects that kettling can have on would-be demonstrators. The threat of being kettled, and understanding all the deeply unpleasant experiences that it will bring, seriously undermines the relationship of trust between peaceful protestors and the police. The consequence is that people begin thinking twice about exercising one of their most fundamental civic freedoms, putting at severe risk the status of UK civil society as a national treasure. The unity fostered by civil society is indispensable in holding governments to account, and thereby ensuring that people are able to enjoy the numerous other rights laid down in the UDHR without fear or favour.

The concerning behavioural effects of kettling are evident from the perspective of the police as well as the protestors. By its very nature, kettling puts the police in a position whereby there is no incentive to discriminate amongst protestors. It encourages a more dominant and brutal approach even towards peaceful bystanders. Having undue control over the path protestors are allowed to walk facilitates the emergence of de facto hostage situations: at the 2009 G20 protests in London protestors were being required by police to give names and photos in order to leave and threatened with a return to the pen if they refused. Where the ‘bargaining power’ in a protest is tipped too far in the favour of the police, as it is with the practice of kettling, the authorities are emboldened to act in ways which infringe disproportionately on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. If police forces are not directly encouraged to do otherwise, then they will continue to resort to this tactic, leading to indiscriminate arrests and violations of human rights standards.

Developed democracies like the UK must continuously be reminded that freedom of assembly and association is a right rather than a privilege, and ensure that their police forces act on that premise. People should not have to fear exercising this right, nor experience any extreme discomfort when they do. It is clear that the focus of the legal framework on freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the UK is geared more towards public order than human rights. I recognise that striking this balance is not a simple task, but emphasise that it has gone too far in the direction of the former recently. We must hold to account those governments usually perceived to be the bastions of human rights and freedoms.