Syria: ISIL’s brutality must not overshadow the crimes of the Syrian regime

Press release
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Op-Ed written by FIDH President, Karim Lahidji, on the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian uprising

Four years ago, the arrest and torture of a group of children ignited unprecedented protests against the regime of Bachar el-Assad in cities across Syria. While the demonstrations began peacefully, a brutal crackdown soon led to the hardening of positions, setting the whole country aflame. Since then the situation has steadily deteriorated, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Worse, new actors have appeared on the stage whose goals are far removed from those of the initial protesters and whose cruelty and savy communication strategy have captured the media’s attention.

Seldom has the term “distorted lens” been so apt as when we talk about the media coverage of the Syrian conflict. For the last several months, media around the world has focused on the crimes, each more sensational than the last, of the terrorist organisation the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Members of ISIL proudly take credit for these atrocities in graphic videos broadcast on social media in order to incite terror, but also to recruit new fighters.

Mesmerised by the sordid details of these crimes (beheadings, burning people alive in cages, hostages forced to hold humiliating positions) the public has forgotten that the majority of the crimes committed in Syria today are carried out by regime forces. The casual attitude of some western leaders, some of whom have recently visited Damascus, would have us believe that the only way to stop this terrorist organisation is to re-establish ties with the Assad government.

The Syrian regime remains responsible for the majority of the crimes committed

For the last four years, our partner organization in Syria, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), has been documenting the human cost of the conflict in Syria. The figures are clear. Of the 130,035 deaths reported by VDC’s field activists since 2011 – 81,596 of whom were civilians – 112,423 were direct victims of pro-regime forces.

It does not take much effort to demonstrate that the vast majority of international crimes committed in Syria have been perpetrated by forces loyal to Bachar el-Assad. Indiscriminate bombing campaigns – including barrel bombs – chemical weapons, and extrajudicial assassinations have killed at least 13,387 children since 2011, says VDC. These regime methods clearly qualify as war crimes or crimes against humanity. VDC has not, however, forgotten the victims of armed groups fighting the Syrian regime and includes their victims in its data. In addition to the tens of thousands of people killed by regime forces, more than 17,612 civilians have been killed by opposition groups, at least 2,940 by ISIL.

Civil society under fire

VDC’s figures are of course not exhaustive. However, they are the result of VDC’s precise reporting method, combining information culled by field activists and photos and videos posted online. The information is verified daily by those on the ground. These numbers are evidence of the regime’s deliberate effort to eradicate all forms of opposition, especially in rebel strongholds. According to Damascus, these towns and villages are swarming with enemy combatants. Dozens of VDC volunteers regularly visit hospitals and morgues around the country to obtain information regarding mass graves and the number of people buried in each one. The existence of these figures are proof that even in this shattered country, civil society continues to strive to provide thoroughly vetted information to the outside world. Meticulous and tenacious, these activists demonstrate undeniable courage in their efforts to compile information and bear witness to the situation in Syria.

There is one point that ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian regime have in common, and that is to control or eliminate all forms of freedom of expression. The regime is doing everything it can to prevent the dissemination of any information that could harm its interests. Those trying to spread information about the situation inside Syria face brutal repression. Close to 40 Syrian journalists and citizen-journalists, as well as members of national NGOs are currently being arbitrarily detained by the Damascus regime. Most of them are held in high security prisons where their rights are violated daily. The exaggerated use of antiterrorist legislation has led to arbitrary arrests and detentions, systematically violating international agreements signed by the Syrian regime. Media professionals and humanitarian workers are also the target of kidnappings conducted by armed opposition groups, often hoping to obtain financial or material gains.

Despite the regime’s killing machine, witness reports, figures, photos and videos manage to leak out of the country. When these different sources of information are cross-checked, as done by VDC, they become valuable potential evidence for the day when criminal proceedings are brought against the persons responsible for these international crimes.

The idea is not a new one. In December 2013, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay announced that she had “massive” amounts of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, adding that the evidence "indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state."

On this solemn fourth anniversary of the peaceful uprising, we are compelled to reiterate our appeal for the release of all persons currently detained, imprisoned or abducted for their activities in defense of human rights. The fate of these free Syrian voices has fallen off the international radar. By mobilising for their release on the anniversary of their movement, we pay tribute to their struggle.

Furthermore, on this occasion, it is essential to recall one of Syrian civil society’s main demands, which landed many of them in prison, and that is an end to impunity for the perpetrators of international crimes. By applying their veto, Russia and China have prevented the United Nations Security Council from referring the Syria conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC). They also seem to have blocked all other initiatives that could lead to a credible alternative criminal prosecution, such as a special international tribunal.

This impunity could be countered by calling for limitations on the use of the veto with regards to the referral of cases to the ICC. The extraordinary banalisation of evil, being perpetrated on an industrial scale by the dictator of Damascus and some of his opponents undescores the urgency with which the international community must explore all channels of international criminal justice, a resource all too often left by the wayside.

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