A future Syria can’t be built on a foundation of massacres

One of the people I follow on Twitter, a young Syrian woman living in Britain, said something along these lines a few months ago: “Who can even remember how many atrocities there have been in Syria now? Before we used to know their names. Now there are too many.”

That says it all really. Her despair is understandable. But, nevertheless, the atrocities keep piling up, bodies upon bodies, and it’s just too important to let them fade into a general “Syria crisis”. A brief reminder of just a few of the things my Twitter person would have had in mind:

  • Bombardment of Homs (February 2012): weeks of government force shelling of heavily-populated civilian areas which left hundreds dead (estimates range from 700-1,000)
  • The Karm El-Zeitoun killings (9 March 2012): 49 people (21 women, 26 children) reportedly killed by a combination of pro-government shabiha militia and government forces
  • The Houla massacre (25 May 2012): 108 people, including 49 children, killed in villages north of Homs. UN believes pro-government shabiha and government forces were jointly responsible
  • The Al-Qubeir massacre (6 June 2012): between 55 and 78 people reportedly killed, possibly again by a combination of pro-government shabiha and government forces
  • The “river of martyrs” killings (January 2013 onwards): apparently murdered people found floating in Aleppo’s River Queiq, including scores together in January

Meanwhile, earlier this week Paulo Pinheiro from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said he and his investigators were looking into 20 separate massacres.

Massacres of one sort or another have become part and parcel of Syria’s bloody two years. The country’s uprising began with a moderately small-scale protest in the city of Daraa on 15 March 2011. Within the space of two days, as the Daraa protests intensified, the security forces had shot dead 15 peaceful protesters, the first in what we now know would become a huge number of similarly horrible incidents.

A boy looks over the remains of a cluster bomb, March 2013.The tailfin of a Soviet-made RBK cluster bomb, Aleppo, 1 March 2013. Each one contains 150 'bomblets' which will have fallen over the area.

And it’s not stopping. In and around Aleppo in the last fortnight the Syrian air force has been dropping cluster munitions on densely-populated housing estates. Predictably, men, women and children have been killed or maimed in horrifying numbers and the area’s now strewn with deadly bomblets (see this new Amnesty briefing for more details). Meanwhile, armed opposition groups have been busy carrying out their own squalid killings (see this second Amnesty briefing for more on these).

On the latter point, several “execution videos” have surfaced in the last year or so apparently showing opposition fighters summarily killing captives. It seems that the practice of murdering supposed “collaborators” with the Syrian government or shabiha is widespread and of long standing among various of the armed opposition groups. To take just one example, it’s reported by many local people that last July opposition forces in the al-Tadamon area of Damascus were in the habit of dumping those they’d killed into a large pit dug as the foundations for an intended building in a place called Souk al-Talata. Local residents dubbed the place the “hole of death”.

The grisly symbolism is a stark warning to Western and other foreign governments. If they see the armed opposition groups as the future rulers of Syria then they could be building on very shaky foundations. The “fighters” are not the whole story in Syria and many peaceful alternatives to the militarism of both opposition forces and the Assad government certainly exist (a point reiterated in the new Amnesty video embedded above). Meanwhile, Messrs Cameron and Hague seem more and more fixated with lifting the EU arms embargo so they can thrust weaponry into the hands of opposition fighters. Yet how can they be sure they won’t just be fuelling further massacres in Syria?

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