Vladimir Nikiforov
The USA and its European and Middle East allies often accuse Syrian central government of suppressing its own nation, sponsorship of terrorism and preventing humanitarian organizations from carrying out their activities. How fair such statements are and if they do rest upon true facts – all that can be unveiled thanks to the Western specialist on the spot, since they obviously cannot be charged with the “biased pro-Russian” standpoint.
3 june 2015 | 22:00

View from the West: human rights and civil war in Syria

Just a few days ago the Western media reported on massacres in Syrian city Palmyra, quoting local sources. The Islamic State executed more than 200 locals with women, children and even whole families among them. That yet another notorious act became one of those many indicating the most dangerous contemporary trend: with ever increasing frequency entirely innocent people are being assassinated during regional military conflicts, whether occasionally or in consequence of clash of interests of the parties to the conflict. Even though from the international community’s point of view civilian casualties under no circumstances are acceptable and legitimate, the world every day faces both blatant violations of internationally acknowledged human rights and the imperfection of the legislation itself since many norms are no more relevant or just incomplete.

As international relations are becoming more complex, a widespread occurrence of military groups acting in fact outside of the system of international relations has become one of the crucial problems. At best, such groups have their own vision of human rights, which is a far cry from the commonly accepted norms, but generally any rights are just being neglected.

In March 2015 a non-governmental non-profit organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), which informally contributes a lot to the US foreign policy, published an 80-page report dedicated to the indiscriminate attacks by opposition groups in Syria as from 2012. No doubt, anyone should pay special attention to and deal carefully with the activity that such organization carries out since the objectives it declares to pursue may time to time deviate somehow from what it actually does while coverage of events at a specific angle may serve for acquiring  politically charged outcomes. However, the conclusions reached in the report are of certain value so as to ascertain the true state of things in Syria, especially when the authors cannot be suspected of an approach distorted in a “pro-Russian” way.

HRW specially focused on the activity of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. The report points out that these groups massively use improvised explosive devices, car bombs, mortars, unguided rockets in heavily populated government-controlled areas. Suicide attacks as well as coordinated onsets have already killed hundreds of civilians in Damascus and Homs in central Syria. The neighborhoods under the control of government inhabited by religious minorities, including the Alawites, are subject to more indiscriminate attacks by opposition groups than those where mostly Sunni majority dwells, since the minorities allegedly support the central government. 

Notwithstanding the public statements made by the representatives of the opposition, claiming that they were only targeting governmental military forces, in the vast majority of cases the eyewitnesses of the incidents, interviewed by the specialists of HRW, testified that there were no governmental buildings, soldiers or vehicles anywhere near the sites of the bombings. One of the sorrowful examples was a twin bombing on October 1, 2014 in an elementary school in Akrama, near Homs, that killed dozens of locals, mostly children. Students of six schools at a time of lessons were killed and injured when military oppositionist shelled Jaramana, in the vicinity of Damascus in October – November 2013. Car bombings took place in residential and commercial areas, one is reportedly at a local cemetery during a funeral.

The HRW conclusion is that the attacks by opposition groups are not only of indiscriminate nature, but they are intended primarily to spread terror among civilians.

Remarkably, the report does not operate with the facts, confirming attacks of governmental forces against civilians, while all references are based on the statements of oppositionists, which are not firm enough to rely upon. Moreover, some claims, justifying usage of all means as legitimate to fights the government, absolutely contradict the international law, which is explicitly emphasized by HRW. The report also points out that Syrian government issued all the requested permits to HRW specialist during the on-site investigation; officials or security personnel did not limit the movements of HRW and did not restrict who the researchers talked to in the areas visited. Government officials and security personnel were not present during interviews to avoid any pressure on the interviewees.

Atrocities committed by opposition groups against civilians are also reported in 2014/2015 Report by Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization founded in London. Just for tiny misconducts against Islam as it is understood by military radicals public executions and tortures are carried out. Medical workers and activists assisting humanitarian organizations are being oftentimes attacked as well.

As a matter of fact, in the opposition-controlled areas any dissent incurs death penalty: there is neither freedom of speech nor freedom of worship. All residents are being forcefully converted to Islam in its most extreme form.

Even though non-Muslims are offered to pay special tax not to be slaughtered, Jizya, but it is in fact that high that it is hardly possible to find sufficient amount of money for ordinary people.

Medicine also faces hard times. In its public report a non-profit organization Médecins sans frontières (MSF) names inability to secure medical personnel as a roadblock number one on the way to provide wounded and sick people with qualified medical assistance. As HRW highlights, bombings are frequently carried out one after another in order to maximize the damage and kill as many people as it is possible, including doctors arriving at the place of the first explosion. According to MSF, a well-functioning healthcare system that Syria had before the war does not exist anymore. Furthermore, it seems impossible at this very point in time to evaluate the scale of the catastrophe, since humanitarian organizations do not have access to a great part of the country. Besides ongoing flow of injured patients suffering from shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds and burns, people are desperate for mental health services and vaccination to prevent epidemic diseases under the insanitary   conditions and absence of elementary hygiene. Thousands of people live in campgrounds around the hospitals organized by MSF.

On May 7, 2015 Dominik Stillhart, director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), ended up an official visit to Syria where he persuaded the authorities to provide ICRC with extended support. Meanwhile Syrian government was repeatedly criticized by the Western media for several refusals to secure and convoy the ICRC medics to the places where people desperately needed their assistance. However, it has been rarely recalled that in the summer of 2012 the Red Cross had to temporarily suspend activity in the country and withdraw a number of specialists after being attacked by the opposition activists, while the above mentioned governmental military command’s refusals were motivated by the will to avoid further losses. According to Paolo Pinheiro, the Chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, “the symbol of the Red Crescent has ceased to be a shield of protection”. Nevertheless, in April 2015 for the first time in 18 months the ICRC medics managed to deliver humanitarian aid to Deir ez-Zor, a Northeast city controlled currently by the opposition.

Today the capabilities to render qualified medical assistance to the people of Syria are still very limited, while Syrians permanently suffer from the deficiency of food, potable water and medicines.

The US and its allies involvement into a conflict made the overall situation even more complex and ambiguous. Locals interviewed by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, another London-based non-governmental non-profit organization, expressed deep concerns about the fate of their relatives illegally imprisoned by the Islamic State, since the coalition airstrikes may bring about their death. Now there are hundreds and even thousands inequitably detained prisoners. Only just within one week in the eastern part of Homs neighborhood, in May 16 to 23, 2015, more than 600 people were abducted by the terrorists. According to the UN, airstrikes by coalition already killed around 50 civilians, but the real number can be much higher.

At one point, in recent times the Western media and human rights organizations had to use a slightly different approach to the Syrian developments. The violations of the opposition groups are that tremendously atrocious and widespread, that it is getting difficult to ignore them and continue to defend the crimes against humanity. For that very reason it is not anymore as easy as before to shift the entire responsibility onto the governmental forces.

At another point, it is obviously not fair enough to speak of Syrian civil war as of a war between the “good” and the “bad”, since blood spills on both sides. However, one detail, which seems relatively tiny at first sight, can be of special importance. In those cases when crimes committed by the opposition groups are highlighted by the European and American news agencies (such as Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, CNN, CBS, BBC), mostly eyewitnesses are quoted. And that is quite reasonable. But when the crimes carried out by the governmental forces are enlisted, a certain number of organizations is referred to: Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, Local Coordination Committees of Syria, Violation Documentation Center of Syria and so on. In fact all these organizations are not more than deep-covered information groups of opposition financed by foreign sponsors pursuing their own goals. 

That is the way how the information chain is formed. Some influential mass media bear no responsibility for the data they publish just referring to such human rights organizations. In their turn the latter while quoting the “sources on the ground” have an unlimited room for maneuver to reinterpret, correct or completely modify the information they received. Of course, in case they do receive that information.

In practice such a chain has many links what makes it sometimes quite difficult to trace it from the beginning to the very end.

At the same time it would be unrealistic to believe that the governmental forces every time when carrying out a military operation always follow solely the army regulations and the laws of military honor. The country is being torn apart by the war to the bitter end. Both parties clearly understand that both victory and defeat can only be ultimate, and violence yields nothing but violence. The data of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic indicate that Syrian government probably uses indiscriminate heavy armament while trying to knock out anti-governmental groups from captured areas. But, contrary to opposition, neither public executions nor religious enforcement, neither suicide murderers nor car bombings are seriously discussed in relation government forces’ activity.

Unfortunately, today the challenging life of Syrian citizens is not unique. People of Iraq, Egypt, Kenya, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria face similar problems. According to the UN more than seven million of Syrians unwillingly left their home but stayed in the country, while yet another four millions migrated outside, seeking shelter in neighboring states and the EU. Millions of people not only enjoy no tangible rights, but they were deprived of their nests, food, water, medicines, work, education, their peaceful life, after all.

The forward-thinking international community is united in the opinion that the Syrian armed conflict can and must be settled by peaceful means, by talks “based on true respect and mutual consideration of interests of all and everybody”, how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it. Nevertheless, by this very point in time it is apparent that the parties to the conflict will not get round the table until one of them is out of soldiers and bullets. 


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