Syria’s Deadly War is Full of Atrocities

Turkish gendarmes use water cannons to disperse Syrian refugees who did not respect the queue on the Syrian side of the border crossing. Akcakale, Turkey, June 10, 2015. (Sedat Suna/epa/Corbis)

As the war in Syria enters its sixth year, a new report published in February by the Syrian Center for Policy Research offered new calculations for death tolls from the conflict: a staggering 470,000 at the end of 2015.[1] Drawing on results from the population status survey from 2014 and a comprehensive analytical framework that uses both qualitative and quantitative methods, Confronting Fragmentation claims to offer more precise indicators for the impact of the crisis.

This number is nearly double the frequently cited United Nations (UN) estimate of about 250,000 casualties. That said, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is responsible for reporting on death tolls in Syria, announced giving up on reporting fatalities in July 2014, due to lack of reliable data in the devastated country. As the UN lacked access on the ground and it became difficult to verify other sources, the UN has only been able to update crude estimates.

The Syrian Centre for Policy research further claims that 400,000 were killed by war-related violence, while the rest, 70,000, died of indirect causes such as lack of adequate medical care, lack of access to food and clean water, and spread of communicable disease among internally displaced people living in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

Another report by the Human Rights Council released at the beginning of February reflects on a different dimension of these death tolls by claiming that thousands of detainees have been killed while in the custody of various warring parties. This report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic, draws on an inquiry already established by the Human Rights Council in 2011 to investigate and record violations of international human rights law and allegations of war crimes. The investigation was further asked to identify perpetrators with an aim to hold them accountable for such violations.

The report is based on eyewitness accounts from more than 600 interviews (mostly with former detainees) in addition to other documentation and details of how thousands of Syrians have been victims of widespread abuse while being detained. Accounts uncover massive and systematic violence away from the traditional battlefield. The report documents arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and disappearances after an initial arrest. In addition to accounts of personal abuse, surviving detainees have described how those held by the Syrian government have been beaten to death or died after injuries inflicted under torture. Other detainees have died as a consequence of inhumane living condition and lack of medical care. The atrocities described include children, women, and elderly people.

Further, the investigation documents that murder, rape, and sexual violence, along with other inhuman acts, have occurred with high frequency in Syrian detentions centers in multiple locations under government control and at protracted periods, and thus must have been part of an official political strategy against the detainees. Authorities are also accused of covering up abuses by not releasing dead bodies to relatives or by claiming the person was killed by terrorists. There are examples of relatives who have been forced to sign documents explaining that death did not occur during custody.

My own work with Syrian refugees has focused mainly on their different coping strategies, and fear of arbitrary arrest was often mentioned as an explanation for leaving Syria. Several young men I spoke to had left Syria to avoid being drafted by the Syrian army. For an army that is chronically short of manpower due to high casualties, this is not viewed lightly. Most of these men have found safety outside Syria.

Ahmed, however, was not so lucky. I never met Ahmed; I only spoke to his wife, Amal. She is now a refugee in Jordan where she lives with her little daughter and Ahmed’s parents. When the family left Syria, Ahmed did not consider himself a refugee; he had a job and was comfortable with travelling in the region. On a trip to Lebanon, he happened to be close to a violent incidence and was arrested by the Lebanese. It is unclear if it was the Lebanese Army or Hezbollah that took him; what Amal knows is that he was later seen in a Syrian prison by a fellow prisoner who was later released. His statement suggests that the Lebanese handed Ahmed over to Syrian authorities, something the Lebanese refuse to admit.

Except for the eyewitness account from the former prisoner, Amal has heard nothing about her husband since his arrest almost two years ago. She has hired a lawyer in Syria to find him and get him released, but in the complex and unpredictable situation in her home country, she is not sure if she can trust the lawyer. He is demanding money without showing much of a result yet. In addition to worries about her husband, Amal now has to provide for her daughter and parents in-law as refugees in Jordan without access to legal work. Yet her main concern is not economical, but protection for the Syrians.

The Out of Sight, Out of Mind report further documents that anti-government armed groups and terrorist groups such as Daesh have held prisoners under equally brutal conditions in territories that came under their control. The opposition has established makeshift detention centers where captured government soldiers and other prisoners were abused and executed. Daesh in particular is accused of summary executions or organizing unauthorized courts that frequently issued death sentences, bearing little resemblance to international systems for justice.

During an interview with a mother and her son in Amman last year, the mother urged me to listen to her story: “I had another son; he was in the Syrian army. After two years, he wanted to leave, so I went to Syria to see him. This was in 2014. I organized for us to go together back to Jordan, and some people sent a private car to take us to the areas liberated by the revolutionary army. They asked if we wanted to go to the Zaatari camp. Then they put my son in another private car. After one hour, I asked where they took my son, and I was told they had taken him to another army who wanted to ask him some questions. They had arrested him because he had been in the Syrian army. I continued to ask about my son and they told me they just needed some answers from him, and I would get him back the second day. On the second day, somebody came to my house and told me a bomb from a plane had killed him, but I think they were liars, and that they had killed him themselves, because I did not see any planes that day. He was only 23 years old.”

The mother had organized an escape to Jordan while her son was on leave from the army. She trusted the people helping them, and had heard they had helped many other refugees. Yet they could not be trusted because her son had been in the army and did not have an ordinary ID card. This is but one story about abuse and killing among the opposition forces. The mother is left with her grief and increased worry for her husband, who is still in Syria. She is afraid he is now in danger.

These reports document a large-scale crisis of human rights and protection. Although Syria these days is experiencing a lull in the fighting due to the cautious ceasefire agreement, the Syrian crisis is far from being solved. A sustainable peace process has to ask how perpetrators can be held accountable in line with a political solution. With the UN’s pledge to a responsibility to protect, has the time come for targeted sanctions against persons, agencies, and groups responsible for these atrocities?

[1] Page 61 in the report