Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian security forces have killed more than 4,000 protesters, injured many more, and arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands across the country, subjecting many of them to torture in detention. These abuses, extensively documented by Human Rights Watch based on statements of hundreds of victims and witnesses, were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population and thus constitute crimes against humanity.
This report focuses on the individual and command responsibility of Syrian military commanders and intelligence officials for these crimes. It is based on interviews with 63 defectors both from the army and from the intelligence agencies, generally known as the mukhabarat. These defectors shared with Human Rights Watch detailed information about their units’ participation in violations and the orders they received from commanders at different levels. The defectors provided information on violations that occurred in seven of Syria’s fourteen governorates: Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Tartous, Deir al-Zor, and Hama.
Human Rights Watch interviewed all of the defectors separately and at length. Violations described in this report are those that were described separately by several defectors and with sufficient detail to convince the researcher that the interviewees had first-hand knowledge of the incidents in question. Several accounts have been excluded because interviewees did not provide such detail.
The statements of soldiers and officers who defected from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies leave no doubt that the abuses were committed in pursuance of state policy and that they were directly ordered, authorized, or condoned at the highest levels of Syrian military and civilian leadership.
Human Rights Watch’s findings show that military commanders and officials in the intelligence agencies gave both direct and standing orders to use lethal force against the protesters (at least 20 such cases are documented in detail in this report) as well as to unlawfully arrest, beat, and torture the detainees. In addition, senior military commanders and high-ranking officials, including President Bashar al-Assad and the heads of the intelligence agencies, bear command responsibility for violations committed by their subordinates to the extent that they knew or should have known of the abuses but failed to take action to stop them.
Syrian authorities repeatedly claimed that the violence in the country has been perpetrated by armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad. Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents in which demonstrators and armed neighborhood groups have resorted to violence. Since September, armed attacks on security forces have significantly increased, with the Free Syrian Army, a self-declared opposition armed group with some senior members in Turkey, taking responsibility for many of them. Syrian authorities have claimed that more than 1,100 members of the security forces have been killed since the beginning of the anti-government protests in mid-March.
However, despite the increased number of attacks by defectors and neighborhood defense groups, witness statements and corroborating information indicate that the majority of protests that Human Rights Watch has been able to document since the uprising began in March have been largely peaceful. The information provided for this report by defectors, who were deployed to suppress the protests, supports that assessment and underlines the lengths to which the authorities have gone to misrepresent the protesters as “armed gangs” and “terrorists.” But there is a risk—as seen in hard hit places like the city of Homs—that bigger segments of the protest movement will arm themselves in response to attacks by security forces or pro-government militias, known as shabeeha.
Considering the evidence that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria, the pervasive climate of impunity for security forces and pro-government militias, and the grave nature of many of their abuses, Human Rights Watch believes that the United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Crimes against humanity are considered crimes triggering universal jurisdiction under international customary law (meaning that national courts of third states could investigate and prosecute them even if they were committed abroad, by foreigners and against foreigners). All states are responsible for bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity.
All of the 63 defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that their commanders gave them standing orders to stop the protests “by all means necessary” during regular briefings and prior to deployment. The defectors said that, even when it was not specified, they universally understood the phrase “by all means necessary” as an authorization to use lethal force, especially given the provision of live ammunition as opposed to other means of crowd control. For example:
About half of the defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the commanders of their units or other officers gave direct orders to open fire at protesters or bystanders, and, in some cases, participated in the killings themselves. According to the defectors, the protesters were not armed and did not present a significant threat to the security forces at the time. For example:
Human Rights Watch collected extensive information about the participation of specific military units and intelligence agencies in attacks against the protesters in different cities and large-scale military operations that resulted in killings, mass arrests, torture, and other violations. The appendix to this report contains information on the structure of the units, locations where they were deployed, violations in which they were allegedly involved, and, wherever this information was available, the names of their commanders or officials in charge.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented and publicized widespread killings of protesters across the country, based on the statements of hundreds of protesters, victims of abuses, and witnesses. Evidence collected from defectors for this report corroborates some of these previously documented incidents. Several defectors who participated in the April 25 military operation in Daraa, for example, confirmed killings documented by Human Rights Watch in the June 2011 report, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror.”
The exact number of those killed is difficult to verify given the government-imposed restrictions on independent reporting inside Syria, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has put the figure at more than 4,000 as of December 2, 2011, while the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a monitoring group working in coordination with the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of Syrian activists, has compiled a list of 3,934 civilian deaths as of December 3, 2011. The Syrian government has stated that more than 1,100 members of the security forces have been killed.
According to information collected by Human Rights Watch, the Syrian security forces have conducted a massive campaign of arbitrary arrests and torture of detainees across Syria since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011. Information provided by the defectors, many of whom personally participated in arrests and ill-treatment, further corroborates these findings.
The defectors described large-scale, arbitrary arrests during protests and at checkpoints, as well as “sweep” operations in residential neighborhoods across the country. Most of the arrests appear to have been conducted by the intelligence agencies, while the military provided support during the arrest and transportation of detainees.
The number of people arrested since the beginning of the protests is impossible to verify. As of December 3, 2011, the VDC had documented almost 15,500 arrests. The real number is likely much higher.
Information from the defectors about sweep operations in which they participated lends support to allegations of a massive campaign of arbitrary arrests. Multiple examples cited in the report show that the security services routinely arrested hundreds, if not thousands, of detainees, including many children, following the protests and after they took control of different towns. For example:
According to the defectors, arrests were routinely accompanied by beatings and other ill-treatment, which commanders ordered, authorized, or condoned. Those who worked in or had access to detention facilities told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed or participated in the torture of detainees.
The defectors from both the military and the intelligence agencies who were involved in the arrest operations said that they beat detainees during their arrest and transportation to the detention facilities almost without exception. They cited specific orders they received from their commanders in this respect.
While most of the defectors interviewed said they were only involved in transporting the detainees to various detention facilities, a few, mainly those who served in intelligence agencies, said they had first-hand knowledge of the situation inside the facilities. Their statements confirm the widespread use of torture in detention previously documented by Human Rights Watch and provide additional details on the intelligence officials in charge.
One of the most worrisome features of the intensifying crackdown on protesters in Syria has been the growing number of custodial deaths since the beginning of July. Local activists have reported more than 197 such deaths as of November 15, 2011. Two defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch shared information about the summary execution of detainees or deaths from torture in detention in two areas: Douma, and Bukamal. A lieutenant colonel who served in the Presidential Guard said that he witnessed a summary execution of a detainee at a checkpoint in Douma around August 7, 2011. A defector who had been posted in the eastern town of Bukamal, by the Iraqi border, said that he saw 17 bodies of anti-government activists including a number that had surrendered to an intelligence agency several days earlier.
Defectors also provided further information about the denial of medical assistance to wounded protesters, the use of ambulances to arrest the injured, and the mistreatment of injured individuals in hospitals controlled by intelligence agencies and the military, a disturbing pattern that Human Rights Watch and other organizations have previously documented.
Several examples cited by the defectors strongly suggest that these violations were ordered, authorized, or condoned by commanders rather than committed at the initiative of individual members of the armed forces or intelligence agencies. According to the defectors, security forces brought some of the wounded protesters directly to the detention facilities where they mistreated them.
They said that injured protesters who were brought to the military, or military-controlled, hospitals were also subjected to mistreatment and beatings by intelligence agents and hospital staff. Those whose wounds were serious and did not allow for immediate transportation were held in temporary detention facilities on hospital premises before being transferred to other places of detention.
Given the widespread nature of killings and other crimes committed in Syria, scores of statements from defectors about their orders to shoot and abuse protesters, and the extensive publication of these abuses by the media and international organizations, it is reasonable to conclude that the senior military and civilian leadership knew or should have known about them. The Syrian military and civilian leadership also clearly have failed to take any meaningful action to investigate and stop these abuses. Under international law, they would thus be responsible for violations committed by their subordinates.
With regards to President Bashar al-Assad, who is the commander-in-chief of the Syrian armed forces, and his close associates, including the heads of intelligence agencies and the military leadership, Human Rights Watch has collected additional information that strongly indicates their direct knowledge and involvement in the violent crackdown on protesters.
Human Rights Watch believes that, in addition to military and intelligence officers mentioned in connection with specific incidents in this report, these commanders, including the highest-ranking officers and heads of intelligence agencies, should be investigated on the grounds of their command responsibility for violations committed by units under their control. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, criminal liability applies to both those who physically commit the crimes and to senior officials, including those who give the orders and those in a position of command who should have been aware of the abuses but failed to prevent them or to report or prosecute those responsible.
The consequences for disobeying orders and challenging government claims about the protests have been severe. Eight defectors told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed officers or intelligence agents killing military personnel who refused to follow orders. Three defectors told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had detained them because they refused to follow orders or challenged government claims. At least two said that security forces beat and tortured them. Other defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that security forces detained and tortured them for participating in protests during leave or before they started their military service.
The defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that security forces detained them for relatively short terms in detention centers on their base or in nearby detention facilities. According to witnesses other defectors were sent to the notorious Tadmor military prison in Homs governorate.
A prison guard from Tadmor told Human Rights Watch that by the time he defected in August the prison housed about 2,500 prisoners. While the prisoners initially included only military personnel, the prison started receiving a growing number of detained protesters and defectors after protests erupted in March. He told Human Rights Watch that security forces there beat and tortured all prisoners, but gave defectors particularly harsh treatment.
One defector said that security forces arrested a close relative to force him to return to his unit.
Virtually all defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they were convinced that officers or intelligence agents would kill them if they refused to follow orders. In standard operations to suppress protests, they said that conscript soldiers from the army or intelligence agencies lined up in front, while officers and intelligence agents stayed behind, giving orders and making sure that they followed orders. On several occasions, officers and intelligence agents explicitly threatened to kill soldiers if they did not follow orders.
Most of the defectors said that they tried to evade orders by aiming at protesters’ feet, or firing in the air, but in some cases felt that they had to shoot at the protesters or commit other abuses because they thought that they would themselves be killed otherwise. A few took up arms against intelligence agents and officers who ordered the killings, and many said they defected when they realized that their commanders were ordering them to shoot at unarmed protesters as opposed to the “armed gangs” that they had been told to expect.
The Syrian government’s response to credible accusations of human rights violations has been inadequate and has fostered a climate of impunity, including for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any public information about specific investigations or prosecutions related to violations described in this report.
While many states have condemned Syria’s use of violence and some have followed those words with actions aimed at pushing the Syrian government to change course, the international community has been slow to take collective action.
Considering the evidence that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria, the pervasive climate of impunity for security forces and pro-government militias, and the grave nature of many of their abuses, Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court—the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for the crimes committed and offering accountability to the Syrian people. The Security Council should also require states to suspend all military sales and assistance to the Syrian government and adopt targeted sanctions on officials credibly implicated in the ongoing grave, widespread, and systematic violations of international human rights law. Human Rights Watch also calls on all states, in accordance with their national laws, to bring to justice under the principle of universal jurisdiction those who have committed crimes against humanity.