Part 2: The destruction of a people
On Monday, the residents of Kafr Zeita, a town in north central Syria, were retrieving the corpses of their loved ones from under the rubble of their houses, following an airstrike carried out by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Sadly, this is a normal activity in Syria. Such news would scarcely receive a mention even in media sympathetic to the Syrian people and their plight.
According to UN statistics, the death rate in Syria is now approximately 5,000 people a month. This is the highest rate of death in any conflict, including the Iraq war, since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Officially, Syria’s death toll stands at 110,000 but the true figure is probably much higher. There have been many efforts by regime supporters to discredit casualty figures, most of them focusing on the statistics produced by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. However, there are other organisations on the ground in Syria which have provided reliable figures. The Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria has listed the details of 73,223 dead civilians and opposition fighters. The name, gender, status, town of origin and cause of death of these victims is provided on the Centre’s website. It also lists 11,447 casualties from the regime side. What is beyond any doubt is that the government side is in possession of the aircraft, tanks and heavy weaponry which have slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent Syrians, and that the horrific massacres of the conflict such as those that took place in the towns of Banias, Beida, Qubair, Bab al-Sba, Jdeidet Artuz, Tremseh and Houla, among others, have been committed by the regime. Apologists for Bashar Al-Assad tried to blame the Houla massacre on the opposition before a UN inquiry proved regime responsibility.
The pattern of these massacres is grotesquely familiar. Shabiha paramilitary thugs loyal to the government enter a town and kill at least a hundred men women and children, more often than not with knives. There have been cases where babies have been mutilated and left alive. All these massacres have taken place in towns where anti-government protests have previously taken place or where the inhabitants are suspected of loyalty to the opposition. There is very often a sectarian character to the massacres, with many taking place in areas on the fault lines between the Sunni majority population and the Alawite Shia minority, from which Assad and the senior ranks of his military and intelligence services come.
The United States and its NATO allies, who are the chief members of the Orwellian-named “Friends of Syria Group” have imposed a de facto embargo on weapons to the Free Syrian Army and have refused to impose a no-fly zone. These policies ensure that the conflict will not end any time soon and that the regime is able to commit atrocities on a regular basis. Military aircraft rain death from above unhindered by anti-aircraft weapons. The absence of a no-fly zone means that thousands of Syrians have perished in regime airstrikes. Assad’s government has intentionally targeted mosques, schools and field hospitals in an aerial campaign of ferocious brutality. It is estimated that the Syrian air force has carried out 33,000 sorties since the beginning of the revolution. Towns and neighbourhoods, such as the Qaboun district of Damascus, and most of Homs have been utterly destroyed. Government aircraft and artillery have also destroyed ancient mosques such as the Khalid ibn Walid Mosque in Homs and the Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo. On 24 December 2012, 325 people were killed in one single airstrike in the town of Hilfaya, near Hama, as they queued for bread (a commodity in short supply in Syria) outside a bakery. The chemical attack which took place in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21 caught the attention of the whole world but soon afterwards the regime carried out an equally horrific attack, albeit on a smaller scale, targeting a school with incendiary bombs and a napalm-like substance which incinerated 10 children.
Article 2 of the UN convention on Genocide defines it as follows:
“any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”
What is happening in Syria is by this definition a clear-cut case of genocide. The sectarian nature of the Syrian government’s campaign against its citizens is plain to see. The vast majority of the civilian casualties of the war have been killed by the regime and most of them have been members of Syria’s Sunni majority. The most horrific massacres, such as the ones which took place in Banias and Bayda, Sunni towns in the middle of an Alawite majority area, have been designed to kill and displace people in order to create sectarian enclaves.
This is particularly visible in Syria’s third largest city, Homs, which had roughly one million inhabitants before the revolution. Most of the city has been subjected for the past two years to a campaign of terror and destruction. Its inhabitants have been murdered or forced to flee, and those left behind have been living under a hellish siege, subjected to constant bombardment, suffering from malnutrition and starvation and deprived of essential medicines. They have had to bring in food through the city’s sewer system in order to survive. A similar state of siege exists in suburbs of Damascus such as Muadamiya and Darayya. Malnutrition and lack of access to medicine have claimed the lives of thousands, but these are not even included in the official casualty figures of the conflict. However, this state of affairs does not apply to the Alawite majority districts of Homs, which continue to be provided with all their essential needs, including electricity and water, and where life goes on as normal.
Seven million Syrians have been displaced as a result of the conflict; two million of them are now refugees outside the country. Millions of Syrian children are now without schooling and there is talk of a “lost generation”, without access to even the most rudimentary education. Syria’s infrastructure has suffered appalling damage. It is estimated that half of all Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed, along with one-fifth of its schools and at least half a million homes.
Despite the extent of the genocide, and its apparently unstoppable momentum, there are no signs that the situation will get better any time soon; constant efforts have been made to belittle the suffering of the Syrian people or to blame opposition fighters for the crimes of the regime. Both the mainstream and alternative media have done this.
The perverse actions of one mentally-disturbed rebel whose entire family was killed by the regime, and who cannibalised a dead regime soldier after finding images of that soldier raping a mother and her daughters on the soldier’s mobile phone, have been hyped up by the media and received worldwide notoriety. They have been used to tarnish the image of all the Syrian armed opposition.
Regime apologists like to depict the rebels as sectarian, and play up the role of Al-Qaeda and other extremists in the uprising. They claim that the rebels pose a threat to Syria’s religious minorities, particularly the Christian community. This was seen recently in attempts to blame the rebels for the chemical attack in Damascus and when the Free Syrian Army captured Maalula, a strategically-located Christian town near Damascus. Pro-regime media claimed that the inhabitants of the town were being “slaughtered” because of their faith, and that the ancient churches of the town were being destroyed by the rebels. This narrative was picked up by media organisations in the West. In fact the FSA fighters received strict orders from their commanding officers not to enter the churches or to harm the town’s inhabitants in any way. Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, a nun who is head of the Mar Takla monastery in Maalula, gave an interview to Lebanese media and denied that the churches of the town were damaged by the FSA fighters, or that the inhabitants of the town were killed or abducted by the fighters. She was branded a “terrorist” by the regime for doing this.
The smear campaign against the rebels, as opposed to the tolerance and respect that they in fact showed in Maalula, is an indication that the majority of them are not influenced by extremist ideology. Much of the discussion about Syria in the West is centred on the role of Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, which appears to be an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. In truth, the role of these groups is marginal. It was found recently that there are approximately 100,000 Free Syrian Army rebels in Syria, while Jabhat al-Nusra claims the allegiance of only 7,000 fighters.
A more worrying development has been the appearance of a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This group has been targeting other rebels and has kidnapped foreigners. It is believed by many to be a creation of the regime’s intelligence agencies, playing a similar role to the extremist (and government-infiltrated) Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the Algerian civil war of 1992-97. The anarchic conditions of two and a half years of conflict and destruction has allowed an extremist minority to appear on the scene and tarnish the image of the Syrian rebels, the vast majority of whom remain committed to the original values of the Syrian revolution: freedom, dignity, tolerance and democracy. The Syrian people deserve much better than to be left defenceless in the face of a barbaric and sectarian regime which is willing to destroy an entire nation and people in order to stay in power.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.