December 16, 2011

I. Background

Protests in Syria

Protests in Syria broke out on March 18 in response to the arrest and torture of 15 school children by the Political Security Directorate, one of Syria’s intelligence agencies, in the southern city of Daraa. Attempting to suppress the demonstrations, security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least four. Within days the protests grew into rallies that gathered thousands of people.[1] Protests quickly spread to the rest of the country in a show of sympathy with the Daraa protesters. The government’s violent response only further fueled demonstrations.

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 intelligence agencies, referred to generically as mukhabarat, and government-supported militias, referred to locally as shabeeha, regularly used force, often lethal, against largely peaceful demonstrators, and often prevented injured protesters from receiving medical assistance.[2] As the protest movement endured, the government also deployed the army, usually in full military gear and backed by armored personnel vehicles, to quell protests.

While consistent witness statements leave little doubt regarding the widespread and systematic nature of abuses, the exact number of people killed and injured by Syrian security forces is impossible to verify. At the time of writing, 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 (LCC) and making extensive use of the Internet, including social media, and reporting the information to a monitoring group, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), have compiled a list of 3,934 civilians killed, including more than 300 children, as of December 3, 2011.[3]

Syrian authorities went to great lengths to convince the public, both Syrian and international, as well as the members of security forces deployed to quell the protests, that “criminals” and “armed terrorist gangs,” incited and sponsored from abroad, have been responsible for most of the violence.

On October 7, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) that his country was “grappling with terrorist threats” and promised to give the UN a list of “more than 1,100 people who have been killed by the terrorists,” including civil servants and police.[4] In an interview with the British Sunday Times newspaper published on November 20, 2011, President al-Assad blamed “armed gangs” for the killing of 800 members of his security forces.[5]

As this report illustrates, however, in at least some cases members of the security forces fell victim to friendly fire or deliberate killings for their refusal to follow the orders. Defectors interviewed for this report also said that in many instances the dead and injured whom the authorities claimed through the state media had been killed or wounded by "armed gangs" and "terrorists" were actually the victims of the government's repression.

Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents in which demonstrators, at times supported by military defectors, have resorted to violence.[6] For example, demonstrators set government buildings on fire in the towns of Daraa, Jisr al-Shughur, and Tal Kalakh, destroyed monuments to President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad, and torched several vehicles belonging to the security forces.[7] Witnesses described some of these episodes to Human Rights Watch; we also viewed evidence of such attacks on amateur videos available online. Several witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that protesters had killed members of security forces, usually after the security forces had opened fire on them.

At the same time, statements from witnesses, including defectors, protesters, and journalists, indicate that the protesters have been unarmed in the majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations.

Since September, armed attacks on security forces have increased, with the Free Syrian Army, a self-declared opposition armed group with some senior members in Turkey, taking responsibility for many of them, although some commentators, diplomats, and even opposition members have questioned its level of control and organization.[8]  On November 28, 2011, during a meeting in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army agreed with the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group of Syrian opposition, that the Free Syrian Army will “not organize any assault” against Syrian government forces anymore, and will resort to “armed resistance” only for protecting civilians during protests.”[9]

At the same time, several defectors and other witnesses expressed concern that the government’s continued brutal crackdown had increased sectarian tensions and violence. For example, both Sunni and Alawite residents of the central governorate of Homs, a predominantly Sunni area with a large Alawite minority, already report an increase in kidnappings by unknown gunmen and talk about their fear of driving through some neighborhoods in their cities. Journalists have reported on a number of killings that seem motivated by sectarian retribution.[10] The threat of an increase in sectarian violence has led United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to warn during an emergency session on Syria at the UN Human Rights Council on December 2, 2011 that “[t]he Syrian authorities’ continual ruthless repression, if not stopped now, can drive the country into a full-fledged civil war.”[11]

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 intelligence agencies have also arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists who endorsed or promoted the protests, as well as medical personnel suspected of caring for wounded protesters in makeshift field hospitals or private homes.[12]

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.[13] Many of the arrests appeared entirely arbitrary, with no formal charges brought against the detainees. It appears that most detainees were released several days or weeks later, but others have not reappeared. Many of those cases constitute enforced disappearances, as their families have had no information on their fate or whereabouts for a prolonged period of time.[14]

Released detainees, some of them children, said that they, as well as hundreds of others they saw in detention, were subjected to torture and ill-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.[15]

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.[16]

Deployment of Syria’s Security Forces

In March 2011 the Syrian government began deploying security forces from the armed forces, the intelligence agencies, and the shabeeha to quell the protests. First in Daraa, and later, as this report illustrates, in Damascus, Deir al-Zor, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Latakia, and Tartous governorates, the armed forces and intelligence agencies, often working in concert, conducted operations to stamp out the protests.

There are four main intelligence agencies in Syria:

  • The Department of Military Intelligence (Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya), which includes the Palestine Branch;
  • The Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi);
  • The General Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-'Amma), which is generally referred to by its previous name, State Security (Amn al-Dawla); and
  • The Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya).[17]

Intelligence agencies overlap extensively, and there are no clear rules for which agency will take the lead in a particular action. These agencies have virtually unlimited de facto authority to carry out arrests, searches, interrogation, and detention. They are more than a simple arm of the government; they are in practice autonomous entities that report directly to the highest officials in the Syrian state, and according to some analysts, directly to the President.[18]

Units from the armed forces deployed to quell the protests include the Presidential Guard, the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 11th, 15th, and 18th Divisions, and various Special Forces Regiments, including the 35th, 45th, and 46th Regiments. Service in the armed forces is compulsory for adult males[19] and the majority of army defectors are low-level conscripts.[20]

More detailed information regarding the specific military units and intelligence agencies involved in the attacks against protesters in different cities and large-scale military operations is provided in the appendix to this report. This includes information on the structure of the units, locations where they were deployed, violations in which they were allegedly involved, and, where this information is available, the names of their commanders or the officials in charge.

Defections from Armed Forces and Security Agencies

The rate of defections from the Syrian armed forces and intelligence agencies appears to have steadily increased since the authorities deployed their security forces to suppress anti-government protests in March 2011. Estimates of the number of defectors vary significantly. Riad al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syrian Army, a self-declared armed opposition group, told Reuters that his group consisted of 15,000 defectors by mid-October; but many others believe that those numbers are exaggerated.[21] An opposition member told Human Rights Watch in November that he estimated that there were a “few thousand—in the single digits—defectors in the Free Syrian Army.”[22]

The majority of the defectors told Human Rights Watch that they decided to defect when they discovered that the authorities and their officers had deliberately misled them about the nature of the protests. According to the defectors, when the protests erupted in mid-March, the authorities immediately restricted soldiers’ access to information and launched a propaganda campaign to convince the soldiers that they were fighting “armed gangs” and “terrorists” supported by an international conspiracy to destroy Syria. A conscript serving in the Military Police in Deir al-Zor told Human Rights Watch: “Protests in Daraa started on March 18. The very next day they confiscated our cell phones and barred us from watching anything but Syrian state TV and the pro-government Dunya TV. On the news, they started telling us about terrorists.”[23]

A conscript soldier based in Rankous, a suburb of Damascus, gave a similar account to Human Rights Watch:

Soldiers in the unit were under close surveillance; we couldn’t really talk to each other. As for cell phones, they were never allowed, but this rule was never enforced. But starting in April, commanders started breaking the cell phones whenever they caught somebody using them. All TV channels were banned, aside from official Syrian TV.
Every morning commanders conducted a meeting, talking about how good Assad and his family were, and about the threats from the terrorists. And then they also forbade us from taking leave. It used to be eight days every two months, but after April nobody was allowed to go.[24]

A member of the 45th Special Forces Regiment, deployed in the coastal areas of Banyas and Markeb, told Human Rights Watch:

We were told that there are terrorist groups coming into the country with funding from Bandar Bin Sultan [a prominent Saudi prince who served until 2009 as Saudi's national security chief], Saad al-Hariri [a former Lebanese prime minister], and Jeffrey Feltman [US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs].[25]

Military commanders often communicated this information to soldiers during daily briefings, referred to as nasharat tawjeeh. A lieutenant in the 14th Division posted in Damascus described the briefing: "Each morning we had guidance briefings. They would tell us there are gangs and infiltrators. They would show us pictures of dead soldiers and security forces."[26] One defector, who had served in the army for 25 years, most recently as a communications officer responsible for his unit’s informational radio programs, told Human Rights Watch:

Usually, I wrote the news segments myself and higher-ranking officers only made minor edits to what I wrote, but when I wanted to report on the protests in March, the commanders gave me a prepared statement instead of looking at what I had written. The statement said that terrorist gangs were attacking civilians. Some of my relatives had been participating in the protests, so I knew better. I refused to read it on air, saying that I was not feeling well, but somebody else read it instead.[27]

Defectors from units serving in a number of governorates all over Syria described similar measures taken to prevent them from finding out what was happening, indicating a high-level policy to restrict soldiers’ access to information.

Isolated from any independent sources of information, defectors say they and many of their fellow soldiers initially believed the government statements. A 20-year-old conscript who was stationed on the border with Israel told Human Rights Watch:

When the events started in Daraa, the officers took all our TVs, radios, and phones. The only news we got was through internal radio, and it was all about hooligans, foreign elements, etc. Most of us believed it, and we were scared; even the movement of birds and butterflies would set off shooting.[28]

For many of the defectors, the turning point came when they were finally allowed to go home on leave. The realization that close relatives and friends were participating in the protests and had been attacked by the security forces convinced many that the government’s claims were false. Some even participated in protests themselves while on leave. A few of the defectors said that it was the killing or arrests of family members and friends during protests that convinced them to defect.

Others said they decided to defect after officers ordered them to shoot at peaceful protesters or after they witnessed or participated in the killing of large numbers of protesters. For example, one soldier in the 65th Brigade, 3rd Division, who was sent to Douma to suppress protests in April, told Human Rights Watch:

At one point we killed eight people in 15 minutes. The protesters were unarmed. They didn’t even have rocks! That’s when I decided to defect. I threw away my gun and ran towards the protesters. Somebody picked me up in a van and took me home to Daraa.[29]

Defectors also said that they became disillusioned by officers planting weapons in mosques, frequent friendly fire incidents between intelligence agents and army soldiers, and claims, intended to mislead, that “armed protesters” and “terrorists” had killed soldiers who had actually been killed by intelligence agents, friendly fire, or accidents.

[1] 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: Crimes against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces, June 1, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/06/01/we-ve-never-seen-such-horror-0, Section I.

[2] Ibid.; Human Rights Watch, “We Live as in War”: Crackdown on Protesters in the Governorate of Homs, Syria,  November 11, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/11/11/we-live-war-0; “Syria: Security Forces Remove Wounded From Hospital,” Human Rights watch news release, September 8, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/08/syria-security-forces-remove-wounded-hospital; “Syria: Red Crescent Workers Under Attack,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 14, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/14/syria-red-crescent-workers-under-attack.

[3] Syrian opposition groups maintain and regularly update a list of individuals killed in Syria on the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) website http://www.vdc-sy.org/. The Syrian authorities have not published a list of people killed to date. In its statistics, the Violations Documentation Center uses the term “civilians” to describe protesters and bystanders as opposed to defectors and members of the security forces.

[4] “Syria unrest: Medvedev urges Assad to reform or go,” BBC News, October 7, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15218727  (accessed October 7, 2011).

[5] Hala Jaber, “Strike Syria and the world will shake; Syria's president tells The Sunday Times that violence is the fault of armed gangs and the Arab League is a stooge of the West,” The Sunday Times, November 20, 2011, http://www.dp-news.com/en/detail.aspx?articleid=103707 (accessed November 27, 2011).

[6] Human Rights Watch, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror,” p. 27.

[7] Ibid.

[8]A recent report by the International Crisis Group commented that the “Free Syrian Army itself is more of a wild card than a known entity.” International Crisis Group, “Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria's Dynamics,” Middle East Briefing No. 31, November 24, 2011, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/B031%20Uncharted%20Waters%20-%20Thinking%20Through%20Syrias%20Dynamics.pdf (accessed November 24, 2011). The highest profile attack attributed to the Free Syrian Army was a November 16 attack on an Air Force Intelligence building in Harasta. The details of the attack remain murky. One Western diplomat residing in Damascus told Human Rights Watch that reports of a large-scale attack were overblown. Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Beirut, November 24, 2011. 

[9] İpek Yezdani, “Dissidents from Syria Reveal Action Strategy,” Hürriyet Daily News, November 30, 2011, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/Default.aspx?PageID=238&nID=8200&NewsCatID=338 (accessed December 5, 2011); “Syrian opposition to co-ordinate with Free Syrian Army,” BBC News, December 1, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15984682 (accessed December 5, 2011).

[10] For media accounts, see, for example, Anthony Shadid, “Sectarian Strife in City Bodes Ill for All of Syria,” The New York Times, November 19, 2011,  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/world/middleeast/in-homs-syria-sectarian-battles-stir-fears-of-civil-war.html (accessed November 25, 2011); Nir Rosen, “A Tale of Two Villages,” October 24, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/10/2011102365913224161.html (accessed November 25, 2011); “Homs, a Syrian City Ripped Apart by Sectarian Killing,” Agence France-Presse in Al Arabiya News, November 26, 2011, http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/11/26/179278.html (accessed December 5, 2011).

[11] Nada Bakri, “U.N. Says Action Needed to Prevent Civil War in Syria,” The New York Times, December 2, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/03/world/middleeast/un-says-action-needed-to-prevent-civil-war-in-syria.html (accessed December 5, 2011).

[12] See, for example, “Syria: Targeted Arrests of Activists across Country,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 15, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/05/15/syria-targeted-arrests-activists-across-country.

[13] See, for example, “Syria: Mass Arrest Campaign Intensifies,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 20, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/20/syria-mass-arrest-campaign-intensifies; “Syria: Shootings, Arrests Follow Hama Protest,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 6, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/06/syria-shootings-arrests-follow-hama-protest.

[14] 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.” International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Doc. A/61/488, December 20, 2006, entered into force December 23, 2010. 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.” Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), A/CONF.183/9, July 17, 1998, entered into force July 1, 2002, art. 7(2)(i).

[15] Human Rights Watch, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror,” p. 34; “Syria: Rampant Torture of Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 15, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/04/15/syria-rampant-torture-protesters.

[16] Human Rights Watch, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror,” p. 44.

[17] See “Syria’s Intelligence Services: A Primer,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, July 1, 2000, http://www.intelpage.info/forum/viewtopic.php?t=588 (accessed October 1, 2009); and Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/MENA), Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 48-51. The Air Force Intelligence Directorate is only nominally tied to the air force. Its role as a powerful and feared intelligence agency in Syria comes from the fact that the late President Hafez al-Assad was once the air force commander, and later turned the air force intelligence service into his personal action bureau.

[18] Nominally, the General Intelligence Directorate and Political Security Directorate are “civilian” agencies and under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, but in practice they are both autonomous entities. Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence nominally report to the Ministry of Defense, but again, in practice, are autonomous entities. See “Syria’s Intelligence Services: A Primer,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, http://www.intelpage.info/forum/viewtopic.php?t=588; Ahed Al Hendi, “The Structure of Syria’s Repression,” Foreign Affairs, May 3, 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67823/ahed-al-hendi/the-structure-of-syrias-repression?page=show (noting that “However structured they are in theory, the security agencies are dominated by the Assad family in practice”); Shmuel Bar, “Bashar’s Syria: The Regime and its Strategic Worldview,” 2006,  http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/2590Bashars.pdf (accessed December 5, 2011)(noting that the heads of the various security organs “answer to the president directly in all matters”); Human Rights Watch, Syria Unmasked, p. 40.

[19] Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, “Syria: Compulsory military service, including age limit for performing service; penalties for evasion; occasions where proof of military service status is required; whether the government can recall individuals who have already completed their compulsory military service,” SYR102395.E, March 8, 2007, SYR102395.E, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/47d6547928.html (accessed 26 November 26, 2011).

[20] For media accounts, see for example, Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Zeina Karam, “Army defectors threaten to transform Syrian uprising into civil war,” The Associated Press, November 21, 2011, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45390188/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/#.TtDxlXLhez1 (accessed November 26, 2011);  Alexandra Sandels, “Syria military defectors taking active role in revolt,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/17/world/la-fg-syria-rebel-army-20111118 (accessed November 26, 2011); “Syria Faces Growing Pressure As Bloodshed Spikes,” National Public Radio, November 15, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/11/15/142364563/syria-faces-growing-pressure-as-bloodshed-spikes (accessed November 26, 2011).

[21] Erika Solomon, “Feature – Syria Army Rebels Fight from the Shadows,” Reuters, November 23, 2011, http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/11/23/idINIndia-60691920111123 (accessed November 27, 2011).  

[22] Human Rights Watch interview, November 5, 2011.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with “Imad,” November 5, 2011.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with “Wassim,” October 27, 2011.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with “Mu`awiya,” June 15, 2011.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with “Louai,” June 21, 2011.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with “Sarmir,” July 25, 2011.

[28] Human Rights Watch interview with “Yasir,” July 28, 2011.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with “Habib,” October 31, 2011.