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Syria No Fly Zone Questions & Answers

Last week, the Avaaz community launched a campaign to protect civilians in Northern Syria by establishing a targeted No Fly Zone [abbreviated NFZ]. Over 900,000 Avaaz members have joined the campaign, but we’ve also received a number of thoughtful concerns that merit consideration and response. Avaaz is a member driven organisation and discussing these issues is absolutely necessary because we don’t always get it 100% right. The best way to get it right, and to sustain the deep trust that our community, and our work require is to engage deliberatively with these critiques. Sorry this is long, but it is important to speak to each of the issues raised.

Here are the main objections:

a) Avaaz is relying on unverified news reports and has the facts wrong.
b) Avaaz is pushing for more war in the Middle East.
c) Avaaz is serving the imperial interests of western powers, notably the US.

I’ll start with the rationale for this campaign:

The human toll of the war in Syria has been utterly devastating. More than 210,000 killed. Over 10 million people driven from their homes. More than half the country’s hospitals damaged or destroyed. Millions of children out of school. This is the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Recent news cycles have lost sight of the most basic fact -- the Syrian conflict is the humanitarian disaster of our generation, and it continues to crush innumerable lives.

The Avaaz community has worked resolutely to support the people of Syria. We supported civilians and non-violent activists to document human rights abuses, and gave millions of dollars for food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies and to put refugee children in school. We campaigned to stop arms dealers from sending weapons to the country, called for sanctions, and then urged the UN to help stop the fighting. More than a million of us from across the world called on the US and Iran to come together to help craft a negotiated solution, and then once again we backed UN-sponsored negotiations. This community has worked for nearly four years to stop the war and help the needy, but the crisis continues and is spreading.

As all of these forums and methods are being exhausted, and while many are accepting the inevitability of a decades long war, it is up to a community like ours to continue to look for legal ways to intervene to stop the carnage. The U.N. Security Council has repeatedly reaffirmed that all states have a Responsibility to Protect people from mass atrocities and human rights violations. This legal doctrine was born from the history of terrible genocides and war crimes stretching from the Holocaust, through the Khmer Rouge, to Rwanda. It states that if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, or worse is perpetrating these atrocities itself, then under international law it compromises its sovereignty. To protect civilians, other states can use diplomacy, sanctions, and as a last resort, military intervention. Russia, China, France, the United States, the UK, and many other states have endorsed the Responsibility to Protect. And this is the basis upon which we ground this call for a No Fly Zone. It is not the deceitful “pre-emptive war” doctrine advocated by neo-conservatives looking to remake and dominate the Middle East.

Our community’s call for a No Fly Zone is a very serious strategy made only after intensive consultation with diplomats, regional experts, and Syrians to save tens of thousands of civilians’ lives. After four years of brutal violence on all sides, the war in Syria will be extremely difficult to end. But a NFZ could help curb the violence and bring the warring parties into peace negotiations. Right now Assad has no incentive to negotiate peace. He believes he can continue exterminating his people until they submit. A NFZ will show Assad that the world will act to stop this carnage, and it will change Assad’s calculus. It will also provide a safe place for the Syrians who have been driven into extremists’ territory as they are fleeing from the regime's terror. Lastly it would reinforce the international military campaign against ISIS. A No Fly Zone that protects civilians in northern Syria could strengthen the conditions for a negotiated, political solution to the conflict.

Unconfirmed or false facts?

The most common criticism of the campaign is that the specific attack referenced in last week’s email alert is still unconfirmed. While it continues to be difficult to independently and unequivocally confirm details on the ground in Syria, there are strong reasons to believe these three facts:
  1. There was a chlorine attack in Sarmin on March 16: The White Helmets, Syria’s highly respected all-volunteer search and rescue workers, uploaded images and video of the attack’s aftermath (GRAPHIC). Then one of the world's most respected, non-partisan medical relief organizations, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which supports a hospital in Sarmin, reported that local doctors had verified the attack. “Attacking a village and its civilian population with chlorine shows once again that the Syrian conflict knows no limits,” said Dr Mego Terzian, MSF President. This is not an isolated incident; the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has documented repeated chlorine attacks in Syria.


  2. The chlorine in the March 16 attack was dropped in barrel bombs from helicopters: According to MSF, local doctors reported that "helicopters were seen dropping barrels, which released a suffocating gas on impact with the ground." The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the attacks came from “barrel bomb bombardment”.


  3. Only the Assad regime is using helicopters for fighting in that region: The Syrian regime's use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters has been thoroughly documented and continues in direct violation of UN Security Resolution 2139. There is no evidence suggesting that helicopter attacks are perpetrated by any actor other than government forces. Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, Philip Luther, blamed the Assad regime in no uncertain terms: “These horrific attacks that resulted in civilians, including small children, suffering excruciating deaths, are yet more evidence that the Syrian government forces are committing war crimes with impunity.”
The United Nations has repeatedly confirmed and condemned the possession and use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. In response to Sarin attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013, a deal spearheaded by the US and Russia was reached to remove all of Assad’s chemical weapons (except for weaponized chlorine). This deal was passed by the United Nations Security Council as resolution 2118. However, chemical attacks continued in the form of weaponized chlorine bombs dropped from helicopters. In September of 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published a report citing “‘compelling confirmation’ that a toxic chemical was used ‘systematically and repeatedly’ as a weapon in villages in northern Syria earlier this year.” And the United Nations just passed yet another resolution (UNSC Resolution 2209) confirming that chlorine weapons had been used in Syria, and committing to resort to economic sanctions or military action if such weapons were used again.

And chlorine bombs are only part of the horror story. The Syrian military and allied militias, which are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths, have relied on non-chemical weapons dropped from aircraft to kill thousands upon thousands of civilians in northern Syria. Even if, contrary to current evidence, it somehow turns out that the Assad regime was not responsible for this recent chlorine attacks, it is still the case that a No Fly Zone in northern Syria would dramatically reduce civilian deaths.

Pushing for war?

Some have asked whether we are pushing for greater war in the region. The answer is an unqualified “no”. US and allied aircraft are already patrolling airspace in northern Syria, as part of the US-led anti-IS coalition, so a No Fly Zone would not require significant new deployments. Bloodshed in Syria will continue with or without a No Fly Zone, but a No Fly Zone would dramatically decrease civilian casualties.

The use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (improvised bombs made from metal drums, filled with nails and metal parts meant to murder and maim) dropped by Syrian regime helicopters is ongoing and has killed many thousands of civilians. Human Rights Watch estimated that the Assad regime has carried out at least 1,450 aerial attacks in 11 months over just one small part of the conflict zone. Barrel bombs kill more civilians than militants, and more than 76,000 Syrians were killed last year. Prior efforts to put an end to this, through diplomacy and sanctions, have all failed. If nothing changes, another 100,000 could be killed in 2015.

As with any military mission, a No Fly Zone may endanger the pilots enforcing it, or Assad forces trying to break it. Those possibilities are real, but we know what will continue to happen until there is a No Fly Zone: weaponized chlorine bombs will fall on sleeping families; and near daily barrel bombing will continue over Aleppo. Thousands and thousands of people will die, for years to come, if we turn away and wring our hands.

A No Fly Zone over Syria is not the same as the disastrous war in Iraq. I marched against that war in San Francisco in October 2002 before it started, and even then, it was clear that that war was based on imaginary pretences. Many Avaaz staff did the same, and one of our community’s earliest campaigns was opposing escalation of the Iraq war. But Syria could not be more different. This campaign for Syria is not invasion or regime change, it’s about protecting defenceless families.

Serving imperialism?

Lastly, some of the most critical comments coming in question whether Avaaz is serving US and western interests to (re)shape and exercise imperial ambitions in the Middle East. The answer again is a very definitive “no.” Avaaz is a 41-million member community that serves a mission to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want. That is our heartbeat. And in service to that mission, Avaaz does not accept donations from governments, corporations or foundations -- we are completely member-funded.

Avaaz members live in every corner of the world, and our work serves the hope of our global community -- not the narrow interests of any one country. Our largest national membership is not in the US or any country of Western Europe, but in Brazil. And we have over a million members across the Middle East and North Africa, more than 900,000 in Russia, and 40,000 from Iran.

Our community regularly campaigns against morally unjustifiable foreign engagement in the Middle East, whether it be Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands or the US and EU’s rapprochement with a new tyrant in Egypt. We understand the tragic and often cynical legacy of foreign engagement in the Middle East and North Africa.

To some a No Fly Zone could conjure up images of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and illegal Western interventions. This is a different thing. A targeted No Fly Zone must not be implemented by any one country. It must be an international effort, with a clear objective: the protection of civilians. And the states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates that have openly called for a No Fly Zone, and the protection of civilian populations in Syria, must take the lead in providing resources to implement it. France’s Socialist government has also voiced strong support for a targeted No Fly Zone. But, these governments won’t act without some support from the United States, which has the diplomatic and military resources to serve as coordinator for a limited period of time -- until the safety of civilians is secured.

This campaign is about protecting Syrian families who have been abandoned by the international community to a litany of horrors, and it reinforces the same call made by the White Helmets, Syria’s respected and non-partisan civil protection force. Avaaz has 41,906 members from Syria itself. Though most Syrians today don’t have internet access, thousands of them have joined our call. And of all the countries on earth, Syria is the one with the highest percentage of Avaaz members signing and sharing this petition. The Avaaz community has repeatedly stood behind the principle that defenseless civilian populations should be protected -- and these tens of thousands of Syrian Avaaz members deserve no less.

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The goal of this campaign is not to expand violence, but to help end it. Lost in all of the recent news coverage of ISIS and Iranian nuclear negotiations is a simple human truth -- millions of people like you and me are right now in Syria struggling desperately to find shelter, to feed and clothe their children, and to simply survive another day of horrific violence. This campaign is for them.

I hope this text has been useful. You may have decided to leave Avaaz when we launched this campaign, and if our values really don't line up, then that's for the best. But if you see every human life as equally precious and deserving of protection, I hope you'll stay engaged, and keep bringing your perspective. None of us have a handle on the absolute truth, and we need to keep listening to each other, and engaging each other, to get it right. Please let us know if there's anything in this message that we really got wrong.

With respect and appreciation,

John Tye
Avaaz Campaign Director