"The Tip of the Iceberg" - Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide in Syria

LB_ER_2013_Carmen Gayo-33

LB_ER_2013_Carmen Gayo-33

As with the former Yugoslavia, the collapse of the Syrian state and eventually the region’s slide into international conflict happened rapidly. The war has left the Syrian people, the regime, international policymakers, diplomats and the international community scrambling as a dizzying array of local, regional, and international powers sought to redraw the lines and influence the new order emerging from the Arab Revolutions. The Syrian Revolution which caught the regime of President Bashar Al-Asad off-guard has changed the country, and the civil war which mutated into a deadly cross-border international conflict has reverberated across the world.


When protests spread across Syria in towns and cities including Daraa, Baniyas, Homs, Latakia, Tartus, Idlib, the Damascus suburb of Harasta, and the largely Kurdish northeastern city of Qamishli, few expected that the country would descend into a bitter civil war of the ferocity seen over the last eight years. The protests began, and almost instantly the crackdown on protesters was ruthless and bloody and, above all, misjudged. This misjudgement was eventually turned into calculated killings to turn protesters into insurgents. From video clips recorded by protesters, the crackle of gunfire can be heard as the government did its best to promote a media blackout, denying access to media outlets, for example Al-Jazeera, on certain days of protests. This would eventually escalate into killing and imprisoning journalists. In Daraa, the cradle of the revolution, interviews with over 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses, Human Rights Watch documented crimes against humanity being committed in the town. In one instance, there is one photo which appears to show 20-25 bodies photographed in a mobile refrigerator by local activist piled on top of each other. The anti-regime protests were whitewashed as a ‘conspiracy’ and moderates, before they were wiped out, detained or driven from Syria, were tarred with the same brush as the most extreme elements of the opposition (Al-Qa’ida sympathisers and Sunni and Salafi extremists, some of whom had ties with terrorist cells in Lebanon and Iraq). Robert Fisk reporting on the crisis in Daraa in 2011, said fear was a driving factor for citizens of the town to turn to violence. ‘Male citizens of Deraa had grown tired of following the example of peaceful Tunisian and Egyptian protesters – an understandable emotion since people in those countries suffered nothing like the brutal suppression meted out by Assad's soldiers and militiamen – and were now sometimes "shooting back" for the sake of "dignity" and to protect their wives and children.’

The military and security agencies ultra-violent strategy escalated as the country descended into war. The Presidential Guard, Special Forces, The Department of Military Intelligence (Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya), which includes the Palestine Branch; The Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi); The General Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-'Amma), which is generally referred to by its previous name, State Security (Amn al-Dawla); and The Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya) and paramilitaries such as the Popular Committees (also known as the shabiha), National Defence Forces and members of organised crime were all deployed in 2011-2012 to devastating effect.

During the same period, an information and propaganda war against journalists and activists had already began which would compliment the air and ground-war of Al-Asad. Activists from the Supreme Council of the Revolution group gained access to the accounts of President Al-Asad and noted how the president had increasingly turned to a younger demographic to support his PR and media campaign during the civil war. These advisers included Sheherazad Jaafari.

Jaafari is the daughter of Syria's envoy to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari who described the massacre at Houla as a “tsunami of lies.” A young Syrian woman who lived and studied in the United States who was a former intern New York-based PR firm Brown Lloyd James, Jaafari regularly interacted with Bashar Al-Asad on his media strategy as international scrutiny and criticism intensified. Young and beautiful, but ultimately complicit in the death of hundreds of thousands of people, the 28 year-old Jaafari’s Hotmail account, hacked by Anonymous, ‘showed dozens of emails from the world's major media groups, courting her and pleading for access to Mr Assad’. However, she was very cynical of the American public, describing them as being easily manipulated, ‘urged Mr Assad to blame the killings in Syria on terrorist groups’ and was keen to emphasise the importance of social media and the importance of intervening in online discussions. Social media had spread the news of the Arab Revolutions like wildfire in 2010 and 2011 during its initial stages. Turning to western-educated expats and tech-savvy Syrians who lived in the United States would be key to Al-Asad’s cyber-war. They understood the power of new media and social media channels to manipulate instant news, clicktivism, disinformation, and online trends to their advantage in the Syrian War.

Hadeed Al-Ali, who studied political science at Montana State University, grew up in the coastal town of Qurdaha in Syria. Intelligent, a networker, intellectual and driven, she rose through the ranks of the Syrian elite on her return to the country where she studied English literature. It seemed unlikely that someone we such a love for the American mountains and enjoyed skiing would turn media adviser to one of the most notorious regime’s in the world. As the Syrian revolution began, she turned down a chance to study at Warsaw and turned into a staunch loyalist, her infatuation, near personal crush, for the president apparent in emails as she regularly complimented his suits, his good health and how ‘cute’ Al-Asad looked during his university years.

She became active in spreading pro-regime articles, sometimes with a shrill voice, sometimes dispassionately. She dumped friends she believed sympathetic to the opposition…She and Jaafari gave him regular feedback on how his speeches were perceived by supporters. She passed on requests for interviews from journalists deemed to be acceptable to the regime — and to its narrative that rebel fighters are all violent "terrorists" and Islamist extremists.

Both Jaafari and Al-Ali described the president as “The Dude” and it seems they spearheaded the narrative of terrorism sanctified by the upper echelons of the regime.This trickled down into conversations in Syria, across social media and online. The narrative of terrorism and that a Sunni-led government would wipe out Syrian minorities was a half-truth at best. There were terrorist groups and extremist Salafi and Sunni groups operating in the Syrian War. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, to Jaafari and Al-Ali, was the realisation of this narrative, and seemed to confirm to many, abroad and within Syria, that there was a global conspiracy against the regime. It is rarely mentioned in pro-regime narratives that the Syrian mukhabarat had deep ties with Al-Qa’ida before the civil war began in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and has well-known ties with the Lebanese Sh’ia political and military group Hizbullah who have conducted numerous terrorist attacks worldwide.

Jaafari and Al-Ali, including the inner circle, waged war on journalism. Journalists - local and international - who countered the regime’s narrative were targeted either in smearing campaigns or violently. In 2017, it was estimated that 211 journalists and citizen journalists had been killed in Syria during the course of the war. A further 46 were being held hostage, imprisoned or missing. The most high-profile cases were the deaths of American journalists Marie Colvin and James Foley and French journalist Remi Ochlik. Colvin and Ochlik, veteran war-journalists were, according to Colvin’s sister Cat, ‘targeted’ by the Syrian regime after four shells burst barrelled into a media centre in Homs (then under siege). Shrapnel and splinters ripped apart the building and killed several people including Colvin and Ochlik. The government refused to comment, but it was later revealed in Al-Asad’s emails that they had been aware that international press were in Homs. The email sent on 11th November, 2011 by strongman, Khaled al-Ahmed , and supporter of Al-Asad, noted “that several groups of Western journalists are entering illegally through Lebanese borders -- including a French and German delegations."

The informer of Al-Ahmed had been in the district of Baba Amr at the time. A defector from Syrian intelligence, code-named Ulysses - not dissimilar from Caesar who exposed atrocities occurring inside Syrian prisons - revealed that Major General Rafiq Shahadah had described Colvin as “a dog” in the wake of her death.  In his testimony, Ulysses identified eight Syrian officials involved in the attack on the media centre. This included Maher Al-Asad, the president’s brother as the officials utilised mobile satellite interception devices to detect broadcast networks. ‘Another series of intelligence reports allege that Major General Rafiq Shahadah received wiretapped information on a phone call between an activist in Homs and an Al-Jazeera news presenter. The information, it is claimed, was sent to army units with instructions to “take the necessary measures”.’  The efforts to muzzle the voices of journalists and activists in Homs, and the atrocities being committed in Baba Amr were coordinated and under instructions of Shahadah and Maher Al-Asad, Major-General Issam Zahreddine ordered the shelling of the media centre. The contrast between the professionalism of Marine Colvin’s reporting and the PR of Al-Ali and was appalling. The destruction of Homs - the scorched earth policy and the use of tanks there - was a joke to her. Al-Ali wrote, “Hahahahahahaha, OMG!!! This is amazing! Everybody was talking about Ghalion and his theory about the tanks. Our neighbour knocked on the door and told us to remove our tanks from the entrance of our building because they wanted to clean. Our other neighbour was parking his tank under the staircase next to the electricity meter. My boyfriend changed his tank and bought a fashionable new white one.”

The government refused to comment on the lawsuit filed against them and fell back on the terrorist narrative devised by Jaafari and Al-Ali. “Did your forces target Marie Colvin and her colleagues with an intention to kill her?” asked Bill Neely from NBC News interviewing the president four years later. The president responded, “The armed forces did not know that Marie Colvin existed somewhere, because before that we hadn’t known about Marie Colvin. So, it’s a war and she came illegally to Syria, she worked with the terrorists…No one has any evidence. This is just allegations…We have had hundreds of journalists who came to Syria legally and illegally, and they covered for the terrorists.” This contradicts his own email account and the email from Al-Ahmad sent to him on November 11th, 2011 and the information supplied by Ulysses which demonstrated that the political and military elite in the Syrian government had been aware of the presence of international and local journalists and media activists, and had also celebrated Colvin’s death. As of writing, over seventy Syrian journalists are boxed in along the southwestern frontier of Syria along Israel and Jordan borders, terrified of being hunted down by the security forces of Al-Asad. Activists abroad are also being being assassinated by hit-men. Orouba Barakat, 60, and her 22-year-old daughter Halla were murdered in Istanbul in 2017. Barakat has been investigating allegations of torture inside Syrian prisons. Raed Fares , a popular radioshow host, who made comedy of both Al-Asad and ISIS was shot dead in Idlib, Syria in 2018 after a previous attempt was made on his life in 2014. He was unpopular with both the regime and Islamic extremists.

“By all means necessary.”

As the propaganda machine clicked into gear and the seeds of civil war were planted by the brutal repression of security forces and the mukhabarat, the situation eventually escalated into a calculated campaign of terror by 2012. The terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ are dirty words. They enable extreme violence, extra-judicial killings and encourage uncompromising solutions to military and political problems in war-zones. It has been utilised and - at times - abused or misused by governments worldwide to justify situations that are often unjustifiable from Chechnya to Iraq to Bosnia to Gaza to Lebanon. The Syrian government had a carte blanche to snuff out what they defined as a ‘terrorist’ threat and according to defectors of the Syrian Army, they were to end the protests across the country “By all means necessary.” In effect, this meant killing all political opposition to the regime. The indiscriminate military policies adopted by the government would radicalise many factions within the opposition, and in-turn provide the argument to convince the Western governments, and in particular the international community that President Al-Asad was a partner in the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’.

Commanders of the Syrian Army gained a reputation for brutality, such as Major General Issam Zahreddine. Leader of the 104th Brigade, which was led by Bashar al-Assad before he became President, and by Basil Assad until his death in 1994, he was one of the president’s most trusted general, and photos have circulated on social media of the pair pictured together in military dress. During the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, he established a racketeering network and had ties with organised crime. Burly, strong, with a greying beard, and wearing sunglasses in most pictures, Zahreddine is Syrian Druze born a village of Tarba, in the southwest Syrian province of Sweida - a town which was targeted by ISIS suicide bombers and fighters in 2018. He served as a militiaman for Syria's ruling Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party and eventually joined the airborne units and finally the Syrian Republican Guard, where he was later became a major general. Known by many as the “Butcher of Deir Ezzor” or “Druze Beast” and to some hailed as hero, “a legend”and “a lion” on social media (not so different to Madic in the Bosnian Serb Army), he was singled out by Human Rights Watch for beating and detaining protesters in Douma and Harasta with 104th Brigade. He was then heavily involved in sieges of districts of Baba Amr, Damascus, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.

After the fall of Deir Ezzor to the Syrian Army, supported by Russian air power, he remarked on Syrian television, "To those who fled Syria to another country, I beg you don’t ever return, because even if the government forgives you, we will never forgive or forget," he said. "If you know what is good for you, none of you return." He later apologised for his remark saying that the threat was for ISIS fighters, however given that Zhareddine gave the order which would destroy a media centre and kill several international journalists, the apology can be interpreted by some as less meaningful, and particularly as the regime has strategically tarred all Sunnis and Salafis in the opposition as ‘ISIS’ or ‘terrorists’. Though he was later killed by a landmine in 2017 outside Deir Ezzor, he had been sanctioned in July, 2017 by the European Union who cited that Zhareddine was “responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population, including during the siege of Baba Amr in February 2012”, the same district of Homs in which Colvin was killed under orders by the commander. He was also videoed walking past dozens upon dozens of decomposing ISIS fighters in the desert of Deir Ezzor. The violent siege of Homs in which Zhareddine took part was described as “systematic slaughter” by British photographer, Paul Conroy.

The collective punishment of pro-revolutionary and rebel-held districts reduced them to pulverised empty shells of twisted metal, caved in ceilings and bullet-ridden brick. Saraqeb, a town south-west of Aleppo, for example, was ‘disfigured, broken, changed after a four-day assault in March (2012). Twenty-four civilians had been executed and more than a hundred homes torched in fires Al-Asad’s men lit and fed with liquid flames. Another eleven homes were destroyed by tank fire, forty-six more damaged but still liveable.’ (No Turning Back, 132) The widespread destruction of Saqreb had occurred during the six point peace plan designed by Kofi Annan, and the scorched earth policy was used as a blueprint across Syria’s heartland. Images of withered, paper thin children started circulating the Internet of starving men, women and children in besieged areas and refugee camps. On 24th May, 2018, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the starving of civilians as a method of warfare — as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations. The resolution ‘called on all parties to armed conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians and on taking care to spare civilian objects, stressing that armed conflicts, violations of international law and related food insecurity could be drivers of forced displacement.’ In Eastern Ghouta and Madaya, men, women and children were starving to death or suffering from malnutrition as a result of siege tactics.

Testimonies, eyewitness accounts and news reports have also documented the use of napalm and similar substances being used in Aleppo and its surrounding province, Daraya (a suburb in Damascus), and Homs. The use of napalm in Daraya and the incineration of a school playground made headlines in The Guardian in 2015 and BBC in 2013 and allegations of the use of incendiary bombs in Eastern Ghouta circulated social media in 2018, including an incident documented by the White Helmets on their Facebook account on 23rd March in which 37 civilians were burnt to death by napalm and/or phosphorus being deployed in a night raid. Hospitals were targeted and the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons has been documented throughout the conflict. It has become such a regular feature of Syria’s terrible war, that it doesn’t raise eyebrows anymore.

As the Syrian Army besieged and destroyed rebel enclaves, a more disturbing development began to take form in villages, towns and cities: ethnic cleansing and the demographic reconfiguration of entire urban areas under military and paramilitary direction. In the context of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing under the S/1994/S4 report means ‘rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas. To a large extent, it is carried out in the name of misguided nationalism, historic grievances and a powerful driving sense of revenge. This purpose appears to be the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups.’ Acts which can constitute ethnic cleansing under Section 134 included ‘coercive means used to remove the civilian population from the above-mentioned strategic areas include: mass murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual assault; severe physical injury to civilians; mistreatment of civilian prisoners and prisoners of war; use of civilians as human shields; destruction of personal, public and cultural property; looting, theft and robbery of personal property; forced expropriation of real property; forceful displacement of civilian population; and attacks on hospitals, medical personnel and locations marked with the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem.’ Under Section 136 this can also include the ‘widespread destruction of villages by systematically burning them to the ground and blowing up all the houses and structures in a given area.’

The paramilitary’s - regularly supported by the army - did the dirty work. Frequently, these paramilitary forces, (defined as National Defence Forces) were absorbed into the Syrian Army itself to replenish their ranks as high desertion rates, defections and the number of dead and wounded soared. The military allegedly had ties to drug trafficking of both heroin and marijuana as ties grew between Lebanese and Syrian crime syndicates and corrupt businessmen and politicians during the occupation of Lebanon after the initial invasion of 1976. Christina Steenkamp, a senior lecturer in Social and Political Change in the Department of Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes University, analysis on pre-war organised crime in Syria demonstrates how deeply the regime was entrenched in organised crime, and utilised it during the initial stages of the civil war to provoke an armed insurgency.

Networks of bribery between government officials and smugglers developed. The Syrian military, in particular, became firmly entrenched in the Lebanese trade in hashish and heroin by taxing traffickers…Syria helped Iraq to bypass these sanctions by encouraging and directly operating smuggling networks that moved weapons, luxury goods, food and oil to and from Iraq. The Shabiha were a small group of government militias (mostly from Assad’s Alawite sect) who were deeply (and brutally) involved in trafficking and smuggling in the borderlands during the 1980s and 1990s.

Ties between the mukhabarat and jihadists developed during this period as well, both Sunni and Sh’ia. The mukhabarat saw sympathisers of Al-Qa’ida and Hizbullah operatives, much like organised crime, as volatile proxies which were wielded to their advantage in destabilising Lebanon and Iraq. The government’s play on sectarianism and terrorism, and whitewashing the Sunni community in Syria as being bent on wiping out the Druze, Ismael , Christians and Alawites fuelled recruitment to paramilitary and militia groups including the use of the Lijan al-Sha’bia. To them, it was an act of self-defence. “We protect our area from terrorists. We check all the cars coming in, and anyone we’re suspicious of,” said Sameer, a Syrian from Damascus who was speaking to Reuters in the Christian quarters. The rhetoric of many paramilitary fighters often became genocidal. “Sunni women are giving birth to babies who will fight us in year to come, so we have the right to fight anyone who can hurt us in the future,” Abu Jaafar commented. Jaafar was a member of the Lijan al-Sha’bia or Popular Committees, a fairly mundane term. The opposition called them the shabiha, which literally means ‘thugs’.

Jaffar’s devotion to the presidency was fanatical, but the Popular Commitee’s massacres, he argued were in self-defence. Political power to him, meant protecting the Alawite community from repression, which had occurred under the Ottoman Empire. “We must defend President Assad and his family and keep the power for the Allawite sect,” he said, “We started by facing the protesters, but when the opposition became armed we attacked them in their villages. We got money and arms from our government to fight those Wahhabi radicals who will force my wife and daughters to wear the veil and will close all wine shops.” The government played on these fears of Sunni and Salafi jihadist extremism, seen so vividly in the Iraq War. Zubadia, an Alawite moderate explained to Paul Danahar, a journalist in Syria at the time, the methods utilised by the army to fan these fears in the Alawite communities.

“The army…would go to an Alawite village and they would put a red X on the doors of the houses and the Alawite got a little scared. It took them five or six months to really make them scared, because in the beginning they were not nervous. They said ‘This is a revolution for us also, like in Egypt,’ but (the regime) said: ‘No this is a Sunni revolution against all Alawites.’ They would go into a very poor village and they would say these Sunnis are coming to kill you and gave them weapons. They would pick a village and send back some of their children cut into little pieces and say those people in the neighbouring village killed your son. So you’ll find so many young men are ready to join the Popular Committees. I’m not saying they are not good people, it is that they are more vulnerable in the villages because they are not in daily contact with other sects. They don’t really understand other communities so it’s easier to play with their heads. Every two hundred years, there is a slaughter of Alawites, so they have inside them this fear, and it is easy to bring it out again.” (The New Middle East, 374)

These paramilitary forces were ‘used as “clean up” after government shelling of a village or urban area,’ not entirely different from the strategy deployed by the Yugoslav National Army in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Villages and towns would be shelled, and paramilitary fighters with ties to organised, or led by mafia leaders, turned warlords would evict residents from their homes and kill men, women and children, often utilising rape as a weapon of war. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, this was defined and has widely been accepted as ethnic cleansing. The atrocities and incidents involving these pro-government paramilitaries and militias 'occurred along the borders of historically Alawite areas of Syria’ and in certain urban area, often dependent on the religious demographics of the district in question. Al-Qubair was one such village whose inhabitants were cleansed on 6th June, 2012. Danahar, came upon a scene of desolation.

‘The village sat nestled among cornfields and green pastures where sheep grazed in the crushing midday sun. A dusty little road wound its way up through the surrounding fields to the small grey-brick homes sitting on a rocky outpost overlooking the countryside. I entered a house from the dazzling light. The room was silent but for the flies which had found..the massacre before I did…I went outside to catch my breath…I squinted…the barren landscape cam into focus. The white horse lying dead in the shade of the stables, the two dusty coloured sheep shot. The carcasses left to rot where they fell…The stench of burnt flesh.’ (The New Middle East: 369-370)

Speaking anonymously to Danahar, fearing for his safety, one traumatised survivor described the massacre. “The army surrounded the area and then the militia from neighbouring villages came in and killed the people and then burnt them so no traces of the bodies would remain. They have killed everyone in the village, only three people are left. They did because they wanted to take the land. They were protected by the army. They killed everyone and destroyed everything. They even killed the children and slaughtered with knives.”

Jaafar, who helped the Popular Committees attacking the villages and Sunni populations understood the ramifications. “I know the Sunnis will take revenge for what we have done. I am fighting to guarantee a good future for my sons and grandsons. So this is the final battle: Win, or die. There’s no third choice.” To Jaafar, and Al-Asad - who had seen the lynching of Qaddafi and Saddam in Libya and Iraq - it was a fight to the death to secure the Alawi and Sunni elites’ power in Syria. The manipulation of sectarianism by the government, and the legacy of the Iraq War, where ethnic cleansing and pogroms between Shia and Sunni communities shook the country during the American occupation drove tit-for-tat violence across the Syrian countryside and cities. The government blamed the massacres on ‘terrorists’ and the killings at places such as Bayda and Baniyas, Queiq River, Al-Qubair and Houla spurred jihadist groups and other rebel factions to take revenge and conduct their own atrocities.

In 4th August, 2013, Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters raided the Sahel, the Latakian countryside - the heartland of Syrian Alawite minorities and the only place in the country where they were not a minority group. As Ranaia Abouzied wrote in No Turning Back, ‘the prospect of killing Alawites drew foreign fighters in droves’ knowing that if Al-Asad ‘lost the Sahel, he lost the war.’ Spreading terror in Al-Asad’s homeland seemed to be a way to strike back at the regime. Eleven Alawite villages were seized by Syrian fighters and Al-Nusra jihadists and they seized 106 women and children. They were massacred and Talal who was interviewed by Abouzied description of what he saw was chilling.

‘Talal drove to his home of Blouta. He saw burned and ransacked homes, including his own, and a mass grave with human remains scooped into a yellow bulldozer. Syrian soldiers in fluorescent orange vests placed bodies in bags, including two of Talal’s brothers and his father. Talal had no information about his wife and children or what had happened to them. The rebel perpetrators left behind graffiti on schools and homes. ‘God is Great, Suqoor El Ezz’ was sprayed on one wall. Jabhat Al-Nusra Will Bring Victory To The People of Syria’ was written elsewhere.

According to Human Rights Watch, 190 were killed including at least fifty-seven women, eighteen children, and fourteen elderly men. Mohammad’s perspective, interviewed by Abouzeid, was no different to the perspective of Jaafar of the Popular Committees organised by the army. ‘“I saw others being detained, and I saw others killed,” but to him the massacre was “one crime against hundreds of thousands committed by the regime. The Alawites are happy that Bashar is killing us, so they needed to feel something, to feel that their stance, if not with Bashar, but not against him, was part of the crime. They had to be made to feel that. We killed everything in them, took everything from them, burned everything in them. We gave them a taste of what we experience.”

After the brutalisation of the opposition by Major General Issam Zahreddine between 2011 and 2017 and in-particular the crushing of Deir Ezzor, one of ISIS’s last major strongholds in Syria, it seemed that Sweida, Zahreddine’s home village (Tarba), and its surrounding villages targeted in a potential revenge massacre in July last year. Forty-two Druze ages 7 to 60, the minority group Zahreddine came from, were kidnapped. Over 250 civilians and soldiers were also killed in the ferocious attack. A landmine laid by ISIS killed five civilians in Tarba in August, 2018. The tragedy was that the majority of Druze held Zahreddine in contempt. Thousands of Druze had deliberately tried to avoid conscription into Al-Asad’s army and fought in defensive militias.

The majority of Druze outside Syria, particularly those across the border in Lebanon, have always denounced Zahreddine’s savagery, and thus naturally refrained from mourning his death, in contrast to the widespread grief and reverence displayed after the 2015 assassination of the Druze cleric Sheikh Wahid Bal’ous. Bal’ous, whose Rijal al-Karama (“Men of Dignity”) movement was anathema to Zahreddine and the pro-Assad Druze, paid with his life for reminding his Druze brethren that the only way to protect themselves was to assume a defensive stance and avoid spilling the blood of their Syrian countrymen…Men such as Zahreddine…can neither protect nor build a modern state, as the only way towards such a goal is to rebuke the spilling of innocent blood even if it comes under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

The civil war degenerated into extreme violence, driven by the policies of Al-Asad and the radicalisation of factions within the Syrian revolutionaries and fighters was becoming the reality preconceived by the army and mukhabarat in the early stages of the revolt against the government including exchanges of ultra violence (Zahreddine and ISIS being examples of this) between extremists in both Sunni and minority communities.

Rape was used as a weapon of war against men, women and children in the cleansing campaign, predominantly by paramilitaries. For Muslim women, the repercussions of rape are life-changing, particularly in the Middle Eastern society. Not only do they have to deal with the psychological and physical damage which comes with sexual assault, they can face estrangement from society. ‘The taboo of rape for any woman is enormous. For a Muslim woman…it is the end of life, or the life she was meant to live. If she was single before, she will probably never marry.’ Women detained by the mukhabarat were raped in prison. Shaheeneez, an activist in Aleppo was arrested at the airport.

“My name was on some kind of list. It confused me, I heard voices, but could not put faces to them. It was a tactic made to scare me more. They abused me. They said they would do terrible things if I did not cooperate. They said rape…then I was on the floor…then I felt something hard inside me. They raped me. I don’t think the interrogators did the actual rape. I think the man who entered the room did. I think it took them less then half an hour…After they untied me and took off my blindfold, I found blood on my legs. (Dispatches from Syria: 33-34)

Many were also targeted at checkpoints thrown up by the Popular Committees or when the paramilitaries and militias kicked down the doors of their homes. Many who refused to consent were often shot on the spot, or killed after the atrocity occurred. From the UN report published in February, 2013, based upon forty-one interviews, women in towns and villages were targeted. Family members were threatened with rape or gang-rape and to to instil psychological terror in victims, women and men, strangers, friends or families, were often raped in front of others. Nada, who had volunteered for the opposition was tortured, raped and abused in prison, and cast into a prison cell with a group of men who the prison guards said would rape her. “It was horrible,” Nada said to Giovanni, “They told me they would leave me with these hungry men and they would take care of me. I am a conservative Muslim woman, I thought I was being given to these men for them to rape me…They wanted to break me and they did. The things I saw…the things I saw…It is unbearable to explain what I saw…I saw another prisoner being raped…a man being raped. Do you know what it is like to hear a man cry?” (Dispatches from Syria: 27-31)

Frequently, men, either engaged or in a relationship with their girlfriend, finance or wife, left them because of the stigma. This closely correlates with why Robert Fisk said so many men were quick to take up arms which was to protect their wives and children from sexual violence. The shame has forced countless women into a terrible silence, to conceal the crime committed against them so that they will not be abandoned by their societies and families. Many attempted or committed suicide.

‘A woman from Homs reported that around May, a young woman aged about 17 or 18 was detained by a Government intelligence agency in Homs. She was released to her father one month later, but before being released, she was forced to serve tea to her father and her captors while naked. When she returned home, she bid goodbye to her mother and then committed suicide by throwing herself from the roof of her home.’ The reason so many fled was not to escape bombs, but to protect families from being torn apart by rape. Janine Di Giovanni interviewed a doctor in Camp Atma in Syria reflecting on the scourge of rape in Syria. “For us this is the worst thing to do to the men - because they are our women.” In essence, the strategy of rape is ‘a way of fighting the men themselves: if we cannot fuck you, we will fuck your women.’ (Dispatches from Syria: 29).

However, it was not only women who were targeted. Many men were sexually tortured. Sarah Chynoweth on a fact-finding mission for the UN on sexual violence against men and boys wrote in The Guardian that the problem was widespread in Syria after interviewing refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Jordan. ‘I tentatively probed whether they had heard of any reports of sexual violence against men or boys in Syria. They looked at me incredulously, as if they couldn’t believe that I was asking such a basic question, saying: “Yes, of course. It is everywhere. It is happening [from] all sides.”’ Men were sexually tortured in detention and in Sadnaya Prison, in acts of sadism by the prison guards, ‘former detainees told Amnesty International that they were also subjected to sexual violence at Saydnaya, including rape.’ According a former detainee in Saydnaya,“They were making people take their clothes off, and touch each other in sensitive places, and rape each other too. I went through this only one time, but I heard about it happening so much.” Another prisoner, “Omar” interviewed by Amnesty, said

Tarek, one prisoner who was gay, described how “They would come into the cell to violate us, but it was dark - we couldn’t see them. All we could hear were people saying, ‘Stop! Don’t! … I thought we would die.” According to Tarek, whose interview was published by UNHCR, interrogators applied electric shocks to his genitals and subjected prisoners to gang-rape. Gay and transgender men were raped in prisons, interrogators or guards jamming sticks and bottles into their rectums while other men, as Nada’s testimony demonstrates, were raped and humiliated in front of other prisoners. Men were also raped in their homes during raids on villages during ‘clean-up’ operations, one interviewee in Jordan said. ISIS (whose campaign of genocide included the rape and sexual enslavement of Yezidi women (well-documented in 2014)) and members of the Free Syrian Army reportedly also sexually abused and raped LGBTI refugees and internally displaced persons.

The repercussions for men and boys raped in war-time are as threatening to men as women in conservative parts of the Middle East. ‘Many adult and child male survivors suffer in silence. Although the survivor’s sexual victimisation may not be known to others, fears of discovery, in addition to the psychological repercussions, may propel him to isolate from or leave his community.’ Unable to talk, many resort to dangerous coping strategies, including emotional and physical abuse of others, self-harm, suicide and alcoholism and the trauma can become multi-generational. ‘Research from the U.S. shows that, though the majority of men who experience childhood abuse are not violent as adults, suffering sexual abuse as a child increases the risk of perpetrating intimate partner violence as an adult approximately two-fold.’ Only sixteen percent of cases of rape in the Syrian War and sixteen percent of cases of sexual assault were reported by men between June and August 2016. The statistics for boys under 18 made up only four and six percent of this.

Acts of sexual violence and rape by the government were systematic in prison and outside the prison walls. As Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in the Syria Crisis noted: ‘Farid, a PRS living in Lebanon, noted the sexual violence appeared to be strategic: “I think it is systematic in detention. I think they had some guidance on this – it happened to too many in the same way, it is too normalised.” This was echoed by informants working with torture survivors. A frontline case worker in Jordan commented, “From what we hear, it [sexual violence in detention] sounds structured. Most people go through the same method, the same experience – blind-folded, moving them around [to other detention centres], insults and humiliation, being tied up in the dark and people coming in to rape them but they can’t see who it is.” A paramilitary member of the Popular Committees, interrogated by rebel commanders seems to also support the case that it was the sexual violence was committed against predominantly Sunni civilians. “We take all the money and jewels we find. If there are women, we rape them. At the village of Al-Fawl…at the school, we raped them for six continuous hours. Then we entered another house as security forces on the ground said that terrorists were inside. We tied the man, we raped women.” (Dispatches from Syria, 21) On instance reported by the UN seemed to indicate that Sunni families were targeted, and the description of ‘terrorists’, a narrative adopted by Al-Asad to smear Syrian Sunni Muslims by the captured militia indicate rape was used as a tool of ‘cleansing’ the villages and towns.

Between twenty and thirty soldiers and shabiha (Popular Committees) - who she knew by name and who she described as ‘Shias’ (or potentially Alawites) from her village entered her house looking for the men. Her aunt, three female cousins and three sisters-in-law were in the house…They beat the elderly aunt…One of the shabiha took two of her cousins upstairs to a separate room and locked the door while the others stayed downstairs. After the Shabiha left, the two states that they had been beaten, but she noticed they couldn’t walk properly afterwards and couldn’t explain why they were separated from the rest if they had only been beaten.

Another member of Popular Committee, Mohammed from Orem al Kubra, interviewed in 2012 explained the power which came it, economic and political. “We love Assad because the government gave us all the power - if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal." One of his murders involved a rape. "She was a student of Aleppo University. It was daytime and I was driving around the city with my boss. She was passing on the street. I said to my boss, 'What do you think about this girl? Is she not beautiful? We grabbed her and put her into the car. We drove to an abandoned home and we both raped her. After we finished we killed her. She knew our faces and our neighbours, so she could not live."

LB_ER_2013_Carmen Gayo-34

LB_ER_2013_Carmen Gayo-34

The number of people fleeing Syria is partly because of the threat of sexual violence reported by both the men and women. “The main reason we left is not fear of shelling or bullets. The main reason we left is because of fear for our honour. This is the main reason – fear of us being abused, all of us, our daughters and our men.” said Lara, part of the Women’s Focus Group Discussion in Jordan. Reports published by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the International Rescue Committee and United Nations have published extensive reports detailing its strategic use. “Rape of women and girls was documented in 20 government political and military intelligence branches, and rape of men and boys was documented in 15 branches,” said U.N. war crimes investigators. Research by The Atlantic revealed that ‘Government perpetrators have allegedly committed the majority of the attacks we've been able to track: 60 percent of the attacks against men and women are reportedly by government forces, with another 17 percent carried out by government and shabiha forces together. When it comes to the rape of women, government forces have allegedly carried out 54 percent these attacks; shabiha have allegedly perpetrated 20 percent; government and shabiha working together 6 percent.’ The results are crushing and will have repercussions in the long-term for Syria’s society.

Once many of areas had been ethnically cleansed of Sunni families, the government, with the support of Iran, has began repopulating the districts with Sh’ia Muslims, many from Iraq and Lebanon. ‘Sunni Muslims were forced to Kefraya and Fau,’ towns north of Idlib, while Sh’ia residents ‘moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus’ such as Zabadani, Darayya and Madaya. As early as 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that the Syrian government were using urban planning laws to demolish homes and ‘evacuate’ population centres in Wadi Al-Jouz and Masha Al-Arbeen in Hama and Tadamoun, Barzeh and Qadboun in the capital. The government said that it was part of urban planning and removing illegally constructed building and homes.

In July last year, Al-Asad’s cabinet announced that it would be redeveloping Barzeh, Jobar, Qaboun and Yarmouk under Law 10, a new piece of reconstruction legalisation designed to rebuild Syria and attract investment. However, all are in ‘formerly besieged rebel-held areas in Damascus, most of whose residents have been displaced.’ Human Rights Watch decried the announcement, saying the law ‘created a significant obstacle to return.’ Journalists such as Fisk saw the Law 10 as being draconian, a replication of laws introduced by the Israelis to deny Palestinians their right of return to lands they were expelled from during the civil war between Jewish and Arab communities in Mandatory Palestine. “The Al-Asad regime is doing redrawing of its own. Not of its national frontiers but its cities,” a phenomenon seen with the population exchanges of Sunni, Kurdish and Shia communities currently happening across the country and during the war. President Al-Asad amended Law 10, by issuing Law 42, which gives Syrians, 365 days (as supposed to 30 days) to reclaim their property and claims to be done through normal courts rather than judicial committee.

However, the amendment came months later, as satellite imagery showed large-scale demolitions occurring in Qaboun and Darayya’s neighbourhoods. Demolitions started in May, 2018, days after being recaptured and were largely completed in September of the same year. The entire population was ‘evacuated’ after surrendering to the government. A total of 8,000 people were ‘evacuated’ by the Syrian government. Similarly, after the recapture of Eastern Ghouta, the evacuation of 7,500 rebel fighters and families could hardly be coined as an evacuation. In reality, they were population transfers and the ‘humanitarian corridors’ as described by the Russian Defence Ministry enabled the partition of districts such as Eastern Ghouta. Many of these displaced families, often against their will, were shifted to Afrin and Idlib, where rebel and jihadist groups are protected by the Sochi Agreement’s demilitarised zones hammered out by President Recip Erdogan and President Putin in November. Many now live within Turkey’s military sphere in northern Syria established during Operation Olive Branch, at the expense of the Syrian Kurds.

The ‘demographic swaps are reshaping the geopolitical fabric of communities that had coexisted for centuries',’ said Martin Chulov, an argument supported by Patrick Cockburn described both the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and expulsions occurring as being ‘on the scale of that in India and Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947 or in Germany at the end of the Second World War’ and are nearly irreversible. “The takeover of a whole area by a single sect, ethnic group or political affiliation tends to be difficult to reverse because houses are distributed to new owners who do not want to give them up,” he wrote, “The Sunni Arabs have been at the heart of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad since 2011 and likewise see non-Sunni communities as supporters of Assad, and hence the targeting of Sunni districts by government artillery and bombing.” The consequences of such a large realignment of different ethnic, religious and nationalist groups through military action will scar Syria.

An interesting question asked is whether the violence of the regime descended into ‘genocidal violence’. Under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Military operations by NATO in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, belatedly, were undertaken to prevent genocide, despite other political factors influencing the interventions. No such interventions were undertaken in Burundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, Iraq (during the Al-Anfal campaign) or Myanmar in 2017. If ‘genocidal violence’ did occur, it comes against the backdrop of negligence for the term “Never Again”. In the case of Syria, Cambodia and Burundi could provide examples for such a debate, particularly on the treatment of a national group: specifically political elites, political opposition and activists opposed to the regime.

Though it is heavily debated - based upon the case of the Burundi genocide in 1972 conducted by the Tutsi-dominated army against the Hutus. As Rene Lemarchand wrote, the Burundi genocide’s ‘extensiveness and extreme brutality against all Hutu elites have prompted some commentators to refer to it as a “selective genocide”’ Students, priests, school teachers, school directors, civil servants and military men were targeted, disappeared or were killed at astonishing speed. They were the primary targets before the army commanders, predominantly Tutsi, expanded the campaign across the tiny country in Central Africa. The trigger for the genocidal blood-letting, ‘was a Hutu-led rural insurrection aimed at seizing power from the ruling Tutsi minority.’ Did a similar case evolve in Syria’s conflict? The security crackdowns evolved into counterinsurgency and then all-out brinkmanship. Towns and cities were besieged and starved, entire parts of cities and towns were levelled by artillery, tanks, aircraft and helicopters and the use of chemical weapons was documented. The first targets of the regime were, indisputably, moderates, activists, regime critics, bloggers, students, liberals, political dissidents, and human rights advocates and campaigners. Members of the ‘establishment’, the elite (Alawite and Sunni) and supporters of Al-Asad, both rich and poor, had more to lose, economically, religiously and politically, by sponsoring the revolution and thus the political groups and opposition which rose against the regime was targeted for liquidation. They are dying by the thousands in Syrian torture chambers and dungeons and it clear that ethnic cleansing, ‘efforts at local ethnic cleansing are already making Syria's de facto partition more and more irremediable. Sectarian diversity is disappearing in many areas of the country, and this process of regional homogenisation is drawing internal borders.’ In some cases, ethnic cleansing has been strategically perpetrated against Sunni Muslim communities in Syria, and in some cases local acts of genocidal violence may have been perpetrated. Many Muslim clerics in Central Asia have argued in ‘private conversations many Muslim clerics say that the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawi sect affiliating with the Shia, is committing genocide against Syrian Sunnis.’

In one hand, the regime hollowed out the civil uprising, in the other it nurtured the radicalisation of an insurgency which would eventually commit its own war crimes and crimes against humanity. Extremist organisations within the Syrian uprising, such as Jahbat Fateh Al-Sham and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq would help wipe out what remained of the embattled moderates as the war grinded on or pushed them to the political periphery of Syria’s new political landscape. The number of deaths will never be known, historians estimate 150,000 - 300,000 men, women and children perished in that terrible spring. As Lemarchand writes ‘the number of deaths is anyone’s guess,’ a similar problem facing those estimating the death toll in Syria, where it ranges from 188,000 to half a million (some say it could even be one million). Similar problems on figures also face those investigating the atrocities in Syria. As The Washington Post writes on the executions carried out by the mukhabarat in regime prisons, ‘the government has never acknowledged the execution of prisoners or released figures on executions. No independent figures are available.’ Whether prosecutors will ever be able to access these figures when the regime has so much too lose if these numbers get released is questionable. Similarly as with any eyewitness accounts, ‘considerable caution is in order when it comes to evaluating the accuracy of eyewitnesses’ accounts’ particularly as years, turn into decades.

However, previous case studies remain useful. Tuol Sleng, in Cambodia under Pol Pot, was one of the most brutal prisons in the country, not dissimilar to Sadnaya prison in Syria. 12,000-14,000 people died in Tuol Sleng prison, with fifteen surviving during a reign of terror which saw two million deaths as a result of murder, starvation and disease. In the first four years of the Syrian War, 13,000 have been secretly hung in Sadnaya according to Amnesty International. These numbers are separate from 11,000 people estimated to have died prison between 2011 and 2013, evidence provided on 28,707 images which Human Rights Watch received from a military defector. ‘SAFMCD, which reviewed the entire collection and logged the photographs by individual body, found that these 28,707 photographs correspond to at least 6,786 separate dead individuals each with their own unique identification numbers.’ The number of deaths in Syria’s prisons eclipse those of Cambodia’s worst prison during a period commonly defined by historians as the Cambodian genocide. Khieu Samphan (head of state) and Nuon Chea (Pol Pot’s second in command), two senior leaders of Pol Pot’s regime who remain alive were found guilty of genocide on November 18th, 2018. Though the trails were controversial, they were imprisoned for crimes against humanity and genocide as Hannah Ellis-Petersen reported:

“As senior figures in the Khmer regime, the court declared both men responsible for murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation imprisonment, torture, persecution on religious, racial and political grounds, enforced disappearances and mass rape through the state policy of forced marriages . The verdict, read by Judge Nil Nonn, gave a detailed account of some of the most horrific actions carried out by the regime, particularly focusing on the infamous S-21 security prison and execution site where tens of thousands were killed. Interrogations, and executions were carried out under the direct instruction of those in the “upper echelons, including Nuon Chea”, who oversaw S-21 for two years.“The chamber finds that prisoners were brought to interrogation rooms, handcuffed and blindfolded, their legs chained during questioning” said Nil Nonn, adding that interrogation methods included “beatings with sticks, rocks, electrical wire, whips, electric shocks and suffocation and the extraction of of toenails and fingernails.””

The descriptions from Khmer Rouge’s prison network bear distinctive similarities to the methods employed by the regime’s security apparatus to maintain power. Kaing Guek Eav who ran Tuol Sleng was also convicted in 2014. Nonetheless however, there remain flaws in both the Burundi and Cambodian case studies, namely the Burundian military (predominantly Tutsi) exterminated ethnic Hutus, and moderate Tutsis. In Cambodia, the problem comes down to technical definition, the Genocide Convention ‘doesn’t include acts committed against political, economic, or other social groups…Lemkin understandably focused on protecting groups with shared ancestries rather than social, economic, or political affiliations. However, as Justine Drennan notes, ‘Communist purges of certain political and economic classes in the former Soviet Union and Cambodia, in fact, were arguably as horrific as Nazi crimes and suggest the limits of genocide as a technical term.’ If Nuon Chea and Kaing Guek Eav faced justice, so too should those responsible for running the military airbases and gruesome hospitals, and the prisons and detention centres in Syria. There is little difference between the prisons of Al-Asad and the concentration camps in the Bosnian War and security prisons run by Khmer Rouge, for which those involved in Bosnia and Cambodia were tried and imprisoned. The regime cannot, for the sake of international law and security, be exempt even if did not utilise ‘genocidal violence’ to protect itself against the revolution.


It has been systematically proven that in certain circumstances one faction purposefully commits more than the other; for example, Nazi Germany, Network Zero and Hutu Power in Rwanda, Al-Asad, the Myanmar military against the Rohingya Muslims, the Turkish (against the Armenians), the Bosnian Serbs & Croats and Yugoslav National Army. Al-Asad is no Hitler or Stalin. Such comparisons are not useful and are frequently utilised as propaganda by the Western powers despite their being little similarities between them, particularly when the scale of which Hitler and Stalin took their violence dwarfs those of Al-Asad. The Nuremberg Trials were stained with ‘victors justice’. Few Allied leaders were held to account or prosecuted for blatant war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Second World War (the use of atomic bombs, the carpet bombing of cities such as Dresden and Tokyo, the man-made famine in India, the ethnic cleansing of East Germany by the Soviets). The Al-Asad regime, like the Bosnian Serbs, were not the only ones committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Syrian War. There are numerous reasons to condemn the opposition and international forces operating in Syria, and the international coverage of the Syrian Revolution and the evolving insurgency. “Fabricated news and one-sided reporting has taken over the news agenda,” wrote Cockburn, and this, he argues, was best reflected in the coverage of the siege of Mosul in Iraq and the siege of East Aleppo in Syria.

The massacres perpetrated in Mosul in the aftermath were barely reported, apart from an excellent piece of journalism by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for The Guardian. Nonetheless despite the lop-sided coverage of the international conflict, world-class, accurate and inspiring reporting and research on the country’s collapse continues to emerge, the challenge is knowing where to find it. The Syrian rebellion has been plagued by a multitude of problems, and that is the case in any civil war: all sides - from Yugoslavia to Spain to Rwanda - commit atrocities and war crimes.

The rebel coalition in Aleppo, led by Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham and extremist cells, have committed several atrocities. They have mercilessly executed Syrian soldiers and civilians. Human Rights WatchAmnesty InternationalAl-Jazeera,  ReutersAl-MonitorThe Huffington Post and Al-Masdar News and The Guardian have all reported incidents of rebel forces executing POWs or committing war crimes against civilians in Aleppo. The mass execution of fifty-one POWs and civilians in Khan al-Assal, fourteen kilometres from Aleppo in 2013 was an example of the ruthless nature of the rebels. Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham’s affiliate Nour al-Din al-Zenki sliced off the head of a twelve year old Palestinian boy in an ISIS-style execution in 2016.


In Afrin, allegations of ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFAR) surfaced in 2018. 150,000 - 200,000 Syrian Kurds were displaced by Operation Olive Branch from the Afrin canton and Tel Rifaat. For years, the Kurdish-majority Afrin canton in north-western Syria remained one of the few areas in the country which have not found them in the whirlwind of the seven year long war. That situation changed on 20 January 2018 when the combined force of the Turkish Armed Forces and a collage of Syrian rebel groups financed by Turkey invaded the canton. Operation Olive Branch, founded on dubious claims surrounding the existence of ISIS fighters in Afrin, the Turkish state defined terrorism as the main justification for the invasion. The operation started on three fronts: north, west and east. Syrian rebel groups, consisted of some Free Syrian Army factions, Turkmen neo-Ottomanists and a wealth of jihadi fighters affiliated with the Levant Front, Ahrar al Sham and Nour al Din Al Zinki amongst others, have led the ground invasion supported by Turkish soldiers, artillery and armoured batallions as well as the Turkish Air Force. Their aim was to establish a 30km deep ‘safe-zone’.

Since the founding of the "Free Syrian Army" in 2012, Turkey has been training dissidents within its borders under the supervision of Turkish military intelligence. Most opposition forces inside Syria now carry a Free Syrian Army logo. Recent purges in the Turkish army and the low level of training amongst Turkish-financed rebels have taken a toll. Turkish president Erdogan has claimed that their next stop will be Manbij, however, his claims are to be taken with a dose of scepticism. To commit to taking Manbij and potentially the rest of Rojava, however, it is quite possible that his goals is not an all-out war against the Syrian Kurds, but merely a limited-sized operation, large enough to garner support before the Turkish elections, but small enough not to risk more casualties than necessary. Turkish reporters have already received talking points from the state, and hundreds of journalists and critics of the operation had been detained. It seems that (manufactured) public opinion is paramount in this case. 

On the fifty-third day of its offensive into the Afrin canton, Turkish forces inside Syria completed their encirclement of Afrin. According to Euro News, ninety villages including Afrin were surrounded. Turkish airstrikes destroyed homes and others were systematically vandalised by paramilitary forces. Amnesty also reported property confiscation and the looting of homes and businesses and the 86 instances of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance. As the assault on Afrin began, claims of ethnic cleansing started making headlines news as the SDF and senior Kurdish officials began calling the international community to halt the Turkish-led campaign. A video and verified as authentic by Syrian Observatory for Human Rights demonstrates why they cannot go back. Five men wearing body armour, four wearing bandanas are being filmed on mobile, bearing Free Syrian Army insignias and are threatening the Syrian Kurds with violence if they refused to convert to their interpretation of Islam, not very different from the forced conversions of Yezidis and Christians undertaken by ISIS or Al-Qa’ida. In its assault on Afrin, astutely noted by analyst Shiraz Maher in The NewStatesman, the international media was quick to identify that "Turkish forces were giving an armed escort into rebel territory by fighters from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist umbrella movement that contains - at least in part - some remnants of Al-Qa'ida." One young man in the film went on to say, “My message is for the infidel Kurds. By Allah, if you repent and come back to Allah, then know that you are our brothers. But if you refuse, then we see that your heads are ripe, and that it's time for us to pluck them."

On 13th March, SDF Press published a video on Youtube, ‘Violations by the Turkish Invasion and the Terrorist Factions in Afrin’ detailing atrocities committed in Afrin since Operation Olive Branch began in January, 2018. Two videos were uploaded showing Turkish-backed rebels mutilating the corpses of a Yezidi YPG fighter in Qustal named Ahmad Muhamad Hanan and a Kurdish woman, Barin Kobani in a town called Qurna on the Turkish border. Barin, also fighting for the YPG, had been killed two weeks into the fighting. Cross-referencing the SDF Press release video with an article published by The Independent, the videos appear to be authentic. Another video emerged of several Turkish-backed rebels executing a civilian near Afrin after stealing his tractor. The pro-Turkish fighters tore down a statue of the legendary Kurdish hero Kawa and raised the Turkish flag on rooftops in the city centre.

In essence, similar to the Israelis seizure and occupation of the Syrian Golan in 1967 during the Six Day War, with potential plans to annex the territory in the near-future, what we have seen in northern Syria is a land-grab. Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies said in August, 2018 that “Turkey is prepared to, in a sense, quasi-annex this region.” Olive trees were hewn and torn to the ground to make space for military positions. Several news sources have suggested that as part of this annexation process, Turkish forces are establishing military bases to cement their position in northern Syria and use land for peace to negotiate with President Al-Asad.

With the establishment of military bases on agricultural lands and the transfer of Syrian Arabs (predominantly Sunni) to Afrin, the canton is being demographically altered by the Turkish military and its paramilitaries. The plan, thus far, has been successful. “The long-term problem for Turkey is whether they can do this kind of thing and have it accepted by the international community. And so far, it’s working for them,” said Landis, “I think many Sunnis believe that they’d be better off with Turkey. And that’s really demonstrated in the fact that most of the rebel militias who use Turkey as a refuge also see Turkey as, in a sense, a mothership that supplies them with diplomatic support, political support, military support, economic support, everything. And they see the Turks as champions of their Islamic identity. Turkey has a great interest in not allowing Assad to drive all of these tens of thousands of rebels [out]. They don’t want refugees. They already have 3.5 million registered inside Turkey. The [potential] trade that’s sitting there, and waiting to be done, is that if the Syrian government controls the Kurds, Turkey will withdraw from territory in [northern] Syria.”

As Cockburn writes, ‘the Kurds in Afrin are Sunni Muslims, however, Isis and al-Qaeda traditionally punish those who fail to subscribe to their beliefs as heretics deserving death. Videos suggest that many are former Isis or al-Qaeda fighters who see the Kurds and non-Muslim minorities as enemies to be expelled or eradicated.’ IRIN News reported in March, 2018, that ‘many of the displaced civilians may be unwilling – perhaps unable – to live under Turkish control, especially given Ankara’s discriminatory policies against its own Kurdish minority.’ Kurdish women in Afrin have been forced, in many cases, to accept second class citizenship and wear the hijab or niqab. Pursued by Arab militias and settlers in Afrin. Numbering 35,000 these men and their families have been placed in or taken over Kurdish-owned houses and land abandoned by Syrian Kurds and the religious-political policy adopted against Kurdish women, who have historically taken an active part in politics, is a step to suppress the Kurds political culture. BBC Syria producer, Riam Dalati, published a voice recording by the Head of Security for the Free Syrian Army’s 23rd Division who recommended the mass-expulsion of male Kurds between ages 15-50, a last resort to assassinations and attacks by YPG. Recorded on social media on Twitter’s platform, the threat has been matched by demographic adjustments to the population.

Road-blocks and checkpoints, photographed by Beha el Halebi showed TFSA paramilitary men manning them, allowing people in and out of the city. Many families, predominantly Syrian Kurds were not allowed to return. Instead, many families displaced by President Al-Asad’s final, and ultra-violent assault, on the predominantly Sunni enclave of eastern Ghouta, the Damascus suburb under siege for years have been resettled in Afrin. This has been opposed by some military men fighting in the Free Syrian Army, but represent a small percentage of those against these measures. The new families being settled there, according to Sara Kiyyali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch speaking to Syria Direct many are not happy with taking the homes of those who have been displaced. “A lot of those houses are empty right now,” she said to Syria Direct this month. “They were primarily Kurdish residents...[and many] are uncomfortable returning to live under Turkish control.” IDPs from Homs and Yarmouk also arrived in Afrin.

Under the military occupation of the Turkish Armed Forces and the TFSA, watering down the population of Syrian Kurds, and installing more plkjro-Turkish proxies in towns along the Syrian-Turkey border, in theory to Erdogan and the upper echelons of Turkish power in Ankara, secures the Turkish border from the PKK and YPG - who they regard as terrorist organisations, and ISIS. Returning an Arab, rather than Kurdish enclave to President Al-Asad and the Syrian government is preferred to have the YPG and SDF on Ankara’s doorstep.

Security or not though, ethnic cleansing - the forceable deportation of a population - is a war crime. As the International Committee for the Red Cross stipulates, ‘Parties to an international armed conflict may not deport or forcibly transfer the civilian population of an occupied territory, in whole or in part, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.’ “It’s not the Afrin we know,” said Areen, 34. “Too many strange faces. Businesses have been taken over by the Syrians, stores changed to Damascene names, properties gone. We feel like the Palestinians.” she said while being interviewed by Martin Chulov for The Guardian. Another civilian, Salah Mohammed, from Afrin similarly asserted that Syrian Kurds could not return. “Lands are being confiscated, farms, wheat, furniture, nothing is ours anymore; it’s us versus their guns. It’s difficult to come back, you have to prove the property is yours and get evidence and other nearly impossible papers to reclaim it.There is definitely a demographic change, a lot of Kurds have been forcibly displaced on the count that they’re with the PKK when in fact they weren’t. There are barely any Kurds left in Afrin, no one is helping us go back.”

Operation Olive Branch may have had imperative military reasons but if the Syrian Kurds are not allowed to return, and the civilians were both threatened with or faced violence, and given the wider context of the bitter conflict between Ankara and the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq, the motives of the Turkish government go beyond security and the dubious threat of terrorism, a problem partly created by Ankara. Actions in Afrin appears to be a calculated policy, driven by political agendas and discriminatory practices against the Kurds. The paramilitaries are doing the Turkish military’s dirty work as they carve out a Syrian enclave more loyal to Ankara than to the YPG and PKK. “The Turkish soldiers are behaving decently,” a Syrian Kurd told The Economist, “But the bearded ones are big trouble,” he adds, referring to the TFSA, Syrian National Army, and umbrella group of jihadi militants supported by Turkey. “They’ve stolen so much.” In interviews with IRIN, Arat Sik, 30, described the aftermath of the battle of Afrin, the situation seemed bleaker. “Airstrikes destroyed our house, and then they stole everything we had,” said the former resident of Afrin. “We can never go back.”

The role of ISIS in committing genocide against the Yezidis is the most notable example of opposition, the most extreme end of the spectrum, committing multiple crimes against humanity against the minority sect, Christians and Shia Muslims and other minority groups in the Syrian War. 200 mass-graves in Iraq, including the massacre at Camp Speicher, have been discovered. Near Raqqa, a mass grave believed to contain 1,700 bodies was found containing fighters of the caliphate and civilians. Nine graves at-least, filled with corpses of ISIS members and civilians, have been found in Raqqa, victims of coalition airstrikes in November, 2018. It is unclear whether these were ISIS-led atrocities.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, as ISIS swept through Nineveh province in northeastern Iraq, the genocide against the Yezidis continued in Syria. ‘Thousands of women and girls, some as young as nine, have been sold in slave markets, or souk sabaya, in the Syrian governorates of Raqqah, Aleppo, Homs, Hasakah and Dayr Az- Zawr.’ Women and their children were sold, often multiple times, and distributed to different men and raped, beaten, tortured and sexually abused. Many committed suicide to end their agony while young boys were converted and conscripted into ISIS fighting squads in Syria. John Kerry, the former US Secretary of State directly accused the group, a strain of Al-Qa’ida in 2016 of conducting genocide in Syria and Iraq. He said that ISIS was “genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions, in what it says, in what believes and in what it does. In my judgement, ISIS is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims…in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities.”

This followed a unanimous decision by European Parliament to label ISIS atrocities as genocide. Lars Adaktusson hailed the vote as a historic moment. “It’s really important that the Parliament passed it, on a political level and a moral level. The significance is the obligations that follow by such a recognition. The collective obligation to intervene, to stop these atrocities and to stop the persecution in the ongoing discussion about the fight against ISIS.” Certainly, international action followed, as a vast coalition was assembled to fight ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. However, did war crimes occur in the campaign (both counter-terrorist and anti-genocide) against ISIS, a war within a war in Syria? Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have detailed numerous reports alleging that the YPG and SDF - predominantly Syrian Kurdish fighters - carried out war crimes in northeastern Syria and evicting Syrian Arabs and Turkmen civilians from their homes and villages. The report by Amnesty stirred controversy, not least because the YPG and SDF were allies in the war against ISIS. In 2017, the UN rejected allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the YPG and SDF in a conference room paper published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The conference paper stated:

“Though allegations of “ethnic cleansing” continued to be received during the period under review, the Commission found no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF forces ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity, nor that YPG cantonal authorities systematically sought to change the demographic composition of territories under their control through the commission of violations directed against any particular ethnic group.”

Nonetheless, these allegations must be taken seriously, not because they constitute ‘ethnic cleansing’, a crime against humanity, but because YPG have still committed what could amount to as war crimes. Forced conscription, demolishing civilian homes, collective punishment and the forced displacement of entire villages has occurred. The problem with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ narrative stamped on factions such as the YPG and it accompanying forces, is that it suits Turkey’s perspective to have allegations of crimes against humanity being slapped on YPG military operations. It helps them entrench the narrative that they are fighting terrorists committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. A legal term for them is a political weapon, and as detailed earlier, Turkey’s allies have been accused of cleansing operations in Afrin. The coalition assembled to fight the ISIS has been mired in controversy since it was assembled. The devastation wrought on northeastern Syria by coalition airstrikes, predominantly British, American and French, is best demonstrated by the hellish moonscape that Raqqa was reduced to by the use aerial bombings and artillery. Amnesty delivered a damning verdict on Operation Inherent Resolve.

According to Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty, a senior US military officer had informed her that “more artillery shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere since the end of the Vietnam War”. As with the conflict in Iraq, entire districts in towns and cities were wiped off the face of the map either by Coalition proxies fighting on the ground (the SDF and YPG in this case), or artillery and airstrikes. Julian Borger, writing for The Guardian and who covered the wars in the Balkans, AirWars estimated that by ‘the end of the five-month campaign, 80% of the city was declared uninhabitable by the UN, and 1,800 civilians are thought to have been killed. Airwars estimates 1,400 of those deaths were caused by coalition air and artillery bombardment.’

Coalition airstrikes under President Donald Trump increased by 215%. This increase was partly a political calculation by Trump to bolster domestic support (he promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS in his election campaign in 2015) by securing a military victory against the so-called caliphate. However, the looser engagement rules in Raqqa also stemmed from tactical adjustments made between Iraqi officers and coalition commanders. The Iraqi army, ‘suffered terrible casualties fighting Isis in east Mosul, and their commanders complained it took too long for the US-led coalition to assist them from above. The rules were consequently relaxed to allow more junior officers on the battlefield to call instant air support.’ This obliterated west Mosul and Raqqa and there were some high-profile incidents which made headlines, including the destruction of a mosque in Hajin, the bombing of a school in Raqqa where forty civilians were hiding and under the Obama administration and the killing of between 70 and 120 men, women and children in a bombing 10 miles north of Manbij, where American soldiers are currently located. The death toll of civilians in Raqqa is much smaller than the wave of bloodshed unleashed by Al-Asad, however, as Mosul demonstrates, the initial numbers killed were underplayed by the coalition and the numbers in Raqqa will be subject to the same scrutiny. The city remains in ruins, and it is unclear how many bodies still lie beneath the rubble-strewn streets and bombed-out buildings.

The Kremlin’s intervention in Syria who supported President Al-Asad, were not better in their military conduct. Before its military intervention, Russia was critical in shielding the Syrian government from Western-led regime change. Before September, 2015 when Russia began targeting ISIS positions, ties with the regime and the military were valuable. In 2012, The Moscow Times said that ‘Russia's investment in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism amounts to $19.4bn in 2009’ and betwen $4bn-$6bn worth of armament contracts with the Syrian government. $2bn was pending, and $4bn had been agreed. Furthermore, in a report by The Guardian, ‘Stroitransgaz, is building a natural gas processing plant 200km east of Homs and is providing the technical support for the Arab gas pipeline. The Tatarstan-based Tatneft began pumping Syrian oil last year and in January vowed to spend $12.8m drilling wells near the Iraqi border.’

In 2014, Reuters reported that Russia contractors and arms dealers had began increasing military supplies to Syria, including the supply of ‘armoured vehicles, spy drones and guided bombs, armoured vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters, and various weapons including guided bombs for planes, Tank treads, helicopter blades, jet fuel, ball-bearings, gyroscopes’ and more. As the Western powers arm, train and supply intelligence to the Saudi-coalition to bomb and starve Yemen into famine and destroy its health system, the Kremlin and its private security companies are enabling President Al-Asad’s government to destroy Syria and commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Russian military has asserted that is harmed no civilians in its military intervention. This claim is ludicrous considering the nature of the Syrian War, defined by heavy urban combat and bloody street-to-street fighting, during which they have dropped over 39,000 bombs. The devastation wrought in Eastern Ghouta, Hama, Homs, Eastern Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor and Idlib by Russian jets and the surrounding countryside, and reports and testimonies of local and international charities and activists suggest that casualties were higher than the official Russian estimates. Local branches of Doctors Without Borders reported the repeated targeting of hospitals by Russian aircraft. Schools and other NGOs, including the Nobel-Peace Prize winning, White Helmets accused by some (not all) of being created by Western governments, were also indiscriminately targeted. After one such attack on a marketplace in Idlib, which killed 30-40 civilians, local media activist Mohammed Qurabi al-Ghazal described the horrifying scene:

[Shortly before 9am] opposition observatories announced that a Russian warplane had taken off from Hmaymim base and was heading north-east, then sent an update that it was in the Ariha area. Ten seconds later the attack happened. I was in the market itself, 600m away from the attack itself. It was a normal Sunday; there was nothing unusual. People were buying goods; children were eating, shouting. It was busy as usual. First there was a loud explosion – dirt flying in the air – followed immediately by shock. In just a few moments, people were screaming, the smell of burning was in the air and there was just chaos. There was a primary school nearby, and children were running out absolutely terrified. As a civil activist I always have my camera with me. So I took it out of my bag and began taking photos – there were bodies everywhere, decapitated and mutilated. As I went to an open square, I saw a horrific scene. I have seen horrific sights since the beginning of the war, but this was unlike anything before. Forty bodies were lined up, and next to the bodies was a woman sitting and crying. I asked her “What is wrong?”, and she said: “My husband and three children were killed. I am alone at home now. I have no one.” Her children were literally in bags. To this day, I cannot get over it.

In 2016, the Russians were accused of destroying an UN aid convoy of 18 trucks after U.S aircraft and British Reaper Drones killed dozens of Syrian soldiers. A sustained air bombing campaigns in the siege of Aleppo and Deir Ezzor in September, 2017 killed hundreds of civilians. The attacks continue, albeit more sporadically. Only in November, Russian jets pummelled Aleppo once more claiming to strike against terrorist groups that used chlorine gas while over Idlib, until the Sochi Agreement, bombing was being ratched up by the airforces of the regime and Russia. Since 30th September, 2015 when Russia’s military intervened in the war, 2,726–3,863 have been killed and thousands more wounded. That thousands should die so that Russia could test weapons designed for a third world war is abhorrent. Vladimir Shamanov, former commander of Russia’s airborne troops and who now serves as head of the Russian Duma’s defense committee, said that “200 new weapon systems” were tested in the conflict and war crimes were committed along the way to see how these weapons worked in the field and to demonstrate Russia’s military power and new found geo-political influence in the Middle East. To consider Putin’s motives in Syria and the destruction caused, the Second Chechen War offers some chilling parallels as Marwan Bishara for Al Jazeera analyses:

“As the escalation takes a turn for the worst in and around Aleppo, the more instructive parallel to consider is Grozny. There, Putin showed the world in the Second Chechnya War what his regime is capable of doing to a city, even if it considers it one of its own. After two consecutive wars, sieges and bombings, the United Nations called Grozny "the most destroyed city on earth"; not a single building in the city was left undamaged. Once it was completely levelled, Moscow began to rebuild it to erase any trace of death or destruction. This was Putin's way of sending a message to the rest of the world that Russia was resurging and reasserting its claim to the title of a superpower. Chechnya paid the price. Putin became Russia's strongman. The war propelled him to the presidency.”

Whitewashing every activist and rebel fighting President Al-Asad’s regime under the term ‘terrorist’ or ‘bandits’ as they were known in Chechnya is little better then the coalition obscuring whether airstrikes and artillery are killing ISIS hard-core fighters or civilians (collateral damage). The Russian stance on their military actions in Syria are not dissimilar to the Israelis killing thousands of Lebanese civilians in murderous air-raids in Beirut in 1982, little helped by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation positioning themselves on vulnerable buildings, turning civilians into de-facto human shields. Sometimes though, this was not the case, and like the Russians and Americans, and the Saudis in Yemen, innocent men, women and children are considered “collateral damage” or deaths are downplayed or justified in hunting down and killing insurgents, guerrillas and terrorists.

President Al-Asad’s security apparatus, military high command, different sectors of the mukhabarat and intelligence, police and paramilitaries have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Often these crimes, including widespread ethnic cleansing, have been extreme enough to be categorised (or at-least debated) as genocidal. Turning a blind eye to these facts comes close to complicity. All actors and individuals operating at a local, regional and international level must be held to account whether it be the obliteration of Raqqa, the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Afrin, the massacre at Houla or the destruction wrought on Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta. President Al-Asad has secured his position for now, with the protection of Hizbullah, the Iranian military and the Russian intervention. Genocide has been perpetrated against the Yezidis by ISIS in a cross-border effort to annihilate the minority group. Ethnic cleansing has reshaped the country, conducted by extremists groups like ISIS, President Al-Asad’s military and paramilitary organisations and several Sunni rebel groups. The consequences ‘created by these atrocities determine how different communities in Iraq and Syria perceive each other and may make it impossible for them to live together ever again…Communities which once lived together in peace are today so frightened of each other after years of savage warfare that the more powerful sect or ethnic group is forcing out the weaker one.’ The efforts of the mukhabarat to exterminate the political opposition and liberal activists - and the conditions under which they torture and murder them in prisons, indiscriminately - are comparable to the worst concentration camps run in Bosnia and security prisons in Cambodia. The political leaders of these efforts were eventually imprisoned for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. International actors, including the coalition and Russian army, and their proxies have been accused of conducting potential war crimes. What has happened in Syria’s international conflict, and what we know so far in terms of the atrocities and war crimes committed is only the tip of the iceberg so far which involves both international and regional actors, and most damningly the Syrian government.

Note by Author:

The consequences of the conflict and the violence which is gripping Syria are not yet entirely known in the long-term, or within the context of wider history. In the 22nd century and 23rd century, hundreds of years from now even, historians will still be writing about this war and analysing it in new ways, revising and reinterpreting what has been written. The historiography of the Syrian War, indeed studying the catastrophe, with the benefit of time and not studying what happened in real-time, amidst propaganda and the swath of inaccurate reportage (Patrick Cockburn described the Syrian War as one of the worst reported conflicts in living memory) is a luxury current journalists and writers don’t necessarily have and which a student at university in a century from now might.

What has been left, for now, is ‘real-time history’ from traditional media and new media, and a digital footprint of reports, testimonies, websites, press releases, blogs, articles, online conversations and essays spanning nearly eight years since Syria’s war began. Social media, in-particular, has served for both excellent and woeful reportage on the war and war crimes occurring there. Differentiating between fiction and quality reporting has become a new challenge facing journalists and activists today, including this author. I don’t doubt for a second, that I have accidentally shared a fictitious or controversial statement during my analysis of Syria’s international conflict over the past five years when started writing about the war and commenting about it on social media. For that I apologise and know that views shared are not frozen in time, that my understanding of the Syrian War, indeed the wider Middle East, has evolved considerably since 2013 and are still changing. Know that it was never in this author’s intent to spread false information or smear another’s work, or endorse controversial stances on the war. The social media conversations, much like Brexit, the Trump era, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and beyond, on Syria have been deeply polarised and at times borderline toxic and, slide into ugly rhetoric.

I have also been unable to access Syria, due to issues of safety and affordability. From Morocco to Lebanon to Israel to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, I have worked in the Middle East and parts of North Africa and written much along the way including working for Amnesty International. However Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the Gulf States are difficult for journalists and activists to access (and are often in-affordable) and difficult to navigate. Concerns of safety and inexperience in the field outweighed the story, and security risks and the weighted threat of harassment and detention. Running a website, travelling to far flung regions of the world and doing unpaid journalism, content collection and writing, is an expensive hobby. Travelling to the Middle East, particularly if you are focused on war, requires organisation, insurance, planning and a need for clear contacts (and understanding where their allegiances and loyalties lie for both their protection and yours). I hope that both my experiences thus far in the Middle East and my authority on the subject through study and writing for the past five years on the region should suffice on writing about the topic at hand which will include war crimes, crimes against humanity and the ethnic cleansing in Syria using a variety of sources available to me including books, reports, published interviews, testimonies, websites, press releases, articles, online conversations and essays.