Responding to cities under siege

How can humanitarian programmes improve civilian protection in war besieged cities?

Chas Morrison's picture
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Chas Morrison
Chas Morrison is a research fellow in reconstruction at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations
21 April 2016
An image of a deserted and war-torn street in Aleppo. Four years of fighting have left much of the Syrian city in ruins. The UN recently warned that up to 300,000 people could be left without food if the last flight route into eastern Aleppo is cut (Photo: Freedom House Salaheddin, Creative Commons via Flickr)

A street in Aleppo. Four years of fighting have left much of the Syrian city in ruins. The UN recently warned that up to 300,000 people could be left without food if the last flight route into eastern Aleppo is cut (Photo: Freedom House Salaheddin, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Along with terrorism, urban conflict is one of the defining types of political violence in the modern age. Humanitarian programmes to support conflict-affected populations have until recently focused on more rural areas, but this approach is changing with the prevalence of recent urban violence across Yemen, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere.

Urban warfare compounds the challenges of civilian protection, especially if non-combatants are being deliberately targeted. Chas Morrison reports on an IIED-supported research project in Aleppo and Gaza looking at civilian protection in besieged cities.

International humanitarian law and violations

Even under conditions of outright conflict, civilians are protected under international law. The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War has been signed by Syria, Russia and Israel.

Article 3 states that warring parties must adhere to minimum protection for non-combatants, members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are 'hors de combat' (not fighting).

The Convention covers "the whole of the populations of the countries in conflict, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, nationality, religion or political opinion" (Article 13). Article 33 further states that collective punishments and intimidation (including reprisal killings) are prohibited.

Yet recent events in Syria and in Palestinian territories have demonstrated widespread disregard for international humanitarian law, and there are numerous accusations that conflict actors have deliberately been targeting civilians, with both government and rebel forces blamed.

Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) and partners such as the Afaq Academy have been documenting human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian laws in places such as Gaza and Aleppo. But legalities and documents only serve as a framework to prevent atrocities. 

Key dangers include bombing of buildings, unexploded ordinance, fires and the structural instability of buildings affected by explosives, as well as also disrupted communications, roadblocks and a lack of medical equipment, drugs and transport. These severely hamper efforts to carry out search and rescue or provide medical support and lead to additional casualties. 

When a regime or insurgent group deliberately and repeatedly targets civilians, what concrete actions can we take?

First responder activities and requirements in Gaza and Aleppo

Together with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) of Coventry University, we have started a research project with support from IIED on the capacities and practices of 'first responders' in Aleppo and Gaza – including Civil Defence Units, paramedics, nurses, volunteers and others working in civilian protection. Both cities are experiencing prolonged and repeated bombardments and aerial attacks.

In 2014, during just 50 days of conflict, 2,251 Palestinians were killed. Of these, there were 1,462 civilians, including 299 women and 551 children. An independent commission found (download) that 11,231 Palestinians, including 3,540 women and 3,436 children, were injured. 

Over 500,000 people were displaced and more than 18,000 housing units were destroyed or damaged. First responders in Gaza (mainly Red Crescent and Gaza Civil Defence units) endured horrific conditions, but were overwhelmed and made less effective by the direct targeting of their facilities, vehicles and ambulances as well as the impact of explosive weapons.

Following the open-ended ceasefire between the Palestinians (Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad) and Israel on 26 August 2014, NPA did a rapid assessment of the conflict's impacts. Civil defence officers, medical personnel and aid workers all identified that civilian preparedness is a priority for the future, especially in known high-risk areas. 

Doctors reported that up to 80 per cent of injuries were caused by the secondary effects of explosive weapons, including debris, shrapnel, and other fragmentation, and not the direct explosion itself.

Doctors also estimated that a significant proportion of civilians who later died from their wounds would have been saved with improved local first aid response capacity, and not just more first aid kits.

Assessments of the numbers of civilians killed in Syria vary widely. From 2011 to mid-March 2016, the Center for Documentation of Violations estimates 152,893 casualties, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates at least 273,520

Aleppo is a major area of contestation in Syria and has been devastated by indiscriminate shelling, air-strikes and bombing. Many inhabitants have fled, and those remaining suffer massive risks and deprivations. Local government staff and humanitarian actors endure appalling conditions to respond, providing basic services for the remaining citizens.

Expected project results

Image showing an Afaq Academy workshop with first responders in Syria in April 2016 (Photo: Afaq Academy)Our partnership builds on previous research by NPA and the Afaq Academy on civilian attitudes and responses to urban conflict, before, during and after bombing.

Our focus is on providing a baseline assessment based on input from first responders, to benefit from their knowledge, to identify gaps, and improve response efficiency and preparedness.

Local organisations responding to urban bombing often lack capacity and opportunities to critically assess their activities or share best practice on planning and coordination with communities and authorities.

This project will establish a baseline of current practice and perceived gaps, which we hope will inform international actors, donors and humanitarian workers. These findings will be relevant across a range of countries, given the current extent of urban conflict.

Chas Morrison ( is a research fellow in reconstruction at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.

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