Seven years ago this month, a military defector codenamed Caesar smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria showing some of the victims of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The chilling montage of human misery charted a story of pain, torture and abuse.
Twenty years ago last month, Assad basically inherited the presidency from his father Hafez Al-Assad, who at the time was viewed as one of the worst dictators in the Middle East (or anywhere else for that matter). Assad Senior inflicted three decades of brutality on his people and it seems that his son learnt the trade well because he has outshone his father’s reputation in terms of barbarism and depravity.
It was little wonder, therefore, that the people of Syria, spurred on by the Arab Spring and with high hopes of a new political landscape across the region, rose up in 2011 against this tyrannical dynasty. Instead of responding to their call for political change with dialogue, Assad Junior unleashed his dogs of war. More than half the Syrian population, around 11 million children, women and men, have since been displaced or have fled the country. Only in Syria’s north-west is the flame of revolution and resistance still flickering.
That is where three million Syrians are now trapped in a shrinking opposition stronghold battered by months of bombardment, especially in Idlib province. Since mid-December, Russian-backed Assad forces have been trying to seize Idlib. At the height of a very tense standoff, Russia agreed with Turkey in March to halt the violence and the flow of displaced people. Refugee camps there are densely populated, and there is insufficient humanitarian relief getting through. Nevertheless, people were still optimistic about having a better life and future. That too, though, is now under threat.
An all too familiar shadow hangs over the refugee camps where hopes of freedom and justice once thrived. The threat of the Assad regime and all the evil that it represents is ever-present, and has been joined by the fragmented, ruling rebel group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) whose leadership appears to be adopting some of the more brutal tactics used by the Assad regime to maintain social control in what they clearly believe is “their” territory.
American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, the founder of On the Ground News (OGN) in Syria, briefed me recently about this sinister turn of events. He talked of people being “disappeared” for daring to criticise HTS. Rumours began to surface of torture and abuse in HTS prisons. “People are being held without trial or charge,” he explained. “What happened in Guantanamo is happening here, but there’s more. Some of the methods of torture used by the Assad regime could be happening here.”
As a journalist like me, Abdul Kareem’s loyalty is to his audience who expect nothing more than the simple truth, which is why his despatches during the civil war — including coverage of the dramatic siege of Aleppo — became so compelling. They were brutally frank and delivered what was happening onto our computer screens without fear or favour.
This honesty has now cost Abdul Kareem his liberty. Two weeks ago he was seized by masked HTS gunmen and he himself was “disappeared”. My attempts to get a credible statement from HTS about his fate have elicited only a series of vague statements from the group’s Media Relations Office confirming that Abdul Kareem is in their custody.
Rambling and incoherent statements have followed. What I have been able to establish, though, is that HTS is so hacked off by the content of the journalist’s reports that he is being “interrogated”. As far as I can ascertain, he has now been held for two weeks without any specific charges being made and without access to a lawyer.
The American journalist has some powerful enemies. He previously sued his own government after being told that he was on a “US drones kill list”, which might explain the half dozen or so drone attacks on his vehicles in Syria. He’s also near the top of the Syrian, Russian and Shia militia hit lists and was targeted earlier by the Daesh terrorist group. That he has survived and continued to report from this war zone for a decade is testimony to his own acumen and stealth, and a fair amount of blessings from above.
That run of good fortune now appears to be exhausted, and as long as Bilal Abdul Kareem remains a prisoner of HTS, Syrians in the region hold out little hope of a better life ahead. The last story that he was working on was beginning to bear some fruit when British-born aid worker Tauqir “Tox” Sharif was released by HTS and gave a chilling insight into what happened during his captivity. Had Abdul Kareem not been locked up, I’m quite sure that the video you are about to watch on Middle East Monitor would have eventually been broadcast on OGN.
In it, Sharif talks openly about how he was tortured, describing the crude methods adopted by HTS from the Assad regime. What is being done is not only torture and a war crime, but is also prohibited in Islam.
Unfortunately, Sharif was rearrested around the same time as Abdul Kareem disappeared, as reported recently in MEMO. It seems that HTS is determined to go to extreme lengths to prevent its use of torture and abuse from becoming public knowledge, lest others start to draw parallels between the “opposition group” and the regime in Damascus.
In a bid to find the tape you are now able to watch, HTS dismantled OGN’s studio near the Turkish border, stripping it completely of its discs, hard drives, cameras, recording equipment and studio lighting. Such measures reveal the desperation and lengths that Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is prepared to go to in a bid to hide the truth as it denies torturing and abusing detainees. However, just like Assad, its leaders will discover that you can’t hide from the truth indefinitely, because it has an uncanny knack of coming back to haunt you. That’s a fact that they can neither deny nor ignore.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.