Silence, Violence and Carnage. What I Have Seen of Syria

Manifestazione pacifica a Zabadani, regione di Damasco, 2012

(di Lorenzo Declich, Reset*). From the onset things on the field were already very clear. The violence of the regime manifested itself immediately. In fact, the revolt was symbolically born as a “civil” response to an act of violence: a group of children, beaten and tortured for having written what they thought of Bashar al-Asad on a wall. At that stage the propaganda machine was already well greased, but nobody with any sense thought that these images and videos of the repression against peaceful protestors were fake. However, this would actually become one of the pillars of misinformation in the years to come.

They were undercover or wore uniforms, and they shot at the helpless crowd.

At the end of the protests many were on the ground.

Some still breathed, some moved, while others lay still.

Protests were followed by arrests, rape and torture, many of which had no return.

Activists worked to bring prisoners home, or to hear news of their whereabouts.

In April 2011, the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria was created.

They documented deaths, tortures experienced by prisoners through stories and videos of martyred, starving people on the brink of death.

Protests were primarily organized around two events. The first was planned on Fridays, the second, depended on the intensity of repression: funerals.

***

Things continued this way for some time. And, despite repression, the revolt grew.

Assaults started. At first they were “soft”: armoured vehicles blocked escape routes of rebel cities.

The city of Deraa was the first.

The regime’s aim was to silence the protests, isolate the hot-bed of the revolt and not allow any kind of connection between activists.

Whenever there was an organised protest strategists of the regime would send the army, placing conscript soldiers at the front, and order to shoot.

If the soldiers refused, they were shot from behind.

The injured and the dead rose exponentially.

This was at the start of May, 2011. There were already hundreds of victims.

The regime spoke of “terrorists” plotting against Syria. Yet, at that point no one on the protesters side had actually fired a shot.

Infiltrators were useless, as they were isolated.

It has also been reported that security forces left fire weapons on the streets.

This was yet another provocation, as protesters were clearly pacific and continuously reiterated this in their slogans.

After this the first dissertations by army officials began to occur.

The dictator, Bashar al-Asad, decreed the first in a series of amnesties, through which common criminals and radical exponents of Islam were freed.

A Trojan horse useful to legitimise the pattern of violence that his followers translated in the slogan: “Either Asad, or we’ll burn the country”.

***

Armed assaults rapidly multiplied in cities, which the regime considered essential from a strategic perspective.

Homs, Baniyas, Tafas, Talkalakh, Rastan, Talbiseh, Jisr ash-Shughur.

In June, the first episode of violence by the opposition occurred in Jisr al-Shugur, a village neighbouring Turkey in the Idlib province.

The city was besieged by the government army, armed men – according to activists these were deflected soldiers – attacked the security forces and police posts.

The assault ended in carnage the following week, at least 120 protesters were killed.

This was most certainly a premonitory episode, but was preceded by 22 July 2012, the Friday of mass protests throughout Syria.

The highest point of the peaceful revolt.

The cost of the Syrian revolution.

Flags held by the protesters were still Ba’athist, the pan-Arabic flags of Asad’s Syria.

Revolutionaries subsequently adopted the independence flag, thus marking a point of non-return.

Cities involved were primarily Hama – symbolic of Asad’s repression – and Deir Ez-Zor, but the entire country, from the north-eastern Kurdish coastline pulsed in protest and defence.

The Syrian army was deployed to the centre of Damascus, where protests were banned.

On the 29 July, at the initiative of a group deserters from the Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army was born. Its main aim: to defend peaceful protests from attacks by security forces, loyalist civilians and government army.

Two days later, on 31 July, within the framework of repressive action on a national scale, the regular army entered Hama and Deir ez-Zor with tanks without being met by any form of resistance.

They fired on the crowd randomly.

Then, they placed snipers on roofs.

The “Ramadan Massacre” claimed 136 lives.

Images of corpses piled one on top of the other, decapitated corpses and children burned alive were aired.

***

The first terrorist attack occurred at the end of 2011.

According to authorities, two car bombs exploded in Damascus killing 34 people.

State television, which arrived on-site shortly after the explosions, captured human parts scattered on the pavement.

The event, which happened a day after the arrival of observers from the Arab League was the first of its kind in the Syrian conflict. It has never been claimed by any group.

Others were to follow using the same modalities and spectacle.

From February 3, 2012 the governing army bombed Homs – a strategic and economic backbone for the regime – with artillery focusing on rebellious areas.

The following 14 April, the offensive ended with the regime reaffirming to control over 70% of the city.

The population paid a very high price.

The city was eventually razed to the ground, its registry burnt.

By March 2012, the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, which had become an authentic neighbourhood of Damascus, joined the revolt.

The repression began, in an escalation which led to the camp’s total blockade.

As in other sensitive zones, the regime’s strategy was to block access to the area and bomb with artillery.

Two years later Yarmuk was once again in the regime’s hands.

Images speak clearly. It fell through hunger.

Children and elderly people died.

And, those who lived, reduced to skeletons.

The same strategy was carried out in the free areas of Homs, which eventually fell.

Today the regime continues this practice in other neighbourhoods of Damascus and Aleppo.

***

In April 2012 a double bombing attack shook the capital.

55 victims according to government sources.

For the first time, the target was civilian.

Body parts on the pavement.

The regime accused “terrorists” and a few days later an online claim by Jabhat al-nusra – an armed extremist group, subsequently discovered to be affiliated to al-Qa’ida – appeared. The group immediately denied these claims.

This was the month inaugurating the “season of massacres”.

These occurred in towns and small villages around Homs.

The regime was “cleaning” out areas, which it considered strategically important.

The massacre at Hula is the most well-known, but several followed of which, those in al-Buwayda, al-Sharqiyya and al-Qubayr.

The army closed off access to the area and bombed with artillery.

Then “special forces” formed by loyalist civilians would spur into action, entering homes and killing whoever was inside.

These images swept around the globe.

Destroyed houses, bodies piled and lined up.

Analysts described these events as a “turning point” in the conflict.

But the attitude of international actors went unchanged.

The massacre at Hula marked the end of the “ceasefire”, which despite being announced by UN delegate Kofi Annan on 4 April, had never really been respected.

***

On 17 July 2012 a big offensive was launched by rebel groups; the majority of which were characterized by heightened confessional undertones.

Its objective: main cities (on 19 July the Battle for Aleppo began, and still continues).

War started. An asymmetrical and increasingly dirty war.

The game of war for procurement also started to make itself manifest.

Iran (and, later Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias) and Russia with Asad; Arabs from the Gulf and Turkey with the rebels.

Polarization in a confessional direction.

The United States and America stayed in limbo.

China at the window.

The Security Council of the United Nations, frozen.

***

On 3 November, 2012 the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights denounced the execution of soldiers from the official Syrian army captured by rebels.

These and other episodes occurred despite the Free Syrian Army had established a “code of self-regulation” in August to prevent these types of excesses.

In the meantime fundamentalism was rising and factions, increasingly radical.

Non-Syrian fighters on both sides had now become a tangible reality.

The air force also entered the scene with air-delivered weaponry.

They bombed schools, hospitals, civilian installations.

In January 2013 the University of Aleppo was bombed.

It was exam day, and a massacre.

In the same month, lifeless bodies emerged from the Qweyq River.

Roughly 80 people executed by loyalists, bound at the hands and feet, shot and thrown into the water.

Later on evidence of chemical attacks, gas and firebombs began to emerge.

Cluster bombs also fell.

Martyred bodies, people left digging, intoxicated and then, to die from asphyxiation.

The flux of refugees and displaced persons was rapidly on the increase.

Beatings, rapes, humiliations, attacks on corpses, summary trials, shootings and executions were carried out by both sides.

A fighter from Homs, whose family had been murdered by loyalists, ripped the heart from the body of an Asad soldier, and rose it to his mouth in the act of eating it.

The spiral of vengeance seemed to have no end.

Then, barrel bombs started to appear: blind devices, without a propellant, weapons of mass destruction designed to kill indiscriminately.

The victims were almost entirely civilian. Pure terror.

***

In April 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) appeared. It initially operated between the Iraqi and Syrian borders.

You have probably understood that by this stage the situation had largely deteriorated.

The Free Syrian Army was waning, lacking logistics and coordination.

Different factions had changed flags, were getting stronger and thus, better equipped and foraged jihadist factions began to federalize.

Others, left to fend for themselves, took to raiding, managing arms trafficking, operating like real criminal gangs.

In Qusayr, the loyalist air-force bombed civilians fleeing from the city after its conquest by the Syrian army and Hezbollah.

In the Ghuta of Damascus, the regime bombed with sarin.

ISIS occupied the eastern part of the country, which had been abandoned by the regime and continued fighting up north.

While Asad kept the army in barracks, ISIS took control over the territory and administration.

It fought against armed anti-regime groups, ferociously attacked activists, imprisoned members of civil society, publically executed them and exposed their crucified bodies in public.

A new front began to emerge for the heterogeneous anti-Asad side, ISIS was also “the enemy”.

***

This is what I have seen in these past few years.

One guilty party: Bashar al-Asad’s regime, backed by its Eastern and Western accomplices, spurred on by the silence of those in the world who turned their backs, shutting both ears and eyes.

One response: an exponential increase in the exercise of violence.

One result: carnage.

***

On 16 April 2013, the UN invoked peace in Syria by using the faces of five responsible agencies (OCHA, PAM, UNHCR, UNICEF, and OMS).

One of these five personalities, the Director of the High Commissioner for Refugees, and former Prime Minister of Portugal, spoke to journalists from the Economist.

He explained how, according to his modest opinion as someone who has seen dozens of conflicts, the war in Syria has been the most brutal since 1989 – the “declared” end of the Cold War.

This is so from the perspective of both its human impact and the total percentage of the population in a state of necessity.

In that same period, Amedeo Ricucci, long-time war reporter, a sort of Italian Guterres in his area, returned from Syria after being held hostage by a group of Qaidists who, precisely at that moment, moved from the Jabhat al-nusra to ISIS.

After landing, the most important thing he stated did not relate to Syria itself but to the fact that telling Syria’s story had become almost impossible. Already then, on the one hand, there was a regime that considered all those who entered the country “illegally”, as “military targets”.

On the other, an inextricable tangle of armed factions who demonstrated to have lost all trust in “the power of the press” and unscrupulous in the face of making any possible economic profit (or, in the case of ISIS even spreading propaganda).

In between both sides were hundreds of journalists, for the most part Syrian, “executed with fire weapons, tortured to death, kidnapped to never return home” (source).

***

Now, consider the two coordinates of “brutality” and of “silence”, as occurring on an increasing timescale, or, rather on an expanding power scale.

On a brief timescale we are confronted with the regime’s shooting gallery on the protesters, shortly followed by the Massacre of Hula, or the “bread massacres”. These are “turning points”, which, if ignored (something, which did indeed occur) render that silence even more clamorous.

On a medium timescale – from the start of the revolt up to April 2013 – we are faced with 70,000 casualties and 6.5 million refugees or displaced persons.

We are discussing numbers here, numbers in progression. In other words, we are discussing something, which “awakens attention” due to round figures (100,000!) or jumps on a scale (1:10)!

And on a long timescale?

Here, we see a crime of unheard brutality, one made possible by an incessant silence. This is something so shocking that even mentioning it is horrific.

In the long run there is something that is known as extermination.

***

We have arrived up to September 2014. A year and a half has passed.

Casualties have tripled.

A third of the inhabitants of Syria has fled the country – 8 million people are living as refugees.

The internally displaced are no longer counted.

From January, the UN has stopped counting the dead.

However, in this part of the world, we only discuss ISIS, and only in relation to the fact that the West is “in danger”.

And I am not saying this in an attempt to mobilise a bit of conscience.

I am saying so because I am certain that, nowadays, a central aspect of the “middle-eastern problem”, Asad’s Syria, eludes many people.

However, to talk about now, and of what our Ministers of Internal Affairs are worried about – Anglophone head cutters, and severed heads in Iraq – I am going to use Zanzuna’s words (pseudonym).

The article, which I am including herein, appeared on 9 September in Italian on the website SiriaLibano.

Syria, who asks about missing soldiers: imprisoned.

American president Barack Obama did not mince his words when he spoke about ways to defeat the Islamic State at the NATO summit held in the UK on Friday. He did not use the term, “red line”, nor did he insist on the “need to find political solutions”.

Obama came across as decided and clear: “So there’s great conviction that we have to act (…) the Islamic State is a grave threat to everyone. And within NATO there is a strong conviction that it is time to act to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS”.

More than a year has passed from Newport 2014 to Brussels 2013. Then, NATOs round table had other priorities, and the Syrian situation expressed a different reality: NATO rejected an “intervention in the Syrian conflict despite the deteriorating situation”.

Trying to analyse what has happened to change NATOs position does not appear to be very useful.

This has not been due to Raqqa, the first city that slipped out of the regime’s control in March 2013, and capable of managing its civil life in the first month of freedom before the arrival of the Islamic State. Nor, has it been for the Ghuta gas massacre in August 2013.

Perhaps the chaos created by the Islamic State in Iraq differs from that occurring in Syria. Perhaps, only now “minorities of the religious mosaic are at risk”. Perhaps it has been due to the deaths of two American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, barbarically killed by the Islamic State. In this way, the video game works and convinces the world to unite to combat the terrorists.

Anwar al Bunni, Syrian lawyer who has been at the forefront of defending human rights for decades, posted the following message on his Facebook page: “I don’t know why the world trembles in fear when hundreds of heads get cut by swords, but it doesn’t when tens of thousands of people are killed by barrel bombs thrown from planes, or by missiles, or chemical weapons, or by torture (…). Does the answer have to do with the identity of the murderer? Or, with the identity of the victim, perhaps? If the murderer is dressed in secular garb is he allowed to kill who he wants, and how he wants? Yet, if the boa wears a religious habit he is not even allowed to scream?”

Two sides of the same coin. One murders the population with a knife. The other with poison. One side murders and says “I am murdering and I am like this”. The other, hands the population, which has to be murdered, to the first.

Syrian President Bashar al Asad has learned from the American experience: creating a terrorist enemy is necessary to become a stronghold against a fundamentalism, which must be destroyed by any means, licit or illicit. In reality, however, Asad junior learned very well from his father.

To make this game work, he asks his army to retreat from certain areas, thus leaving many areas of the front against the Islamic State unprotected. Many of his soldiers are therefore left helpless to face the black tide of jihadists on their own. Only then, will a saving intervention of Asad’s troops be necessary.

Nadin, a Syrian activist, tells her story in the localities surrounding Tartus: “There are no more men in the Alawite villages. These villages are now famous because women who live there don’t have a man by their sides anymore. Men who do come back, come back dead”.

#Wainun (“Where are they”) is a web campaign managed by Syrian activists demanding that light be shed on the fates of the disappeared such as, Father Paolo, Razan Zaytune, Samar Saleh, Mazen Darwish, Yehya Sharbaji and many more.

Modelled on this campaign, Syrian followers of Assad have created a Facebook page in which the photo of the president appears and is called: “The eagles of Taqba Military Airport, Asad’s men”, in reference to the battle, which occurred between loyalists and jihadists at in the southern region of Raqqa at the end of August.

This page had usually encouraged soldiers to fight in Asad’s name. Especially those who stayed in the Taqba military base to fight the Islamic State. But those “eagles” were subsequently abandoned, without any support from Asad.

This is why the loyalist authors of the “Eagles of the Taqba Military Airport, Asad’s men”, created an information section entitled #Wainun, where they gather news on the fate of missing soldiers from the regular army on the same page.

The case of Taqba certainly does not stand alone. It has, however, been the most recent and most dramatic. Hundreds of soldiers were killed by jihadists. Not only did the regime not defend them, it did not even discuss their deaths on government television channels, which continued to air music and television series in accordance with the regular schedule, instead.

Tones expressed in the loyalist web page #Wainun expose the anger and disillusionment felt by many of those backing the regime, with many asking: “Where are our children?” As if they had only just realised the regime’s game, and the fact that it is capable of employing all necessary means to free Russian or Iranian hostages, but also capable of leaving hundreds of simple soldiers to a tragic destiny. Like minced meat and nothing more.

The loyalist page #Wainun has therefore broken the “red line” set by the regime and its instruments of control and repression. But don’t misinterpret me here: it is not as though secret agents travelled to the front to protect Asad’s soldiers from the jihadists. Not at all…the agents went to arrest the author and administrator of the Facebook page, Mudar Khaddur, instead.

Khaddur has always been a loyalist. Then he lost one of his brothers in the battle of the airport. He created this page to ask Asad and the Minister of Defence, Fahd al Frej, reasons why the generals fled, leaving the soldiers in the hands of the Islamic State, which first insulted and then killed them.

The regime wants to play this game of chess until the end. It has understood that it is the king and can play with blood. It does not think that it can be defeated just because it is playing the bad guy. It doesn’t believe in fairy tales, where bad guys are defeated. Unlike us, the Asad regime knows that it is not the “protector of the country”, nor the “protector of minorities”. It knows this well and smiles in the face of the Newport and Brussels declarations, of the Geneva-2 and Geneva-1 negotiations, of the Friends of Syria and Friends of the Regime reunions. “Because in this game of chess, no one wants to cry “Checkmate!”

_____________

* This article was originally published by the Italian website Nazione Indiana. Translation by Maria Elena Bottigliero.