No excuse for failing Syria

Photo: Rubble of destroyed buildings following a Syrian government forces air strike in Aleppo, March 2014. © AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC

By Anna Neistat, Senior Director of Research at Amnesty International

I arrived in Syria for the first time almost exactly four years ago. The uprising was under way, and the security forces had fired into peaceful crowds of protesters in the town of Dera’a in the south. Mass arrests were happening in Damascus suburbs and in Homs, where people took to the streets in solidarity with Dera’a residents and with demands similar to those heard at that time throughout the Middle East and North Africa: democracy, human rights, an end to the dictatorship.

But I could still get to Damascus on a tourist visa and share a hotel with large groups of retired French travellers who came to enjoy the beauty of the old city and stroll through the ancient markets. I did not need a headscarf as most women in Damascus weren’t wearing them, and nobody as much as mentioned the “Islamists”.

The city was tense, however. Syria’s notorious secret services, known generically as mukhabarat, were everywhere, and you could feel their inquiring gaze the moment you stepped off the tourist trail. My colleague arrived, and we started setting up meetings with human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists in an attempt to understand what was happening in the country.

I was smiling as they gave us instructions worthy of a spy movie: “Come to the bus stop… There’ll be a man in a grey suit with a rolled-up paper in his hand… Don’t approach, keep walking. He’ll catch up with you… Jump into the green taxi – it’s our driver… Delete the numbers from your mobile…”

They were careful, but exceptionally brave, and full of hope. They genuinely believed then that, in a matter of months, the ruthless, authoritarian government that had ruled Syria for decades would fall, just like Egypt’s and Tunisia’s did. They had high hopes of building a new country, a new society, governed by democratic values and the rule of law.

In addition to long-time activists and those who experienced the state’s brutality first-hand, it was equally encouraging to meet young people, many of whom gave up well-paid jobs and relative comfort to support the uprising. They provided legal services to those arrested; they bought mobile phones and cameras for Dera’a protesters and helped them disseminate the footage of security forces’ crackdown; they drove us around and acted as our fixers, but refused payment.

These memories now bring tears to my eyes. Every single activist, every person who worked with us during this trip has since been arrested, disappeared, killed, or had to leave the country. We failed them. We failed Syria, having allowed the country to get torn apart between pro-Assad forces and radical groups, leaving no space for an opposition promoting rights-based reforms that started emerging from the shadows in early 2011.

During this first trip to Damascus, its suburbs, Homs, and several towns along the coast, we started documenting the Syrian security forces’ crimes – killings of peaceful protesters, executions of detainees, mass arbitrary arrests, and rampant torture. There were almost no foreign journalists in Syria at the time, and we felt that if only we could publicize quickly this spree of abuses, the international community would mobilize and act before the situation got out of control.

In the following months, as the crackdown intensified, as refugees started fleeing into the neighbouring countries, and as we got access to dozens of soldiers and officers who defected from Syria’s armed forces and mukhabarat, we collected ample evidence showing that violations committed by government forces amounted to crimes against humanity, and specifically named military commanders and security service officials who gave direct orders to commit them or were otherwise responsible.

All the major media outlets covered our findings. Virtually nobody who opened a paper, switched on a TV or radio, or browsed the internet at that time, could escape this information. In Washington, Paris, London, Geneva, Moscow, Tokyo, and other capitals around the world my colleagues and I spent hours talking to officials about the situation in Syria, and the dangers of inaction. I personally met with the majority of country delegations to the UN in New York.

Every diplomat, every foreign policy official knew what was going on.
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Every diplomat, every foreign policy official knew what was going on.

In 2012, the so-called Free Syrian Army, formed by military defectors and ordinary Syrians who no longer believed peaceful means would lead to change, took control over parts of the border in northern Syria. We started documenting abuses committed by both sides in what had by then morphed into a full-scale armed conflict. Government forces destroyed neighbourhoods with artillery, and conducted sweep operations in villages and towns, detaining, torturing, and executing hundreds of people. The fate or whereabouts of many more remain unknown to this day. The opposition was also responsible for abuses in their newly-established detention facilities, and for a number of summary killings of those they suspected of being government sympathizers.

But in mid-2012 there were still no bearded men in black uniforms and black bandanas in the streets of Idlib or Aleppo. Scores of journalists crossed into northern Syria, without any fear of being abducted by radical Islamist groups. Our interlocutors from the Free Syrian Army, retired or defected colonels, many of them trained in the former Soviet Union, sneered when we asked about the small Jabhat al-Nusra groups that at that time started emerging in the mountains. “These savages won’t get a warm welcome here,” they would say.

The air bombardments changed everything. I remember how in August 2012, together with Aleppo residents, we hid in the basements, in horror and disbelief. We listened to the whooshing sounds of planes approaching, and then the terrifying thunder of the falling bombs. When we emerged in the aftermath, entire apartment blocks had been razed to the ground, clouds of dust swirled around, and body parts could be seen amid the random household items scattered about. We rushed to photograph, to film, to interview amidst this mayhem, again hoping against all odds that these images, the evidence of the government’s ruthless attacks on hospitals, bakeries, homes, the large-scale murder of its own people, would be enough for world leaders to remember their “never again” pledge.

It was not. And neither were the chemical attacks where all the evidence pointed to government forces being responsible. Assad and his forces continued to get away with murder, shielded, on the one hand, by the support of their Russian benefactors and, on the other, by the utter lack of resolve among the other Security Council members.

And then it was too late. As we returned to Syria later that year, I could barely recognize the familiar places. Large parts of Aleppo and the countryside were essentially taken over, first by Jabhat al-Nusra, and then the armed group calling itself the Islamic State.
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And then it was too late. As we returned to Syria later that year, I could barely recognize the familiar places. Large parts of Aleppo and the countryside were essentially taken over, first by Jabhat al-Nusra, and then the armed group calling itself the Islamic State. They took over territory, established rule based on a radical interpretation of Shari’a, organized public flogging, amputations and “executions, kidnapped and killed foreign journalists and aid workers. The Free Syrian Army and other opposition fighters in Aleppo tried to fight back, but in time largely surrendered to the well-financed force that was becoming increasingly powerful.

During my last trip, in 2013, I sat down for tea with an old friend,

People waited, and waited, and waited, for the West to pay attention to our fate. We waved olive branches, and got shot at, and nobody said a word. We tried to resist, to protect ourselves, and got labelled terrorists. Now tens of thousands have been killed, millions fled, and there is still no reaction. What could be a more fruitful ground for the Islamists to come and take over?
Mazen, an agricultural engineer-turned protest leader from Idlib.

They don’t even bother with propaganda – people genuinely believe they are the only hope, because nobody else is willing to help us against the regime. And you cannot come back any more. They will kill you and we won’t be able to protect. You’ve showed the world for three years in a row what was going on here. And they made the choice to look the other way.”

I left Syria and did not go back – in part, because the risk of being kidnapped by Islamic State fighters has become unmanageable, and in part, because Mazen was right – I did not see what else we could do to stop the bloodshed. Everyone in a position of power around the world knew full well what was happening in Syria. But by now, the world seemed united in its resolve to crush the Islamic State while comfortably forgetting that in some areas of Syria this has played into the hands of government forces whose record of atrocities was abysmal.

I will not repeat here all of the reasons or excuses – strategic, geo-political, economic, military and other – that prevented various international players from acting more decisively on Syria. Because by now I am convinced that nothing, simply nothing, can justify inaction in the face of such atrocities. I refuse to offer any comfort to the conscience of those who not only allowed the never-ending slaughter of civilians, but also moved the entire region closer to a precipice.

*Anna Neistat conducted research in Syria in her capacity as emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch

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