Protect Civilians

Some of Syria’s civilian victims from June-July 2017, via Syrian Network for Human Rights


We need a fresh start for Syria

The UK’s failure to protect civilians is prolonging the war in Syria.

Failure to protect civilians worsens the refugee crisis.

Failure to protect civilians undermines the fight against terrorism.

UK policy on Syria needs a fresh start.

We call on the UK Government to bring forward a new plan to protect civilians in Syria and create an opportunity for peace.

 •  Syria Solidarity UK  •  Rethink Rebuild Society  •  Syrian Association of Yorkshire  •  Syrian Platform for Peace  •  Syrian Welsh Society  •  Syrian Society of Nottinghamshire  •  Kurds House  •  Peace and Justice for Syria  •  Syrian Community of the South West

Read more about the signatories.

View and download a PDF version of our proposals.

Child wounded by airstrike in Zamalka, Damascus, 16 July 2017, via Syria Civil Defence

SYRIA: A war against civilians

Syria’s crisis began in early 2011 as the ‘Arab Spring’ protests against dictatorship spread across the region.

Syria had been under the rule of the Assads since Bashar al Assad’s father seized power in 1970. The regime held power by force. Thousands of political prisoners were subjected to torture, and thousands of people killed in violent suppression of dissent, most notably in the February 1982 Hama massacre.

At the beginning of March 2011, fifteen schoolboys were arrested in Deraa, southern Syria, for writing revolutionary graffiti on walls. The children were tortured. Their parents pleaded for their release. The regime’s local head of security told them, ‘Forget your children — go sleep with your wives and make new ones, or send them to me and I will do it.’

On 18 March 2011, the boys’ families and their supporters demonstrated in thousands for their release. Security forces responded with live fire, killing at least four people, the first killed in what was to become a slaughter of hundreds of thousands.

In more than six years of killing, human rights activists have documented as many of the civilian deaths as they could, whether by Assad forces, by the opposition armed groups that rose up after those several months of peaceful protest, or by the foreign terrorist groups and militias that entered the war on different sides.

The Violations Documentation Center in Syria recorded 111,236 individual civilians violently killed up to March 2017. Over 92% were killed by the Assad regime or its allies.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights was able to document 206,923 individual civilians killed in the same period. Over 94% were killed by the Assad regime or its allies.

The Assad regime and its ally Russia have systematically targeted civilian infrastructure, particularly hospitals but also schools, bakeries, and water facilities.

Physicians for Human Rights has documented 454 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria. Over 90% were by the Assad regime or its ally Russia. Over 92% of the 796 medical personnel killed in Syria were killed by the Assad regime or Russia.

The Assad regime has long used terrorist groups for its own ends. For years the regime actively supported Al Qaeda/Islamic State in Iraq across its eastern border. Now Hezbollah provides the regime’s main ground force, besieging and starving civilians, driving entire communities from their homes.

Even if the bombing were to stop tomorrow, millions of Syrians would fear to return home. The Assad regime has detained, tortured and killed tens of thousands of civilians, and over 117,000 people are still believed to be held in Assad’s torture prisons.

The refugee crisis and the terrorist threat are products of Assad’s war on civilians. To end the refugee crisis — and to end the threat of terrorism — protect civilians.

The UK’s BROKEN Syria policy

Failure to protect civilians is prolonging the war in Syria — here’s what to do about it.


BROKEN rules of engagement

Coalition bombing in Syria and Iraq in the first .months of 2017 killed even more civilians than Russia did, according to monitors. Numbers of Syrians killed by the Coalition have reached record highs.

The UK is a senior partner in the Coalition. A British officer serves as Coalition deputy commander. The UK is co-responsible for Coalition actions and their consequences.

The Coalition’s failure to protect civilians adds to the human misery in Syria, undermines the UK’s moral authority, and undermines the strategic aims of fighting extremism and resolving the refugee crisis.

Some Coalition partners on the ground are accused of forced displacement, child recruitment, and political detentions. The UK and its Coalition allies have a responsibility to ensure that communities freed from ISIS are not delivered into new oppression.

How to reduce bombing casualties:

  • As a co-responsible senior partner, the UK should demand that all air forces in the Coalition comply with the highest standards of accountability.

    There is a wide divergence in reporting practices amongst Coalition air forces. All members should comply with best practice on transparency and accountability.

  • The UK should demand higher Coalition standards of intelligence assessment when targeting.

    The Coalition must place the greatest weight on avoiding civilian deaths and injuries. Every civilian casualty is an individual tragedy, and a defeat in the struggle to end terrorism.

  • The UK should demand a well-resourced proactive Coalition system for rapidly investigating and disclosing civilian casualties.

    The Coalition response to civilian casualty reports is slow and defensive. Its investigations capacity is overstretched, reactive, and over-reliant on aerial imaging. It fails civilian victims, and fails to serve the best interest of the Coalition.


BROKEN chemical weapons deal

The April 2017 attack by Assad on Khan Sheikhun was the deadliest chemical weapons attack since 2013. But it was only the most recent of many attacks to break the 2013 chemical weapons deal.

Here in the UK, politicians on all sides must now face the cost of Parliament’s failure to hold Assad to account.

The UK Government has failed to protect civilians, not just in 2013, but throughout six years of expanding war.

To protect civilians we need to end large scale violence, not just end the use of one type of weapon.

After the 2013 chemical weapons deal, Assad escalated the regime’s bombing of civilians with high explosive. This time, all of Assad’s attacks on civilians need to be stopped.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the deaths of 206,923 civilians in the six years up to March 2017. 94% of them were killed by the Assad regime and its allies. 57% were killed by air attacks. 13% were killed by shelling. About 1% were killed by chemical weapons.

UN diplomacy without pressure has failed. Now individual permanent members of the UN Security Council including the UK must take measures to end impunity.

To protect civilians in Syria, rather than following the US and France in deterring ONLY chemical weapons attacks, the UK should lead in deterring ALL attacks on civilians that violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139.

How to stop Assad using chemical weapons:

  • To end Assad’s chemical attacks, deny the regime the means to deliver chemical weapons: End Assad’s use of aircraft and artillery.
  • All Assad’s air and heavy weapons attacks must be stopped—otherwise the regime will simply escalate with conventional bombing and shelling, killing even more civilians.
  • Enforce an end to Assad’s air and artillery attacks, if necessary by further strikes against Assad’s airbases, military installations, or against Assad’s terrorist ally Hezbollah where they directly threaten Syrian civilians.


BROKEN ceasefires

The responsibility to protect civilians goes beyond preventing civilian casualties in Coalition airstrikes, and goes beyond enforcing an end to Assad regime attacks.

Russia, in support of the Assad regime, continues to systematically violate ceasefires, UN resolutions, and international humanitarian law.

Since direct military intervention by Russia began in 2015, Russia has targeted hospitals, schools, and aid workers. Russia has also provided the support needed to allow Assad’s air force to keep flying.

The UK is failing to impose a cost on Russia for its systematic attacks on civilian targets. The EU has not imposed any sanctions on Russia for its actions in Syria.

To reinforce the case for sanctions against Russia, the UK should wherever possible publish evidence on violations and possible war crimes by Russian forces.

The RAF and Royal Navy have the capacity to track military aircraft across Syria. Publishing flight data on Russian and regime military flights could enable officers with command responsibility for war crimes to be identified and sanctioned.

The UK should track and publicly identify violations by Russian and regime aircraft, and reinforce the case for sanctions against Russian officers and officials.

How to help enforce a ceasefire:

  • The UK should track, log, and publish details of all military aircraft flights that may be carrying out attacks in violation of UN resolutions or ceasefire agreements or international humanitarian law.
  • The UK should present EU partners with any evidence of violations, and call for sanctions against Russia until there is full compliance by Russia and its allies in Syria, including an end to air attacks, an end to sieges against civilians, the release of detainees, and full cooperation on legal accountability for war crimes.

Demonstrators at the Foreign Office, London, 31 May 2016

BROKEN airdrops promise

In May 2016, the UK Government promised that if the .Assad regime didn’t allow full humanitarian access to besieged opposition areas, the international community would deliver aid by air. “The UK stands ready,” was the message from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

But the UK failed to keep its promise, and in August 2016 the Assad regime forced the entire population of besieged Daraya to leave.

By the end of 2016, Theresa May had turned her back on the UK’s promise, telling aid agencies that airdrops were too dangerous. By that time Aleppo city had fallen to the combined forces of Russia, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Assad regime.

Forced displacement continued into 2017, with Hezbollah violently removing thousands from Wadi Barada between Damascus and the Lebanese border. Russia has forced thousands more from al-Waer, Homs.

Siege Watch report an estimated 879,320 Syrians still under siege in 35 communities up to April 2017. UK inaction is allowing massive forced demographic change to take place, to the benefit of tyrants and terrorist groups.

How to help break the sieges:

  • The UK must act urgently to enable aid airdrops to besieged areas, in order to save lives where possible, and also as a means to press for full humanitarian access.

    The UK and its allies have a range of options for airdrops:
    • Manned RAF airdrops as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq;
    • Standoff airdrops with remotely guided JPADS parachutes, used by the US Air Force and the World Food Programme;
    • Drone airdrops of either food or medical aid using existing economically viable UAV systems.

  • The UK should invest now in available unmanned systems for aid airdrops, for Syria and also for other future humanitarian emergencies.

    Humanitarian drones are already showing their worth delivering medical supplies in Rwanda. The UK’s Ministry of Defence is investing £8 million on developing future warfighting drones. The UK must also be able to invest in humanitarian drones, for use in Syria and elsewhere.

Pro-regime billboard in Syria, October 2015, showing Putin, Assad, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah

BROKEN war on terror

Assad’s main ground force in the 2016 attack on eastern Aleppo city was not the Syrian army, but a collection of Iranian-backed terrorist groups and militias.

Assad has long used terrorist groups for his own ends. From 2003 to 2010, the regime supported Al Qaeda/Islamic State in Iraq. Earlier it backed the PKK to undermine Turkey. Now the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah provides the regime’s main ground force, besieging and starving civilians, and driving communities from their homes.

Hezbollah is a Lebanese sectarian organisation. It has grown in strength through the Syrian war. Hezbollah is driving the forced displacement of people from areas around Damascus.

Iran also recruits Iraqis and Afghans for its sectarian militias. Iran transports fighters and arms to Syria using its commercial airlines Iran Air and Mahan Air. The EU allows both Iran Air and Mahan Air to do business with Europe.

Iranian-led sectarian militias have attacked UK-trained Coalition partners on the ground in southeastern Syria, and the US Air Force has responded by striking the attacking militia.

As the Coalition drives out ISIS, it must stop other proscribed terrorists of any kind from gaining advantage. By offering security to a range of partners on the ground, the Coalition can broker more inclusive and legitimate governance in post-ISIS areas.

Above all, Syrian civil society needs to be able to operate free of domination by any armed group. The Coalition will need longer term political, economic, and military engagement in Syria to avoid a continued cycle of authoritarianism and sectarian violence.

How to help stop terrorism in Syria:

  • The UK and EU should designate all groups engaged in systematic attacks on civilians as terrorist organisations, including amongst pro-regime militias.
  • The UK and EU should sanction Iranian airlines implicated in supporting terrorism in Syria. Sales of Airbus airliners to Iran should be paused.
  • The UK must prevent areas liberated from ISIS being handed over to other terrorist organisations or to Assad. The UK should partner with independent Syrian civil society groups to ensure inclusive accountable governance in liberated areas.

Women4Syria demonstrators in London, March 2016, calling for safe passage for refugees

BROKEN refugee response

The number of Syrian refugees in the region registered with UNHCR is now equivalent to the entire population of Norway or Denmark. Research has confirmed that most refugees fled Assad regime violence, and won’t return as long as the Assad regime remains.

The UK and EU have sought to contain the refugee crisis to the region both through aid and by means of fortified border policies. These policies have been hardest on the weakest, while benefiting those prepared to profit from others’ misery and desperation.

The cause of the refugee crisis is the large scale abuse of human rights in Syria and elsewhere. To have an enduring effect, the UK’s response needs at its centre a commitment to human rights at home and abroad.

Unless refugees in Europe and the UK are treated with full dignity, allowed to reunite with families, to learn and to work, they will not be able to give their hosts the benefit of their full economic and social potential.

Unless policy towards Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and other regional states puts primary value on respect for human rights, refugees will continue to seek escape to Europe.

Until Syrians can be confident of being able to live safely in Syria without fear of bombing, arbitrary detention, and torture, they will not return home.

How to end the refugee crisis:

  • The UK needs to set an example of a humane refugee policy, on resettlement of lone child refugees, on resettlement of refugees within Europe, and on speeding up family reunion.
  • The UK needs to play a positive role in European refugee policy. The UK should lead on making policy human rights centred rather than deterrence centred.
  • The UK should adopt a policy of civilian protection extending from the UK back along every stage of the refugee routes. Only when people feel safe, will people smugglers be denied a trade.
  • The UK should fulfil its existing commitments as soon as possible:

    20,000 places were promised under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme; under a third have been filled.

    3,000 children were to be accepted from the region; so far none have arrived.

    3,000 unaccompanied children were to be resettled from Europe; so far only a few hundred have come.


Trailer for the documentary Syria’s Disappeared

Detainees — hidden victims

Refugees are not only fleeing bombing, they are also fleeing a regime that has imprisoned thousands of peaceful civilians: for speaking out, for demonstrating, or simply for giving medical aid to the injured.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights lists 117,000 detainees, including thousands of children, but estimates the actual number to be over 215,000, with 99% of them detained by the Assad regime and its allies.

In August 2013, a military defector codenamed Caesar smuggled over 50,000 photographs out of Syria showing numbered corpses of prisoners processed at two military hospitals in Damascus between 2011 and 2013.

Human Rights Watch say the photographs show at least 6,786 people who died as a result of torture and abuse. The injuries shown are incredibly brutal.

Amnesty International report that as many as 13,000 people, most of them civilians, were hanged in secret at just one prison, Saydnaya, over a period of five years.

The UK must insist on the fate of detainees being treated as a humanitarian issue, and not allow them to be used as an instrument of political pressure.

The tortures and killings of prisoners are crimes, and those responsible must be held accountable.

As long as the regime is free to torture and kill civilians, millions of Syrians will be unable to return home.

How to help save detainees:

  • The UK should prioritise detainees in all political efforts to address the Syrian crisis. Releasing detainees and opening detention centres to inspection are essential measures for political progress.
  • The UK must also work with its non-regime political and military partners in Syria to achieve transparent and accountable justice systems in areas outside regime control, including ensuring that prisoners’ rights are fully respected. We need to help set an example of rule of law and of upholding human rights that can in future apply across all Syria.
  • As Russian and Chinese governments are blocking the International Criminal Court from prosecuting crimes against humanity in Syria, the UK must increase efforts to support alternatives, whether via the UN General Assembly, or by enabling cases to be tried in British courts, or by other paths to justice.

Putting the pieces together

Reconstruction without political accountability or legitimacy would reward violent repression, and perpetuate the Syrian conflict.

Hopes that reconstruction plans can be ‘a dividend for peace’ to entice parties into a political transition are misplaced. Having destroyed much of the country to maintain power, the Assad regime now seeks to use reconstruction as another means to that end.


Sanctions for war crimes and crimes against humanity must continue as long as the regime commits these crimes, and as long as they shelter the perpetrators.

Rather than softening sanctions, a better incentive for progress would be to expand sanctions against Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran.

Fractured Syria

As ISIS is driven back, the rest of Syria is fractured into multiple areas of control:
  1. Areas of pro-regime control,
  2. Areas of Syrian opposition control,
  3. Areas of SDF/YPG/PYD control. (Syrian Democratic Forces, led by YPG military wing of the Kurdish PYD.)
UK policy is also fractured. Diplomats support the political opposition, while the British military joins the US in giving support to the SDF/YPG. The YPG has been in political and military conflict with both Kurdish and non-Kurdish opposition groups.

The UK needs a unified policy on Syria to end the refugee crisis and achieve a stable future. Military action must serve the same political end as diplomacy—to establish legitimate government in Syria in order to end the refugee crisis and end terrorism.

The UK needs to hold its political and military partners to account as well as the Assad regime.

In the absence of a political transition, the UK must ensure that areas it helps free from ISIS control are not handed back to the Assad regime or its allies.

Make progress without Assad

As long as agreement for a political transition across Syria is blocked by the Assad regime, the UK should aim for progress towards legitimate, representative, democratic government wherever it is possible within the separate areas of control.

There should be no reconstruction aid to regime areas so long as political transition is blocked by Assad.

To make progress possible, the UK must do its part to end attacks on civilians and enforce a ceasefire.

The UK should continue to support aid and development work by Syrian civil society in order to maintain a viable alternative to the Assad regime, its allies, and other violent extremist forces.

The UK should work with Syrian civil society organisations in developing good legal, security, and governance standards. Meeting these standards should then be a condition for beginning reconstruction aid in any of the areas of control.

The UK should give practical help to build good governance wherever possible within the separate areas of control. These separate efforts should be mutually compatible and mutually reinforcing so as to enable future reunification under a legitimate government.

Where areas outside regime control meet the agreed legal, security, and governance standards, the UK should aid locally led reconstruction, and should help ease international barriers to economic recovery.

The Assad regime should not be allowed a veto over progress in areas outside regime control.

How to help Syrians rebuild Syria:

  • Work with Syrian civil society to set legal, security, and governance standards to apply across Syria as a condition of reconstruction aid. In areas of control where administrations want to meet those standards, give practical help to achieve them.
  • Protect the rights of displaced residents. Empower local residents and civil society as the foundation of accountable reconstruction.
  • By only supporting reconstruction in those areas of control that meet required standards of governance, pressure other areas to improve.

Who we are

Syria Solidarity UK

A network of Syrian and non-Syrian activists in solidarity with the struggle for a democratic, pluralist and united Syria, where all Syrians can freely determine their future.

Rethink Rebuild Society

Rethink Rebuild Society (RR) is a Manchester-based non-profit organisation that campaigns for Syrian issues within the British landscape and works towards improving the lives of Syrians in the UK.

Syrian Association of Yorkshire

The Syrian Association of Yorkshire exists to lobby for the Syrian cause and serve the needs of the Syrian community in Yorkshire.

Syrian Platform for Peace

A peacebuilding platform through which a diversity of Syrian organisations and individuals can work together to promote and build lasting peace in Syria.

Syrian Welsh Society

The Syrian Welsh Society works to promote engagement of the Syrian community in Wales with the Welsh community and the wider British community.

Syrian Society of Nottinghamshire

The Syrian Society of Nottinghamshire is a non-profit, non-denominational lobbing organization, established to act as a forum for all those of Syrian descent and their families, residing in Nottinghamshire.

Kurds House

Kurds House is an independent, non-political and non-profit organisation, aims to value and conserve different cultures and work together to create vibrant, inclusive and prosperous communities in the UK.

Peace and Justice for Syria

Peace and Justice for Syria is a civil organisation for Syrians living in London aiming to help Syrians in achieving peace and justice.

Syrian Community of the South West

Syrian community of the South West is a community of people of Syrian descent and their friends and relatives in South West UK.

View and download a PDF version of our proposals.

•  Together for Syria  •