May 3, 2012

Summary

I cried, and screamed, and begged the soldiers to release them, and then I said, “I want God to burn your hearts just as you are burning mine.”

—“Heba” (not her real name), whose son and brother were executed during the government attack on Saraqeb

As United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan was negotiating with the Syrian government to end the fighting in Syria in late March 2012, government forces launched a series of large-scale attacks against opposition-controlled towns in the Idlib governorate east and north of Idlib city.

This report documents government forces’ attacks on the towns of Sarmeen, Saraqeb, Taftanaz, Hazano, Kelly, and half a dozen smaller villages in this area between March 22 and April 6, 2012. In the course of these attacks, security forces and pro-government militias killed at least 95 civilians, burned, destroyed, and looted hundreds of houses and stores, and arbitrarily detained dozens of people in these towns. At least 35 of the killed civilians were summarily executed.

Human Rights Watch visited the towns of Sarmeen, Saraqeb, Taftanaz, Hazano, Kelly between April 25 to 29 and interviewed 65 victims and witnesses to the attacks. During visits to affected towns, Human Rights Watch also examined physical evidence such as destroyed and burned buildings, remnants of ammunition, and traces of bullets and shells. 

In all of the towns, Human Rights Watch observed and photographed numerous destroyed, damaged, and burned houses, shops, mosques, and makeshift hospitals.

According to the witnesses, the attacks followed similar patterns in all the villages, starting with shelling from tanks early in the morning, sometimes together with attacks from helicopters. After a few hours, tanks and infantry advanced into the towns where they stayed for one to three days before moving on to the next town: Sarmeen (March 22-23); Saraqeb (March 24-27); Taftanaz (April 3-4); Hazano (April 5); and Kelly (April 6).

Graffiti left by soldiers in all the towns visited indicate that the 76th Armored Brigade of the Syrian army played a key role in the military operation. Witnesses also said that agents from Syria’s intelligence agencies participated in the attacks, in some cases arbitrarily detaining or executing local residents. It is also possible that forces from other units participated in the operation.

The towns that were attacked by the Syrian security forces had been mainly controlled by opposition forces. In some cases opposition fighters tried to prevent the army from entering the towns. However, in most cases, opposition fighters said that they withdrew quickly when they realized that they were significantly outnumbered and had no means to resist tanks and artillery. In other towns opposition fighters said that they left without putting up any resistance in order to not endanger the civilian population. On April 6, prior to the ceasefire agreed with the United Nations, forces that had carried out these attacks reportedly returned to the Mastuma military camp in Ariha, seven kilometers from Idlib city.

While both opposition fighters and government soldiers were killed during the operations, this report focuses on violations against the civilian population. The fighting in Idlib appeared to reach the level of an armed conflict under international law, given the intensity of the fighting and the level of organization on both sides, including the armed opposition, who ordered and conducted retreats. This would mean that international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict) would apply in addition to human rights law. Serious violations of international humanitarian law are classified as war crimes.

In the course of the military assault on the part of Idlib governorate visited by Human Rights Watch, government forces and pro-government militias killed at least 95 civilians, many of them by summary execution. Human Rights Watch documented that government forces executed 35 civilians who were in their custody. In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, at least three of the victims were children.

The majority of the executions documented by Human Rights Watch in this report, including several mass executions, took place during the government’s attack on Taftanaz, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants northeast of Idlib city, on April 3 to 4. In Taftanaz, government forces seem to have specifically targeted the Ghazal family, many members of which supported the opposition.

A survivor of the security forces’ killing on April 3 of 19 members of the Ghazal family in Taftanaz described to Human Rights Watch finding the bodies of his relatives:

We first found five bodies in a little shop next to the house. They were almost completely burned. We could only identify them by a few pieces of clothes that were left. Then we entered the house and in one of the rooms found nine bodies on the floor, next to the wall. There was a lot of blood on the floor. On the wall, there was a row of bullet marks. The nine men had bullet wounds in their backs, and some in their heads. Their hands were not tied, but still folded behind.

A mother in the town of Sarmeen described how her three sons were taken from the family home early in the morning on March 23 by seven soldiers from the 4th Brigade of the Syrian army. An hour later a neighbor raised the alarm that the security forces had started a fire nearby.

My daughters and I went out with buckets, and then my daughters, who were in front, ran to me, saying that my sons were there as well. After we extinguished the fire, we found their bodies. Bilal was shot in the middle of his forehead, Yousef behind his ear, and Talal was shot by two bullets, in the head and in the back. Their hands looked like they had been tied behind; the ropes burned, but the hands were still folded behind. We had to leave them in the street for about 10 hours; the shooting continued and we couldn’t take the bodies away. We were only able to bury them after the army left.

During the attacks in Idlib governorate documented in this report, government forces killed some civilians when they opened fire from machine guns, tanks, or helicopters, often several hundred meters away from their targets. In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, government forces opened fire and killed or injured civilians trying to flee the attacks. The circumstances of these cases indicate that government forces failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take necessary precautionary measures to protect civilians. Government forces did not provide any warning to the civilian population about the attacks.

For example, 76-year-old Ali Ma’assos and his 66-year-old wife, Badrah, were killed by machine gun fire shortly after the army launched its attack on Taftanaz in the morning on April 3 as they tried to flee the town in a pickup truck with more than 15 friends and family members.

Upon entering the towns, government forces and shabeeha (pro-government militia) burned and destroyed a large number of houses, stores, cars, tractors, and other property. Local activists have recorded the partial or complete burning and destruction of hundreds of houses and stores. In Sarmeen, for example, local activists have recorded the burning or destruction of 318 houses and 87 shops, in addition to several warehouses, mosques, and pharmacies. In Taftanaz, activists said that about 500 houses were partially or completely burned and that 150 houses had been partially or completely destroyed by tank fire or other explosions.

Because local residents often fled when the army attacked, Human Rights Watch was not always able to find and interview eyewitnesses to the actual destruction. In most cases, owners only found out that their houses had been burned or destroyed when they returned home after the government forces withdrew. In some cases, local residents said that particular houses had been targeted because they belonged to family members of opposition fighters or activists. In other cases, local residents did not know why a particular house had been targeted. Human Rights Watch examined many of the burned or destroyed houses in the affected towns.

In most cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the burning and destruction appeared to be deliberate. The majority of houses that were burned had no external damage, excluding the possibility that shelling ignited the fire. In addition, many of the houses that were destroyed were completely destroyed, in contrast to those which only appeared to have been hit by tank shells.

During the military operations, the security forces also arbitrarily detained dozens of people.  About two-thirds of the detainees remain in detenti0n to date, despite the promises of Assad’s government to release political detainees. In most cases, the fate and whereabouts of the detainees remain unknown, raising fears that they had been subjected to enforced disappearance. Those who have been released, many of them elderly or disabled, told Human Rights Watch that during their detention by various branches of the intelligence apparatus (mukhabarat) in Idlib city they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

Since the beginning of anti-government demonstrations in February 2011, Syrian security forces have carried out widespread and grave violations, in some cases amounting to crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch has documented these violations in several reports and numerous press releases. We have also documented and condemned serious abuses by opposition fighters in Syria, including abuses in Taftanaz. These abuses should be investigated and those responsible brought to justice. However, they by no means justify the violations committed by the government forces, including summary executions of villagers and the large-scale destruction of villages.

In early February 2012, the Syrian military started a large-scale military assault on opposition strongholds including Homs, Hama, and Idlib, carrying out further serious violations. In mid-March, joint UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan proposed a six-point peace plan to bring about a ceasefire and open political dialogue. In the following weeks, Annan negotiated the peace plan with the Syrian government and announced on April 4 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had given assurances he would “immediately” start pulling back his forces and complete a military withdrawal from urban areas by April 10. On April 21, the Security Council established a UN supervision mission in Syria, with 300 observers, tasked with monitoring the cessation of violence and implementation of Annan’s plan.

However, as this report documents, even while Syrian officials were negotiating the peace plan and President Assad was declaring his support for Annan’s efforts, the army continued its military assault on Idlib governorate.

Human Rights Watch calls on the UN Security Council to ensure that the UN supervision mission deployed to Syria includes a properly staffed and equipped human rights component able to safely and independently interview victims of human rights abuses documented in this report, while protecting them from retaliation. Human Rights Watch also called on the UN Security Council to ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.