Syria Human Rights Human Rights - History

Syria Human Rights Human Rights - History

The government, opposition groups, the SDF, and ISIS continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the state’s widespread disregard for the safety and well-being of its citizens. This manifested itself in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, a breakdown in the ability of law enforcement authorities to protect the majority of citizens from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Reports indicated that the government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and detained persons on a wide scale. Attacks against schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, water stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, and houses were common throughout the country.

As of October there were more than 5.2 million Syrian refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.3 million IDPs. The government frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that more than 250,000 persons had died since the start of protests in 2011, but the office stopped recording this statistic in 2014. Media sources and human rights groups estimated up to 470,000 persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict, with estimates of more than 200,000 civilians killed.

In January media outlets widely reported that the government used “surrender or starve” tactics in hard-to-reach and besieged areas of the country. Soldiers surrounding besieged areas set up checkpoints to profit from the limited supply of goods, prices for which rose multiple times in besieged areas. The COI stated that the use of siege warfare “has affected civilians more tragically than any other tactic employed by warring parties in the conflict.” In November in a report called, “We Leave or We Die: Forced Displacement Under Syria’s ‘Reconciliation’ Agreements,” AI reported that the government and its allies offered “reconciliation” agreements to communities “after prolonged sieges and bombardment” that led to “the mass displacement of civilians.” AI claimed some of the sieges amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report stated that some armed opposition groups also besieged populations, which in many cases amounted to war crimes. According to the United Nations, as of the end of September, nearly 420,000 Syrian men, women, and children countrywide remain trapped in besieged locations, with the government responsible for besieging approximately 95 percent.

Government forces, ISIS, and opposition forces reportedly attacked civilian institutions, including schools, hospitals (although the opposition attacked these less frequently), religious establishments, and bakeries.

Killings: The government reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).

Government killings and the use of lethal tactics reportedly increased in the beginning of the year but declined subsequently due to de-escalation agreements. The SNHR reported 8,802 civilian deaths from January through October. Government forces killed the plurality of civilians.

Reports from NGOs, including reports cited by the United Nations, indicated that summary killings of civilians took place in the city of Aleppo in December 2016 as government forces retook opposition-held areas. The COI reported that daily Syrian and Russian air strikes “claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed vital civilian infrastructure.” Reports also indicated that government and allied forces targeted members of first-responder groups and that men between the ages of 30 and 50 were either detained by the government or immediately conscripted into the army. Reports cited by the United Nations also indicated that armed rebel groups prevented some civilians from escaping.

Progovernment militias reportedly continued to carry out mass killings. According to the SNHR, government-affiliated sectarian militias perpetrated massacres in the cities of Homs and Aleppo.

The COI reported that in February the armed group Liwa al-Aqsa shot and killed or beheaded at least 128 armed group fighters it had detained near Khazanat Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. Later that month civilians in the area discovered two mass graves containing corpses of armed group fighters, including at least two of which had been minors.

Extremist and terrorist groups also reportedly committed a large number of abuses and violations. Multiple media outlets reported that ISIS shelled the al-Qusour neighborhood of Deir al-Zour in October, killing at least nine civilians, including five children. The COI reported that in January a fuel truck blast in Azaz believed to be carried out by ISIS killed at least 48 persons and injured another 60. The COI reported ISIS’s continued executions of those perceived to violate its strict religious rules, including the death penalty applied to women accused of adultery and men accused of sodomy. There were isolated allegations that the SDF tortured and in one case killed persons accused of affiliation with ISIS. A video available at the website of the SNHR shows three individuals shooting and apparently killing a handcuffed man. According to the SNHR, one of the shooters speaks to the camera and says this is the fate of anyone who stands in the way of the YPG or sides with ISIS. An SDF statement in July said the SDF would investigate the allegations and hold accountable those found responsible. There were reports suggesting that the SDF generally adheres to its responsibilities under the Law of Armed Conflict.

Abductions: The government was reportedly responsible for the majority of disappearances during the year. Armed extremist groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly kidnapped individuals, particularly in the northern areas, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists. In September the SNHR documented more than 85,000 persons still forcibly disappeared since March 2011, reporting that the government disappeared 90 percent of them.

According to reliable NGO reports, government forces as well as ISIS routinely kidnapped and detained aid providers and severely restricted humanitarian access to territories under their respective control. Activists reported aid workers in ISIS-controlled territory were at high risk of abduction or violence.

In 2014 ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as several Christians, and brought them to Syria for sale as sex slaves in markets or as rewards for ISIS fighters. Fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions. In interviews with the COI, the women described multiple rapes by several men, including incidents of gang rape. Numerous NGOs and activists also reported that ISIS fighters raped women in ISIS-held areas or forced them to marry ISIS fighters. Thousands of abducted girls and women, however, remained missing.

In June 2016 the COI issued a report called, “They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis” that concluded, “ISIS has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yezidis, thousands of whom are held captive in the Syrian Arab Republic where they are subjected to almost unimaginable horrors.”

The location and status of Khalil Arfu and Sukfan Amin Hamza from Derek, al-Hasakah Governorate, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party remained unknown. Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, kidnapped in 2013, remained unaccounted for at year’s end.

The COI reported that a dramatic rise in hostage taking, which was often sectarian in nature, triggered reprisals and fueled intercommunal tension. Opposition armed groups abducted civilians and members of government forces to enable prisoner exchanges and for ransom money to purchase weapons.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to reliable NGO reports, the government and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of both opposition fighters and civilians. Government agents allegedly targeted individuals with previous ties to foreign governments that favored the opposition; it also targeted family members and associates of such individuals. Government officials reportedly abused prisoners and detainees, as well as injured and sick persons, and raped women and men as a tactic of war. Activists reported that government detention centers did not provide medical care to women during pregnancy or birth. Additionally, according to the COI, the “Caesar photographs” smuggled out of the country in 2014 by a former government photographer documented the torture and severe malnourishment of more than 11,000 deceased detainees between 2011 and 2013.

AI’s research into the Sednaya military prison determined that the government executed thousands of detainees, mostly Sunni, held in Sednaya. The organization’s report stated that the government tried and sentenced Sednaya prisoners in one of two military field courts in the al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus. Prison staff transported detainees to and from court in trucks, where their trials lasted between one and three minutes. AI reported that judges used forced confessions obtained by subjecting prisoners to torture. Prisoners sentenced to death were subsequently transported to an execution room, where they were met by an execution panel that included the director of Sednaya, the military prosecutor of the Military Field Court, and a representative from the intelligence agencies.

According to the report, guards subsequently led blindfolded detainees onto platforms, where prison staff placed nooses around their necks and immediately hanged them. Prison staff left the executed detainees to hang for approximately 15 minutes. Then, AI reported, a doctor determined if any of the detainees exhibited signs of life. Prison assistants pulled downward those believed to be alive to break the necks of the detainees.

According to multiple sources, the government killed as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya. In May a foreign government released information indicating that the government probably installed a crematorium within the Sednaya military prison complex to provide the ability to dispose of prisoners with little evidence.

The SNHR, and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights reported that authorities forced prisoners to witness the rape of other prisoners, threatened them with the rape of family members (in particular female family members), forced them to undress, and insulted their beliefs. According to the COI, the government and affiliated militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations in Deir al-Zour, Dara’a, Hama, Damascus, and Tartus Governorates. Detention centers were the most common location for reported abuse, but attacks also occurred during military raids and at checkpoints. Reports included instances in which multiple attackers, usually soldiers and shabiha, gang-raped women in their homes, sometimes in front of family members. Observers believed sexual violence was widespread and underreported. The SNHR noted an increased use by authorities of sexual violence against women before granting permission to depart besieged areas or to return with medical supplies and food.

There were widespread reports that ISIS also engaged in abuses and brutality. According to the COI, ISIS increased brutal treatment of those it captured in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, and Aleppo Governorates. ISIS frequently punished victims publicly and forced residents, including children, to watch unlawful killings and amputations. Activists, NGOs, and media reported numerous accounts of women in ISIS-held territory facing arbitrary and severe punishments, including execution by stoning. ISIS also committed abuses systematically against captured Free Syrian Army (FSA) and YPG fighters. ISIS fighters reportedly beat captives (including with cables) during interrogations and killed those held in its detention centers in Raqqa and Aleppo Governorates. ISIS also beat persons because of their dress; several sources reported ISIS members beat women for not covering their faces. ISIS justified its use of corporal punishment, including amputations and lashings, under religious law.

The COI also reported in previous years that armed groups, under the banner of the FSA, tortured and executed suspected government agents, members of the shabiha, and collaborators. The COI noted that some opposition groups subjected detainees suspected of being members of progovernment militias to severe physical or mental pain and suffering to obtain information or confessions, or as punishment or coercion. The report also noted instances in which the HTS and ISIS arbitrarily detained and tortured individuals passing through checkpoints along the country’s northern border.

Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued recruitment and use of children in combat. The COI reported that progovernment militias enlisted children as young as 13. The COI reported the government sometimes paid children between the ages of six and 13 to be informants, exposing them to danger. In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys between 15 and 17 years old and served primarily in support roles away from the front lines.

HRW reported opposition forces used children under the age of 18 as fighters. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while ISIS and the HTS actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.” In Raqqa Governorate, according to the COI, ISIS recruited and enlisted children as young as 10 years old. In March the COI received a report that a 14-year-old boy approached an SDF recruitment center in Tal Abyad voluntarily, was accepted by authorities, and was killed in combat in the Raqqa countryside in early June. Several humanitarian organizations and NGOs working in areas recently liberated from ISIS by the SDF, as well as media organizations including Reuters, alleged that elements of the SDF and the YPG were engaged in forced conscription. There were reports that, in some areas, the SDF worked with tribes and local councils to negotiate approval of and voluntary compliance with local conscription laws in support of the fight against ISIS.

In September the international NGO Geneva Call reported it had conducted training for more than 100 SDF commanders, which included the law of armed conflict and the topic of children in armed conflict. The COI reported in 2014 that the YPG had demobilized child soldiers from its ranks and began monitoring adherence to its commitments to eliminate children from fighting. In March the COI reported that the YPG continued to conscript men and boys forcibly.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at

Other Conflict-related Abuses: The September COI report documented 25 incidents of chemical weapons use between 2013 and March, of which government forces perpetrated 20 primarily against civilians. The COI reported that during the year government forces further used chemical weapons against civilians in the towns of al-Latamneh and Khan Shaykhun and in eastern Ghouta.

The COI investigated the April 4 attack by government forces on Khan Shaykhun, which the COI determined involved the use of sarin gas or a sarin-like substance, that killed dozens of civilians and injured hundreds more. In addition to its own fact-finding mission, the COI took into account the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The COI reported that Russian and Syrian officials denied Syrian forces used chemical weapons in this incident, claiming that air strikes conducted by Syrian forces struck a terrorist chemical weapons depot.

The COI report stated that a Sukhoi 22 (Su-22) aircraft conducted four air strikes in Khan Shaykhun at approximately 6:45 a.m. Only Syrian forces operated such aircraft. The commission identified three conventional bombs and one chemical bomb. The COI documented that the chemical bomb killed at least 83 persons, including 28 children and 23 women, and injured another 293 persons, including 103 children. The extensive information independently collected by the commission on symptoms suffered by victims was consistent with sarin exposure. Based on the evidence and testimonies collected, the COI found reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces committed the war crimes of using chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks in a civilian inhabited area.

In its August 2016 report, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (established to attribute responsibility for already confirmed chemical warfare incidents) determined responsibility at a “sufficient” level for three of the nine attacks it reviewed. These attacks were a mustard gas attack by ISIS in Marea, Aleppo Governorate (August 2015), and two instances of chlorine used as a weapon by the government, specifically the Syrian Arab Air Force, in Talmenes, Idlib Governorate (April 2014), and Sarmin, Idlib Governorate (March 2015). A report from the Joint Investigative Mechanism in October 2016 found that the government also used weaponized chlorine in 2015 in Qmenas.

Both the government and opposition forces reportedly impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Assistance, by August approximately 3.47 million persons were living in hard-to-reach and besieged locations.

The COI stated that government forces, opposition forces, and ISIS employed sieges, deliberately restricting the passage of relief supplies and access by humanitarian agencies. According to reports, government forces were responsible for the majority of such activity. According to the United Nations, as of the end of September, nearly 420,000 men, women, and children countrywide remain trapped in besieged locations, with the government responsible for besieging approximately 95 percent. Acute restrictions on food and medicine reportedly caused malnutrition-related deaths, as well as outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniosis, typhoid, and dysentery.

De-escalation zone agreements reached under the auspices of Iran, Russia, and Turkey called for improved humanitarian access; however, an October report from a humanitarian organization operating on the ground concluded that Astana de-escalation areas had not yet translated into increased cross-line humanitarian access. To the contrary the report recorded a slight reduction in cross-line assistance in northern rural Homs.

In Eastern Ghouta the report noted an increase in interagency cross-line humanitarian convoys, including four convoys successfully reaching previously besieged areas. The four convoys, however, were directed toward areas held by Jaish al-Islam, the opposition group that agreed to the original ceasefire agreement with the government. The convoys did not deliver aid to areas held by Faylaq Ar-Rahman, which at the time was not a signatory to the agreement. The government, with the support of its partners, continued to besiege Faylaq Ar-Rahman-held areas until the opposition group agreed to join the ceasefire agreement on August 18. The report concluded that the government’s refusal to allow for the delivery of aid to Faylaq Ar-Rahman-held territory until it agreed to cease all hostilities against the government was evidence that the government continued to use the denial of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war.

The COI found that the government detained many Red Crescent volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.” According to reliable NGO reports, the government’s continued bombardment, which they characterized as indiscriminate, destroyed and damaged health-care facilities in opposition-held areas, such as the Hama Governorate and Aleppo City. In September 2016 aircraft bombed a UN convoy escorted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) traveling to Orem al-Kubra in rural Aleppo, killing more than 20 civilians and aid workers. A UN investigative panel concluded in December 2016 that it was highly likely the Syrian air force perpetrated the attack.

Observers and international aid organizations reported that the government specifically targeted health-care workers, medical facilities, ambulances, and patients and restricted access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners, particularly in the Syrian and Russian assault on Aleppo City in 2016. Physicians for Human Rights reported that, from 2011 to July, combatants attacked 478 medical facilities, killing 830 medical personnel throughout the country. The COI also reported that government sniper fire and military assaults on medical facilities intentionally targeted sick and injured persons, including pregnant women and persons with disabilities. According to credible NGO and COI reports, the government deliberately obstructed the efforts of sick and injured persons to obtain help, and many such individuals elected not to seek medical assistance in hospitals due to fear of arrest, detention, torture, or death.

In October 2016 Russian forces in support of the government reportedly dropped cluster bombs on M10, the largest opposition-supported hospital in eastern Aleppo City. It had already suffered heavy bombardment three days earlier, in an assault that former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon denounced as a war crime.

The frequency and location of Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the same hospitals raised questions regarding the intended targets of the attacks and Russian claims that they were not deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure. Between November 2016 and April, for example, observers recorded repeated airstrikes on the Kafr Zeita Specialty Hospital in northern Homs. The hospital was eventually destroyed on April 29 after being targeted in three separate incidents by Russian and Syrian strikes within a 24-hour timespan. The attacks injured one staff member.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that infrastructure damage reduced the number of facilities and health personnel able to provide pregnant women with antenatal and postnatal care and skilled attendance at delivery.

Female victims subjected to sexual violence lacked access to health care. Violence throughout the country made accessing medical care both costly and dangerous, and the COI reported that the government and armed extremists sometimes denied pregnant women passage through checkpoints, forcing them to give birth in unsterile and often dangerous conditions, without pain medication or adequate medical treatment. In January 2016 UNFPA estimated that approximately 540,000 women in the country and in nearby refugee camps were pregnant and needed care. It also estimated that 70,000 would likely experience complications related to pregnancy or delivery. According to numerous sources, government forces deliberately denied medical care to persons in areas controlled by the opposition.

The COI noted mass displacements of communities under ISIS control, where ISIS officials warned residents to conform to ISIS standards or leave. Communities experienced discriminatory sanctions, including specialized religious taxes (“jizya”), forced religious conversions, destruction of religious sites, and expulsion of minority communities. In January 2016 the SNHR reported that YPG forces forcibly displaced tens of thousands of Arab residents in areas liberated by Kurdish forces. When the SDF, which included members of the YPG, began moving to liberate areas from ISIS in August 2016, human rights groups, humanitarian actors, and other observers expressed concern that the forces established local governing bodies not representative of or credible with local communities and hindered the work of independent civil society and humanitarian organizations. SDF-influenced areas were relatively stable and secure in 2017.

The United Nations reported in October that nearly 270,000 persons fled Raqqa due to the SDF’s campaign to defeat ISIS. Earlier, in September the United Nations reported that some humanitarian organizations operating in Raqqa continued to assert concerns about IDP screening procedures carried out by the SDF. According to the allegations, SDF screening procedures in some areas prevented freedom of movement for IDPs, in some instances requiring IDPs to obtain ‘sponsorship’ in order to move further into areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. There were allegations that the SDF used checkpoints to forcibly conscript males into service. Some analyses suggested that SDF measures to restrict movement were most likely due to the continued presence of ISIS, the high threat from IEDs, and the need to direct civilian evacuees away from combat zones.

International media reported widely on government and nongovernment forces attacking and destroying religious as well as UNESCO-listed world heritage sites. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science noted many instances of visible damage to cultural heritage sites. In Aleppo the academy found massive destruction throughout the city, especially within the World Heritage site of the ancient city. Government forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of defectors and opposition figures.

Syria’s History of Human Rights Violations

The history of the al-Assad regime is ridden with violence and massacre. The al-Assad family is a part of the Alawite minority in Syria and has attempted to suppress the majority of its population, the Sunni Muslims. For the last 40 years, al-Assad forces have conducted several massacres. Since the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, Syrians have been subject to human rights abuses. After taking power through a military coup in 1970, Hafez received aid from the Soviet government to build up Syrian military forces and suppress the masses.

After a reportedly failed assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad responded by killing hundreds of prisoners, comprised primarily of Muslim Brotherhood members. While the exact death toll is unknown, it is believed that 600-1,000 were killed under the direct control of Rifaat al-Assad. The government denies that the incident ever occurred but instead claims that the deaths at Tadmor were the result of prison riots. Faraj Beraqdar, a Syrian poet who spent five years at Tadmor, described Tadmor as “the kingdom of death and madness.” In August of the same year, more than 200 people were killed in the span of two days during the Eid al-Adha massacre. Some estimate that during the massacres at Aleppo nearly 1900 were killed.

Similarly, Hafez is responsible for the Hama massacre. On February 2nd 1982, Syrian military units bombarded the city, which they believed to be fostering Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated gunmen. The Syrian government shelled the city for several weeks, cutting the town off from the rest of the world. Then, after sending troops in on the ground, many civilians were arrested. During this time, 20 to 40 thousand residents of Hama were killed after a little more than three weeks. The event has since been called “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the Middle East.”

During Hafez’ rule, he began to groom his oldest son, Bassel, to be the military leader of Syria while largely neglecting his younger son, Bashar. Bashar attended school in Britain and was Westernized, while his older brother oversaw Syrian military intelligence. After Bassel died in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was forced to prepare to assume power once his tyrant of a father died. Bashar was arguably unfit to rule Syria in the way his father had ruled. Bassel was groomed to oversee a tyrannical government like his father’s but Bashar’s Western education gave many Syrians hope for reform and a gradual liberalization of society. When Bashar first came into power, he promised economic liberalization and political reforms but rejected Western democracy as an alternative to Syrian authoritarianism. Despite these early convictions Bashar has amounted to be as oppresive as his father.

The current crisis in Syria began in March of 2011, when protesters called for the release of political dissidents. The largely peaceful protests were met with ruthless violence from the Syrian government. The violence continued throughout the summer of 2011, with many Syrians claiming that the government was conducting arbitrary arrests, torture and the use of indiscriminant violence against its own people.

Since the Syrian uprising began the al-Assad regime has been unrelenting. According to a 2013 Human Right Watch estimate, 34,346 civilians have been killed in the Syrian conflict. Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, as well as displaced across borders. The refugee situation has placed additional stress on Syria’s neighboring countries. Combined, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan have taken in more than 341,000 refugees. According to witnesses, Syrian forces have placed landmines near the borders of Lebanon and Turkey in an effort to dissuade those who might try to escape.

The Syrian government has since continued a practice of human rights abuses. The government has subjected thousands to arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and even death. These acts have been carried out by Syrian Forces, the Shabiha (armed gangs paid off by the Syrian government) and the Mukhabarat (Syrian intelligence). Many of those who have been arrested are peaceful protestors, activists, lawyers and journalists. The majority of political activists have been held in incommunicado detention. A statement made by a researcher for Amnesty International, Donatella Rovera, speaks to the gross violence: “The peaceful demonstrations I witnessed in different parts of the city invariably ended with security forces firing live rounds at peaceful protestors, their reckless and indiscriminate shooting often killing or injuring bystanders as well as demonstrators.” The Syrian government has also endangered civilians by forcing them to march in front of its forces during troop movements, arrest operations and attacks on villages and towns.

Additionally, the Syrian government forces have practiced sexual violence and abuse as a war tactic. During raids and military sweeps, children as young as 12 have been raped and sexually abused. The government has exploited its children and subjected them to violence in other ways as well. Many times, the government uses schools as a military base in towns which it is raiding. This then turns the school into a military target and children are held hostage while the gunfire unfolds around them. Teachers and children have reportedly been arrested and beaten when this occurs.

Some of the other crimes against humanity committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime include repression of freedom of assembly and violations of freedom of information, public humiliation and torture as a means of intimidation, restriction and denial of access to hospitals, and collective punishments against the population at large. The list of human rights violations by the Syrian government is long and extensive. Throughout the last 40 years, the majority of the Syrian population has been persecuted by the government. It is unlikely that these circumstances will change without significant regime change at the end of the current crisis.

'Important signal'

Dutch officials said the Syrian government has been notified of the legal action. If Syria does not enter in negotiations under the UN framework, "the Netherlands will submit the case to an international court," likely the International Court of Justice based in The Hague.

Syria signed the UN Convention against Torture in 2004, making it accountable to the international treaty in the eyes of the UN.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the legal measure was necessary to send an "important signal to the other dictators of this world."

"We have indications that we might have the support of other countries" in pursuing the international law case, he added.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he welcomed the Dutch initiative to hold the Syrian regime to responsible for torture and other human rights violations.

Human [email protected] Davis

I listened to the snow bursting under the tires/
like teeth crunching an apple/
and I felt a wild desire to laugh/
at you/
because you call this place hell/
and you flee from here convinced/
that death beyond Sarajevo does not exist

“Corpse” – Semezdin Mehmedinović

Amnesty International, in cooperation with Science for Human Rights has published a series of satellite images of the city of Aleppo. The images show evidence of the use of heavy weapons and artillery in residential neighborhoods. We knew this, but the independent confirmation is important.

I used to live in Aleppo. The streets and neighborhoods now listed in battle dispatches are places where my friends live, where I shopped for books and went for walks in the evening.

What those satellite images can’t show is the human misery that has befallen the city of some 4 million people. Refugees are moving from one neighborhood of the city to another in advance of government forces and my contacts in the city tell of schools and churches filling with displaced people and shortages of everything. Electricity, water, sewage have failed food has disappeared from store shelves and state bread bakeries – which feed the city subsidized flat pita – have run out of flour. The specter of kidnapping for profit, which was a hallmark of the civil war in Iraq, is rampant, and the fear of reprisals against Christians and Armenians whose leadership have been among the régime’s supporters grips those communities.

Despite my earlier thought that the Battle for Aleppo would be short, it appears that the Free Syrian Army rebels have dug in. The ferocity of the régime’s response also tells me that for it, recovering the city and dealing a decisive blow to the rebels have become absolute necessities. If it loses Aleppo, it loses northern Syria – from the Turkish border to Iraqi Kurdistan. The rebels would then be able to resupply at will and establish in the city an alternative government. Aleppo would be the new capital of a “Free Syria” – complete with an international airport and the physical infrastructure of a government.

The rebels have fought running battles throughout Aleppo, and have now moved into the city’s ancient walled old city. The old city is a collection of narrow streets, winding alleys and cul-de-sacs. The walls of the houses are made of thick cut stone. The rebels could hold out here for weeks. My fear – beyond the human cost – is that the Syrian army will, as it hunts down its enemies, harm the mosques, churches and caravansaries that led Tags: Aleppo, Amnesty International, Keith David Watenpaugh, Science for Human Rights, Syria
Posted in Human Rights and Social Justice, Human Rights and the Arab Spring, Human Rights, Science and Technology, Humanitarianism | Comments Off on Some Thoughts on the Battle for Aleppo

Why the targeting of children in Syria?

I’ve been away from the Eleanor Blog for some time as I had both a heavy human rights teaching load (Human Rights Genocide) as well as organizing the Human Rights and the Humanities Week. Which also included a remarkable lecture by the Mideast Director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson. The week was a great success and the study and teaching of human rights has really begun to blossom at UC Davis, like our redbud and ceanothus plants.

I am coming back to the blog, in part because of real sense of resignation over the turn of events in Syria and in particular the attacks on children. The depravity encompassed by the assault on Syria’s children is a shocking new low, even for the régime in Damascus. 384 have been killed – around 10% of the total casualties and thousands have been rounded up and tortured.

A child protester in Beirut

Broadly, it strikes me that this round has to go to House of Assad. The last two weeks’ attack on Hama and Idlib had the feel of “mopping up” operations and weren’t characterized by the slower escalation that took place in Homs. The Syrian régime senses that it can act with impunity and as long as it doesn’t escalate beyond light artillery and tanks, can pretty much do what it wants.

Even though the EC placed additional sanctions on the Syrian super-elite, including Asma, Bashar’s wife, the US has toned-down its rhetoric to delink humanitarian assistance from régime change. This is being done for Russia’s benefit and may lead to some form of real humanitarian help. On the other hand, this public change in rhetoric (the Annan Plan) has given the régime additional space to maneuver.

Human Rights Watch’s reporting on the rebel Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) war crimes, that of the Vatican on ethnic cleansing in Homs and other sources are undermining international support for the FSA and other Syrian rebel forces. Without a reliable non-Assad partner, régime change seems less attractive than “régime reform.” I think that what this also means is that the urban middle-class coalition supporting Assad will continue to do so even though the sanctions will begin to really hurt. For Arab Christians, Armenians and the urban middle-class elite this is an existential problem.

The recent meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul where aid was pledged to the rebels notwithstanding, I don’t see the régime being dislodged anytime soon and rather repression will continue and mount.

However, the international human rights community has begun to call attention to the fact that children are targeted for torture and abuse by the régime to an unprecedented degree. I think it’s worth exploring why the Syrian secret police has adopted this tactic.

First some facts: Human Rights Watch and the UN have both documented widespread detention, torture, and killing of Syrian children.

Human Rights Watch quotes one Hossam, age 13 who was held for three days in a military detention facility in Tel Kalkh:

Every so often they would open our cell door and yell at us and beat us. They said, “You pigs, you want freedom?” They interrogated me by myself. They asked, “Who is your god?” And I said, “Allah.” Then they electrocuted me on my stomach, with a prod. I fell unconscious. When they interrogated me the second time, they beat me and electrocuted me again. The third time they had some pliers, and they pulled out my toenail. They said, “Remember this saying, always keep it in mind: We take both kids and adults, and we kill them both.” I started to cry, and they returned me to the cell.

HRW tells us that Hossam and his family are now refugees in Lebanon.

But what these reports tell us is that the attacks on children are systematic. There is a rhyme and reason to this horror.

This has in large part to do with the role of children in Syrian and Middle Eastern society more generally, as well as the specific position of youth in the Arab uprisings.

We forget this in the West, but children are not just offspring you take care of for 18 years and then they’re out the door. They are your future, especially among the urban lower-middle class and rural people of Syria. They are an investment – a biological 401k. There is little or no safety net and your children will care for and comfort you in your old age.

Children are targeted because of their inherent value to adults. Protecting your children is also a point of honor taking and torturing them undermines the very stability and integrity of the home.

Reports also indicate that children are being subjected to rape. This is calculated to demoralize and discipline the régime’s opponents, and to suppress the participation in demonstrations and activism by girls, in particular.

Young people – 13, 14, 15 year olds have been at the forefront of the revolutions in the Middle East. Youth has been the vanguard of these movements, in part because of their ability to master social media, and also they know that they have the most to gain from change. I think the Syrian régime also knows that it is involved in a generational struggle for control of the region.

Breaking young people now is a key element of that struggle for the future.

Prague-Cairo-Damascus – Remembering Havel and his “Power of the Powerless”

Vaclav Havel was buried today. His state funeral in Prague’s main cathedral was attended by the great and mighty. He would have been uncomfortable with the ritual, but have understood the drama of the moment all the same. Outside thousands of Czechs gathered and their faces showed signs of real grief and sadness at the passing of a playwright who fell into the role of president. He wasn’t the architect of 1989 and the collapse of Soviet power in his homeland, and by most accounts he wasn’t a very good president, as his rigid belief structure wasn’t well matched to the quotidian demands of modern politics.

Mourners in the streets of Prague

But what Havel will be most remembered for is how he created an intellectual framework for understanding both the specific content of dissent and the role of the dissident in Eastern Europe as well as a way to see beyond prevailing ideologies of the Soviet Bloc and the West to something different, something better. His was a rejection of older revolutionary ideologies and models it was a new understanding through his own lived experience of the transcendent value of dissent and how it is both a product of the dehumanizing nature of modernization and the last best hope for modern society to resist the forces that would finish robbing it of its last shreds of humanity.

His essay, “The Power of the Powerless” (1978) remains the clearest statement of the role of the dissident, his relationship to power, the arts and humanity. Written as a working paper for a meeting of East Bloc human rights defenders that never took place, the essay has the added virtue of telling us something about what is happening today on the streets of Cairo, where tens of thousands occupied Tahrir Square in protest of the violent crackdown on dissent (and in particular on women protestors), demanding the immediate transition to civil rule. It is also a warning about the moral cost of subordinating human life to ideology and “the cause” – a bloody reminder of which we saw today in an upscale Damascene suburb.

At the center of Havel’s essay is the idea that in a totalitarian-bureaucratic state like his 1970s Czechoslovakia or 2010s Egypt and Syria, truth is a product of power: “The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.” Thus for the “powerless” their power exists in absenting themselves from the truth produced by the state and, in Havel’s words, “living outside the lie.” He uses a “greengrocer” as an everyman around which to explain the process.

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

Those of us who have lived in bureaucratic-totalitarian states like Egypt, Syria and pre-war Iraq know this greengrocer and when his brother and sister Cairenes and Homsis took the streets earlier this year, we saw echoes of Havel’s ideas in what they were doing. It was about breaking the power of fear, but also disconnecting truth from the state in ways Havel, whose own ability to share his ideas was limited by the rules of Samizdat, could have only dreamed of. But he understood the cumulative power of that act.

It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division. This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power rather, it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself. The hidden movements it gives rise to there, however, can issue forth (when, where, under what circumstances, and to what extent are difficult to predict) in something visible: a real political act or event, a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate. And since all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crust of lies, it is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what that straw will be. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action preventively, even the most modest attempts to live within the truth.

Even as Havel was describing the power of dissent he was looking beyond it to how making the active choice to live outside of the lie and inside of the truth would form a new basis for society.

Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the “human order,” which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community-these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

Havel located this “moral reconstitution” in the promise of human rights, taking the existence of rights as a serious starting point for morality in a post-revolutionary system. This is the hard (utopian) part of Havel’s thought. He went from being a dissident to being a politician and every dissident loses some of their charm when this happens. It was not an easy transition for him and suggests how difficult such transitions are. But human rights are not at the center of the moral conversation in Cairo. Havel couldn’t have anticipated how Islamist visions for state and society would come to dominate the aspirational idealism of the post-revolutionary environment there, where another kind of truth, dogma is ascendant. For Havel, “life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom,” the politics of the moment in Cairo suggest the opposite a system in Havel’s words, that “demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline” instead.

Yet the bombing in Damascus this morning reminds me that Havel’s theory of the dissident makes it clear that law is at the “innermost structure of the ‘dissident’ attitude. This attitude is and must be fundamentally hostile toward the notion of violent change-simply because it places its faith in violence.” While he does accede to the possibility of violence as a “necessary evil in extreme situations,” he also notes how the dissident is skeptical about any system based on “faith” in change in government or ideological system. What happened in Syria was part of the internationalization of the civil war there and the marginalization of peaceful dissent that advocated for an existential revolution – not just the replacement of one tyranny with another. My thinking is that for Syria, any hope for a peaceful transition is gone.

In the end, the passing of Havel gives us an opportunity to also reflect on the role he believed that art, scholarship and music, especially the raw, malformed rock of the Plastic People of the Universe have, in remaking society.

They may be writers who write as they wish without regard for censorship or official demands and who issue their work-when official publishers refuse to print it-as samizdat. They may be philosophers, historians, sociologists, and all those who practice independent scholarship and, if it is impossible through official or semi-official channels, who also circulate their work in samizdat or who organize private discussions, lectures, and seminars. They may be teachers who privately teach young people things that are kept from them in the state schools clergymen who either in office or, if they are deprived of their charges, outside it, try to carry on a free religious life painters, musicians, and singers who practice their work regardless of how it is looked upon by official institutions everyone who shares this independent culture and helps to spread it people who, using the means available to them, try to express and defend the actual social interests of workers, to put real meaning back into trade unions or to form independent ones people who are not afraid to call the attention of officials to cases of injustice and who strive to see that the laws are observed and the different groups of young people who try to extricate themselves from manipulation and live in their own way, in the spirit of their own hierarchy of values. The list could go on. Very few would think of calling all these people “dissidents.” And yet are not the well-known “dissidents” simply people like them? Are not all these activities in fact what “dissidents” do as well? Do they not produce scholarly work and publish it in samizdat? Do they not write plays and novels and poems? Do they not lecture to students in private “universities”? Do they not struggle against various forms of injustice and attempt to ascertain and express the genuine social interests of various sectors of the population?

Some thoughts on the humanitarian challenges of the coming civil war in Syria

Sitting with Gilbert Achcar and several of my UC Davis Jewish Studies and Middle East Studies colleagues in a local café after a talk on his book The Arabs and the Holocaust, the conversation turned to Syria.

Achcar’s conclusion, which I share (as does the UN) is that Syria is on the road to civil war. Indeed, I would argue that parts of Syria, in particular the cities of Homs, Hama and Idlib and their hinterlands are already in a state of civil war. Those cities have been placed under siege, death squads roam them in broad daylight rounding up and “disappearing” civilians and uniformed security forces fight running gun battles with bands of defectors who are often just defending their neighborhoods.

Still protestors take to the streets each Friday like they have since last March and each Friday dozens are killed. Over 3000 so far, including some 190 children. This persistent courage in the face of unrestrained brutality inspires not just heart rendering awe, but also confirms how resilient the Syria opposition is. This resiliency will force the Syrian régime to increase its use of organized violence and at some point the largely peaceful resistance will itself become violent, perhaps in a battle for the city of Homs.

The longer the conflict continues the more “international” it will also become. This isn’t in the sense of Libya, where Western forces sided with the Libyan TNC. There appears to be none of the international will to intervene in Syria that there was in Libya and various sanctions régimes have been blunted at the UN by Russian and Chinese opposition. Instead the international component of the civil war in Syria will be regional, with Iran extending support to the régime with help from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Saudi Arabia and Turkey providing assistance to the opposition, which is not coincidently dominated by Sunni Muslims, as well as help from Iraqi Kurdistan for Syria’s vast Kurdish population. Arms, money and military and cyberwar expertise are flowing into Syria from all sides.

With the coming of civil war in Syria, it is important to begin to anticipate what kinds of humanitarian challenges will arise and how the international community could mobilize to meet them. The Syria Civil War will resemble that of Iraq between 2006-2008 and Lebanon 1975-1990. It makes sense to draw some lessons from the humanitarian experience of those conflicts. What follows are some very preliminary thoughts and observations.

1) Like Iraq and Lebanon, very little distinction will be made between combatants and non-combatants.

This fact will have critical implications for refugee flows, the creation of IDPs, the safety of civilians in situ, and refugees in transit across international borders. The Iraqi experience shows how quickly large numbers of IDPs can result from civil conflict, especially if this civil conflict is accompanied by forms of ethnic cleansing. The kind of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the civil war in Iraq, in particular in Baghdad, is unlikely in Syria.

Still minor refugee flows out of Syria over the last few months give some indication of where major flows will go: from northwestern Syria into the Turkish province of Hatay and from central Syria into northern Lebanon. In both of these cases people moving probably have relatives on the other side of the border. Currently the UNHCR is providing assistance to about 3200 Syrians who have fled to Wadi Khalid, which is just across the border from Homs. I’m also certain that three to four times this number of Syrians has already crossed into Lebanon, but those refugees have not registered with the UN. Recent cross border raids by Syrian forces into Lebanon to seize deserters and opposition figures confirms that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not safe. Lebanon is in no position to oppose these incursions even if there were political will in Beirut to do so.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, October 2011

Attacks on Kurds in Syria’s Mesopotamia will force Kurds into Iraqi Kurdistan where the problem will be less political will to assist, but rather logistical support. Indeed Iraqi Kurdistan could provide a very useful staging ground for refugee assistance.

The Turkish border is more militarized and the Turkish military more able to provided needed protection. A possible option looking forward is the creation of a humanitarian corridor into Turkey through the Orontes River Valley, which would allow safe passage out of Homs, Hama and Idlib. There are a host of other political problems with direct Turkish intervention in Syria, not the least of which are fears of Ankara’s Neo-Ottomanist designs on the Levant. Nevertheless, any meaningful international commitment to the safety of Syrian refugees will require humanitarian intervention in Syria.

2) Like Iraq and Lebanon, violence will have political and sectarian dimensions.

Rightly or wrongly the régime of Bashar al-Assad is associated with the entirety of the Alawite minority in Syria. The security apparatus and military elite in Syria is dominated by Alawites. There will be ethnic reprisals in the civil war. The most vulnerable populations, however, as was the case in Iraq, are the urban and rural Christian minorities. A possible example of the shape of things to come came last week when a bomb exploded in the Armenian Orthodox Church in the Damascus’s old city. It is unlikely that this bomb was set by régime opponents. What is probably the case is that it was planted by state security forces as a message to the city’s Armenians that were they to support the opposition that they would face further attacks and/or that they would no longer be protected by the state from extremist violence. Christians are disproportionately represented in Iraq’s refugee diaspora and it is likely that this would reoccur in Syria. What this speaks to though is that where mass violence is probable, genocide is possible.

The West ignores the possibility of genocide in Syria at the peril of any humanitarian credibility it has achieved with successes in Libya.

Along the same lines, Syria remains one of the primary locations for refugees from Iraq – some 1.3 million with several thousand active asylum seekers. Stepped up efforts to resettle and return these refugees would help reduce the possibility that this extremely vulnerable group would become victims of another conflict.

Syria’s problems and years of misery are just beginning.

Failing Syria at the UN, Killing Children and the Punishing of Dissidents

It was a moment of déjà vu in the UN Security Council this week when China and Russia voted against sanctions on Syria. Their votes were out of line with a global consensus that the Syrian régime’s war on its people violates human rights and is a threat to regional peace and security. What those two states did was dismissed on the streets of Syria’s smaller cities, where people carried banners that read “Russia and China do not [favor] freedom or dignity,” but is also reminiscent of the Cold War when the progress of human rights was held hostage by the Soviet Bloc and the US and its allies.

Some historians have argued that the Cold War merely interrupted the history of human rights I tend to think the politicization of human rights by states in this fashion is the norm and that consensus building in the UN around human rights action is the unique, rare and now fleeting exception.

Still, the EU, Turkey and the US are continuing to build a sanctions régime against Syria. And reports from inside the country show no let up in demonstrations, a trickle of military defections and the gradual organization in exile of an alternative government. Still Aleppo and Damascus are quiet and their inhabitants, though fully aware of what is happening in the rest of the country have yet to rise in solidarity.

All this means for now is continuing misery in Syria: the UN has just announced that 187 children have been killed since demonstrations began last Spring and word comes of additional harassment of Syrian dissidents living abroad.

Syrian children hold a vigil for 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, who activists say was tortured and killed by Syrian security forces. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Along those same lines, I call your attention to the case of Yassin Ziadeh. Yassin’s brother, Radwan, is an important Syrian dissident who fled Syria several years ago. Radwan has even visited Davis as a Scholar at Risk and was a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace a year before I was. He has been at the forefront of identifying human rights abuse in Syria. Now his family back home, in particular his brother, are being targeted by the régime. According to Scholars at Risk, Yassin is being held incommunicado and without charge. Presumabley this is being done to pressure his brother and frighten others in the Syrian diaspora if they support the opposition their families back in Syria are in danger. If you have a chance please use the model below to write to the Syrian ambassador on behalf of Yassin.

Early 20th century Edit

The demographics of this area underwent a huge shift in the early part of the 20th century. Some Circassian, Kurdish and Chechen tribes cooperated with the Ottoman (Turkish) authorities in the Armenian and Assyrian genocides in Upper Mesopotamia, between 1914 and 1920, with further attacks on unarmed fleeing civilians conducted by local Arab militias. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] Many Assyrians fled to Syria during the genocide and settled mainly in Al-Jazira Province. [3] [6] [7] Starting in 1926, the region saw another immigration of Kurds following the failure of the Sheikh Said rebellion against the new Republic of Turkey. [8] While there have been Kurds in Syria for centuries, waves of Kurds fled their homes in Turkey and settled in Syria, where they were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities. [9] In the 1930s and 1940s, the region saw several failed autonomy movements.

General human rights situation under Baathist rule Edit

The situation for human rights in Syria has been considered exceptionally poor among international observers for generations. At the onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Syria's human rights situation remained among the worst in the world. [10] [11] No improvement could be observed since Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000 from his father Hafez al-Assad, who had acquired power in a 1970 coup. [12] The Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that "whether Assad wanted to be a reformer but was hampered by an entrenched old guard or has been just another Arab ruler unwilling to listen to criticism, the outcome for Syria's people is the same: no freedom, no rights. Assad's record after 10 years is that he has done virtually nothing to improve his country's human rights record." [12]

Particularly dire was the situation with respect to political rights. Many politicians of the region have in the past been political prisoners of the Syrian government.

One area where the Baathist government did advance human rights in Northern Syria was in social and economic rights. Agrarian reform mitigated quasi-feudal structures built on large land ownership in both traditional Arab Bedouin and traditional Kurdish society. [13]

Arabization in Northern Syria Edit

The ethnically diverse region of Northern Syria suffered particularly grave human rights violations, because all governments since the independence of Syria in 1946, but in particular the Baath governments since 1963, pursued an often brutal policy of Arabization. [14] In his report for the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council titled Persecution and Discrimination against Kurdish Citizens in Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights held: [15]

Successive Syrian governments continued to adopt a policy of ethnic discrimination and national persecution against Kurds, completely depriving them of their national, democratic and human rights — an integral part of human existence. The government imposed ethnically-based programs, regulations and exclusionary measures on various aspects of Kurds’ lives — political, economic, social and cultural.

Denying Kurds citizenship Edit

There have been various instances of the Syrian government denying citizenship to ethnic Kurds on the pretext that they have fled to Syria after the failure of Sheikh Said rebellion during the French Mandate of Syria. [16] The largest of these instances was a consequence of a census in 1962, which was conducted for exactly this purpose. 120,000 Kurds saw their Syrian citizenship arbitrarily taken away and became "stateless". [13] [14] [17] They were not allowed to vote, own property or be employed by the government. They received red identification cards stating they were not Syrian citizens. [18] This status was passed on to the children of a "stateless" Kurdish father. [14] In 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated the number of such "stateless" ethnic Kurds in Syria at 300,000. [10]

With losing their citizenship, the people concerned also lost many rights under the law. [15] In its 1996 report Syria: The silenced Kurds, HRW described the consequences as "they are not permitted to own land, housing or businesses. They cannot be employed at government agencies and state-owned enterprises, and cannot practice as doctors or engineers. They are not eligible for food subsidies or admission to public hospitals. They may not legally marry Syrian citizens" and "they are not issued passports or other travel documents, and thus may not legally leave or return to Syria." [14]

Suppressing Kurdish language and culture Edit

The Kurdish language was not officially recognized, it had no place in public schools and was outlawed at the workplace. [13] [14] [15] Beginning in 1967, school books excluded any mention of Kurdish existence. [19] According to Syria's Kurds: History, Politics and Society by Dr. Jordi Tejel, "with the increase in literate children in the Kurdish regions, a tight surveillance system was established there, following the example of the Turks, by means of 'spies', to stop the children from speaking Kurdish among themselves. Children discovered in flagrant 'defiance' could be physically punished." [13] While other ethnic minorities in Syria (like Armenians, Circassians and Assyrians) were permitted to open private schools for the education of their children, Kurds were not. [14]

Neither children nor businesses could be given Kurdish names. [14] [15] Books, music, videos and other material could not be published in Kurdish language. [13] [14] Expressions of Kurdish identity like songs and folk dances were outlawed [13] [15] and frequently prosecuted under a purpose-built criminal law against "weakening national sentiment". [10] Celebrations of the Nowruz holiday were often constrained by imposed limitations. [13] [14]

Discrimination against ethnic Kurdish citizens Edit

Ethnic Kurdish citizens of Syria, no matter if deprived of citizenship or not, were subject to discrimination under the law regarding the right to own real estate. [14] [15] Ethnic Kurdish students and employees were frequently expelled from government institutions without any reason other than their ethnicity apparent or given. [14] [15] In particular among teacher training institutions, such expulsion because of Kurdish ethnicity was the rule. [14]

The religion of Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious group estimated at 70,000 in Syria, was not recognized by the state. Thus Yezidis were not taught their own religion in public schools, but were forced to submit to teachings of Islam. [15] In personal status matters, they could not resort to civil courts, but were also denied religious courts of their own. [15]

Confiscation of Kurdish land and settlement by Arabs Edit

In 1973 the Syrian authorities confiscated 750 square kilometers of fertile agricultural land in Al-Hasakah Governorate, which were owned and cultivated by tens of thousands of Kurdish citizens, and gave it to Arab families brought in from other provinces. [15] [17] In 2007 in another such scheme in Al-Hasakah Governorate 6,000 square kilometers around Al-Malikiyah were granted to Arab families, while tens of thousands of Kurdish inhabitants of the villages concerned were evicted. [15] These and other expropriations of ethnic Kurdish citizens followed a deliberate masterplan, called "Arab Belt initiative", attempting to depopulate the resource-rich Jazeera of its ethnic Kurdish inhabitants and settle ethnic Arabs there. [14]

Syrian Government Edit

At the dawn of the Syrian Civil War, media reported that Syria President Assad had decreed to grant Syrian citizenship to an estimated 220,000 of the estimated 300,000 ethnic Kurdish de facto citizens of Syria who were "stateless" as a consequence of the 1962 census. [20]

After the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the government forces withdrew from most of the Rojava region in 2012, leaving control to local militias, notable exceptions until today being the airport and the area south of Qamishli and the city center of as well as a military base close to Al-Hasakah. Thus while all issues associated with the Syrian Baathist government - its human rights record considered "among the worst" in the world by Human rights Watch [21] [22] - persisted within these small areas, their extent was limited. However, during the Qamishli clashes of April 2016, Syrian Army artillery resorted to indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods in the city, causing destruction and injury and death of civilians.

In an August 2016 report, Anmesty International claimed that nearly 18,000 people have died in government prisons in Syria since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, [23] a figure that includes deaths in the prisons of government enclaves in Rojava, namely in the prisons of Al-Hasakah until the YPG overtake capture (and subsequent closure) of the juvenile prison from ISIL during the Battle of Hasakah throughout the summer of 2015, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overtake of the central prison (and subsequent closure) from the Government in Battle of al-Hasakah in August 2016, as well as the prison of Qamishli until its overtake by the SDF during the Qamishli clashes (and subsequent closure) in April 2016.

Syrian opposition militias Edit

Most opposition militias — outside of the NES-associated Syrian Democratic Forces umbrella — are not secular but follow Islamist ideologies, [24] [25] causing the respective human rights issues in areas under their control. In addition, there often is an attitude of chauvinist discrimination against ethnicities other than Arab among such militias and their political arms. [26] [27]

A report by the UN Human Rights Council alleged that since July 2013, Al-Nusra Front, at times in coordination with other armed groups, carried out a series of killings of Kurdish civilians in Al Youssoufiyah, Qamishli and Al-Asadia in Al-Hasakah Governorate, the Jazira Region. During a raid by groups under the flag of the FSA, ISIL, the Islamic Front and Al-Nusra battalions, fighters allegedly killed a Kurdish Yazidi man in Al-Asadia who refused to convert to Islam. [28]

A recurring human rights issue has been the indiscriminate shelling of civilian population centers under NES control by Syrian opposition militias (both from within and outside of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces umbrella). Such shelling has multiple times caused destruction of property and injury and death of civilians in Afrin Canton, and particularly severe destruction of property and injury and death of civilians in the SDF-controlled Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood of Aleppo. [29] [30] [31] [32] In May 2016, Amnesty International's regional director suggested that the attacks on Sheikh Maqsood constitute "war crimes". [33] In mid-June 2016 the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces and Russia accused the opposition militias of causing the death of over 40 civilians in the month, and an accumulated 1,000 civilian deaths, through indiscriminate shelling of Sheikh Maqsood. [34]

After their capture of the town of Jarabulus from ISIL in September 2016, opposition militias of the FSA labeled Sultan Murad Division published pictures of themselves torturing four YPG members prisoners of war, who were captured by the rebel group while, according to YPG claims, trying to evacuate civilians. [35]

According to an official in the Kurdish National Council's Unity Party on 29 March 2017, "The Syrian opposition are against federalism and constitutional Kurdish national rights, and they want to delay discussing Kurdish rights in the future." [36]

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Edit

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has in 2014 and 2015 held much and at times most of the territory under the concept of the region. The state of human rights in such ISIL-controlled territories has been criticised by many political, religious and other organisations and individuals. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has stated that ISIL "seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey". [37] The ISIL barbarism hit the region in a particular way, for three reasons: First there are significant non-Muslim population groups (Assyrians, Yazidis), second the decidedly secular and women empowering character of the region made it a textbook antagonist for ISIL, third due to the geographical proximity to the ISIL heartland as well as the vigor and success of its self-defence militias, the region came to be considered its special nemesis by ISIL.

In June 2014, after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) captured the border city of Tell Abyad, ISIL fighters made an announcement from the minarets of the local mosques that all Kurds had to leave Tell Abyad on or else be killed. Thousands of civilians, including Turkmen and Arab families fled on 21 July. [38] [39] Its fighters systematically looted and destroyed the property of Kurds, and in some cases, resettled displaced Arab Sunni families from the Qalamoun area (Rif Damascus), Dayr Az-Zawr and Raqqa in abandoned Kurdish homes. [38]

On 23 February 2015, in response to a major Kurdish offensive in the Al-Hasakah Governorate, ISIL abducted 150 Assyrians from villages near Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, after launching a large offensive in the region. [40] [41] According to US diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez, of the 232 of the Assyrians kidnapped in the ISIS attack on the Assyrian Christian farming villages on the banks of the Khabur River in Northeast Syria, 51 were children and 84 women. "Most of them remain in captivity with one account claiming that ISIS is demanding $22 million (or roughly $100,000 per person) for their release." [42] On 8 October, ISIL released a video showing three of the Assyrian men kidnapped in Khabur being executed. It was reported that 202 of the 253 kidnapped Assyrians were still in captivity, each one with a demanded ransom of $100,000. [43]

In June 2015 at least 220 Kurdish civilians were massacred in mass killings by ISIL fighters [44] [45] in their homes or killed by the group's rockets or snipers by an attack on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border, which is one of the worst massacres carried out by ISIS in Syria. Women and children were among the bodies found inside houses and on the streets of Kobane. Also in a nearby village, IS reportedly shot dead at least 20 civilians, including women and children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that ISIS fired at everything that moved. [46] [47] [48] [49] [50] [51]

During the June 2016 Manbij offensive with global media attention, reports on ISIL human rights violations from areas captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces drew a picture of ISIL tyranny in the area (much of which had briefly been under the region's control in 2013), in particular violating elementary human rights of women: “They had imprisoned women at home. If our children went outdoors we were not able to bring them back. If we did not cover our face while going outside, we would be lashed." [52] "If someone tried to criticise their behaviour, they would sew his mouth shut for a while, or they would cut his head off and hang him up for everyone to see," another witness who had lived under ISIS rule told AFP. "They burned all of our schoolbooks and they banned studying. They started forcing us to take religious courses that taught us that Kurds, teachers, and other religious scholars are all infidels," a student reported. [53] On 13 June it was reported that before their withdrawal from the countryside of Manbij, ISIS jihadis broke into civilians’ houses in dozens of villages, killing the men and raping the women. [54]

In July 2016, ISIL militants undertook two raids against villages in southern Kobani Canton, and while the second was foiled by YPG forces from its outset, [55] the first had succeeded in temporarily capturing a village of mainly ethnic Kurdish inhabitants, slaughtering dozens of women and children with knives. [56] An ISIL terror bombing in Qamishli in late July claimed more than 50 civilian lives. [57] In October 2016, an ISIL suicide terror bombing at a Kurdish wedding in Hasakah took dozens of lives. [58]

Syrian Democratic Forces Edit

The People's Protection Units (YPG) was the most important militia of Kurdish communities and cantons, assuming control of territory vacated by Syrian government forces, capturing territory from ISIL and to a lesser degree from Syrian opposition militias. The YPG initially was almost exclusively ethnic Kurdish, later opened itself and increasingly recruited citizens of other ethnicities (Arabs, Turkmen) as well as international volunteers. Like all militias in the context of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the YPG since October 2015 operate under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

During the Syrian Civil War, YPG members have been accused of human rights violations against Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities. The allegations include kidnappings of suspected persons, [60] torture, [60] [61] ethnic cleansing, [62] [63] and expulsion. [60] In May 2015, local sources accused the YPG of killing 20 civilians, including two children, five women and a pharmacist in the village of Abo Shakhat and the destruction of several villages in Tal Tamer and Ras al- Ayn, saying the YPG claimed that the owners were ISIL supporters. [64] In an October 2015 report, Amnesty International alleged cases of forced displacement, demolition of homes, and the seizure and destruction of property. [59] [65] According to Amnesty International, some displaced people said that the YPG has targeted their villages on the accusation of supporting ISIS some villagers revealed the existence of a small minority that might have sympathized with the group. [59] [66] The village of Husseiniya was completely razed to the ground leaving 14 out of 225 houses standing. [59] "In some cases, entire villages have been demolished, apparently in retaliation for the perceived support of their Arab or Turkmen residents for the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) or other non-state armed groups." Syrian writer and analyst Shams al-Din al-Kilani claimed that the YPG is attacking the Arab existence in particular with the purpose of clearing the way toward the establishment of a Kurdish ethnic state. [67]

The YPG rejected the charges [68] and released a report denying the accusations made in the Amnesty report, criticizing the methodology used and the validity of the testimonies given by interviewees. [69] YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said: "Very simply, this is a false allegation," [70] and PYD co-chairman Salih Muslim strictly denied the Amnesty International claims. [66]

Several similar reports were being during the civil war from international organizations, including Amnesty International [71] and international organizations [72] [73] have accused SDF forces of committing ethnic cleansing in Arab areas they were capturing from other war factions. [74] The most recent accusation was made on 8 May 2019 by Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov who said: [75]

The US attempts to resettle Kurds in the areas where Arab tribes have always lived historically is a very bad process and a direct way to separatism and the breakup of Syria.

In June 2014, Human Rights Watch criticized the YPG for accepting minors into their ranks, [60] picking up on multiple earlier reports of teenage fighters serving in the YPG, with a report by the United Nations Secretary General stating that 24 minors under age of 18 had been recruited by YPG, with 124 having been recruited by the Free Syrian Army and 5 by the Syrian Arab Army. [76] In response, the YPG and YPJ signed the Geneva Call Deed of Commitment protecting children in armed conflict, prohibiting sexual violence and against gender discrimination in July 2014, [77] and Kurdish security forces (YPG and Asayish) began receiving human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organisations with the YPG pledging publicly to demobilize all fighters under 18 within a month and began to enact disciplinary measures against commanders of the units that had involved in corruption and accepting recruit under age of 18 to their ranks. [78] [79] In October 2015 the YPG demobilized 21 minors from the military service in its ranks. [80]

In response to allegations of human rights violation from within its ranks, the YPG in September 2015 asked for and received human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organizations for its forces. [81] Rovaja's de facto foreign minister Sinam Mohamed in June 2016 acknowledged that there have been reports of some abuses by YPG forces and that she believes this does happen from time to time, however pointed to the human rights training that YPG forces since receive. [82]

In a June 2015 interview by Society for Threatened Peoples with the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman stated that there was "no 'ethnic cleansing' in Tel Abyad against the Turkmen and Arabic population" and that existing restrictions were temporary and because of the danger of mines and remaining ISIL fighters in some villages. [83] Michael M. Gunter in October 2015 called the Amnesty report "very partial and distorted", adding that it would "not do justice to the PYD's efforts to protect not only Kurds but also Arabs against the depredations of ISIS (. ) The PYD and its YPG fighting units have gone out of their way not to kill or displace the population." [84]

In 2017, the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry released a report that stated that the commission "found no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF forces ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity, nor that YPG cantonal authorities systematically sought to change the demographic composition of territories under their control through the commission of violations directed against any particular ethnic group". [85]

Turkey Edit

Turkey is hostile towards the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), since Turkey claims that the PYD, the political party ruling the region is connected to the PKK and it fears that the autonomous region would encourage increased unrest and calls for autonomy among the Kurdish population within Turkey. [86] [87] There have been claims that Turkey has been giving material support to Islamist rebel groups [86] [88] including ISIL [89] [90] [91] who would fight the region. Turkey has also shelled population centers in the region, causing property damage but also injury and death of civilians. [32] [92] [93] Turkey has also been accused of actively supporting the indiscriminate shelling of civilian population centers under the region's control by opposition militias, causing 1,000 civilian deaths in the Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood of Aleppo alone. [34]

Frequently accusations are made from local sources as well as the region's authorities against Tukish border guards shooting to kill at civilians at the border. [94] In one of the most prominent of such accusations, a report from ANF on 28 September 2016 alleged that "Turkish soldiers kill 17 civilians on the border of the region in two days", [95] building on a report of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights from the previous day of 12 civilians killed. [96] Concerning one of the events in these two days, SANA reported that "local sources told SANA reporter in Hasaka that the Turkish army opened fire on a number of civilians at Kahyla village which is located between the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, killing nine civilians including children, and injuring others. Some of the injured persons, who were rushed to Ras al-Ayn city for treatment, confirmed that Turkish soldiers fired indiscriminately at them." [97]

In October 2016, the co-chairman of the regions's leading Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Muslim, has accused Turkey of ethnic cleansing in the border area between Azaz and Jarabulus which at the time is occupied by Turkish-backed opposition rebels, saying it has driven thousands of Kurds from their land in villages near the border. [98]

In August 2018, Amnesty International said that Turkish forces in the northern Syrian city of Afrin are giving Syrian militias "free rein" to commit serious human rights abuses, among them torture, forced disappearances and looting. [99]

The socio-political transformations of the "Rojava Revolution" with their advancing an ambitious human rights agenda have inspired much attention in international media, both in mainstream media [100] [101] [102] [103] and in dedicated progressive leftist media. [104] [105] [106] [107] [108]

Human rights development in the legal system Edit

Constitutional order Edit

According to the 2014 Constitution of North and East Syria, [109] [110] [111] [112] the administration of the de facto autonomous region is committed to international law regarding human rights, explicitly incorporating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as other internationally recognized human rights conventions. It is extraordinary for the Middle East in its explicit affirmation of minority rights and gender equality and a form of direct democracy known as democratic confederalism. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which limits the concept of human rights and to which Syria is a signatory state, does not apply in the region. In July 2016, a draft for an updated constitution was presented, taking up the general progressive and democratic confederalist principles of the 2014 constitution, mentioning all ethnic groups living in the region, addressing their cultural, political and linguistic rights. [113]

Legal system Edit

The new justice systems in the region reflects democratic confederalism. At the local level, citizens create Peace and Consensus Committees, which make group decisions on minor criminal cases and disputes as well as in separate committees resolve issues of specific concern to women's rights like domestic violence and marriage. At the regional level, citizens (who are not required to be trained jurists) are elected by the regional People's Councils to serve on seven-member People's Courts. At the next level are four Appeals Courts, composed of trained jurists. The court of last resort is the Regional Court, which serves the region as a whole. Distinct and separate from this system, the Constitutional Court renders decisions on compatibility of acts of government and legal proceedings with the constitution of the region (called the Social Contract). [114]

The civil laws of Syria are valid in the region, as far as they do not conflict with the constitution of the region. One notable example for amendment is personal status law, which in Syria is still based on Sharia [115] and applied by Sharia Courts, [116] where the strictly secular region proclaims absolute equality of women under the law and a ban on forced marriage as well as polygamy was introduced, [117] while underage marriage was outlawed as well. [118] For the first time in Syrian history, civil marriage is being allowed and promoted, a significant move towards a secular open society and intermarriage between people of different religious backgrounds. [119]

Criminal law and police Edit

A new criminal justice approach has been implemented that emphasizes restoration over retribution. [120] The death penalty has been abolished. [114] Prisons are housing mostly those charged with terrorist activity related to ISIL and other extremist groups, although there are also frequent reports of supporters of Kurdish opposition parties opposed to PYD being arrested or even kidnapped. [121] A September 2015 report of Amnesty International noted that 400 people were incarcerated, [122] which based on a population of 4,6 million makes an imprisonment rate of 8.7 people per 100,000, compared to 60.0 people per 100,000 in Syria as a whole, and the second lowest rate in the world after San Marino. [123] However, the report also noted some deficiencies in due process. [122]

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has pursued a policy of open access to international media as well as international human rights organisations. Human Rights Watch after a visit in early 2014 reported "arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances" and made recommendations for government improvement. [60] The report documented cases of "arbitrary arrests" and "unfair trials" that had occurred since the beginning of the revolution in 2012. [61] the officials of the region claimed that the few proven instances of misconduct were isolated incidents and not tolerated. [60] In its separate September 2015 report, Amnesty International criticised arbitrary long term detainment followed by unfair trials, in some cases lasting minutes with no lawyers for the defendants accused of involvement with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). [122] However, Fred Abrahams, special advisor to HRW who visited the region and drafted the report, noted that the region's institutions have taken solid steps to addressing the problems and had been receptive to criticism. He notes that they were currently in the process of political transitioning from the Syrian government, training a new police force and creating a new legal system. [124]

On 22 September 2016 the security forces of the region prevented Rudaw’s journalist Rengin Shero, coming from Iraqi Kurdistan, from visiting her family in Jazira canton. Rengin accused the forces of tearing her clothes and using violence against her, even though they knew she was pregnant. [125]

On 30 September 2018 Syriac writer Suleiman Yussef was arrested in Qamishli by Sutoro for his political views. Yussef was one of the few Syriac writers who has continued to report critically on the self-administration's closure of Assyrian schools. Isa Rashid, another prominent Assyrian community figure who served as an education director for these targeted schools, was severely beaten outside his home by the Sutoro Police. Yussef was released a few days later after a lot of pressure from the Assyrian community.

Kurdish opposition parties in Syria represented by KNC, who are opposed to PYD-rule, have long complained of authoritarianism, heavy political persecution and gross human rights violations. They accuse western countries of systematically overlooking PYD's human rights violations against Kurds and other groups in areas under their control. Mentioned examples are ethnic cleansing, arbitrary arrest and abduction of political opponents, forced conscription into PYD, torture or threat of torture and execution, as well as forcing Kurdish opponents into exile. KNC also allege that dozens of their members are arbitrarily detained by PYD at any given time. [126] [127]

Conscription Edit

Due to the then militarily critical situation caused by the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the regions of the NES from July 2014 introduced militia conscription duty in its Self-Defense Forces (HXP). [128] Enforcing conscription has been called a human rights violation from the perspective of those who consider the Rojava institutions illegitimate. [129]

Social and educational aspects of human rights development Edit

Women's rights Edit

The legal efforts to reduce cases of underage marriage, polygamy and honor killings are underpinned by comprehensive public awareness campaigns. [130] In every town and village, a women's house is established. These are community centers run by women, providing services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of harm. These services include counseling, family mediation, legal support, and coordinating safe houses for women and children. [131] Classes on economic independence and social empowerment programs are also held at women's houses. [132]

All administrative organs in the autonomous region are required to have male and female co-chairs, and forty percent of the members of any governing body in the region must be female. [133] An estimated 25 percent of the Asayish police force of the NES regions are women, and joining the Asayish is described in international media as a huge act of personal and societal liberation from patriarchical background, for ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Arab women alike. [134]

The claimed political agenda of "trying to break the honor-based religious and tribal rules that confine women" is very controversial in conservative quarters of Syrian society, who either outright disagree, or who believe imposing drastic changes is irresponsible when not taking local sensitivities into mind or giving the population adequate time to adapt and progress at their own pace like other regions of the world. [118]

Ethnic minority rights Edit

The autonomous region "opposes zero-sum notions of ethnic and national rights". [133] It has comprehensive affirmative action to give power to minority groups and ethnicities as a guiding principle.

While under the administration of the Ba'ath Party school education consisted of only Arabic language public schools, supplemented by Assyrian private confessional schools, [135] the region's administration in 2015 (leaving the private schools untouched) introduced for public schools primary education in native language either Kurdish or Arabic and secondary education mandatory bilingual in Kurdish and Arabic for public schools (with English as a third language). [136] [137] [138] The Assyrian community in Jazira Canton in August 2016 founded the Ourhi Centre in the city of Qamishli, to educate teachers in order to make the Syriac-Aramaic an additional language to be taught in public schools, [139] [140] which then started with the 2016/17 academic year. [141] With that academic year, states the Rojava Education Committee, "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac." [142]

There has been, however, numerous instances of discrimination toward Assyrians, including policies of seizing the property of Assyrians who had to flee due to conflict, and numerous instances of attacks against the Assyrian minority. [143]

In August 2018 there was controversy over an attempt by the region's authorities to implement its own Syriac curriculum in private Christian schools that have been continuing to use an Arabic curriculum with limited Syriac classes approved by the Assad regime and originally developed by Syrian Education Ministry in cooperation with Christian clergy in the 1950s. Multiple sources, including The Assyrian Policy Institute, a pro-Assyrian news outlet based in the United States, reported that militiamen of the YPG and Sutoro, had entered private Assyrian schools and expelled their administrators and teachers. [144] [145] Demonstrators claimed this went against earlier agreements, and would implement a syllabus the status of which is not recognized in the rest of Syria. Authorities of the region's administration and allied Syriac organizations have however rejected the accusations, arguing the region's administration are trying to implement a Syriac language curriculum, that the schools had accepted Kurdish and Arab students against previous agreements, while accusing the protesters of being a fifth column of Assad's regime. The Syriac Union Party and Olaf Taw, the education organization which prepared the Syriac syllabus, stated that they rejected any closing of the schools and Olaf Taw sent its teachers to the Syriac schools in order to meet the management of the schools to discuss a way of applying the new Syriac syllabus. [146] [147] [148] [149] A deal was later reached in September 2018 between the region's authorities and the local Syriac Orthodox archbishopric, where the two first grades in these schools would learn the region's Syriac curriculum and grades three to six would continue to learn the Damascus approved curriculum. [150] [151]

One issue of contention is the consequence of the Baathist Syrian government's settling of Arab tribal settlers on land in Jazira Canton which was expropriated for the purpose from its previous Kurdish owners in the years 1973 and 2007, [15] [17] following a masterplan called "Arab Belt initiative". [14] There are persistent calls to expel the settlers and return the land to their previous Kurdish owners among the Kurdish population of the region, which have led the political leadership of the region to press the Syrian government for a comprehensive solution. [152]

Another issue of contention has been the "Law for the Management and Protection of the Assets of the Refugees and the Absentees" passed in September 2015 by the Jazira legislative council, which, in effect, authorises the confiscation of all assets of people who have left the region. Representatives of Christian Assyrians in the council refused to vote on the text, and the community as a whole perceived themselves targeted by the measure. While the law does not explicitly single out any ethnic group, the number of Christians who fled the region is much higher than other groups, so they would be more affected by asset seizures than other communities. In a bid to appease the Christian community, but also probably to avoid a backlash with foreign backers, the PYD eventually backtracked and agreed to hand over any assets seized from Christians to the church. [153]

Development of freedom of speech and press Edit

However, open criticism of the democratic confederalist political system, doctrine, policies, establishment and status quo is generally discouraged, especially for local media. Criticism of day-to-day mismanagement and corruption by low-level local officials, general lack of services or general grievances, on issues that hold little political weight, are mostly allowed and face little to no persecution. Some media networks are restricted and operate in secrecy, like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), who also famously reported in secrecy from inside Raqqa during ISIL's repressive rule, as well as other independent media outlets that were restricted due to their critical stance against the PYD.

Expressing favourable political stances towards Turkey or other perceived enemies such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the TFSA is prohibited. Other political positions that are discouraged are expressions of clear support for the Islamist Syrian opposition or for the Ba'athist regime. Challenges to the PYD's political ideology are also restricted. Political reporting is unrestricted only if it fits into established local narratives. For these reasons, local media mostly focus on cultural and social issues, while highlighting reconstruction initiatives and civil society activities. [154] [155]

Certain PYD officials have been known to arrest journalists or prevent them from filming certain events or even enter the region. The HCM council has been accused by some journalists and outlets of imposing censorship through selective licensing. The media landscape is reportedly mostly either independent and representing a Syrian identity, or partisan and representing a nationalist Kurdish identity. The partisan Kurdish media is known to be vulnerable to the rally 'round the flag effect, that is, showing strong pro-PYD tendencies in times of conflict or crisis, such as during the repeated military invasions by the Turkish government.

The editorial line in the media has transitioned towards a "generally less critical, if not supportive stance of the PYD-led political system". This is said by local journalists to be due to both personal convictions of some reporters, as well as to the feeling that direct criticism of libertarian socialism would be very unpopular in a conflict-ridden context and would make them "an easy target".

International and regional media report relatively freely by Syrian standards, but they also state that there are constant underlining tensions with the PYD authorities in power and red lines that generally cannot be crossed. Some local media outlets have been shut down under the pretext of them having connections to foreign intelligence agencies.

Local journalists say it is common for some authorities to call media offices directly and order certain issues to not be covered. Journalists have been arrested or banned from reporting on numerous occasions, such as a journalist from the Iraq-based Zagros TV who was arrested in 2017 and the withdrawal of licensing for the Rudaw Media Network in 2015. [156]

There are also reports of PYD youth groups attacking or threatening journalists. Serdar Mele Darwish, founder of Aso, a local network of local journalists, says: “In the current situation. Confronting the authorities too directly is not an option. They would withdraw your license, and your journalists on the ground would be in danger. This would be detrimental to your coverage and impact”. [157] [158]

Additionally, media often face economic pressures, as demonstrated by the shutting down of news website Welati in May 2016. [159] Political extremism incited by the context of the Syrian Civil war can put media outlets under pressure, the April 2016 threatening and burning down of the premises of Arta FM ("the first, and only, independent radio station staffed and broadcast by Syrians inside Syria") in Amuda by unidentified assailants being the most prominent example. [160]

Development of political participation rights Edit

The political model of the region's governance is based on the idea of direct democracy in the self-governance of municipal communities, a philosophy and modus which finds its form in particular in municipal citizens' assemblies. [100]

In the autonomous region, elements of a mutual multi-party democracy have developed, and a large number of political parties and party alliances exist, with broadly free and fair municipal elections having been held in March 2015. Issues of the system from a political participation rights perspective concern the high level of control which the leading Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) alliance, itself dominated by the Democratic Union Party, exercise on politics and policy, in particular on the federal level. [161] [162]

Refugee issues Edit

Hosting inbound refugees Edit

During the Syrian Civil War, the population of the region has more than doubled to about 4.6 million, among the newcomers being Syrians of all ethnicities who have fled from violence taking place in other parts of Syria. [163] Many ethnic Arab citizens from Iraq have found a safe haven in the region as well. [164] [165] In an October 2016 report from the region, U.S. academic Si Sheppard described about Iraqi refugees fleeing the Battle of Mosul that "the lucky ones have found an unlikely haven in neighboring Syria, a place hardly synonymous with physical well-being in the popular imagination. But there is one pocket of the country where the desperate and dispossessed are still welcome. This is Rojava, where the Kurds have established a relative oasis of security and opportunity in a desert of anarchy and oppression." [166]

In the Afrin District with a population of 172,095 according to the 2004 Syrian census alone, according to a June 2016 estimate from the International Middle East Peace Research Center about 316,000 displaced Syrians of Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen ethnicity have found a safe haven. [167]

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. Corruption continued to be a pervasive problem in police forces, security services, migration management agencies, and throughout the government.

Corruption: Due to the lack of free press and opposition access to instruments of government and media, there was almost no detailed information about corruption, except petty corruption. Freedom House reported that to secure its support base the government regularly distributed patronage in the form of public resources and implemented policies to benefit favored industries and companies. Authorities reportedly awarded government contracts and trade deals to allies like Iran and Russia, possibly as compensation for political and military aid. Basic state services and humanitarian aid reportedly were extended or withheld based on a community’s demonstrated political loyalty to the government, providing additional leverage for bribe-seeking officials.

For example, President Bashar Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, reportedly was known as “Mr. 5 Percent” or “Mr. 10 Percent,” depending on the size of the deal. As late as 2011, Makhlouf reportedly controlled 60 percent of the country’s economy. The Panama Papers, Swissleaks, and most recently the Paradise Papers chronicled his money laundering and sanctions busting activities. In April the Anticorruption Digest reported that Makhlouf stands to benefit from the presidential decree addressing confiscation of unregistered properties (see section 1.e.).

Human rights lawyers and family members of detainees stated that government officials in courts and prisons solicited bribes for favorable decisions and provision of basic services. For example, the New York Times reported in February that artist Najah al-Bukai won his release from detention at Branch 227 after his wife bribed officials with more than 10 million Syrian pounds ($20,000).

Financial Disclosure: There are no public financial disclosure laws for public officials.


Parties to the Syrian armed conflict continued to commit with impunity serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and gross human rights abuses. Government and allied forces carried out indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects using aerial and artillery bombing, including with internationally banned weapons, killing and injuring hundreds of people.

Government forces maintained lengthy sieges on densely populated areas, restricting access to humanitarian and medical aid to thousands of civilians. Government forces lifted the siege of Eastern Ghouta in April this was followed by restrictions that impeded some of the displaced civilians from returning to the formerly besieged areas. Security forces arrested and continued to detain tens of thousands of people, including peaceful activists, humanitarian workers, lawyers and journalists, subjecting many to enforced disappearance and torture or other ill-treatment, and causing deaths in detention.

Government forces disclosed the fate of some of the disappeared but failed to provide the families with remains or information around the circumstances of the disappearances. The government violated the right to housing.

Armed opposition groups with the support of Turkey subjected civilians in Afrin to a wide range of abuses, including confiscation and looting of property, and arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment. The US-led coalition failed to acknowledge or investigate the large scale of civilian deaths and destruction caused by their 2017 bombing campaign on Raqqa against the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS). By the end of 2018, the conflict had caused the deaths of more than 400,000 people and displaced more than 11 million people within and outside Syria.

In July, a United Nations resolution that would have renewed the provision of critical cross-border humanitarian aid to civilians in Syria was vetoed by Russia and China. The veto put at risk food aid and health and educational materials necessary to assist millions of internally displaced Syrians.

An interactive website, “War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality,” is the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict and calls upon the US-led coalition to end almost two years of denial about the massive civilian death toll and destruction it unleashed in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Message to Denmark: Syria is Not Safe to Return Refugees

The Danish government should immediately stop plans to withdraw Syrian residence permits.

Hundreds of Syrian refugees, including children, have been told by the Danish Immigration Service to return to Syria, assessing that Damascus and the surrounding areas are safe to return to. At least 39 Syrians have received their final assessment in the Refugee Board – and are now in a deportation position.

But Syria is far from a safe country. Although military hostilities have diminished in most of the country, Syrian citizens continue to risk persecution and human rights abuses – including in Damascus and the surrounding area.

“In Damascus, the Assad regime has consolidated its power now, not with bombs, but with horrific human rights violations, extremely arbitrary arrests and extensive torture laboratories. Can our Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen guarantee the lives of Syrian refugees when they cross the border when the UN and the United States cannot? ” said activist, Dr Haifaa Awad.

Syria: 10 Years of War Crimes, Abuses, Human Rights Violations

As the Arab Spring rippled across the region in 2011, Syrians took to the streets to protest government corruption and call for freedom and democracy, but the uprising turned into a decade-long civil war that saw “massive crimes” including genocide, a U.N. commission said in a report published end of last week.

War crimes, crimes against humanity, including genocide, and violations of international humanitarian law, have characterized the Syrian conflict. (Photo: OHCHR) War crimes, crimes against humanity, including genocide, and violations of international humanitarian law, have characterised the Syrian conflict since its erruption in March 2011. Perpetrators have gone unpunished, the report said.

Additionally, “opportunistic foreign funding, arms and other support to the warring parties poured fuel on this fire that the world has been content to watch burn,” said the head of the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Paulo Pinheiro, in a separate statement .

Investigators documented the “inherently indiscriminate” use of barrel bombs, improvised explosives dropped by helicopters on densely populated civilian neighbourhoods, the intentional targeting of children with sniper fire and the deployment of cluster munitions, thermobaric bombs and chemical weapons.

Wars create a breeding ground for corruption and like other countries affected by violent conflicts, Syria too is at the bottom of the Transparency International Corruption Perception List. “Increased pressure on the supply of resources and massive instability can both be exploited for personal gains,” TI said.

The United States has imposed a series of economic sanctions on members of the Syrian regime and the country’s elite since April 2011 in an attempt to “deprive the regime of the resources it needs to continue violence against civilians”. The most recent set of sanctions, issued in December 2020 targeted Bashar al-Assad’s wife and father in-law among others.

Yet, despite the sanctions and widely documented violations, international parties continue to “flood” warring parties with money, fighters and weapons, the report found.

“Parties to this conflict have benefitted from the selective intervention and woeful negligence of the international community,” Pinheiro said.

And Syrians have paid the price.

Since the conflict began a decade ago, more than 11.5 million people have been displaced, with many of their homes damaged or destroyed. By 2020, 9.3 million Syrians were food insecure, according to the report.

“The assault on Syrian civilians has also been an assault on the fundamental norms of human rights and humanitarian law,” the report concluded, as it called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire to allow for the “restoration of the basic human rights that have been so long denied.”

UN points finger at Turkey over rights abuses in Syria

The United Nations Human Rights Council has published its latest biannual report on Syria, documenting abuses by all the parties in the nine-year-long conflict. The allegations leveled against Turkey and its Sunni rebel allies suggest they are engaging in gross violations of international humanitarian law.

Syria remains a human rights inferno where abuses committed in government-held territory are rivaled by those witnessed in areas held by the jihadi opposition and the Turkish army, the United Nations revealed today.

Based on investigations carried out from Jan. 1 to July 1 of this year, the latest report of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria makes for grim reading. The horrors inflicted by the Syrian government on its citizens are well known and are among the underlying causes of Syria’s bloody, nine-year-long civil conflict.

Torture, arbitrary detentions, targeting of civilians and enforced disappearances continue to be the norm in government-controlled Syria. Prison conditions remain dire. Inmates are confined to tiny cells drenched in feces, urine and vomit and are forced to survive on a loaf of bread and four olives per day. Some said they ate the olive pits “in order to get extra nutrition.”

Abuses occurring under Turkish occupation are, however, only just starting to be formally documented by the UN, with potential legal consequences for Ankara. The main perpetrators are brigades and factions operating under the military arm of the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition called the Syrian National Army, who are accused of organized extortion, looting, property expropriation, rape, kidnapping and murder. Some of the worst offenses were recorded in Afrin, the Kurdish majority enclave that was invaded by Turkish forces in January 2018.

“One boy described to the commission how he had been detained by the Syrian National Army military police in the city of Afrin in mid-2019 and held for five months in Syrian National Army headquarters before being transferred to the Afrin central prison and released in March 2020. While detained, both Syrian National Army members and Turkish-speaking officials dressed in military fatigues were present. The boy was handcuffed and hung from a ceiling. He was then blindfolded and repeatedly beaten with plastic tubes,” the report said.

Sexual violence is rife. “On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instill fear within male detainees, Syrian National Army military police officers forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch in an act that amounts to torture,” stated the report. The incident occurred in Afrin.

Rights groups and international jurists following Syria welcomed the UN’s scrutiny of Turkey.

“Claims of egregious human rights violations targeting nearly every aspect of civilian life in Afrin have been reported since the start of the Turkish invasion in January 2018, but for two and a half years, the international community has paid little attention,” said Meghan Bodette, a Washington-based independent researcher who founded the Missing Afrin Women Project, a website dedicated to tracking missing women in the Turkish-occupied zone. Bodette told Al-Monitor, “This Commission of Inquiry report marks the first time that the United Nations has put forward such strong evidence of war crimes committed by occupying forces there — in particular, evidence of torture, and sexual and gender-based violence. It will hopefully serve as a much-needed first step toward accountability.”

By failing to intervene, specifically in cases where Turkish forces were present when the abuses took place, Turkey “may have violated” its human rights treaties obligations, the UN said, using typically cautious language.

With those words, legal experts contended, the UN is effectively suggesting that Turkey participated in violations of international humanitarian law.

Roger Lu Phillips, legal director for Syrians for Justice and Accountability, a Washington-based organization that is documenting rights abuses in Syria, said the “UN Commission of Inquiry clearly states that Turkey is an occupying power and, as such, has obligations pursuant to the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law.” Phillips argued that “Turkey has effective control because of the sustained presence of its military, imposition of Turkish law, and administration of schools and other public functions. The Syrian National Army are proxy forces of Turkey, and responsibility for the acts of the [Syrian National Army] is imputed to Turkey.”

Phillips observed in emailed comments to Al-Monitor, “Syria could challenge Turkey’s occupation of its territory as an act of aggression before the International Court of Justice, which would have jurisdiction to rule the occupation illegal.” Likewise, victims could bring suit against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights. “Although there are obstacles to achieving enforcement of any judgment, victims might be able to raise the profile of abuses committed by the Syrian National Army, and to shame Turkey into reigning in its proxy forces,” Phillips concluded.

Others aired skepticism that the UN report would have an impact. A Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely said, “This is unlikely to shift the diplomatic landscape. Turkish operations in northern Syria have been possible because of Russian and US approval. So they are the ones who could step up the international response. But it is unlikely Moscow will do anything” because it hopes to exploit the situation to get the Kurds to make peace with Damascus. Distracted by presidential elections and unwilling to pressure Ankara, the United States will do little either. As for the Europeans, the diplomat said, “Most EU countries refuse to fund projects in Turkish-controlled areas beyond humanitarian assistance, but this is not going to change the Turkish calculus. And when we think about Turkey’s use of Syrian mercenaries in Libya or recent calls made by these Syrian groups to defend Turkey against Greece, the UN report informs a potentially very worrying trend for the entire region."

In any case, Ankara rarely bows to EU pressure over rampant violations within its own borders let alone those occurring in the broad swath of territory it controls in northern Syria, dismissing these as baseless .

Still, there is a sliver of evidence that the UN censure may be having an effect. The UN reported that a member of the Syrian National Army-affiliated Ahrar Al-Sharqiyah brigade was sentenced by a military court of the Turkey-based Syrian Interim Government (SIG) for the murder of Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf.

US pressure is believed to have played a role. The SIG also banned the recruitment of child soldiers in May, a violation that is also committed by the US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the UN said.

Turkey, however, continues to detain Syrian Kurds inside Syria and render them to Turkey, where they are jailed and prosecuted on thinly supported terror charges, in a further breach of the Geneva Conventions, Phillips said.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy who closely follows the Syrian conflict, said Turkey “largely focuses on stopping the documentation of abuses, as the [armed opposition] factions did early on during [Turkey’s] October 2019 invasion of northeast Syria.”

“Turkish officers on the ground at times stopped abuses, but there is no clear overall policy on halting these abuses,” Tsurkov remarked in an interview with Al-Monitor.

Ankara has the leverage to do so because “Turkey is the one paying salaries to these fighters. If salaries were cut off from abusers, if there were serious prosecution of abusers, the suffering of civilians under the control of these factions will be greatly reduced,” Tsurkov said.

Top 10 Facts About Human Rights in Syria

On the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian nations, Syria has long been at the crossroads of Middle Eastern and Western commerce and culture.

In March 2011, during the Arab Spring, pro-democracy protests erupted in the city of Deraa. The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. The government attempted to crush the dissent with force, but merely fueled protesters’ resolve. As the conflict escalated, more pro-government and rebel factions have emerged and a number of outside parties, including Lebanon, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the U.S., the U.K. and France involved themselves as well.

Throughout this conflict, innumerable Syrians have suffered. Human rights abuses have been perpetrated on all sides. This article will discuss the top 10 facts about human rights in Syria that are mostly related to the current situation and the war in the country.

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