Atrocities against civilians, medics and children widespread in Syria
UN report only a glimpse of the horror and brutality on the ground
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.”
The report also noted that government forces continue to employ sieges as a method of warfare. Assad’s forces have also continued to launch assaults on medical facilities and personnel.
Attacks on hospitals have occurred as recently as September 12th, when government planes bombed a field hospital near Aleppo city, reportedly killing 11 people and wounding dozens more. Opposition factions have also targeted medical personnel.
On August 16th, fighters affiliated to the al-Qaeda linked groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) attacked a Kurdish Red Crescent ambulance in Aleppo province killing the driver, a patient and a paramedic.
“The discriminatory denial of the right to health as a weapon of war has been a chilling feature of this conflict,” the commission reported. “Such incidents, where the sanctity of medical care is disrespected and the sick and wounded are targeted, have become an agonizing reality.”
The UN investigators found that children make up a large proportion of civilian casualties. Minors have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured by the Syrian authorities, and unlawfully detained in cells with adult detainees.
“The Government should take steps to release children from detention or to transfer them to a juvenile justice system consistent with both fair trial and children’s rights,” the report said.
The forms of torture documented by the UN commission include simulated drowning and prolonged confinement in “squatting cells,” where detainees cannot stand upright or lie down.
“One detainee was held in such conditions for 10 months, beaten daily, suspended by his wrists for 17 days, burned with cigarettes, and subjected to electric shocks,” it said.
The commission also found that medical personnel in Syrian military hospitals have been involved in torturing hospitalised detainees, some of whom died as a result of injuries inflicted under torture. Rebel forces have also used torture.
Liwa Asifat al-Shamal, a faction based near the Turkish border, kept detainees in four-foot holes covered with sheet metal for several days. Other groups have used what is known as the “Dulab” method in which the victim is forced inside a tyre and beaten with sticks, cables and other objects.
The UN report was the fruit of thousands of interviews conducted over the last 18 months. Because the commission has not yet been given permission to carry out its work inside Syria, the information gathered was based primarily on interviews conducted with Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.
For this reason, last week’s report can be considered a snapshot of a far greater horror.