When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a rare interview recently that killings of protesters in his country did not reflect government policy and were mere “mistakes committed by some officials,” he was not telling the truth. Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 60 defectors from the Syrian armed forces and intelligence agencies and found that senior commanders and officials systematically ordered, authorized and condoned the killings. We were able to identify by name 74 officials implicated in the abuses.
Assad's denial came amid growing international criticism of the Syrian government’s nine-month-old violent crackdown on protesters. In the last month, the League of Arab States has increased its pressure on Assad, adding its voice to those of the US, EU and others who have condemned the regime’s brutality. At the same time, attacks against government forces have also increased, significantly raising the fear of civil war in Syria.
Since the anti-government protests erupted in Syria in March, we have interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses. They have consistently told us that Syrian security forces have shot at unarmed protesters, denied medical assistance to injured people, and arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands of people across the country, subjecting many of them to torture in detention.
The defectors we interviewed corroborated these allegations and more.
As soon as protests broke out, the Syrian government immediately took measures to ensure that soldiers would follow officers’ orders for a violent crackdown on protesters. Soldiers serving all over the country told us that their officers immediately confiscated cell-phones, banned TV other than pro-government channels, cut back on leave, and repeatedly fed the soldiers accounts of foreign-sponsored armed gangs and terrorists wanting to destroy Syria. “We believed them,” one 20-year-old defector told me. “We were so scared that even birds and butterflies set off shooting.” Some who refused the orders were gunned down.
The former soldiers said that their officers gave them standing orders to stop the protests “by all means necessary,” orders that they understood to include the use of lethal force, particularly since they were issued live ammunition. “Mansour,” a former member of Air Force Intelligence, told us that in April the commander in charge of Air Force Intelligence in Daraa, Colonel Qusay Mihoub, gave his unit orders to “stop the protesters by all possible means.”
“It was a broad order that shooting was allowed,” he said. “When officers were present, they would decide when and whom to shoot. If somebody carried a microphone or a sign, or if demonstrators refused to retreat, we would shoot.”
For many of the troops, it was only when the officers gave them orders to fire directly at the crowd that reality clashed with the accounts they had been getting from the government. “We were so confused,” a former special forces soldier told me. “Who should we shoot at? They were all unarmed.”
Some of the defectors reacted by throwing away their weapons and making a run for it. Others aimed above the protesters’ heads or to the ground.
But the repercussions for those who refused to obey orders were severe. Three defectors told us that they had been detained and mistreated, and one soldier said his brother was taken hostage when the soldier defected to force him to return to his unit. But most disturbingly, eight defectors told us that they saw officers and intelligence agents open fire on soldiers who disobeyed orders.
In one of these cases, “Habib,” a conscript soldier from the 65th Brigade, 3rd Division, told Human Rights Watch that a soldier from his battalion was killed around April 14 for not following orders of Colonel Mohammed Khader, the battalion commander, to shoot at protesters in Douma.
“The soldiers were in front and Colonel Khader and the security agents were standing right behind us,” he said. “Yusuf Musa Krad, a 21-year-old conscript from Daraa, was standing right next to me. At some point the colonel noticed that Yusuf was only shooting in the air. [A security agent] called a sniper on the roof, pointed at Yusuf, and the sniper then shot Yusuf twice in the head. Security agents took Yusuf’s body away. The next day we saw Yusuf’s body on TV. They said that he had been killed by terrorists.”
Out of concern for the defectors and their families, we have chosen to keep the defectors’ names and the locations of the interviews confidential.
The defectors’ interviews are crucial for understanding what is going on in Syria. They provide unique insights into how the security forces operate and how they are structured. They also show that many soldiers and officers are disgusted by the violent crackdown, but that they are afraid that they will be killed if they refuse orders. Most important, the interviews dispel any notion that the killings were accidental excesses of a few officers. Consistent descriptions of numerous officers giving similar orders to different military units all over Syria at different times leave no doubt that the violent crackdown was widespread and systematic and part of government policy and that they therefore constitute crimes against humanity.
Those who gave orders to fire at unarmed protesters should be investigated and prosecuted. Obeying orders to commit crimes against humanity is no defense, although for some, the imminent and real threat to their lives if they disobeyed might be a mitigating factor.
But responsibility for the abuses goes all the way up. We don’t know yet whether President al-Assad ordered the crackdown personally. But as the commander-in-chief of all security forces in Syria he bears legal command responsibility for what his troops are doing to the extent that he knew or should have known about the abuses and failed to take meaningful steps to prevent them. The same goes for his close circle of associates in positions of command, including the heads of intelligence agencies and military units involved in abuses.
Given the extensive reporting on the abuses by media, by a Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council, and by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, it will be hard for the top leadership to claim that they didn’t know about these abuses. The continued abuse shows that the Syrian leadership has failed to take appropriate measures.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the Security Council this week that security forces have killed close to 5,000 people during Syria’s nine-month-long attempt to quell protests. That would mean that security forces have killed more than 2,000 people since Russia and China vetoed Security Council action in October. To end these killings Russia and China need to hold their vetoes and allow the Security Council to take immediate and strong action, including by referring Syria to the ICC. Another failure to act would be a disgrace.