(New York) – Syrian government forces killed at least 95 civilians and burned or destroyed hundreds of houses during a two-week offensive in northern Idlib governorate shortly before the ceasefire, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The attacks happened in late March and early April, as United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan was negotiating with the Syrian government to end the fighting.
The 38-page report, “‘They Burned My Heart’: War Crimes in Northern Idlib during Peace Plan Negotiations ,” documents dozens of extrajudicial executions, killings of civilians, and destruction of civilian property that qualify as war crimes, as well as arbitrary detention and torture. The report is based on a field investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch in the towns of Taftanaz, Saraqeb, Sarmeen, Kelly, and Hazano in Idlib governorate in late April.
“While diplomats argued over details of Annan’s peace plan, Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another,” said Anna Neistat , associate director for program and emergencies at Human Rights Watch. “Everywhere we went, we saw burnt and destroyed houses, shops, and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the ceasefire to cause harm.”
Human Rights Watch documented large-scale military operations that government forces conducted between March 22 and April 6, 2012, in opposition strongholds in Idlib governorate, causing the death of at least 95 civilians. In each attack, government security forces used numerous tanks and helicopters, and then moved into the towns and stayed from one to three days before proceeding to the next town. Graffiti left by the soldiers in all of the affected towns indicate that the military operation was led by the 76th Armored Brigade.
In nine separate incidents documented by Human Rights Watch, government forces executed 35 civilians in their custody. The majority of executions took place during the attack on Taftanaz, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants northeast of Idlib city on April 3 and 4.
A survivor of the security forces’ execution 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 burnt. 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.
Human Rights Watch researchers were able to observe the bullet marks on the wall that formed a row about 50-60 cm above the floor. Two of those executed were under 18 years old.
In several other 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 pick-up truck with more than 15 friends and family members.
Upon entering the towns, government forces and shabeeha (pro-government militias) also 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 of 437 rooms and 16 stores, and the complete destruction of 22 houses. 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. Human Rights Watch examined many of the burned or destroyed houses in the affected towns.
In most cases, 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 ruined houses were completely destroyed, in contrast to those which appeared to have been hit by tank shells, where the damage was only partial.
During the military operations, the security forces also arbitrarily detained dozens of people, holding them without any legal basis. About two-thirds of the detainees remain in detention to date, despite promises by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to release political detainees. In most cases, the fate and whereabouts of the detainees remains unknown, raising fears that they had been subjected to enforced disappearances. Those who have been released, many of them elderly or disabled, told Human Rights Watch that during their detention in various branches of the mukhabarat (intelligence agencies) in Idlib city they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
Opposition fighters were present in all of the towns prior to the attacks and in some cases tried to prevent the army from entering the towns. In most cases, according to local residents, opposition fighters withdrew quickly when they realized that they were significantly outnumbered and had no means to resist tanks and artillery. In other towns, opposition fighters left without putting up any resistance; residents said this was in order to avoid endangering 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.
Human Rights Watch has previously 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. These abuses by no means justify, however, the violations committed by the government forces, including summary executions of villagers and the large-scale destruction of villages.
Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations Security Council to ensure that the UN supervisory mission deployed to Syria  includes a properly staffed and equipped human rights section that is able safely and independently to interview victims of human rights abuses such as those 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, and for the ongoing UN Commission of Inquiry to support this.
“The United Nations – through the Commission of Inquiry and the Security Council – should make sure that the crimes committed by Syrian security forces do not go unpunished,” said Neistat. “The peace plan efforts will be seriously undermined if abuses continue behind the observers’ backs.”
Eyewitness Accounts From “‘They Burned My Heart’: War Crimes in Northern Idlib during Peace Plan Negotiations”
The soldiers had handcuffed him behind his back. They didn’t hit him in front of me, but I saw that his eye was bruised. I tried to be quiet and nice to the soldiers so that they would release him.–Mother of Mohammad Saleh Shamrukh, chant-leader from Saraqeb, who was summarily executed by the Syrian security forces on March 25, 2012
They spent about 15 minutes in the house, asking him about weapons and searching everywhere. I think they were looking for money. I didn’t say good-bye so as to not make him sad. He didn’t say anything either. When they left, the soldiers said that I should forget him.
The soldiers placed the four of us facing a wall. They first asked Awad where his armed sons were. When Awad said that he was an old man and that he didn’t have any armed sons, they just shot him three times from a Kalashnikov. They then said to Ahmed that apparently 25 years in prison had not been enough for him. When he didn’t say anything, they shot him. They then shot Iyad without any questions and he fell on my shoulder. I realized that it was my turn. I said there is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet and then I don’t remember anything else.–Mohammed Aiman Ezz, 43-year-old man shot three times in the back of the head and neck by government forces in an attempted execution of four men in Taftanaz on April 4. He was the only survivor
I knew in my heart it was my boys [my son and my brother], that they were killed. I ran out, and about 50 meters from the house there were nine bodies, next to the wall. There were still snipers on the roofs, and we had to move very slowly, using flashlights. I pointed my flashlight at the first body, then the second – it wasn’t Uday or Saed. Then I asked the neighbors to help, and we found them both. Saed still had his hands tied behind. People later told me that Uday and Saed were executed there, and the other seven were FSA fighters brought from other places. Uday had a bullet wound in the neck and the back of his head; Saed in his chest and neck.–“Heba” (not her real name), mother of 15-year-old Uday Mohammed al-Omar and 21-year-old Saeed Mustafa Barish, both executed by the Syrian security forces in Saraqeb on March 26, 2012
The tank was on the main road, just 10 meters away from the house. Suddenly, they fired four shells, one after the other, into the house. I was in the house next door, with my mother and six children. We were all thrown into the air by the blast, and for 15 minutes I couldn’t see or hear anything. Then we went into the room that was hit by the shells. One of the walls had a huge hole, some 1.5 meters in diameter, and the opposite wall was completely destroyed. We found Ezzat in the rubble; we could only see his fingers and part of his shoe. It is a miracle that his wife and child were not hurt. They were in the same house, but went to the kitchen when the shells hit. We took Ezzat out, but couldn’t save him. His chest was crushed, and blood was coming out of his mouth and ears.–“Rashida” (not her real name), a relative of 50-year-old Ezzat Ali Sheikh Dib who died when the army shelled his house in Saraqeb on March 27, 2012
They put a Kalashnikov [assault rifle] to my head and threatened to kill us all if my husband did not come home. The children started crying. Then an officer told a soldier to get petrol and told the children that he would burn them like he would burn their father because he is a terrorist. When the soldier came back with some sort of liquid – it didn’t seem to be petrol – they poured it out in three of the rooms while we were staying in the living room. We wanted to get out of the house, but the soldiers prevented us. My young daughters were crying and begging them to let us go. We were all terrified. Finally, they allowed us to leave the house, but I became even more afraid when I saw all the soldiers and tanks in the street.–“Salma” (not her real name), whose house in Taftanaz was burnt by the soldiers on April 4, along with the houses of her five brothers-in-law
They put me in the car, handcuffed, and kept there all day, until seven in the evening. I told them, ‘I am an old man, let me go to the bathroom,’ but they just beat me on the face. Then they brought me to State Security in Idlib, and put me in a 30-square-meter cell with about 100 other detainees. I had to sleep squatting on the floor. There was just one toilet for all of us. They took me to an interrogation four times, each time asking why some of my family members joined the FSA. I didn’t deny it, but said there was nothing I could do to control what my relatives do. They slapped me on the face a lot.– “Abu Ghassan” (not his real name), 73-year-old man who was detained in one of the towns in northern Idlib and held in detention for 18 days