The Syrian conflict has become the most brutal of the 21st century, and a new NGO report shows that thousands of children are being killed. Some activists say they are not just innocents caught in the crossfire, but Assad’s targets.
On May 2 and 3, 2013, Syrian government forces killed at least 167 people – sometimes whole families – in the western Syrian towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas. Witness accounts and video evidence, collected by Human Rights Watch, suggested that most of these were executed after the fighting had ended and the opposition fighters had retreated.
A few months later, on August 4, armed rebels entered the town of Latakia, further north along the coast, and killed 190 civilians and took 200 hostages – mostly women and children. At least 67 of those killed, again according to Human Rights Watch, were executed at close range.
Such atrocities are recurring in Syria, where the three-year-old conflict is increasingly seeing civilians being killed – either shot dead or bayoneted in mass groups, or murdered indiscriminately by bombs. “It’s like a World War II scenario, with heavy bombardments at positions held by opposing forces. We have entire neighborhoods being shot up,” said Hamit Dardagan, co-author of a new report on Syrian casualties by the Oxford Research Group (ORG).
The report focuses on child casualties, which make up 11,420 of the total 113,735 Syrians reported killed in the conflict up to August this year (the figure has since hit 126,000).
The ORG report breaks the statistics down to age, gender, geographical region and cause of death, where known.
Entire society affected
“The number of children is an indicator of the number of civilians who must have been affected by the war,” Dardagan added. “It just gives you a sense of how pervasive the war is. It’s not just about government forces fighting rebel forces, it’s affecting their entire society.”
Mohammed Aly Sergie, a Syrian journalist who spent four months in the country this year, thinks the level of violence there is unprecedented this century. He recalls the well-documented Houla massacre in May 2012, when the United Nations reported that “shabiha” militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed dozens of people, including children, at close range.
“Bodies were found with close gunshot and stab wounds,” Sergie told DW. “You don’t see this in normal conflicts, even in Iraq, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan. You don’t hear about this bloodlust on such a large scale.”
Assad’s indiscriminate murder
And while atrocities are certainly being carried out by both sides, the ORG’s new report leaves no doubt that government forces are responsible for the huge majority of civilian deaths, for one simple reason: the primary cause of children’s deaths was explosive weapons, killing 7,557 (71 percent) of the 10,586 children whose cause of death was recorded.
“The weapons that were used to kill the majority of children, according to the report, are controlled by the Assad regime,” said Sergie. “The rebels do not have airplanes or helicopters, and they do not have mid-range to long-range artillery that can cause these explosions. So just based on that alone, if you wanted to lay the blame it would tip toward the government.”
That has now been acknowledged by the United Nations, whose human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Monday (02.12.2013) that there was “massive evidence … [of] very serious crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity” and that “the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state.”
Death from the sky
Sergie has seen the murder being carried out firsthand. “When I was on the ground in Syria, it was really frustrating to see a MIG jet swoop down over civilian areas, villages, where you know they don’t have anything – they might have armed individuals inside it, but definitely no tanks or heavy weapons – and it just swoops down and drops crude bombs and then flies away,” he said.
The fact that Assad still has complete use of his air force is itself controversial. As Sergie pointed out, it was the threat of Moammar Gadhafi’s air power in Libya that prompted international intervention.
“There are ways to stop it – many countries have lost the privilege of having an air force by the imposition of a no-fly zone,” he said. “There was a no-fly zone in Iraq, in Libya – it’s unusual for an internal conflict to continue with one side conducting this sort of aerial campaign. You don’t hear about civil wars in Africa doing that. When Gadhafi threatened to use his planes, that was the last straw – the world didn’t want to see that happen. ”
Children – not casualties, but targets
The ORG report remains scrupulously neutral – “When someone’s killed in a crossfire, who knows really who fired the bullets?” Dardagan commented – but some activists quibble with this interpretation. Human rights activist Leila Nachawati says killing children has always been part of Assad’s strategy – in fact, ever since the outbreak of the uprising in 2011, when the horribly mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb was returned to his family a month after his detention by the authorities.
“Children have been repeatedly and systematically targeted by the regime, as a strategy to demoralize the population and silence dissent,” Nachawati told DW in an email. “They are targets, as is the Syrian population as a whole – not secondary effects of a war against armed factions, which did not even exist when the regime was displaying its violence throughout 2011.”
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Syria, predicted that the ORG report will be among the “critically important” evidence of atrocities at the Geneva 2 conference on Syria planned for January 22, 2014.
“The Oxford Research Group’s report … is detailed and documented,” he told DW in an email. “It corroborates reports that have emanated from humanitarian organizations in the field. While one cannot exclude that some opposition groups have committed atrocities, there seems to be no doubt that the bulk of child casualties have resulted from governmental forces’ action.”
But whether the leaders of Europe, Russia and the US take these facts into account when they attempt to mediate between Assad and the divided opposition is another matter.