Nowhere has the human cost of the “Arab Spring” uprisings been higher than in Syria. Two years since the Syrian uprising began, we speak to Amnesty Researcher Cilina Nasser and Senior Crisis Advisor Donatella Rovera about the conflict so far.
Emboldened by the fall of repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria’s opposition activists started taking action in early 2011.Their uprisings grew wings – on social media and on the streets – and in March, Syria’s Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) were born. They organized local protests and shared information with other activists and the media, nationally and abroad.
Breaking down the barriers Just months before, activities like these had been impossible in Syria. “Anyone who did something even small scale would be at risk of disappearing,” said Amnesty International’s Syria researcher, Cilina Nasser.
Nevertheless, the ranks of pro-reform activists continued to swell, and “Days of Rage” public protests began cropping up. Many protesters didn’t even know each other – they had met on social media and arranged to meet at mosques – the only viable places for group gatherings.
On 18 March 2011, a group of around 30 people gathered at a mosque in Homs, a city 150km north of the capital, Damascus. When Friday prayers finished and people began to leave, they erupted into chants of “Allah, Syria and freedom”.
Some onlookers were surprised or shocked. Many had never even seen a protest before – let alone taken part in one. Others pushed back against the security forces, allowing protesters to run away before getting caught.
The writing on the wall On 17 April 2011 – Syrian Independence Day – another sit-in protest in Homs drew a far bigger crowd. The protesters were unarmed but more defiant, and began chanting for the “downfall of the regime” of President Bashar al-Assad.
That afternoon, the security forces opened fire on protesters in Homs, reportedly killing nine people.
It was part of an emerging pattern. One of the Homs protesters’ rallying cries was solidarity with people in Dera'a in the south. Its uprising began after the security forces reportedly detained and tortured children for writing anti-government slogans on a wall.
Getting the message out Scenes like these were being replicated across Syria by mid-2011. The country was still virtually closed to foreign reporters and international human rights organizations.
“Not having access to the country made it very challenging, because we didn’t know the agendas of the activists we were talking to,” Cilina said.
Any tips or information Amnesty International received had to be verified – an increasingly difficult and time-consuming task.
“I went to northern Lebanon in May and June 2011 to work on a report. Most credible eyewitness accounts corroborated each other,” Cilina continued. “But there were also rumours and inaccurate information. We needed to carefully distinguish between what we had evidence for and what we didn’t.”
After the information had been rigorously checked, Amnesty concluded that crimes against humanity were being committed in Syria. We made strong calls for the international community to take action to end the abuses.
And we repeatedly called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, to ensure that all those responsible for crimes against humanity and, eventually, war crimes, would be investigated and prosecuted.
Full-blown conflict As Syrian security forces increasingly used excessive force against mainly non-violent protesters, an armed opposition emerged. From late 2011 onwards, some government opponents increasingly began revenge killings and armed attacks against government forces.
As opposition groups began to gain control of neighbourhoods in large cities and rural areas, they launched more brazen attacks. Government forces responded with a significantly wider and more violent crackdown, even using heavy weapons and artillery in full-scale assaults on opposition-controlled areas.
In April 2012, Senior Crisis Adviser, Donatella Rovera managed to enter Syria to investigate human rights violations in the north. She has returned several times since. “Government forces were still in control of the cities and highways, while armed opposition groups had de facto control of many villages and secondary roads,” she explained.
“Government forces had overwhelming superior striking power, but they couldn’t really go into several opposition areas at the same time. They launched repeated short, very intense and brutal attacks against some villages and then moved on to strike in other areas.”
Armed opposition groups very quickly learned to “dance around” government forces. These punitive raids carried on for months, with devastating consequences for civilians. When the soldiers couldn’t find their elusive armed opponents, they punished local residents. Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearances were widespread. They also deliberately destroyed homes and properties.
“In every single village I found homes and shops burned down by the soldiers,” said Donatella.
While armed confrontations became more frequent in many areas, peaceful protests continued elsewhere. “At the end of May 2012 in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, I saw government forces and paramilitary shabiha militias fire live rounds at peaceful demonstrators every day, killing and injuring protesters and bystanders alike. Activists in the city were also being arrested and tortured, sometimes to death, and disappeared,” she continued.
Death in the air The Syrian army then started a relentless air bombardment campaign in August, which still continues. Even densely populated residential areas are not spared. Entire streets, even whole neighbourhoods, have been flattened.
This has dramatically increased the number of civilians killed, injured and displaced. “Towns and villages where displaced people had been sheltering suddenly emptied,” said Donatella. Hundreds of thousands fled to already-heaving refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Many more are displaced within Syria.
Air strikes often targeted large groups of civilians – including people queuing for bread as food supplies dwindled, or those gathered near hospitals. Aleppo’s Shifa hospital was bombed repeatedly until it was put out of use, Donatella said.
Lack of access to medical care has been a serious issue throughout Syria’s conflict. Donatella described how security forces would detain and often torture anyone being treated for bullet wounds – accusing them of being “terrorists”. The regime uses that term interchangeably for both peaceful protesters and the armed opposition.
Fear of such retribution drove many people to seek treatment in makeshift field hospitals or mobile medical units set up by opposition activists. Doctors, nurses and medical students risked their lives to save others. Many were arrested and tortured, some were killed.
Donatella also documented the use of internationally banned cluster bombs in several areas. This dramatically increased in late 2012 and unexploded weapons are now littering large areas of Syria, a deadly legacy for many years to come.
Abuses on all sides As the conflict rages on, Syria’s government forces and paramilitary (state-armed) militias does not have complete monopoly on human rights abuses.
Armed opposition groups too have committed serious abuses, including summary killing and torturing captured security forces, militia members and suspected informers. Amnesty International continues to document potential war crimes committed by all parties.
“Civilians are undoubtedly the ones paying the highest price. They are losing their lives, their relatives, their limbs, their homes, businesses and property,” Donatella said. “No end to the violence seems in sight, and sectarian, ethnic, ideological and religious tensions have become more entrenched. In this atmosphere, human rights abuses are increasingly frequent.”
People she has spoken to in Syria have been baffled by the international community’s lack of concerted action to curb the violations, especially compared to their rapid response to other, similar situations. The human rights situation in Libya was referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) within two weeks of the first protest demonstrations in February 2011. But after two years of daily killings and countless other abuses in Syria, the international community has not yet agreed to refer the situation to the ICC.
Amnesty International continues to press for this, and for an immediate end to the pattern of human rights abuses being committed across the country.
“That’s why we are putting pressure on the Syrian government and calling on all influential states to do the same to stop them committing terrible violations, as well as calling on those with influence over armed groups to stop their abuses,” said Cilina.
As Syria’s conflict rages on, the international community's inaction has unfortunately conveyed a message that accountability for war crimes is not a priority. That is a dangerous presumption. Amnesty International will continue to press for concrete action at the international level stop violations on the ground and hold all those responsible to account.