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Syria continues dance around human rights violations

In East Ghouta, Syria, rural Damascus, a child's plush toy lies in the rubble of a destroyed building. (Credit: UNICEF/UN013166/Al Shami)

Activists accuse Syria of war crimes. The government denies the accusation. We saw this dance happen again this week, where activists level an accusation and the Assad regime side-steps with denial.

In the latest accusation, Human Rights Watch said that the military used chemical weapons on Aleppo late last year. The report stated that in eight attacks that violated international rules of war, at least nine people died and hundreds were injured. Syrian officials denied the accusation, telling Agence France-Presse that the report was “unprofessional and unscientific.”

“The government of the Syrian Arab Republic altogether denies the false allegations made in Human Rights Watch’s report,” said an unnamed Foreign Ministry source, according to AFP. “Human Rights Watch’s reliance on terrorist media sources and on fake eyewitnesses … proves this report’s lack of credibility.”

One step forward. One step to the side.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International released a detailed report accusing the Syrian government of executing as many as 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carrying out systematic torture at a military jail.

“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “We demand that the Syrian authorities immediately cease extrajudicial executions and torture and inhuman treatment at Saydnaya Prison and in all other government prisons across Syria.”

Syria called the allegations “totally untrue.” President Bashar al-Assad dismissed the findings in an interview with Yahoo News.

One step forward. One step to the side.

Attempts to prevent human rights crimes in Syria are failing. An investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons determined that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces in 2014 and 2015. The high-level findings did not stop the practice.

Nor have other reports documenting human rights abuses. The situation is complicated by the fact that both sides in the civil war have committed atrocities. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry alone released 20 reports detailing abuses in Syria carried out by rebel forces, the government and the Islamic State. Rights groups keep calling for the U.N. to do more.

Remnants of gas cylinders filled with chlorine dropped in Aleppo. (Credit: HRW)

Remnants of gas cylinders filled with chlorine dropped in Aleppo. (Credit: HRW)

“The pattern of the chlorine attacks shows that they were coordinated with the overall military strategy for retaking Aleppo, not the work of a few rogue elements,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement coinciding with this week’s report. “The United Nations Security Council shouldn’t let Syrian authorities or anyone else who has used chemical weapons get away without consequences.”

That could happen soon. The U.N. said today it is setting up a new body to prosecute war crimes committed in Syria. It will “analyze information, organize and prepare files on the worst abuses that amount to international crimes – primarily war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – and identify those responsible,” an official told Reuters.

The body will not directly prosecute people for crimes committed. Instead, it will turn over information gathered to the International Criminal Court or other judicial bodies that would hear the cases. Recruiting to fill a team of 40 to 60 people will start soon after this month’s announcement of the person who will lead the effort.

Representatives from Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan last week to negotiate the enforcement of a cease-fire agreement in Syria. The recapture of Aleppo by Syrian forces with the backing of Russian military from rebel groups was a major victory for Assad. Rebels fled and agreed to a ceasefire, opening the door to a resolution to the nearly six-year-old civil war.

Talks in Geneva are scheduled for next week. They bring together representatives from the Syrian government, opposition groups and the international community. The High Negotiations Committee, a group formed by opposition factions, seeks to directly negotiate with the Assad regime for a peaceful resolution and a political transition.

Assad holds firmly on the line that he will not leave his office.

One step forward. One step to the side.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]