About the Siege Watch

The Siege Watch project monitors and reports on Syria’s besieged areas using data collected on a monthly basis from an extensive network of reporting contacts on the ground. Background information and updates on each besieged community are shared in the Siege Watch interactive map, and through in-depth quarterly reports, thus ensuring that the international community has access to timely, accurate information on the ongoing sieges. The deliberate starvation of civilians and other aspects of the sieges are war crimes under international law and violate UN Security Council Resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2254 (2015), and 2258 (2015).

Siege Watch is a joint initiative of peace organisation PAX and The Syria Institute. Active monitoring for the project began in late 2015.

What are the ‘besieged areas’ of Syria?

Despite several UN Security Council resolutions calling for unobstructed humanitarian access, the Syrian regime – and in some cases ISIS and armed opposition groups – continue to besiege neighborhoods and towns across the country. A siege occurs when armed forces cut off access to a populated area, blocking the entry of food and medicine and preventing the free movement of civilians into or out of the area, including the evacuation of people in need of urgent medical care. Electricity and water supplies to the besieged areas are often cut off, and they are further subjected to violent attacks including airstrikes, barrel bombs, chemical attacks, ballistic missiles, mortar and rocket fire, sniping, and ground force offensives.

In Syria, this military tactic has been applied systematically against civilian populations by the Syrian government as a form of collective punishment against areas it does not control. The result is a man-made humanitarian disaster with hundreds of thousands of victims, some who have been trapped for three years. Because this crisis is physically contained, many people in the outside world are not even aware that these sieges are being conducted.

Why is monitoring these areas important?

The March 2015 Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) report ‘Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities Under Siege‘, demonstrated that the situation is far worse than reported by UN OCHA, whose monthly reporting on humanitarian access issues in Syria is presented in the UN Secretary-General’s monthly reports to the UN Security Council. This monthly UN reporting plays an important role in framing the international community’s understanding of the situation on the ground, and by extension, in shaping the urgency and nature of its response. Unfortunately, the UN OCHA reporting fails to recognize dozens of besieged Syrian communities and underestimates the total number of people living under siege by more than 600,000. Decisions to add or remove communities from the besieged list are applied inconsistently and without justification, presenting a distorted view of the situation on the ground.

The Siege Watch project aims to publish more accurate data that can be used by the international community as an alternative or supplement to the problematic UN OCHA information. Increasing international awareness of the situation on the ground is an important step towards bringing and end to Syria’s sieges and holding the perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Ending the sieges should be a high-priority confidence building measure for the international negotiations to bring an end to the war.

Methodology

UN OCHA defines a besieged area as follows: “For the purposes of the Syrian conflict, a ‘besieged area’ is an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit the area.” [1] This same definition is used by the Siege Watch project and all of the communities described in this report meet or exceed this standard.The Siege Watch project designates three tiers of siege intensity, using a classification scheme proposed by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in its March 2015 ‘Slow Death’ report.[2] All three tiers meet the UN OCHA criteria for besieged. The tiers help further describe the variations in conditions in different area, drawing attention to the besieged communities where civilians are in the most immediate need. The designations range from Tier 1 (highest intensity) to Tier 3 (lowest intensity):

  • Tier 1 – This is the highest level of siege, where very little is able to enter through smuggling or bribery, the UN can negotiate few if any aid deliveries, and supplies that do enter are insufficient for the population. Residents are at high risk of malnutrition/dehydration and denial of medical care. The area is frequently attacked by besieging forces.
  • Tier 2 – This is the moderate level of siege, where small amounts of supplies can usually be smuggled in through bribery and purchased on the black market for inflated prices. Vehicle deliveries cannot enter but residents may have access to alternative food sources such as local agriculture. The UN is able to negotiate few if any aid deliveries and assistance that does enter is insufficient for the population. Residents in these areas are at some risk of malnutrition/dehydration and at high risk of denial of medical care. The areas are regularly attacked by besieging forces.
  • Tier 3 – This is the lowest level of siege, where supplies still must be smuggled in but are done so with regularity and the population has consistent access to alternative food sources such as local agriculture. The UN is able to negotiate some aid deliveries, but assistance that does enter is insufficient for the population. Residents in these areas are at low risk of malnutrition/dehydration and at moderate risk of denial of medical care. The areas are occasionally attacked by besieging forces.

The primary condition that demonstrates that an area is besieged is when it is surrounded by armed actors who restrict the movement of goods and people into and out of the area. A siege is an intentional tactic meant to deprive a populated area of the essentials needed for life. Other factors such as the level of violence, the delivery of aid convoys, and the availability of smuggling routes can change the intensity of the siege (the Tier level) but do not impact whether an area is designated besieged under the Siege Watch system.

Siege Watch identifies an additional category of “Watchlist” locations that are at high risk of becoming under long-term siege. This category includes: communities that are under partial siege, where many of the conditions of a siege are met but a limited number of access points may be usable at least part of the time; newly besieged communities that have been blockaded for three months or less; and communities where a siege has recently ended but civilian populations remain in place.

Siege Watch also maintains a list of depopulated communities, which were removed from project monitoring efforts after their entire population fled or was forcibly transferred out.

Communities that come under a new siege are first added to the Siege Watch “Watchlist”, and in most cases will be considered for inclusion on the besieged list after a three-month observation period. Similarly, communities that have capitulated to government surrender terms to end the siege will remain on the “Watchlist” for a probationary period of three months to ensure that the situation does not regress back to complete siege. Each siege situation is unique, and discretion may be used in waiving this three-month requirement should developments on the ground require. For more details on the data collection process, please see the first quarterly Siege Watch report from February 2016.

Siege Watch monitors Syria’s besieged areas using data collected on an ongoing basis from an extensive network of reporting contacts in besieged communities. Information on besieged communities is published in the interactive map on the Siege Watch website (siegewatch.org), on the Twitter feed (@siegewatch), and through in-depth quarterly reports.[3]

Challenges

The difficult, dangerous, and fluid circumstances on the ground in the besieged areas of Syria continued to present challenges for the Siege Watch project during the reporting period. Poor internet access, lack of electricity, bombings and other safety-related issues, in addition to shifting priorities among reporting contacts all impacted the type and amount of information gathered. Large population displacements between communities within the besieged Eastern Ghouta during the reporting period once again hampered efforts to make accurate estimates.

The challenge of maintaining a network of voluntary reporting contacts was compounded during the reporting period by the forcible transfers from communities that surrendered to the government. In addition to local fighters and their families, the people deported from surrendering communities have included local council members and activists who maintain contact with the outside world. Siege Watch contacts were forcibly transferred from several communities during the reporting period, making it challenging to monitor post surrender developments.

While the Siege Watch tier system can be a useful tool to help stakeholders better understand the conditions in besieged communities and the variations between them, the circumstances in each area are unique, and do not always fit neatly into a classification. A number of areas currently on the Siege Watch “Watchlist” face siege-like conditions, and the decision to leave them on the “Watchlist” is not clear-cut. Communities that face limited movement and supply restrictions can blur the distinction between besieged and not besieged. In these cases of uncertainty, the Siege Watch project has opted to take a conservative approach and keep areas on the “Watchlist,” if any doubts exist. All such cases are frequently monitored and reevaluated on an ongoing basis.”


[1] UN OCHA,”2015 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Syrian Arab Republic,” November 2014.
[2] Syrian American Medical Society, “Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities Under Siege,” March 2015.
[3] Note: the situation in several of the besieged areas of Syria was changing quickly as of time of writing. Visit siegewatch.org for the most up-to-date data on specific communities.

 

 

 

 


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