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The 2016 Human Rights Watch (HRW) country report for Syria documents the escalating use of violence in the war-torn country. Five years after the start of a conflict that involves numerous state and non-state actors, violations of human rights and international war treaties and protocols have become a daily occurrence. However, Syria’s appalling human rights record goes back decades.
Between 1949 and 1966, Syria witnessed political instability caused by five successive military coups. The first was orchestrated by the army chief of staff, Husni al-Za’im, who went on to become president in April 1949. The last military coup, known as ‘the Corrective Movement’ or the ‘Corrective Revolution’, took place in 1970, led by General Hafez al-Assad, then minister of defence. After his ouster of President Salah Jadid, who had also come to power following a military coup in 1966, al-Assad appointed himself the undisputed leader of Syria and went on to rule till his death in June 2000. He was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad, the current president.
The al-Assad family, which has ruled Syria since 1970, has an exceptionally poor human rights record and a history of violence and massacres. From 1963 to early 2011, when popular protests erupted, Syria had a state of emergency in place, which gave the government a free hand to arrest people without charge and extended the state’s authority into virtually every aspect of citizens’ lives. Among the many arms of oppression are Syria’s security apparatuses, such as the Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, State Security and Political Security, who regularly detain people without arrest warrants, holding them incommunicado for lengthy periods. This is in addition to the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), an exceptional court with almost no procedural guarantees, which regularly sentences activists and Islamists to long prison terms.
Among the many dark moments of Hafez al-Assad’s tenure, the Hama massacre of February 1982 stands out as the epitome of his oppressive regime. The massacre ended any hopes of change primarily sought by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the main opposition at the time. As part of the Islamist uprising, which ran from 1976 to 1982, members of the Muslim Brotherhood calling themselves the Fighting Vanguard (at-Tali’a al-Muqatila), led by `Adnan `Uqla, massacred between 50 and 83 Alawite cadets in the Aleppo Artillery School. The massacre marked the beginning of full-scale urban warfare between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling Alawites. In 1982, in an attempt to quell an uprising orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian Arab Army and the Defence Companies, on the orders of Hafez al-Assad, besieged and shelled the city of Hama, which they believed to be harbouring Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated gunmen. In a little over three weeks, between 20,000 and 40,000 residents were killed. Amnesty International estimates that the eventual death toll may have been as high as 25,000 on both sides. The incident has since been called ‘the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the Middle East’.
When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, the Syrian parliament had to amend the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34 years old, so he would be legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Baath Party. On 10 July 2000, al-Assad was elected president by referendum in which he ran unopposed, receiving 97.29% of the votes. What was made to look like a popular vote to give al-Assad legitimacy, was in fact a clear-cut violation of all the principles of democracy. Immediately after al-Assad took office, a reform movement made cautious advances during what was dubbed the ‘Damascus Spring’. It led to the shutdown of the notorious Mezzeh prison in Damascus and the declaration of a wide-ranging amnesty releasing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political prisoners. However, it was a short-lived honeymoon between al-Assad and his opposition, as the security crackdowns commenced again within the year. Al-Assad jailed leaders of the Damascus Declaration, a prominent gathering of opposition groups, for ‘weakening national sentiment’. In 2010, the SSSC sentenced dozens of Kurdish political activists to prison, including many members of the PYD political party, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Military judges sentenced members of the Kurdish Left Party to prison for ‘inciting sectarian strife’, and other Syrian socialists or liberals such as Dr Kamal al-Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, who is serving a 15-year sentence for advocating peaceful reform.
The young al-Assad, who with promises of liberalization, democracy and respect for human rights had once been perceived as a potential reformer, disappointed expectations and it took the Syrian people less than a year to find him out.
In March 2011, popular protests erupted, initially demanding democratic reform. Al-Assad responded to these demands with police and military force, mass arrests and a brutal crackdown, resulting in hundreds of casualties and thousands of wounded. The Avaaz.org campaigning community said its investigation identified 2,918 Syrians who were arrested or abducted by security troops and whose whereabouts are still unknown. By the end of April 2011, it was clear that the situation was getting out of al-Assad’s control, and the Syrian government deployed numerous troops on the ground.
In the intervening years, Syria has slipped into increasingly violent conflict. Government forces and their allies (i.e. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other sectarian militias) carry out daily deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and incommunicado detention and torture are widespread. Non-state opposition groups have also carried out serious abuses, including attacking civilians, using child soldiers, kidnapping and torture. The extremist group Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, are responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations, among them targeting civilians, kidnappings and executions.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the death toll in Syria, until summer 2016, ranges between 301,781 and 422,317, including over 100,000 civilians. UN and Arab League envoys to Syria estimate the casualties at 400,000. Additionally, more than 640,000 people are living under long-term siege. The conflict has led to a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 7.6 million internally displaced and 4.8 million UN-registered refugees in neighbouring countries.
On 21 August 2013, two opposition-controlled areas in the suburbs around Damascus were targeted with the nerve agent sarin, killing between 281 and 1,729 people. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq war. Another 161 documented chemical attacks have taken place in Syria since, the details of which were gathered from doctors operating in the affected areas and which killed a further 1,491 people and injured 14,581. More than a third of the attacks used chlorine gas, and the vast majority of those came after an UN Security Council resolution condemning its use.
Additionally, the government has persisted in conducting indiscriminate air attacks, including dropping large numbers of improvised barrel bombs on civilians, in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, passed on 22 February 2014. These unguided bombs are cheaply made, locally produced and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters.
Syrian security forces continue to detain people arbitrarily, subjecting them to ill-treatment and torture, and often disappearing them using an extensive network of detention facilities throughout the country. Many detainees are young men in their 20s and 30s, but children, women and the elderly have also been detained. In some instances, individuals report that security forces detained their family members, including children, to pressure them to turn themselves in. The so-called Caesar Report, released in 2014 by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, claims to detail ‘the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region during the Syrian civil war over a two and half year period from March 2011 to August 2013’.
According to a report by Amnesty International, published in November 2015, the Syrian regime has forcibly disappeared more than 65,000 people since the beginning of the war. A May 2016 report published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that at least 60,000 people have died as a result of torture or from the dire conditions in Syrian government jails since March 2011.
With the failure of the most recent Kerry-Lavrov brokered ceasefire deal, the fighting has resumed and humanitarian aid convoys have been unable to reach the people in need. As the war heads towards its sixth year, a viable political solution seems more remote than ever.