Atrocities against civilians, medics and children widespread in Syria
UN report only a glimpse of the horror and brutality on the ground
Smoke rises from behind a building in Jobar, Damascus. Most of the 100,000-plus killed since early 2011 have died by what could be described as more conventional means: including aerial bombardment, shelling and sniper fire. Photograph: Msallam Abd Albaset/Reuters
Almost lost in the debate over the now confirmed use of chemical weapons in Damascus last month is the fact that only a fraction of Syria’s war dead has been killed by poison gas.
Most of the 100,000-plus killed since the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad began in early 2011 have died by what could be described as more conventional means: including aerial bombardment, shelling and sniper fire.
With fewer journalists on the ground in Syria, due to regime restrictions and the risk of kidnapping by armed groups, there is a danger that the everyday horrors of the war will go largely undocumented.
That is why the contents of a report released last week by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria – which almost went unnoticed due to the separate investigation into the use of chemical weapons – are so important.
In chilling detail, the report illuminates the increasingly brutal tactics that the Assad regime – and, to a lesser degree, opposition forces – are employing against civilians. The commission, which was set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, concludes that both sides are guilty of war crimes and also accuses pro-government forces of crimes against humanity.
“Relentless shelling has killed thousands of civilians and displaced the populations of entire towns. Massacres and other unlawful killings are perpetrated with impunity,” it said. “An untold number of men, children and women have disappeared. Many are killed in detention; survivors live with physical and mental scars of torture. Hospitals and schools have been bombarded.”
The commission found that forces loyal to Assad were responsible for at least eight massacres, including a now infamous assault on the Sunni villages of al-Bayda and Baniyas, during which hundreds of civilians, many of them women and children, were killed. Another occurred in the Damascus suburb of Jdeidat al-Fadel in April: as regime forces subjected the area to heavy shelling, pro-Assad snipers picked off civilians trying to escape.
According to the UN investigators, opposition forces have also carried out at least one massacre. In mid May, a rebel faction, which included extremist Sunnis, poured into the village of Hatla where they clashed with pro-regime Shia fighters and afterwards killed a number of Shia civilians, including children.
The UN report documents what it describes as the Assad regime’s “relentless campaign” of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling across the country, citing such attacks in 12 of Syria’s 14 governorates since July 15th, with particularly intense shelling in the cities and surrounding areas of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
It said regime forces continue to drop cluster munitions on civilian areas, especially in the northern province of Idlib.
The report detailed how a regime fighter jet dropped an incendiary bomb on a school in Aleppo province on August 26th, the aftermath of which was captured by a BBC TV crew. In the ensuing blaze, eight students died immediately. “Fifty others, aged between 14 and 17 years old, suffered horrific burns over up to 80 percent of their bodies. Many are not expected to survive,” said commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro. “There is no evidence of any opposition fighters or lawful targets near the school.”