Uncovering Human Rights Abuses in Syria

Q&A with Amnesty International’s Research Director Anna Neistat for Syria Deeply on her undercover human rights work in Syria over the past four years, and her thoughts on the future of the conflict

Growing up in Moscow in the 1980s and raised by parents whom she describes as “quiet dissidents,” Anna Neistat was made aware at an early age of the dangers posed by authoritarian states. Her upbringing, and subsequent study and practice of law, convinced her that change is possible, no matter the circumstances, and that it was something of which she could be a part.

As part of Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team, Dr. Neistat spent three years working on the ground in Syria, first on official visits, and later on, via unofficial, dangerously secretive cross-border trips.

The team’s journeys across the border, fieldwork and attempts to uncover concrete details amidst the chaos were detailed by a group of filmmakers who, last year, published an award-winning documentary film entitled E-TEAM.

The documentary was given rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and was quickly snatched up by online media giant Netflix, but its end credits give viewers a chilling reminder of the dangers inherent within such work: James Foley, who worked as one of the film’s cameramen, disappeared shortly after the team finished up filming. Foley, who worked as a freelance journalist primarily for Agence France-Presse and the Global Post, was kidnapped in November 2012 by a group whose identity was at first unclear – that is, until a now infamous video surfaced on August 19, 2014. He was the first American citizen to be beheaded by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

Having recently joined Amnesty International as the new senior director of research, Dr. Neistat sat down with Syria Deeply to discuss her undercover human rights work in Syria over the past four years, the various phases of the conflict, the west’s current hyper-focus on ISIS and the future of the crisis as she sees it.

Syria Deeply: What is the idea behind HRW’s E-TEAM?

Dr. Anna Neistat: Well, as you probably know, I now work for Amnesty International and we just finished creating a very similar team called the Crisis Response Team, and the idea behind both is a slightly different approach to traditional human rights work. You don’t take months and months to conduct a lengthy investigation, and then process and publish, and eventually do advocacy. This new approach is helpful when you’re trying to do human rights work in real time – it’s mainly applicable to situations of armed conflict, although not necessarily.

Right now, both teams – at HRW and at Amnesty – are focusing quite a lot on the refugee crisis, which is slightly different, but is nonetheless a situation that requires a very rapid type of response. It still involves all of the traditional elements of human rights work. We still conduct the investigations, we question witnesses, we use satellite technology, we use other means of collecting evidence, but all of that is happening very quickly and, most importantly, we publicize this information virtually in real time using social media, using on-sight video production – a lot of multimedia – and also conducting advocacy on the spot, meaning we pick up the phone and call the relevant embassy or U.N. agency to try to enact change, be it bringing the perpetrators to justice or bringing them to the attention of relevant tribunals or protecting the victims from being pushed into harm’s way – it can obviously be very different in each case – but trying to get people out of situations that endanger their lives and freedom. So it’s in some ways complementary to the traditional human rights work that both organizations continue to do, but I do think that it did change the game of human rights a little bit, and it is quite exciting to be part of this.

Syria Deeply: So do you feel like this fast-paced, on-the-ground type of human rights work is more effective in effecting actual change on the ground?

Dr. Neistat: In some situations, but it depends on the issue you’re working on. I mean if you’re working on a corporate responsibility case against Shell on pollution in Nigeria, it’s not something you can achieve in a matter of hours or days. It usually means very lengthy and very detailed investigations with lots of mitigation involved and lots of analysis – this is something that takes months. If you’re fighting juvenile detention without parole in the United States, for example, it’s something that may take years and years to accomplish. So I think there is room for both and it really depends on the situation, but if you’re working and you know that refugees are about to be sent back to the countries from which they are fleeing and you’re standing there on the border trying to prevent it, then you do not have the luxury of time; you really have to both document what’s happening, analyze it from a legal perspective, make a valid legal argument and advocate it all at the same time. So there are situations where this type of work is pretty much the only thing that can help you to protect the people that need protection.

Syria Deeply: Absolutely. So now I would like to transition over to the work you did in Syria. Can you tell us briefly about your work as the Associate Director for Programs and Emergencies at Human Rights Watch?

Dr. Neistat: I started working in Syria at a time when very few human rights workers were working there. It was at the very beginning of the uprising, in the spring of 2011. And I remember, even we within the organization had doubts as to whether it was worth the investment of time and effort, given everything that was going on in the world. Because I don’t think anyone could predict back then that it would turn into what it is right now.

I first went there in April 2011 after the first uprisings, and protests started in Daraa, but had already spread to Homs and Damascus and a few other areas. It was a strange trip. I was able to get to Damascus. I was able to get to Homs. There were still tourists staying in the same hotels as us. Together with my colleague, we focused on the excessive use of force by Assad’s security forces at the protests, but also detentions and torture. We managed to document and publicize quite a few cases from Douma outside of Damascus, where people had been detained and tortured following the protests.

We were also able to uncover a little more about what was going on in Daraa, although we couldn’t get there. We managed to bring witnesses from Daraa to Damascus and get their testimonies about what happened during the protests there. So that was kind of the first trip and the first focus of my work. Syria remained the main focus of my work for the next three years.

We did several trips to the borders – well there were lots of trips to the borders – but there was a time when we couldn’t get in for a while. We just couldn’t figure out the logistics and the security aspects. During this time, refugees began to pour over the borders so we went to Turkey and Jordan. There we focused on military defectors, trying to identify them – that was already when the conflict was heating up and there were signs of the Free Syrian Army, and we decided that we needed to follow the trail all the way to the perpetrators. It was a fascinating piece of work – one that I’m still very proud of, and I hope that sooner or later it will get to the right tribunal.

For this project, we interviewed military defectors in Turkey, most of whom had escaped to Jordan. There was a camp specifically for military defectors in Jordan, and we interviewed lots of them – corroborating their testimonies – and were able in the end to find specific military commanders responsible for the violations we had documented earlier. For example, we determined the commanders who gave orders to open fire on demonstrators, commanders who ran detention facilities where torture and other abuses were taking place, and we were able to name dozens and dozens of them. They ended up on the list of sanctions that the E.U. put together, and I do very much hope – this kind work usually doesn’t go wasted, even though it takes some time – but judging by what happened in Yugoslavia … now it looks like sooner or later, justice does find the perpetrators. So, you know, we do hold this file very close to our hearts and in a safe location.

Syria Deeply: So you are confident that some of the individuals you managed to identify will be prosecuted at some point in the future?

Dr. Neistat: Well, some of them are dead. At some point, they started being killed at a very alarming rate; so we began to worry that there’d be no one to prosecute. But some of them are still alive. We established very early on that responsibility goes to the very highest levels of government, including the president and his brother and others in his family who were in charge of various branches of the mukhabarat (secret police) and the military. So, I mean, confidence is probably a strong word, but my hope is strong enough that I’m not giving up on this work, let’s put it this way.

But look at Rwanda – it’s been dozens of years and every once in a while there is light at the end of the tunnel and another two generals or so are brought to justice. If I were the Syrian leadership, I would not sleep comfortably ever again because I do think that sooner or later, justice will find them, no matter how much they are relying on their Russian supporters, or Iranian or whoever else.

We also continued to document in Lebanon, where we did a fairly large research on the situation in Homs, but, you know, all of that was being done in addition to our endless pursuit of figuring out a way to get back into Syria. It was clear that we would not be able to get in officially, so it was already a much more difficult, covert situation.

Again, the first time we went through the border, unofficially, it was before the main flow of journalists started going in – in May 2012, I believe. We were going in from Turkey. You can see the first time we snuck in through the border on the E-TEAM documentary – the scenes that you see when we’re crawling over barbed wire at dawn. It was really unclear until the very last moment whether we would get the security clearance from our colleagues in New York, and whether we’d be able to put it in place on the ground … it was pretty tough.

And, you know, it’s also not so usual for human rights organizations to do something like that – not that we are particularly prudish, but you know, we’re trying not to ever break the law or do something that is particularly risky without having a good plan in mind. There were very few people doing that at the time.

I remember this trip very well – and with all the risk and danger and tragedy involved, there were also some moments that were almost funny because our smugglers were so unprofessional. The car was breaking down, the phones were going off as we were crossing the border – everything that can go wrong went wrong. But it was absolutely worth it because that was the exact time when Kofi Annan was trying to negotiate some kind of deal and it was very important for us to show what the Syrian government tried to do in the two weeks leading up to the negotiations. They really took advantage of this relative lull to launch a major offensive in the Idlib region. So we worked in five different towns, documenting attacks and killings, extrajudicial executions and torture, disappearances … it was really telling how cynical and brutal the regime’s actions were at that time.

This is a point in time about which I continually remind colleagues. Now all we’re talking about are the dangers of ISIS and other radical groups, but people tend to forget that they were simply not there at that time. These groups are largely a creation of the international community and the inability of the moderate opposition and the Free Syrian Army to find support from the West … from elsewhere. With every trip, we were looking into whether radical Islamist groups posed a real danger, and basically, they did not. At that time, you know, there was some chatter about small numbers of them up in the mountains, but they posed no real threat to anybody. And this is in 2012. We went back in August 2012 – a lot of the events portrayed in the film happened during this trip – and again, you can see that we were able to operate fairly easily. The border areas were still controlled by the Free Syrian Army. We had a couple of encounters with radical sheikhs (Islamic community leaders) in a few areas, but it was never anything serious. These radical groups did not present any sizeable force whatsoever. But then, when we went back in 2013, we already saw a very different picture.

Syria Deeply: Yes, this is a point I wanted to touch on. At what stage did you see the conflict begin to change into what it now is today?

Dr. Neistat: I can tell you exactly. It was the trip that we took in April 2013. By then, it was already a very different scene in Aleppo. The non-government-controlled part of the city was essentially divided between opposition forces affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and essentially the beginnings of what today is ISIS – then it was mostly members of the Nusra Front. There were parallel systems of justice. They each had their own courts. They each had their own checkpoints. It was really difficult to navigate, and the atmosphere was very different. You could just see how, suddenly, all women were wearing the veil in a city like Aleppo where that had never been a particularly common thing. More men started wearing longer beards and more traditional clothes. You could just sort of see how there was a sort of a creeping … change in the atmosphere. There was fear.

This is when we began to have serious complications in our work. Even though we had papers from the Free Syrian Army and an assortment of other groups, we felt much more threatened than before. Very soon afterward, it became almost impossible to go in because several journalists and humanitarian workers were kidnapped. Many of the crossings [along the border] that before had been available to journalists and observers started being controlled by ISIS, and that made our work very difficult.

Of course, we continued to monitor the situation and still do until this day, but we don’t have the same kind of presence or access. Amnesty’s team has just been to northern Syria about a month ago, working in the Kurdish areas, and they actually just put out a very good report on abuses by Kurdish forces.

Amnesty is also soon to come out with another report on disappearances, and that’s something that of course has been very high on the agenda ever since the beginning of the conflict. We’re talking about thousands of people who have been detained and now no one knows their whereabouts. Some of them are very prominent figures; others are regular men and women. But I’m glad we’re finally putting it together as a report and putting it on the agenda as a separate issue.

There is still quite a lot to be done, but it is becoming very difficult without access. Now of course, what is fanning the flames is the Russian involvement and that obviously is the source of huge concern. Human Rights Watch, my husband Ola included, have been following very closely the increased use of cluster munitions because Russians are using cluster bombs dropped from planes but also they seemed to have increased the overall use of cluster munitions through artillery – which of course presents a huge threat to the civilian population.

Syria Deeply: Where do you see the conflict going from here? And what are your greatest fears?

Dr. Neistat: Quite honestly, I don’t see any end in sight. Of course, the question is whether it will become a true proxy war between Russia and the U.S.-led coalition – I think that’s probably a stretch, but of course, it cannot be excluded. I think that what we’re seeing is, on the one hand, Russian strikes are helping to strengthen the government, and that’s what they’re there for, but it does not seem like the government is managing to gain territory from ISIS. My concern is that Russia’s participation will further weaken the moderate opposition, which is of course the only reasonable force to deal with in Syria these days. I’m extremely concerned that Russia is not using its political influence, which of course it could, to actually broker a political solution to the conflict. Of course, I don’t think that anyone would accept any political solution without accountability for the current leadership, but I think it would have been much more effective on Russia’s part and for the long-term view of the region to drop their support for a regime that has proven itself to be completely and entirely criminal, and which has lost any and all support other than a few marginalized forces in the region – like Iran and Hezbollah – and switch to finding a solution that includes other forces that could actually save Syria as a state and move it to its next stage. But it just doesn’t seem to be on Russia’s agenda at all, and I don’t know if it ever will be.

Of course, there is a much bigger political question as to what the involvement in Syria will mean for Russia itself. Whether it will become Russia’s new Afghanistan, which will, in the end, have a devastating effect on Russia and can change the whole game. But here, what are we talking about, a decade of ongoing bloodshed if the Afghanistan comparison works? So, that’s not an optimistic scenario either.

I’m not entirely sure why the coalition’s strikes on ISIS have been so unsuccessful thus far. I mean, part of it is just the nature of this type of operation, but part of it is maybe that they need to step up their game and combine it with real, rather than illusionary, support to the opposition. I think these latest revelations about the level of investment from the U.S. in the opposition have shown some pretty pathetic patterns, and again, it’s not clear why because I know that it is something that’s been on the cards for a very long time. It’s not like it’s a new thing for the U.S. It’s not their first time arming opposition forces in another country. And the Russians also know how to do that as well – and I think that’s where the cooperation should have gone on, but now I’m overstepping my human rights mandate.

This article was published with the support of Influence Team, a foundation supporting documentary filmmaking through investments, late-stage production grants and audience development. They dedicated the entire month of October to publicizing E-TEAM’s work. Log onto their website to read interviews with former E-TEAM investigators and co-directors of the film as well as other discussion material.

This article was first published by Syria Deeply