September 29, 2015

Planet Syria FAQ: No-Bombing Zone

Planet Syria is a network of over 100 nonviolent civil society groups in Syria. This is their FAQ about a no-bombing zone in Syria.

We are non-violent Syrians calling on Western powers to implement a no-bombing zone in order to protect civilian lives. We would never have called for military action in the past, but we’ve reached a point where we feel it’s the last resort.

The no-bombing zone should be coupled with diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. What is happening in Syria is the world’s war, with dozens of countries involved. It will take the world to end it through direct negotiations between all Syrian groups.

If you want to find out more about our position and how we reached this conclusion, please read the FAQs below.

>  Why are you advocating for a no-bombing zone?

The biggest cause of civilian casualties and mass displacement in Syria are the crude, low-cost and easy to manufacture barrel bombs. They are old oil barrels packed full of scrap metal and TNT, rolled out of helicopters and planes kilometers up in the sky onto civilian areas in Syria.

The UN Security Council unanimously banned barrel bombs almost two years ago. Nothing has changed since then. In fact, 20 to 50 barrel bombs have been dropped daily since the UN resolution 2139 was adopted. More than 11,000 barrel bombs have been dropped since October 2015, according to the UN Security Council.

They spread terror and drive people to flee neighborhoods in search of safety. Most of them end up refugees in neighboring countries and whole stretches of Syria are depopulated as a result. Extremist groups find it easier to move in to fill the void. Barrel bombs are deployed by Assad’s regime to hinder local governance and ensure that no alternative civil institutions take root in opposition-held areas. The only alternative becomes military rule by radical groups. Along with protecting civilians, we must also look to the future – only by being serious and credible can the international community support the kinds of peace talks that Syria so desperately needs to stop the violence. That credibility comes from backing up their words with action and stopping the bombs – as it has outlined in its resolutions. An internationally-backed political process can’t work when founded on broken promises.

> Will ISIS and other extremists benefit from a no-bombing zone?

Quite the opposite. As Ken Roth, the Director of Human Rights Watch also writes in the New York Times: “The failure to address the barrel bombs arguably helps extremist groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which recruit Syrian members by presenting themselves as the most powerful military force to counter Mr. Assad’s government’s atrocities.”

Civilians in Syria feel that no one cares about our plight. We see coalition warplanes flying in the same air space as Assad’s helicopters yet doing nothing to degrade his military arsenal. This feeds extremism and leads Syrians, who are sorely disillusioned with the international community’s credibility, to embrace extremist ideologies over time out of sheer frustration. We believe that barrel bombs are a recruiting tool for Isis. The group is using the rubble of our towns and cities as its breeding ground.

Roth also writes: “There have to be ways to address the barrel bombs – Assad’s primary tool for killing civilians. It’s the right thing to do in humanitarian terms, but it is also important to help undercut Isis’s ideological appeal.”

We are calling for a no-bombing zone to stop the barrel bombs from killing and displacing Syrian families, not in order to change the military balance of power. In fact, barrel bombs are not used by the Syrian regime to advance its military goals. As Ken Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, writes in the New York Times: “They are useful mainly for pummeling civilian neighborhoods. That is one reason residents of opposition-held parts of Aleppo told me that, unlike in almost any other war, some civilians have — astonishingly — moved closer to the front lines, preferring to brave the more predictable artillery and snipers than the barrel bombs’ random death from the sky.”

> How does a no-bombing zone help curb extremism?

The only way to curb extremist trends in the long-term is to give Syrians other options. In the first two years of the conflict, nascent civil institutions started providing basic services and experimenting with local governance. It was a moment of great promise during which civilians and civil activists came together to establish a working model. Unfortunately, the daily shelling made it increasingly hard for people to convene and organize meetings.

While the coalition might be able to slow ISIS expansion through the use of targeted strikes, it cannot prevent its extremist ideology from taking root in Syria unless it gives Syrians a chance to build other models of governance. If Syrians were to have safe places to live, refugees would return and attempt to rebuild normal lives. Civil institutions would flourish and extremist groups would have less sway as a result.

Assad is responsible for enabling the rise of ISIS through his scorched earth policy yet Western states, the UK most recently, conveniently ignore that fact and are even considering working with him. The choice is not between ISIS and Assad, this is a false dichotomy. The choice is between destabilizing forces and stabilizing ones.

> Why are you advocating for a no-bombing zone as opposed to other measures, for example diplomatic engagement?

Existing diplomatic efforts to protect civilians in Syria have failed dramatically as evidenced by the ever-worsening situation in our country. One notable exception is the removal of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile after a joint US-Russian diplomatic initiative. However the initiative was only successful due to the threat of force imposed by the US. We are non-violent Syrians and we would never call for military action unless it was the absolute last resort. At this point, we feel there is no other way to protect civilians in our country.

The no-bombing zone should be coupled with diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. What is happening in Syria is the world’s war, with dozens of countries involved. It will take the world to end it through direct negotiations between all Syrian groups.

> There are many human rights violations in Syria. Why are you focusing on the barrel bombs?

There are many human rights violations taking place in Syria today. Starvation sieges, torture, kidnappings, disappearance, arbitrary executions, recruitment of child soldiers and so on. Most casualties are still caused by the regime. The barrel bomb in particular is the biggest cause of civilian casualties and mass displacement in Syria.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has called for the use of barrel bombs to stop and has said: “All evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims in the Syrian conflict have been caused by the use of such indiscriminate aerial weapons.”

> Won’t a no-bombing zone prevent peace talks from happening?

No. By implementing a no-bombing zone, the international community will be sticking to the demands it made in Resolutions 2139, 2118 and 2209. These resolutions have been violated thousands of times – more than two thousand children have been killed by barrel bombs since the UN banned them. Unless the bombs are stopped, there will be no faith in the demands of the international community. And the international community is key to convening peace talks and making sure they are a success.

> We don’t want  a repeat of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. These failed interventions have made us wary of all military interventions in the Middle East.

Such a perspective misrepresents what is happening in Syria. The US went into a stable Iraq and dismantled all state institutions instigating chaos that eventually led to a civil war. In Syria, a complex civil war erupted when the Syrian regime resorted to the use of force to quell a peaceful uprising. So the context is entirely different. The biggest threat to the West right now is ISIS, but this group cannot be defeated if the political and military deadlock that gave rise to it in the first place are not dealt with. The facts on the ground will continue to appeal to potential recruits who see what’s happening in Syria as a worldwide conspiracy against the disenfranchised Sunnis. The fact that the coalition flies its warplanes in the same airspace as Syria’s regime gives the illusion of an alliance between the Syrian government and the west. And it is in fact a de facto alliance. The key to defeating ISIS and containing sectarianism is to empower local governance and civil society.None of this can happen while the violence rages.

The Libya comparison is also flawed. The international community failed to support a process after the intervention and left the country to collapse into chaos. We want the world to support a peace process in Syria, to keep the state institutions intact, while we form a unity government around new leaders. Another concern with the Libya comparison is that it smacks somewhat of Orientalism. Because these are two Arab states, observers ignore all off the myriad differences which make each one unique. If a comparison is to be had, a much better choice would be Bosnia, where according to the former UN ambassador to Bosnia, “The intervention saved lives. It dampened extremism. And it ultimately brought the conflict to an end.”

He adds that “Intervention — in the form of a no-bombing zone — could offer similar benefits in Syria by stopping what is now the leading killer of Syrian civilians: Assad’s barrel bombs.”

> What is happening in Syria is not our problem.

Constraining Assad’s air force is not just the moral thing to do but it is also in the strategic interests of the west. Syria is having a destabilizing effect on neighboring countries and beyond.

Lessening the daily massacres, working to shore up civil institutions in safe areas and allowing refugees to return will help stabilize the Middle East as a whole and serve as a bulwark against the spread of ISIS’s ideology. It would help lead to peace talks.

> So you believe in a military solution to the crisis in Syria?

There is no military solution. But a limited use of force can both protect civilians and help bring negotiating parties to the table. Moreover, military intervention is already happening in Syria. We are non-violent activists, and many of us were against western military intervention in Syria after the uprising started in 2011. Many of us were even against military intervention after the regime used chemical weapons on its own people.

But military intervention has now happened.

In September the US-led coalition started bombing Isis areas in Syria but continues to permit the regime’s aircraft to fly in the same space and bomb schools, hospitals and homes. The Assad regime has killed many more innocent Syrians than Isis has, so to those who’ve lost family members there is nothing humanitarian about the current intervention against Isis. This double standard is fuelling the very extremism it’s attempting to ‘degrade and destroy’.

That’s why we think the international community has to be prepared to enforce a ‘no-bombing zone’ to protect civilians. Even issuing an ultimatum to the Assad regime to stop bombing could lead to a significant shift in the conflict. History has shown that Assad tends to respond to serious threats by capitulating (for example: giving up his chemical weapons’ arsenal when the US threatened to launch limited strike on his military bases).

Whatever the ramifications are, something needs to be done to break the stalemate because it’s driving radicalization and spreading chaos. If Assad feels like he can win this, he will continue to use unrestrained force. ISIS will continue to fight the rebels and the Kurds, and each entity will continue to hold on to its territory while seeking to expand. Civilians will continue to suffer. More than 220,000 people have been killed and half the country has been displaced. Isis has established its capital amid the chaos.

Currently the US-led coalition is bombing Syria, the regime is bombing its own people and extremism is on the rise. Isn’t it time someone put some energy into reducing the bombs?

We’re calling for two things to happen together: stopping the bombs and meaningful internationally-backed negotiations.

> What do Syrians want?

Unfortunately the no-bombing zone debate is exclusively taking place in the West among policy-makers and politicians who are sometimes unaware of the driving forces of the Syrian conflict. Surprisingly, very few Syrian voices have been allowed to weigh in on the subject. Nonviolent activists in Syria, who are normally against intervention of any kind in their country’s affairs, have been calling for a no-bombing zone for quite a while now. They see it as the only solution to the conflict and the first step leading to negotiations. A weakened and chastened Syrian regime is much more likely to make concessions than one whose army is allowed to pound entire areas into submission.

As for ISIS, it is generally seen as an invading force in Syria. The majority of fighters are foreign and the leadership is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Many communities are forced to swear allegiance to it for lack of other options and because they simply want to be allowed to live in peace. Moreover, ISIS enforces a very strict form of Shari’a that the majority of Syrians are not used to. Even smoking a cigarette can earn one the worst form of punishment. Most Syrians do not want to live under such conditions. It would help if Western states attempt to see the problem through Syrian eyes and work with Syrians on the ground to defeat ISIS.

> Is it ISIS versus the Syrian regime?

The idea that this war is pinning ISIS and the Syrian regime against each other and that it’s either one or the other is the biggest fallacy when it comes to the war in Syria. The majority of Syrians want neither ISIS nor the regime to rule the country. They took to the streets because they wanted a democratically elected and just government that would listen to their demands, not a theocracy or an authoritarian government. Those moderate voices have been abandoned by the international community.

Moreover, both ISIS and the Syrian regime have been fighting moderate factions capable of constituting a plausible alternative rather than each other.

There is a wealth of evidence that the regime’s air force has largely spared ISIS bases. According to the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (IHS JTIC) database, the Islamic State and Assad’s security forces have largely ignored each other while “focusing on attacking more moderate opposition groups.”

“If we look through the IHS JTIC database for this year, we see that just six per cent of 982 Syrian counterterrorism operations targeted the Islamic State and only 13 per cent of 923 Islamic State attacks in Syria targeted Syrian security forces,” said Matthew Henman, manager of IHS JTIC.

> Who or what is Planet Syria?

We are a coalition of more than a 100 Syrian nonviolent civil society organisations who believe that to end the violence in our country, the barrel bombs must be stopped and real peace negotiations pursued. Planet Syria is our campaign to end the violence in our country. We are trying to build global solidarity around two key demands:

1) An end to the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and airstrikes, and

2) negotiations between all Syrian groups and their international backers.

We then want to use our collective power to make sure our demands are heard and acted upon by those in power. We are grassroots organisations and work with communities on education, livelihoods and protection. We also document human rights violations and engage in peacebuilding. Our locations span from Daraa and Ghouta in the South to Aleppo and Hasakeh in the North. We work in areas controlled by various armed actors and face incredible risks to bring peace and justice to our country.

> Who do you represent?

It is impossible to speak on behalf of all Syrian civil society. Syrian civil society is diverse, as it is in most countries. Syrian groups are working together despite insecurity, persecution and restrictions on movement to develop joint positions on issues that impact the lives of Syrians. There have also been great initiatives by these groups to consult communities, including women, young people and victims, on their priorities and needs. But no one process or forum can represent all Syrian civil society. Our campaign is based on consultations with nonviolent activists from across Syria on what they think are ways to resolve this conflict. We have conducted face to face interviews and our statement was signed by a 100 groups representing over 17,000 Syrians on the ground.