November 11, 2011

I. Background


Countrywide Crackdown on Protesters

Since March 2011 anti-government protests that started in the southern city of Daraa have spread across Syria. The government’s violent response has failed to quell the demonstrations, and in many parts of the country has had the opposite effect – the crowds grew bigger and new cities joined.[2]

At the time of writing, protests are still taking place regularly in the governorates of Daraa, al-Hasaka, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Homs, Hama, and in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

Syrian security forces, primarily the notorious security services, referred to generically as mukhabarat, and pro-government armed groups, whom Syrians refer to as shabeeha, regularly used force, often lethal force, against largely peaceful demonstrators, and often prevented injured protesters from receiving medical assistance.[3] As the protest movement endured, the government also deployed the army, usually in full military gear and in armored personnel vehicles, to quell protests.

While witness testimonies leave little doubt regarding the extent and systematic nature of abuses, the exact number of people killed and injured by Syrian security forces is impossible to verify. Syria remains off-limits to international journalists and human rights groups, and communications are often interrupted in affected areas. However, an expanding network of activists grouping themselves in local coordination committees and making extensive use of the Internet and social groups have compiled a list of 3,121 civilians dead, including 232children, as of November 2, 2011.[4] On October 14, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay deplored the “devastatingly remorseless toll of human lives” in Syria and said the death toll had exceeded 3,000 people.[5]

Syrian authorities repeatedly claimed that the violence was perpetrated by armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad. On October 7, Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) that those responsible were “criminals who have killed more than 1,100 police and security officials with arms supplied by neighboring countries.”[6]

Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents in which demonstrators, at times supported by military defectors, resorted to violence.[7]For example, demonstrators set security services buildings on fire in the towns of Daraa, Jisr al-Shughur, and Tal Kalakh, destroyed monuments to Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and torched several vehicles belonging to the security forces.[8] Witnesses described some of these episodes to Human Rights Watch; we also viewed them on amateur videos available online. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that protestors had killed members of security forces, usually after the security forces had opened fire on them.

However, these incidents of violence by protesters remain exceptional. Testimony and other documentation gathered by Human Rights Watch from throughout the country since the start of the protests indicate that the majority of protests to date have been largely peaceful. But there is a risk that bigger segments of the protest movement will arm themselves in response to attacks by security forces or shabeeha. According to some reports, since August there has been an increasing trend towards armed resistance on the part of the opposition.[9]

In addition to shooting at protesters, security forces launched a massive campaign of arrests, arbitrarily detaining hundreds of protesters across the country, routinely failing to acknowledge their detention or provide information on their whereabouts, and subjecting them to torture and ill-treatment. The security and intelligence services have also arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists who endorsed or promoted the protests.

Human Rights Watch documented large-scale arbitrary detentions, including the detention of children, in Daraa, Damascus and its suburbs, Banyas and surrounding villages, Latakia, Deir al-Zor, Tal Kalakh, Hama, Homs, Zabadani, Jisr al-Shughur, and Maaret al-Nu`man.[10] The majority of the arrests seemed entirely arbitrary, with no formal charges ever brought against the detainees. Most detainees were released several days or weeks later, but others have not reappeared. Most of those cases constitute enforced disappearances as their families have had no information on their fate or whereabouts for a prolonged period of time.[11] In addition, the security forces have launched a nationwide campaign of arbitrary arrests and intimidation against political and human rights activists, holding them incommunicado, forcing them to sign undertakings to stop protesting, and in some cases torturing them.[12]

Released detainees, some of them children, said that they, as well as hundreds of others they saw in detention, were subjected to torture and degrading treatment. All of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch described appalling detention conditions, with grossly overcrowded cells, where at times detainees could only sleep in turns, and lack of food.[13]

In several cities, including Daraa, Tal Kalakh, Rastan, Banyas, Deir al-Zor, Hama, and parts of Homs, Syrian security forces moved into neighborhoods in military vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, under the cover of heavy gunfire. They imposed checkpoints, placed snipers on roofs of buildings, and restricted movement of residents in the streets. In some places, like Daraa, the security forces imposed a full-out siege that lasted for several weeks, cutting off all means of communication and subjecting residents to acute shortages of food, water, medicine, and other essential supplies.[14]

Homs: A Restive Governorate

The governorate of Homs is geographically the largest in Syria, stretching from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq in the east. Its capital, Homs, with a population of more than one million, is Syria’s third largest city and is located in central western Syria, along the banks of the Orontes River. Its population reflects Syria’s general religious diversity, composed mostly of Sunni Muslims but with significant Alawite and Christian minorities. Other main urban centers in the governorate are al-Qusair, Rastan, and Tal Kalakh near the Lebanese border.

Protests in Homs city erupted soon after the beginning of the Syrian uprising in solidarity with the anti-government protests that started in the southern governorate of Daraa.[15] On March 18, protesters gathered in front of the Khaled bin al-Waleed Mosque in the Khalidiyya neighborhood of Homs city, but security forces quickly dispersed them.[16] Protests spread to other parts of the governorate, erupting in Tal Kalakh in late March 2011 and in Rastan and Talbiseh in April.[17] At this writing, the anti-government movement in Homs remained strong, with almost daily protests, leading many inside Syria to call Homs the “capital of the revolution.”

On April 17, security forces killed shot 14 people in Homs city and fired tear gas and live ammunition on a separate funeral procession in Talbiseh, killing two and leaving at least 15 wounded.[18] (For more details on attacks on protesters see section II below.)

The crackdown increased sectarian tensions between Sunni Muslims, many of whom support the protest movement, and Alawites, who have in large part remained loyal to the Syrian government.[19] Many Sunni residents of the governorate told Human Rights Watch that some Alawites were actively taking part in the crackdown by for example enlisting in pro-government gangs referred to as shabeeha.[20] For their part, Alawite residents in Homs reported to Human Rights Watch that anti-government protesters have shouted sectarian chants against them during the protests and killed and mutilated Alawite officers and other citizens.[21]

Tension has been most palpable in adjoining neighborhoods of Homs city and in areas around Tal Kalakh, a majority Sunni town surrounded by mostly Alawite villages. Sectarian tensions in Homs city erupted on July 16 after the dismembered bodies of three Alawites, reportedly government supporters, were found on Hadara Street. In retaliation Alawite residents set fire to some Sunni-owned shops on the street.[22] Homs residents who escaped to neighboring Lebanon consistently told Human Rights Watch that they no longer ventured into neighborhoods or towns inhabited by groups from the other community for fear of kidnappings and harm.[23]

The security forces’ violent crackdown and increasing sectarian mistrust have led residents of some neighborhoods in the city of Homs, notably Bab Sba`, to organize themselves in local defense committees that are often armed, mostly with firearms but in some cases with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs).[24] A local resident in Bab Sba` explained to Human Rights Watch that “these committees that are formed by neighborhood youths are here to protect us from the shabeeha shooting randomly at us; to ensure that security forces do not kill us while we protest.”[25]

In parallel to these efforts, a number of soldiers – the exact number remains unknowndefected and gathered in Homs, particularly in the town of Rastan, where many of them originally hail from. Many have joined the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade, a unit of defectors based in Homs and named after a famous historical military leader who played a key role in the early conquests of Islam in Arabia.[26]

[2] For a more detailed overview of the launch of the protest movement and the government’s reaction, see Human Rights Watch, We’ve Never Seen Such Horror,June 1, 2011, Section I,,

[3]Syria: Security Forces Remove Wounded From Hospital,” Human Rights watch news release, September 8, 2011,; “Syria: Red Crescent Workers Under Attack,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 14, 2011,

[4] The list of dead is maintained and updated daily on the following website: . The Syrian authorities have not published a list of people killed to date.

[5] “Pillay urges united international action to protect Syrians,” OHCHR press release, October 14, 2011, (accessed October 18, 2011).

[6]Syria lashes out at critics in UN Human Rights Council review of rights record,”Washington Post, October 7, 2011, (accessed October 7, 2011).

[7] Human Rights Watch, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror”,June 1, 2011,, p. 27

[8] Ibid.

[9] See for example, Nir Rosen, “Syria: The revolution will be weaponised,” Al Jazeera English, September 23, 2011, (accessed October 7, 2011), Nir Rosen, “Armed defenders of Syria’s revolution,” Al Jazeera English, September 27, 2011, (accessed October 7, 2011), Anthony Shadid, “Key Syrian City Takes on the Tone of a Civil War,”The New York Times, October 1, 2011 (accessed October 8, 2011).

[10] See for example, “Syria: Mass Arrest Campaign Intensifies,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 20, 2011,; “Syria: Shootings, Arrests Follow Hama Protest,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 6, 2011,

[11] The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Doc.A/61/488. C.N.737.2008.TREATIES-12 of October 2, 2008)defines an enforced disappearance as: “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law” (Article 2). Article 1 of the Convention provides: No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance. For the purposes of a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (A/CONF. 183/9),  Article 7(2)(i) defines enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.”

[12] See for example, “Syria: Targeted Arrests of Activists Across Country,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 15, 2011,

[13] Human Rights Watch, We’ve Never Seen Such Horror, p. 34 ;“Syria: Rampant Torture of Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 15, 2011,

[14] Ibid.,p. 44.

[15] International Crisis Group notes that Homs’ early support for the protests “came as a surprise given the city’s privileged status in recent years. Both Bashar and his brother Maher married into families originally from Homs (the Akhras and the Jadaan), and the president’s choice as governor was a highly energetic personal friend, Iyad Ghazzal.”International Crisis Group, “The Syrian People’s Slow Motion Revolution,”Middle East/North Africa Report No. 108, July 6, 2011, p. 18.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Homs resident, October 5, 2011. See also “In Syria, Crackdown After Protests,”The New York Times, March 18, 2011, (accessed September 2, 2011). For more information about the protests in Daraa, see Human Rights Watch, We’ve never seen such Horror, p. 8.

[17] See Amnesty International, “Crackdown in Syria: Terror In Tell Kalakh,” AI Index: MDE 029/29/2011, July 2011, p.5.

[18] Liam Stack, “In Sometimes Deadly Clashes, Defiant Syrians protest,”The New York Times, April 17, 2011, (accessed September 2, 2011).

[19] For a brief discussion of Alawites’ support for the Assad family see Nir Rosen, “Assad’s Alawites: The guardians of the throne,” October 10, 2011 (accessed October 11, 2011).

[20] Shabeehais a term that started being used in the 1980s to describe gangs of young thugs involved in smuggling activities and working for members of the extended al-Assad family, particularly Mundher and Jameel al-Assad. The shabeeha had no official capacity but used the connections of al-Assad family members to circumvent state laws. The Syrian authorities actually fought them in the 1990s and for a while the Shabeehawere reined in. The term Shabeeha has been used in the current uprising to refer to individuals who are not officially members of the security forces but who are assisting the authorities in cracking down on protests by beating or shooting protesters.See also Tony Badran, “Who Are the Shabbiha?”Weekly Standard, April 12, 2011, (accessed September 8, 2011).

[21] Human Rights Watch phone interview with local Alawite leader, name withheld, August 20, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with five Homs residents met in neighboring countries on separate dates in August, 2011.

[22] Human rights Watch interview with Homs resident, Beirut, August 22, 2011. For some newspaper reporting on sectarian tensions in Homs, see “Sectarian Clashes Deepen Tensions in Syria,”Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2011, (accessed September 8, 2011); “Deaths in Syria Tied to Rift Between Sects,”The New York Times, July 18, 2011, (accessed September 8, 2011), Agence France-Presse, “Activists claim 30 killed in Syrian clashes,” July 17, 2011.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with resident from Wa`er neighborhood in Homs [Yusef], October 5, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with resident from Bab Sba` neighborhood in Homs [Muneer], September 9, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with Tal Kalakh resident, August 4, 2011.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with multiple local residents who fled to Lebanon, August and September 2011.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with resident from Bab Sba` neighborhood in Homs [Muneer], September 9, 2011.

[26] The brigade maintains a Facebook page where they post information on their military activities: