(New York) - Defectors from Syria's security forces described receiving, and following, orders to shoot on protesters to disperse them, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch interviewed eight soldiers and four members of the security agencies who had defected since anti-government protests erupted in March 2011. Those interviewed participated in the government crackdown in Daraa, Izraa, Banyas, Homs, Jisr al-Shughur, Aleppo, and Damascus. The soldiers also reported participating in and witnessing the shooting and injury of dozens of protesters, and the arbitrary arrest and detention of hundreds.
All of the interviewed defectors told Human Rights Watch that their superiors had told them that they were fighting infiltrators (mundaseen), salafists, and terrorists. The defectors said they were surprised to encounter unarmed protesters instead, but still were ordered to fire on them in a number of instances. The defectors also reported that those who refused orders to shoot on protesters ran the risk of being shot themselves. One of the defectors reported seeing a military officer shoot and kill two soldiers in Daraa for refusing orders. Human Rights Watch interviewed the defectors in person in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
"The testimony of these defectors provides further evidence that the killing of protesters was no accident but a result of a deliberate policy by senior figures in Syria to use deadly force to disperse protesters," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Syrian soldiers and officials should know that they too have not just a right but a duty to refuse such unlawful orders, and that those who deliberately kill or injure peaceful protesters will be subject to prosecution."
Under international standards such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The UN Code of Conduct for law enforcement officials says that they shall to the best of their capability prevent and rigorously oppose any violations of the law or Code of Conduct.
Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to condemn the Syrian authorities' systematic violations of human rights, adopt targeted sanctions against officials responsible for the killing and torture of protesters, and impose an embargo on all arms and security equipment to Syria. Russia has opposed a European-led UN Security Council draft resolution, which condemns Syria's government but stops short of imposing sanctions. South Africa, India, and Brazil have refused so far to support the resolution.
"Four months into the crackdown, the Security Council should be pressing the Syrian leadership to end the bloodshed, yet some members refuse even to consider a resolution, hiding behind their frustration with the situation in Libya," Whitson said. "Syria's civilians deserve far more support from emerging powers like South Africa, India, and Brazil."
Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to grant access to Syria to independent observers and allow them to monitor and report on developments in the country freely, and to provide full cooperation and access to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights team tasked to investigate the alleged violations.
Orders to Shoot Protesters
Five of the defectors told Human Rights Watch that they received explicit orders to shoot at protesters. One member of Syria's security agencies, referred to locally as mukhabarat, was deployed in Homs, Syria's third largest city, on April 19, when Syria's security forces violently dispersed one of the biggest gatherings of protesters attempting to stage a sit-in in the central Clock Tower Square. He told Human Rights Watch that Colonel Abdel Hameed Ibrahim ordered the soldiers to fire on unarmed protesters and that the soldiers complied, killing dozens of people:
The protesters had sat down in the square. We were told to disperse them with violence if needed. We were there with air force security, army, and shabbiha [armed supporters of the government who do not belong to security forces]. At around 3:30 a.m., we got an order from Colonel Abdel Hameed Ibrahim from air force security to shoot at the protesters. We were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don't know where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs. And then the fire trucks started cleaning the square.
A conscript who was a member of the Presidential Guard recounted how he was deployed on April 18 to Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, to quell a protest:
They gave each one of us a Kalashnikov [rifle] with two magazines, and there was more ammunition in the vehicles. They also gave us electric tasers. They told us we were being sent to fight the gangs because security services needed reinforcement. We were surprised [when we got to Harasta] because we couldn't see any gangs, just civilians, including some women and children, in the street, and members of the mukhabarat firing at them. I was in a group with five other soldiers from my unit. We received clear orders to shoot at civilians from the Presidential Guard officers and from the 4th military battalion, although normally we don't get orders from other units. One of the officers who gave orders was Major Mujahed Ali Hassan from 4th battalion; his military vehicle license plate is 410. The exact orders were "load and shoot." There were no conditions, no prerequisites. We got closer to the demonstrators, and when we were some five meters away, the officers shouted "fire!" At that moment, the five of us defected and ran over to the demonstrators' side throwing our weapons to them while running away.
The interviewed defectors reported that they were generally deployed in mixed teams of army personnel and often plainclothes mukhabarat and shabeeha. Two soldiers reported incidents where their units had opened fire on armed mukhabarat and shabeeha wearing civilian clothes after mistaking them for anti-government gangs. A first sergeant (Raqeeb Awwal) said the army opened fire in the coastal town of Bayda on members of security services wearing civilian clothes because they mistook their identity. Other defectors reported that security services later dressed in army clothes to avoid such shootings.
A conscript trained as a sniper was deployed in Izraa, a town of 40,000 near Daraa, on April 25, three days after security forces had shot 28 protesters over a 48-hour period; he told Human Rights Watch:
I was in Squad 14 (Firqa 14) of the 4th Regiment. We were around 300 soldiers deployed to Izraa. I had heard so much about foreign armed groups that I was eager to fight them. But then General Nasr Tawfiq gave us the following orders: "Don't shoot at the armed civilians. They are with us. Shoot at the people whom they shoot at." We were all shocked after hearing his words, as we had imagined that the people were killed by foreign armed groups, not by the security forces. We realized that our orders were to shoot at our own people.
A soldier who was deployed for a month in Daraa before defecting on June 1 said: "We received orders to kill protesters. Some military refused the orders and were shot with a handgun. Two were killed in front of me, by someone in the rank of lieutenant (muqaddam). I don't know his name. He said they were traitors."
A sergeant (raqeeb) in Squad 7 of Brigade 88 (liwa'), who was posted in the southern town of al-Hara, near Daraa, described the orders his squad received when the army circled the town: "Snipers were on rooftops. Their orders were, ‘If anyone goes out on the street, detain or shoot.' I recall watching a guy go out to smoke outside and then being shot and killed by a sniper."
Mobilized to Fight Infiltrators and Terrorists
All of the interviewed defectors told Human Rights Watch that their superiors had led them to believe that they were fighting armed gangs paid by outside actors. A member of Regiment 45 in the Special Forces (al-Kuwwat al-Khassat - Fawj 45), 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]."
Military commanders often communicated this information during daily briefings to soldiers, referred to as "nasharat tawjeeh." A lieutenant in Squad 14 (Firka 14), 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."
A member of the mukhabarat posted in Homs reported that he and his colleagues "received leaflets that there are infiltrators and salafists in the country and that they needed to stop them. In the flyers, they said Bandar Bin Sultan and Saad Hariri had paid those infiltrators."
According to the defectors, regular soldiers were not allowed to watch television in private to avoid any of them watching TV channels that aired anti-government information. Officers could watch television but only Syrian state television and Dunya TV, a pro-government channel owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin and close ally of President Bashar al-Asad. A conscript doing his military service in Damascus told Human Rights Watch:
Every night they used to summon us in a stadium-like place in the military barrack and make us watch Dunya TV from a big TV screen. It was all scenes from Daraa showing people killed by what they reported as foreign armed groups. Officers would repeatedly tell us that there is a "foreign plot" going on in Daraa. Watching Dunya TV every night between 20:00 and 22:00, we had the firm belief that there is a foreign conspiracy against which we need to fight and protect our people.
Detentions and Theft During Break-ins
Some of the defectors said that security forces detained large numbers of people and routinely beat the detainees. A member of Regiment 45 in the Special Forces (al-Kuwwat al-Khassat - Fawj 45), who was deployed in the coastal area around Banyas, told Human Rights Watch about the arrest campaign he witnessed in the village of Markeb:
We had around 400 names of people whom we wanted to detain. We went to the village. Then a woman's protest came out refusing the entry of the army (we had not yet detained anyone) inside the village, almost in the center. We started going into homes. We would break into closed houses. We detained so many people. Some men tried to escape through a side road in a valley. But the army opened fire on those trying to escape. We brought those detained to the center of the village, stepping on them and insulting them. A security officer stood on a man, yelling "Who is your god? [Say] Bashar al-Asad." We had so many detainees in the area that we used the Banyas stadium as a detention facility.
The soldier reported that the security forces also detained children. "I saw the list of wanted individuals. So many were born in 1993, 1994, 1995. Mere teenagers," he said. "We later entered Banyas and also detained men and children. By the end of our first day in Banyas, I asked an officer how many detainees we had taken that day; he said around 2,500 in Banyas alone, all taken to the Banyas stadium. People would get beaten in the bus on the way there and in the stadium as well."
A sergeant (raqeeb) in Squad 7 of Brigade 88 (Liwa') who was posted in the southern town of al-Hara, near Daraa, described the arrest campaign following the security forces' entry into the town on May 10:
We surrounded the town for days. I saw how the snipers would shoot on anyone who went out of his house. Then we moved in. The mukhabarat who were with us had lists of people to arrest. They had details: this person tore a poster of the president or this person shouted "with excitement" at an anti-government protest. I saw many of those detained and some looked as young as 12. Six buses came and took the detained. We then gathered all the motorbikes in the town's center, and a tank crushed them. We talked among ourselves about how some soldiers stole gold and money from houses. In one house, a colleague told me that they found one million Syrian pounds [around $20,000] and his commanding officer decided to confiscate the money saying it was being used to purchase weapons even though my colleague told me there was no such evidence.
Other defectors also reported theft incidents in the towns of Daraa and Homs.
A member of the Special Missions Unit (Wihdat al-Maham al-Khassat), an elite unit under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, described his unit's role in cracking down on university students in Aleppo:
We were sent to the university dorms to arrest people, with a simple order: "Go in and detain." We must have detained more than 200 people in one day around late April/early May. We wanted to scare them and other students to prevent them from protesting again. Our job was to detain the students and take them to the branches of the mukhabarat, mostly Military Intelligence. We would beat people all the way to the bus. We didn't know what would happen to the detainees after we dropped them off with the mukhabarat.
"The accounts of soldiers who were horrified enough at their commanders' orders and deceit to flee should send a message to the UN and other countries that they need to do more to put a stop to these brutal attacks on civilians," Whitson said.