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July 03, 2020

How the EU should confront ongoing war-crimes in Syria

Without the world noticing, something incredibly touching has happened in Syria over the last weeks. Wherever the pressure of repression decreased, peaceful demonstrations against Assad immediately appeared. People took to the streets in large numbers with the same slogans as in 2011 – be it in Daraa, a city in the south which has in the past nine years been heavily shelled with barrel bombs, or in Suwayda, a city with a significant Druze population. 

To those who think that Assad is the one protecting Christians in Syria I say: they, the Christians, also take to the streets peacefully to protest against Assad. What does that tell us?

Firstly - these people are incredibly brave.

Secondly, it confirms that much of the suffering inflicted on Syrian people in recent years emanate from the Assad regime, as well as from jihadists, from the Turkish invasion in the north (in violation of international law), from Iranian militias, from Russian war crimes

In this context the AfD , the “Alternative for Germany”, the populist right-wing party that brands itself as an entity that seeks to take refugees “back to where they belong,” dares to speak in the most cynical way of Assad´s “peace policy.”

As Germans, as Europeans, we have more or less voluntarily moved toward passivity, tolerating atrocities and crimes against humanity. But we cannot afford to simply stand by and watch these demonstrations. We owe it to these people to, in the very least, have a blueprint for how to pacify the country. We are obliged to see these people, the Syrian society, as our partners, to invest in peace and justice.

Just as the AfD ignores what happens in regions where Assad´s “peace” has supposedly taken hold, the petition of  “Linke”, Germany's most left-wing party, which, being the successor of the governmental party in the GDR (East-Germany´s dictatorship before 1989) is known to be quite Putin-friendly, also omits any reference to it. This is something that, quite frankly, horrifies me. 

In places throughout Syria where people have returned, there are countless reports of disappearances, of torture, of people who have simply been arrested in the middle of the street. Why should people return to a country where they get persecuted? A country with more than 100,000  political prisoners, who are held in torturous prisons? How can one dare to speak of return and remain silent about the reasons why they cannot return? Don’t you understand that you are playing into the hands of Assad? 

Finally, we should also talk about the places where people do not demonstrate because it is not possible - most notably in Idlib. 

The attack on the province of Idlib, launched in December 2019 by the Syrian army with the support of Russia and militia units tied to Iran, has led to immeasurable suffering for the civilian population. Just as in the re-conquest of other Syrian regions, the civilian population and civilian facilities, such as schools and hospitals, are being deliberately bombed. Idlib is in fact still known as a "de-escalation zone" and, due to the territorial gains made by the Syrian regime in recent years, has become the last refuge for displaced persons from all parts of the country. 

Now, one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the Syrian war is unfolding in Idlib - for the entire world to see.

According to the United Nations, roughly one million people have fled to the Turkish border since December 2019. The refugees are living under abhorrent conditions in the border area between Turkey and the embattled areas. A total of three million people remain in Idlib province, half of them internally displaced persons from other parts of the country. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) puts the proportion of women and children among them at around 80 percent.

That is why we, the Green Party, have prepared a petition concerning the dramatic situation in Idlib where people are encircled by enemies - the Turkish army in the north, the jihadists inside, and Assad and his affiliates.

Paying our respect to these people in need means that we must first talk about Assad’s war crimes, and about how it is tied to Covid-19. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are merely about 150 intensive care beds and ventilation devices available in the entire region of Idlib. In the wake of the Russian bombing campaign and barrel bombs dropped by the Assad army there are hardly any hospitals left in the area. Since Putin’s military started to support Assad in 2015, they continue to shell civilian facilities under the pretext of fighting terrorism. This means of warfare is used in order to drive these parts of the population out of the cities, which are critical for the regime, and make it more difficult for them to resettle. Needless to say this violates international law, and neither Assad nor Putin have taken responsibility for these atrocities yet.

Due to the failure to reform the so-called Dublin regulation and organise a fair distribution of refugees in Europe, the German government and the European Union have not only caused much suffering and inhumane conditions for people seeking protection, but have also made themselves dependent on President Erdoğan and utterly vulnerable to his blackmailing. The refusal to meet their own humanitarian responsibility for protection, and the decision to outsource this responsibility to Turkey as much as possible have reduced the options of influencing Turkey to a minimum. 

The EU must make it clear to Erdoğan that he is to immediately stop abusing the people in his country as a pawn in his cynical political game and exploit them for his own interests. 

The EU must also escalate its condemnation of the shelling of civilian facilities by the Syrian and Russian militaries, and call them out for what they are: war crimes in violation of international law. It should impose entry bans and freezing of assets on persons and organizations in Russia who are directly or indirectly involved in war crimes and human rights violations in Syria.

Furthermore, the EU should continue to support the UN evidence-backing mechanism for Syria, while taking into account the reports of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on responsibility for poison gas operations in Syria. 

Turkey’s occupation of the Syrian-Kurdish administrative areas, in defiance of international law, should also be heavily condemned. It should be made clear that Turkey must end ethnic expulsions, allow all people to return to their homes, and enforce the disarmament and withdrawal of radical Islamist militias, especially HTS, from Idlib in accordance with the Sotchi Agreement of 2018. 

Finally, the EU must work to re-establish an international peace process for Syria under the leadership of the United Nations and, to this end, work towards an early meeting between Germany, France, Turkey, and Russia.

Image: Bengin Ahmad