Syrians seek justice for war atrocities 11 years after uprising

Over the past decade, Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war has been littered with grave human rights violations that rights groups say could amount to war crimes.

Amjad Al-Malah, holding his daughter, survived years of siege in Madaya with little food and medicine
Amjad al-Malah, holding his daughter, survived years of siege in Madaya with little food and medicine [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Amjad al-Malah, 32, and his family were finally able to flee the besieged city of Madaya five years ago and headed to northwestern Syria.

His voice trembles as he recalls those two years, cut off from adequate food and medicine by Syrian government forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.

“We lived years in cold, hunger, and death. People had to smuggle vegetables, but many died after stepping on landmines or getting shot by snipers,” the self-described civic and media activist who now lives in Afrin, tells Al Jazeera.

“A kilogramme [two pounds] of rice or cracked wheat cost $250. It was torment.”

Aid workers, who rarely were permitted to enter besieged areas, described scenes of severe malnutrition and hunger.

In 2017, opposition and government forces reached an agreement to end the siege of Madaya and three other towns. Al-Malah said he and other families left with just the clothes on their back and lived off humanitarian assistance in tented settlements. He, and others, feel the perpetrators were rewarded for what they describe as the “deliberate starvation” of civilians and forcefully displacing them.

100,000 disappeared

Over the past decade, Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war has been littered with grave human rights violations that rights groups say could amount to war crimes.

The fighting has subsided in many parts of the war-torn country, but millions of Syrians tormented by forced displacement, torture, and the disappearance of their loved ones still wait for any semblance of justice.

Noura Ghazi, founder of Nophotozone, a nongovernmental organisation that advocates for and provides legal support to Syrian detainees and their families, says many families are losing hope.

“The world’s priorities have changed, and Syria has been left aside,” Ghazi tells Al Jazeera. “But, as families, we are trying to find our way forward.”

Ghazi, a human rights lawyer and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said Syrian authorities arrested her husband – Palestinian-Syrian activist and free-speech advocate Bassel Khartabil in 2012 – and transferred him to an undisclosed location in 2015.

In 2017, Ghazi and family members saw official documents that said Khartabil had been executed. Many families in Syria have been told of the deaths of their loved ones in detention but have not been able to retrieve their bodies.

At least 100,000 Syrians were forcibly disappeared, mostly at the hands of government forces, but advocacy groups such as Families for Freedom estimate the number is likely far higher.

Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar paints murals and banners in the northwestern city of Binnish ahead of protests to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the Syrian uprising.
Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar paints a mural in the northwestern city of Binnish ahead of protests to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the Syrian uprising [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

March 15, 2011

Eleven years ago, the arrest and torture of a group of teenaged boys in the city of Deraa after denouncing President Bashar al-Assad sparked protests across Syria, demanding democratic reform and the release of political prisoners.

The Syrian government responded with a brutal crackdown, and military defectors formed the Free Syria Army soon after, turning the uprising into an all-out civil war and paving the way for the emergence of armed groups and foreign proxies.

An estimated 500,000 people have been killed during the past 11 years, and millions were forced to flee the country. About 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Al-Assad remains entrenched in power with Russian and Iranian military support.

However, two court cases in Germany last January may mark a break in the pattern of impunity.

A court in the small German town of Koblenz sentenced former Syrian colonel, Anwar Reslan, to life in prison last January, finding him guilty of some 4,000 torture cases, including sexual assault, while he was in charge of Syria’s ruthless Branch 251 in Damascus.

That same week, the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt am Main began trying a Syrian doctor identified as Alaa M, who is charged with 18 counts of torture of detainees and one count of murder while working as a physician at a military prison in 2011 and 2012.

The following month, human rights lawyers from US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and UK barrister Haydee Dijkstal filed a communication with the International Criminal Court (ICC) targeting Syrian and – for the first time – Iranian officials accused of crimes in Syria.

“What our submission brought together was evidence and information about actions not only taken by the Syrian government and its associated militia groups, but also those militia groups associated with Iran, either directly or backed by Iran, and what actions forced civilians to flee into Jordan,” Dijkstal tells Al Jazeera. “We’re looking at cases like bombings, extrajudicial killings, beatings and abuse, arbitrary detention, rapes.”

Syrian and Russian airstrikes in Idlib province have destroyed hospitals
Syrian and Russian air raids in Idlib have destroyed hospitals, farms, and much of the impoverished province’s infrastructure [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Role of Iran

Though the ICC does not have jurisdiction over Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, or Iraq, it does over Jordan, where the lawyers collected evidence from Syrian refugees there. This move was inspired by a 2018 case in which the ICC concluded it had jurisdiction over the Rohingya people after they were forcefully displaced to Bangladesh, a member of the ICC, from Myanmar.

“The role of Iran is interesting because the Iranian state has always claimed that the only reason they’re in Syria is to fight ISIS [ISIL] and to ensure ISIS does not make its way across the region,” Gissou Nia, a lawyer, on the team, tells Al Jazeera.

“That’s obviously not the case if you look at the facts because the Iranian state has had a presence in terms of training folks in the Assad regime on repression of protests and these sorts of techniques since 2011 – clearly that predates the issue of ISIS.”

Omar al-Alawi, 33, fled southern Aleppo province in 2015 as the Syrian Army, backed by Russian air power and an Iran-backed armed group, moved in.

“When you see those militias approach you, and the tanks overtaking the hill that overlooked us, it was just such a horrifying moment that could not be described with words.” His nephew, an opposition fighter killed in action, told him moments before his death that among those entering the area were fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi paramilitary group Harakat al-Nujaba.

Already recovering from a fracture with seven metal implants in his right leg, al-Alawi got some clothes, bedding, essentials, and fled. He thought he would be back soon. Instead, he lost the house he built and the agricultural land he worked on. He would ask people in nearby areas to check on the house and see what happened around it.

Three months ago, he received shocking news.

“Some people in the area took a picture of my house and sent it to me. There was a Hezbollah flag on top of it,” he said, seething. “They, the Iranians, and their militias control the gas station and the agricultural lands. It’s their property now.”

Not only has al-Alawi lost his livelihood but he is now living the most difficult circumstances in Syria’s northwest, where the UN says the vast majority of people are in extreme poverty.

Children play table football in a building in southern Idlib province that was destroyed by airstrikes.
Children in southern Idlib play foosball in a building that was destroyed by air raids [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

‘A divided country’

Al-Malah says the uprising needs to be reinvigorated, especially because accountability and justice were always at its core.

“The goals of the revolution were spoiled by the actions of the regime and the emergence of weapons on the other side,” he says. “We hope, after this experience, we realise that violence only breeds more violence.”

But 11 years since protests swept the country, Ghazi says there can be no accountability without political change, and she blames the lack of “international political will”.

“In the end, the regime stayed and we have various forces which are not all that different than the regime. It’s a divided country with different flags on one land,” she says. “We’re still displaced, still wanted, and we still don’t know what happened to those we lost.”

The international community has struggled and has so far failed to implement a transition plan, which includes the drafting of a new constitution.

Meanwhile, President al-Assad held elections last May and won 95 percent of the vote, which critics and Western countries criticised for violating the transition plan.

Children in the Syrian village of Baluon return to school after government forces shelling
Children in the Syrian village of Baluon return to school despite shelling by government forces [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Ghazi says there can be no justice without political reform and viable remedies for millions of internally displaced people and refugees.

“It doesn’t mean I’m against those court cases. I really praise my colleagues for this step forward,” she explains. “But I fear justice in Syria will be equated to just those few court cases in Germany.”

Kareem Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon. Ali Haj Suleiman reported from northwestern Syria

Source: Al Jazeera