Bashar al-Assad

Syria is on the brink of partition – here’s how it got there

By Scott Lucas
Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham

After nearly six years of uprising, conflict and chaos, the partition of Syria is imminent. President Bashar al-Assad will of course rail against it; his crucial ally Iran will probably resist too, and the marginalised US won’t even acknowledge the prospect. But the lines are nonetheless being drawn.

With pro-Assad forces back in control of Aleppo city, a newly co-operative Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option, and the leading Kurdish political and military groups will settle for whatever autonomy they can get. If things continue shaping up this way, by the end of 2017, Syria will quite probably become a country of four parts.

The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is set to hold much of the south and west, and most of Syria’s cities. There’ll most likely be a Turkish/rebel area, effectively a “safe zone”, in parts of northern Syria; the Syrian opposition will probably control Idlib province and possibly other pockets of territory in the northwest; while the Kurds will have some form of autonomy in the northeast.

A settlement like this has been a long time coming. Neither the Assad regime nor its enemies will settle for just a part of Syria, and both have survived years of intense conflict. The opposition and rebels still control territory from the north to the south; Assad clings on with the help of Russian aerial bombardments and Iranian-led ground forces. All the while, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are still defending territory against both IS and the Assad regime.

If the lines of a potential partition were clear some time ago, what stood in the way of recognising them was the challenge of Aleppo city. Without recapturing it, the Assad regime had no hope of claiming an economic recovery (however disingenousouly) in the areas it controlled, let alone in the entire country. But the city was surrounded by opposition-controlled territory; Assad’s military was far too depleted to change the game, and even with outside support, its campaign would be protracted.

The deal

The turning point came in August 2016 when Turkey and Russia began to reconcile. The two countries had always been on opposite sides of the conflict, Turkey supporting the opposition and rebels and Russia Assad. Their relations had been tense since November 2015, when Ankara’s jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border. But within a year, both saw the advantages not only of reconcilation, but of agreeing on what their respective spheres of influence in Syria should be.

A deal was quickly established: Turkey would accept the reoccupation of all of Aleppo city by pro-Assad forces, supported by Russian-Syrian siege and bombing tactics, while Moscow would accept a Turkish military intervention alongside rebels in northern Syria, including much of Aleppo province.

Bashar al-Assad visits his soldiers. SANA/EPA

Bashar al-Assad visits his soldiers. SANA/EPA

Which is where we are now. Civilians and rebels have been evacuated from or allowed to leave the last opposition holdouts in eastern Aleppo city. The Turkish-rebel offensive continues to push back IS, although it is facing difficulties in its assault on al-Bab, the group’s last major position in Aleppo province.

A national ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia in the last days of 2016, but pro-Assad forces are breaking it in offensives near Damascus. The two countries are trying to arrange political talks between the regime and the Syrian opposition later this month in Kazakhstan.

As Andrey Kortunov, director of a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, summarised it to Reuters: “There has been a move toward a compromise … a final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted.” The same story quotes a “senior Turkish government official” explaining that the convergence “doesn’t mean we approve of Assad. But we have come to an understanding. When Islamic State is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK.”

So can the Turkish-Russian initiative win over (or put down) everyone else who has a stake in the outcome?

The obstacles

The biggest immediate challenge is in the opposition-controlled areas near Damascus. The Assad regime has already taken back many of the suburbs, but two key areas are still beyond its control: Wadi Barada to the northwest, and East Ghouta and Douma to the northeast.

Wadi Barada is home to the al-Fijah springs, which provide more than 60% of Damascus’s water. Since mid-December 2016, the Assad regime’s forces and Hezbollah have been trying to overwhelm it with bombing, shelling, and ground assaults. In the process, the pumping station for the springs has been damaged, cutting off or limiting water to about 5.5m people.

Damascus faces a water crisis. EPA/Youssef Badawi

Damascus faces a water crisis. EPA/Youssef Badawi

At the same time, the Syrian Army and its allied militias are trying to take more territory near Douma, which is the centre for the leading rebel faction Jaish al-Islam. Turkey is critical of the offensive, Russia is staying silent, and the Iranian government and possibly its military are backing it.

Then there’s the Syrian Kurdish movement. The PYD would like to unite its area in the northeast with a Kurdish canton in the northwest, while Turkey would like to push back any Kurdish zone of influence and elevate other Kurdish groups over the PYD. With the Assad regime opposed to Kurdish autonomy of any sort, the only agreeable option may be containment: Turkey will probably accept a Kurdish area east of the Euphrates River, limiting any zone of control or potential military advance. The PYD, knowing it has no powerful backing, will accept the offer, even if it isolates the Kurdish area in and near Aleppo city.

A Kurdish YPG fighter in northeastern Syria. EPA/Mauricio Morales

A Kurdish YPG fighter in northeastern Syria. EPA/Mauricio Morales

As for Assad himself, the Syrian opposition continues to demand that he step down – but few others are bothering any more. The US effectively gave up the cause in 2012, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have gone quiet, and Turkey seems not to care much. He may one day be offered the chance to step down peacefully when elections are arranged, but in the meantime he will stay where he is.

Confronted with the increasingly effective Turkish-Russian axis, a US official opted for condescencion: “So this country that essentially has an economy the size of Spain, that’s Russia, is strutting around and acting like they know what they are doing. I don’t think the Turks and the Russians can [negotiate] without us.”

This is pure bluster. For three years now, Russia has been feigning co-operation with the US, and in the process has deftly manoeuvred its Western rival onto the sidelines. If Washington pushes back too hard, it could wreck its relationship with Turkey – which grants it access to key airbases – and end up framed as the main obstacle to a major breakthrough.

The events of the last seven months have only reconfirmed what’s been clear for some time: there is no optimal solution to the Syrian crisis. Partition is far from ideal, and it may only be short-term — but at this point, it’s the only viable alternative to endless slaughter, displacement, and destruction.

Article from:

Ban Ki-Moon gives honorific to Assad regime envoy to UN

Posted on November 1, 2016 by Craig Davison in Human Rights, Middle East, News, Politics, Syria, Syria

Jaafari, who was consistently defended the actions of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, has been criticized for his support for Assad and for his seemingly uncaring attitude towards the violence that has gripped Syria since 2011. In September, Jaafari laughed when asked by an Al-Jazeera reporter whether the Syrian military had bombed two hospitals in #Aleppo that week.

Although the event was standard U.N. practice and Jaafari was not the only ambassador to receive honorifics during the ceremony, many were upset to see Jaafari grouped in with other ambassadors due to the extraordinary violence the Assad regime has unleashed upon civilians in Syria.

“How can the UN secretary-general be taken seriously on the Syrian’s regime’s mass murder in Aleppo when he pins awards on the chest of Bashar Jaafari, the murderer’s most infamous mouthpiece?” asked Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based NGO U.N. Watch.

“Equally troubling is that Dutch ambassador Karel van Oosterom tweeted this out as something normal, just as he also has been a frequent cheerleader for the Venezuelan regime that oppresses its people and causes mass hunger”, Neuhel added.

Ban Ki-Moon pinned honorific medals on the participants as part of the event, which was organized by the International Association of Permanent Representatives (IAPR).

“I could not believe that Ban Ki-moon in the last few weeks of his 10-year tenure would do such a thing”, said the editor of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI)’s website.

“On the same day that Ban Ki-moon gave Jaafari a memento, dozens of Syrian civilians were killed and wounded due to Assad’s murderous bombing. Three days later, a school in Idlib was bombed in which dozens of children were killed. Ban himself described the incident as a war crime.”

Syria has been accused of war crimes several times by U.N. and Western officials, including by French president François Hollande and by Ban Ki-Moon, for its use of illegal weapons and its indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

It was recently discovered that the Syrian regime used chlorine gas for third time (other suspected uses of chlorine gas were not proven). The Assad regime, with Russian support, has also used incendiary bombs which burn victims alive. Schools and hospitals are frequently struck by Russian bombs. Syria has not, however, been formally investigated for war crimes.

Article from:



Syria’s Bodies: The Stench Was Unfathomable

Syrian civilians were tortured to death by Assad regime in prison

By Christoph Reuter and Christoph Scheuermann
January 27, 2014

He says he was never witness to executions, nor did he see torture taking place. That wasn’t his job. His task was that of taking photos of the corpses afterwards. He would snap four or five images per body — of the face and other parts of the person — documenting the cause of death, insofar as it was possible to determine. He did so tens of thousands of times between March 2011 and August 2013 — when he finally fled Syria, taking some 55,000 photos with him on a USB stick. The images are of starved, strangled and tortured men, primarily young and mostly naked. Some have no eyes. The defector, who has been cited under the alias “Caesar,” worked for Syrian security, and says that he and his colleagues were called on up to 50 times a day to photograph corpses, each of which was given a number for documentation purposes.

Caesar provided his testimony and photographic evidence to lawyers and forensic experts at a British law firm. Together, says Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the defector’s evidence shows the “industrial scale” of the killing perpetrated by the Syrian regime. In addition, the photos provide a horrifying explanation for what might have happened to the 50,000 or more missing people in Syria — those who were abducted by the regime of the course of the past two years. They are not included in the casualty figures, which assume a total of some 130,000 killed in the civil war. But prior to last week, there had been no clear indication as to where they might be.

The British experts randomly chose 5,500 photos for analysis. More than half of them depicted emaciated corpses, many of them showing signs of torture. By extrapolation, the images that Caesar brought with him could document the murders of some 11,000 people. The three prominent attorneys involved believe both the testimony and the photographic evidence to be authentic. In a report, they said there is “clear evidence … of systematic torture and killing of detained persons.” The report notes that “such evidence could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime.”

The investigation and report undertaken by the British law firm was financed by Qatar, which likely explains the fact that it was made public concurrently with last week’s Syria conference in Geneva. Qatar backs the Syrian rebels, but the country’s stance does little to take away from the power of the images provided.

Consistent with Witness Accounts

Caesar was likely but a small cog in the bureaucratic machine of death. But his photographs could be decisive in proving potential crimes against humanity committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They provide visual evidence to back up previous claims made by other witnesses.

The images are also consistent — down to the details — with previously unpublished witness accounts provided to SPIEGEL during the past 20 months of reporting. Those accounts indicate that the vast military hospitals in Homs and Harasta, outside Damascus, became transfer points for the victims of Syria’s military and of the various secret services and militias. The dead, the witness accounts indicate, are centrally registered, photographed and then taken to mass graves in the desert regions in the eastern part of the country, which are still controlled by the regime.

When 19-year-old soldier Ahmed J., from Aleppo, reported for duty at the Homs military hospital on March 11, 2012, he saw a hip-high pile of corpses in the inner courtyard near the mortuary. The pile, Ahmed J. said, “was dozens of meters long and two or three layers high.” Ahmed J. was responsible for packing the corpses into white plastic bags after they had been photographed. Many of them were bloated and mostly unrecognizable. “And sometimes there were just body parts. We tried to make sure that we put a head, two arms and two legs in each sack,” he said. “Others were still dressed and still had mobile phones or money with them. I didn’t think about what I was doing and hardly slept at the beginning, but later I started talking in my sleep, saying to the others: ‘Hey, give me that head there! Take this leg!’ The same things that I said during the day.”

“They had a good camera,” he said, before remembering one more detail: “The stench was unfathomable.”

Each corpse, Ahmed J. said, was photographed three or four times. “Every bullet hole was documented,” he said, adding that he was part of a team of 15 who worked in two shifts. “One fainted on the first day and was beaten. Others plundered the corpses and made jokes.” Their superior was a military doctor, Ahmed J. said. “He left every half an hour, saying he had a headache. He said he had never seen such a thing in his 30-year career.”

Every day, several deliveries arrived, “most of them from different quarters and suburbs of Homs, like Bab Sbaa or Houla,” Ahmed J. said. Twice a week, a large, refrigerated truck with no license plate picked up the white body bags. He says he doesn’t know where they were taken. “We weren’t allowed to ask questions.” Ahmed J.’s assignment ended on March 23 and he defected two months later. He now lives in Turkey.

White Body Bags

A military doctor from the city of Rastan who defected later likewise had an assignment in the Homs military hospital in mid-March, 2012. He too provided details from the corpse collection site, which he saw in the exact same hospital courtyard. “I was there only briefly, but there were hundreds. They could hardly have all died or been killed in the hospital,” he said. He wasn’t witness to a corpse removal operation, saying he only saw soldiers packing the dead in white body bags.

Why would a regime, which kills thousands of its own citizens, collects them in a discrete location and buries them in hidden mass graves, photograph and number the dead?

Caesar says that one reason is so that death certificates could be issued. But why document bullet holes and signs of strangulation given the interest in concealing the true cause of death? The second reason mentioned by Caesar seems more important. The regime wanted to make a record of which security service was responsible for what death, he said according to the report. A kind of performance report for brutality.

Until deep into 2012, the military security agency, the air force secret service, the state security apparatus and other agencies often worked at cross purposes. Some of those wanted by the authorities could escape as a result — because, for example, he was on one agency’s list but not on that of another. Given the confusion, documenting who killed whom perhaps became more important than covering up the whole operation.

Beginning in February 2012, thousands of Homs residents disappeared in the wake of the 4th Division’s attack on the rebellious quarters of the city. Whether the victims belonged to the opposition or not was irrelevant for the subsequent death sentences — the wrong address was often enough. But the men whose corpses the soldier and the military doctor later saw in the inner courtyard of the Homs military hospital did not yet show indications of systemic starvation, as is evident in many of the images provided by Caesar.

That began later. Starting in 2013, severely emaciated corpses and released prisoners began appearing. The British doctor Abbas Khan, who arrived in Syria at the end of 2012 to help treat the wounded in hospitals, was also taken into custody by the army and tortured to death in a prison belonging to the military security agency. For an entire year, his family sought his release; his mother travelled to Damascus and even managed to visit her son with the help of diplomats, lawyers and middlemen. She said later he had been tortured with burning cigarettes and electric shocks and was clearly suffering from starvation, weighing just over 30 kilograms (66 pounds). “He was like a skeleton,” she said.

The Search for Number 417

A British parliamentarian promised to travel to Syria to seek his release and the family was hopeful. But then, on Dec. 17, came official word that Abbas Khan had hanged himself in his cell. His sister Sara, noting that he had become increasingly hopeful that he would soon be released, has said she doesn’t believe the suicide story.

Corpse collection points such as that in Homs were established in Damascus as well. It was a mistake that led to a real estate agent spending five days in the heart of the apocalypse there during his search for his brother. He had been killed, apparently in error, in November 2012.

“We had connections very high up, we knew the head of the air force secret service,” the real estate agent said during a meeting last April. “So I received official assistance in the search for his body.” First, he went to secret service division 601 west of Damascus and then to the military hospital in Harasta, east of the city. “The dead were lying on top of each other in eight or nine layers. They were in the basement, in the courtyard, in the hallways, everywhere, and new ones kept coming. All services brought their corpses there.”

Military security provided 10 soldiers to help the real estate agent in his search. “For five days, they heaved corpses from one pile to the next,” in the search for his brother, number 417. “But he was already gone.”

He was told he could also look at photos of the 1,550 people from in and around Damascus that had been killed in the last two months. “But, they said apologetically, they were only the ones from their service. They didn’t have the others.” But number 417 was not among them.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley

Article from:

Its Syrian Genocide not Syrian Civil War by Assad Regime

Dear Politicians around the world, if you are not too busy, please watch this video!

Stop the bloodshed in Syria, save the rest!

The Assad Files

Some half a million people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. An additional five million have fled, emptying the country.

Capturing the top-secret documents that tie the Syrian regime to mass torture and killings.
By Ben Taub / A Reporter at Large April 18, 2016 Issue

Assad systematic torture & kill syrian civilians

The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.

He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.

In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.

Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.

The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”

The case is the first international war-crimes investigation completed by an independent agency like the CIJA, funded by governments but without a court mandate. The organization’s founder, Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who has worked on several high-profile international tribunals, had grown frustrated with the geopolitical red tape that often shapes the pursuit of justice. Because the process of collecting evidence and organizing it into cases is purely operational, he reasoned that it could be done before the political will exists to prosecute the case.

Only the U.N. Security Council can refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court; in May, 2014, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Wiley told me, the commission has also identified a number of “quite serious perpetrators, drawn from the security-intelligence services,” who have entered Europe. “The CIJA is very much committed to assisting domestic authorities with prosecutions.”

Counting Syria’s dead has become nearly impossible—the U.N. stopped trying more than two years ago—but groups monitoring the conflict have estimated the number to be almost half a million, with the pace of killing accelerating each year. The war has emptied out the country, with some five million Syrians escaping to neighboring countries and to Europe, straining the capacities of even those countries which are willing to provide asylum and humanitarian aid. The chaos has also played a fundamental role in the rise of ISIS, the bloodiest of the jihadi groups that have used Syria as a staging ground to expand the reach of terrorism.

Last fall, Wiley invited me to examine the commission’s case at its headquarters, on the condition that I not reveal the office’s location, the governments assisting with document extraction, or, with few exceptions, the names of his staff.

The Insurrection

In December, 2010, a twenty-six-year-old fruit seller in rural Tunisia, fed up with a life of harassment and extortion by venal government officials, doused himself in paint thinner, struck a match, and unwittingly ignited the Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in the Middle East and in North Africa, sharing his rage and despair, rose up against an assortment of autocrats and kings. They demanded democratic reforms, economic opportunities, and an end to corruption. In late January, 2011, Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal, “What you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease.” Syria remained stable, a fact that Assad attributed to his attention to the “beliefs of the people.” He added, “This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”

In fact, Assad’s confidence was likely rooted in the proficiency of Syria’s security-intelligence apparatus, which had kept his family in power since 1971. Other autocrats in the region placed similar trust in their own security forces. Then Egypt’s dictatorship collapsed, and the U.N. Security Council voted to refer the situation in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi had ruled for forty-two years, to the International Criminal Court. In March, NATO forces launched a bombing campaign in Libya. In Syria, people began calling for concessions by the government—timidly, at first. The country had spent forty-eight years under martial law, and the notion of public demonstration was unfamiliar. The protests were met with tear gas and bullets, but were soon attracting tens of thousands of people.

On March 30, 2011, Assad addressed the nation from the rotunda of the Syrian parliament building. He had just sacked his cabinet, and many people expected him to announce liberalizing reforms. Instead, he declared his intention to suppress dissent in the brutal tradition of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “Syria is facing a great conspiracy, whose tentacles extend” to foreign powers that were plotting to destroy the country, he said. “There is no conspiracy theory,” he added. “There is a conspiracy.” He closed with an ominous directive: “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty, and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it.” He emphasized, “There is no compromise or middle way in this.”

Two days later, protests across the country grew larger. Assad had already formed a secret security committee, called the Central Crisis Management Cell, to coördinate a crackdown. Its chairman was Mohammad Said Bekheitan, the highest-ranking official in the ruling Baath Party, after Assad; the other members—who were all Assad-dynasty confidants—were routinely shuffled among the top positions in the military, the ministries, and the security-intelligence apparatus.

Every night, the Crisis Cell met in a drab office on the first floor of the Baath Party Regional Command, in central Damascus, and discussed strategies for crushing dissent. This required detailed information about each protest, so the cell requested reports from security committees and intelligence agents in the most rebellious provinces. The group decided to hire someone to process all the paperwork.

One of the applicants was Abdelmajid Barakat, a twenty-four-year-old with slicked-back hair. Barakat, who had recently finished a master’s degree in international relations, was working for the education ministry. At his interview, in April, a high-level official named Salaheddine al-Naimi examined his résumé and asked whether he could use a computer. Next, Naimi asked how he would resolve the developing crisis. Barakat replied that, in order to avoid an armed response, the government should make some concessions and enact moderate reforms.

Barakat was surprised to be hired. In college, he had been questioned by military-intelligence agents about suspicions that he and his friends were involved in anti-government political activities. Early in the unrest, he had joined one of Syria’s first organized revolutionary bodies. Now, in the regime’s haste to make the Crisis Cell more efficient, it was employing a member of the opposition to process confidential security memos from all over the country. On most days, more than a hundred and fifty pages arrived at Barakat’s desk, cataloguing the minutiae of perceived threats to Assad’s rule—graffiti, Facebook posts, protests—and, eventually, actual threats, like the existence of armed groups. Barakat read everything and drafted summaries, which Naimi delivered to the members of the Crisis Cell to guide each meeting.

Barakat was never allowed into the meeting room, but he saw the members walk in, and Naimi kept detailed minutes on Baath Party letterhead. Occasional guests of the group included high-ranking Baathist officials, Syria’s Vice-President, and Assad’s younger brother, Maher, a short-tempered military commander, whom the European Union identified in a sanctions list as the “principal overseer of violence against demonstrators.”

At the end of each meeting, the Crisis Cell agreed on a plan for every security issue. Then Bekheitan, the chairman, signed the minutes, and a courier delivered them to Assad at the Presidential palace. Barakat learned that Assad reviewed the proposals, signed them, and returned them to the Crisis Cell for implementation. Sometimes he made revisions, crossing out directives and adding new ones. He also issued decrees without consulting the Crisis Cell. Barakat was certain that no security decision, no matter how small, was made without Assad’s approval.

Shortly after Barakat began working for the Crisis Cell, he started leaking documents. Though the regime publicly claimed that it was allowing peaceful demonstrations, security memos showed that intelligence agents were targeting protesters and media activists, and shooting at them indiscriminately. Barakat photographed the memos in the bathroom, and sent the pictures to contacts in the Syrian opposition, who forwarded them to Arabic news organizations. His plan was to steal as much information as possible and then leave the country. But each leak heightened suspicion within the office, increasing the chances that, sooner or later, the regime would discover that he was the mole.

The Investigators

One day in October, 2011, while Bill Wiley was visiting a Libyan exile in Niger, he received a phone call from a friend, relaying a request from the British government: as the crisis in Syria spiralled into civil war, it was looking for someone to train activists to document human-rights violations. Wiley told the caller that plenty of groups were already cataloguing the abuses. But he had a counter-proposal: he could train Syrians to collect the type of evidence that would better serve a prosecution, tracing criminal culpability up as high as it went. It was a novel approach—instead of raising awareness of crimes, he intended to pin them on state actors, whether or not the international community sanctioned the investigation. The British government approved of the idea.

Wiley’s career had intersected with a resurgence of the field of international criminal law; since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, there had been no major international investigations until the atrocities in the Balkans, in the nineteen-nineties, led to the Yugoslavia tribunal. Wiley, who had completed a Ph.D. in international criminal law at York University while serving in the Canadian Army—he wrote his dissertation on war crimes and the evolution of international humanitarian law—became an analyst at the tribunal. In 2002, he travelled to Kigali to investigate war crimes in Rwanda, and the following year he moved to the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was the first investigator retained by the International Criminal Court.

Wiley, who considers himself “a field guy, not an office guy,” is tall, with reddish-blond hair, and handles the considerable stress of his profession with Cuban cigarillos, gallows humor, and exercise. (At the age of fifty-two, he bench-presses more than three hundred and fifty pounds.) While working for the I.C.C., he came to believe that the international court system was often afflicted by upper-management “incompetence.” Since its launch, in 2002, the I.C.C. has opened nine investigations, spent more than a billion dollars, and secured convictions against three men: two warlords and a former politician, all from Congo. After two years, Wiley became disillusioned, and he applied to become a human-rights monitor for the United Nations, in Iraq.

On October 19, 2005, Wiley sat in a hangar at a military base in Amman, Jordan, awaiting transport to Baghdad. A television showed Saddam Hussein in a heated exchange with a judge, insisting that he was still the President of Iraq. It was the former dictator’s first day on trial. “I paid no attention to it whatsoever,” Wiley recalled. The multinational coalition had established a special tribunal, staffed by Iraqi judges and prosecutors, to hold legal proceedings in accordance with international standards. But the Iraqi government replaced judges who seemed sympathetic to the defense, and, days after Saddam’s lawyers appeared in news broadcasts, two of them were assassinated.

Discover Assad Crimes

Chris Engels and Bill Wiley inside the evidence room of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. Photograph by Ben Taub

In early 2006, the coalition hired Wiley to advise Saddam’s lawyers, whose principal argument was that the court itself was illegal. They regularly boycotted proceedings, leaving Iraq and watching the hearings on television. To Wiley, the trial was “not about Saddam, per se,” but “about sending a signal to a conflict-affected society that, from here on out, this nation will be governed on the basis of the rule of law.” He urged the lawyers to come back to Baghdad and defend their client.

Eventually, Saddam’s defense team returned to court, but shortly before the hearings concluded a third lawyer was kidnapped; his bullet-riddled corpse was found the next day. The remaining members of the team blamed the Iraqi government and did not show up for the closing arguments. Wiley drafted Saddam’s defense, and a court-appointed Iraqi lawyer read it out in court. Saddam protested, declaring, “A Canadian wrote this closing argument. I know he’s a spy.” It was clear that the court would convict Saddam, but Wiley argued that his life should be spared. Instead, seven weeks later, at a military base called Camp Justice, Saddam was hanged while Shiite guards taunted him. His body was delivered to the Prime Minister’s residence for display at a party.

Wiley stayed in Baghdad for another two years, filing defense motions for former members of Saddam’s regime. An American justice official told me that Wiley’s efforts to bring due process to the tribunal were “practically heroic.” When Wiley left Iraq, in 2008, he launched a private consultancy, called Tsamota, which assists Western governments and U.N. agencies in preventing war crimes in troubled countries by training police, as well as members of the military, security, and intelligence services, to act in accordance with international law.

In November, 2011, Wiley travelled to Istanbul with two Tsamota colleagues to train Syrians to collect evidence that would be useful in war-crimes prosecutions. A security consultant whom he knew had selected some young Syrian activists and lawyers, who were invited to recruit trusted friends. Wiley was impressed by their bravery, but he thought that their methods were ineffective. “Their tendency, in those days, was to run around with cameras, video cameras, smartphones, and photograph regime attacks in urban areas, and then put this stuff on YouTube,” he told me. “One of the first things we did was explain to them that, as criminal evidence, it’s basically useless” without corroboration. “You’re running tremendous risks—and, indeed, a lot of young people were getting killed and wounded generating video or visual images—really to no end.” Filming an air strike on a hospital, for example, offers no evidence that the attack was planned by the kinds of high-level officials who draw the interest of the international justice system. “One needs to establish their individual criminal culpability,” Wiley said.

Thousands of Syrian government troops had defected by then, joining ragtag brigades of local farmers, students, and hairdressers. Some fighters made their own explosives and launched grenades from giant slingshots. The Syrian Army bombarded what little territory these rebels controlled. Several of the activists attending the training session in Istanbul lived in besieged areas; Wiley and his colleagues taught them to photograph and measure artillery craters, assess angles of impact, collect shell fragments, identify the types of weapon used, and calculate launching points. But, he said, “the big thing we wanted them to focus on was documentation generated by the regime,” which he called “the king or queen of evidence in international criminal proceedings.”

After the first few training sessions, Wiley invited Stephen Rapp, at that time the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, to speak to the Syrians, who now numbered in the dozens. The two men had met a decade earlier, while working for the Rwanda tribunal. Over drinks in Istanbul, Wiley and Rapp discussed the prospect of creating a hub to house captured documents that could one day be used in trials. The United Nations had set up a commission of inquiry to investigate human-rights abuses in Syria, but its mandate didn’t extend to prosecutions, and, rather than dealing with documents, the U.N. relied mostly on witness interviews conducted in refugee camps and by Skype. “Almost all the evidence that they’re collecting won’t be available for prosecution,” Rapp told me, because the U.N. promised witnesses indefinite confidentiality, and trials are public.

When the activists and the lawyers—now investigators—returned to Syria, Wiley drafted a plan to create the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, and drew up a budget. Although Britain continued its support, finding other donors proved challenging. Western governments allot hundreds of millions of dollars to human-rights projects each year, but Wiley told me that their typical response to his requests for funding was “What you’re proposing to do is something that governments do, or the United Nations does, and the International Criminal Court does.” Eventually, with Rapp’s backing, the CIJA secured three million euros from the European Union. After that, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Canada also pledged consistent funding.

Capturing the Documents

The war was going poorly for Assad. In 2012, the number of high-level defections from the military and from civilian ministries rose dramatically. The defectors joined the Free Syrian Army, a loose organization of rebel groups. They hoped to transform Syria into a democracy, but jihadis started appearing on the battlefields, too. Generally, they proved to be more capable in combat than the Free Syrian Army. Various insurgents captured key crossing points into Turkey, and pushed government troops out of much of northern Syria, including parts of Idlib and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

By that February, the head of the Central Crisis Management Cell had questioned Barakat about the leaks. Another employee of the Crisis Cell told Barakat that his secretary was spying on him. Barakat decided to escape the country, but not before securing the minutes of the meetings, which were stored in the members’ offices. He also planned to steal correspondence between the Crisis Cell and the Presidential office, the Prime Minister, and the minister of the interior. On a day off, Barakat ransacked the offices, taking as many documents as he could, before driving some two hundred and fifty miles north from Damascus, to the Turkish border.

Syrian troops controlled the crossing point. But, with more than a thousand pages taped to his body, Barakat managed to slip through and check into a hotel under a false name before anyone in Damascus realized that he was gone. The next month, once his mother had safely left Syria, Barakat went public. He told Al Jazeera that he wanted the documents to go to the International Criminal Court.

Shortly after Barakat fled, the Crisis Cell moved its meetings from the Baath Party Regional Command to the heavily guarded premises of the National Security Bureau. In July, amid rumors of an impending coup, a blast inside the meeting room killed the chairman of the Crisis Cell; the head of the National Security Bureau; the minister of defense; and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who had recently taken over as the deputy minister of defense. (At least two rebel factions claimed credit for the attack, but they offered wildly inconsistent accounts of the logistics behind it.) The next day, a headline in the Times read, “Washington Begins to Plan for Collapse of Syrian Government.” Then Assad’s Prime Minister defected to the opposition. So did the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Even the top general responsible for preventing defections accused the military of “carrying out massacres against our innocent civilian population,” and announced, “I am joining the people’s revolution.”

The commission’s Syrian investigators forged alliances with key Free Syrian Army brigades as they gained territory. The rebels initially “had no interest in the documentation,” Wiley said. “They would go in, capture a regime facility. The smartphones would come out. There would be great joy and shouting and firing in the air. They would loot the place, looking for weapons and ammunition, because that’s what they needed. And then they would set the place on fire.” All potential evidence would be destroyed.

Wiley says that the commission told the rebels, “Take the documents first, and set them aside until they can be moved out of the country. And make a note—a very simple note—of where the documents were acquired and on what date. Box them up. Seal the boxes to the best of your ability with Saran wrap, or something like that—whatever’s at hand. And then, as those materials move, chart that movement. But don’t tamper with or rifle through the materials,” because in court a defense lawyer could argue that exculpatory evidence had been discarded.

Often, Syrian investigators accompanied moderate rebel groups as they attacked security-intelligence buildings, but government forces attempted to destroy any files that they couldn’t bring with them. In the days after a retreat, “there would be relentless shelling” at key sites, the CIJA’s chief investigator, a Syrian, told me. Water pipes would explode, destroying hundreds of thousands of pages before he and his colleagues could enter. Sometimes armed groups would call them to come and collect the files after a firefight ended. “Chain of custody is important, but it’s not a deal breaker,” Wiley said. “It’s not worth getting—Well, people have been killed and wounded moving this stuff.”

The first casualty was a courier, shot and wounded in 2012 as he ran toward a smuggling route out of Syria with a suitcase full of documents. Since then, two others have been injured during extractions, and one—the brother of the commission’s deputy chief investigator—was killed in an ambush by Syrian troops. Also in 2012, a courier and his wife came to an unexpected checkpoint outside Aleppo. It was manned by fighters belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadi group that later revealed its affiliation with Al Qaeda. The militants discovered the courier’s documents in the back of his car. They let his wife go, but took him into custody. “They were threatening to put him on trial and execute him as a regime spy,” Wiley told me. “We worked out a deal where he was convicted of something by the Sharia court and the fine was five thousand dollars. So we paid the fine.”

Several CIJA investigators have been kidnapped by jihadi groups, but all of them are free today. Radical Islamists pose as great a threat to their work as the regime does. These groups regard Western affiliations, as well as the often unfamiliar concept of international justice, with deep suspicion. And yet, in the pursuit of documents, many investigators made their mission known to rebel commanders with murky connections. “Our people are extremely well trained on what to do if they’re captured,” Wiley told me. “The equipment they have is encrypted and sufficiently sophisticated that anyone going through it would not find any evidence of the work they’re doing.” Only one investigator, a Syrian woman, who was captured more than two years ago, is currently detained by the Syrian regime.

Moving documents to the international borders is by far the most dangerous step in the CIJA’s operation. Paper is heavy and incriminating for the carrier; on the other hand, photographs, while more portable, can be difficult to authenticate in court. Bundles of up to fifty pounds typically arrive “in a dizzying array of crappy suitcases” smuggled across borders, Wiley told me, while large loads demand more intricate planning. “Think in terms of a box of paper that sits next to the photocopier,” he explained. “That box has five bricks, each with five hundred pages in it,” weighing a total of about twenty pounds. “And that’s only twenty-five hundred pages. We’ve extracted from Syria approximately six hundred thousand pages”—several tons. “So you need vehicles. Those vehicles need to get through checkpoints. You need to do reconnaissance. You need to know what kind of checkpoints you’re going to run into.” The commission pays rebel groups and couriers for logistical support. “We burn enormous sums of money moving this stuff,” he said.

Large extractions often depend on friendly countries to negotiate openings in otherwise sealed borders, so captured documents can remain hidden for months. On one occasion, several thousand pages of evidence were left with an old woman in a remote farmhouse in southern Syria, but the investigator didn’t explain the significance of the files. When winter came, Wiley said, “in fairness, she was cold, so she burned the whole lot of it as fuel.” The commission’s chief investigator told me that in exceptionally hostile areas he and his colleagues hide boxes in caves or bury them in the ground, log the location, and hope to retrieve them months or years from now—whenever the killing stops. Wiley said, “We have enormous quantities of material still in Syria that we’re not moving,” because it’s too dangerous. “Probably up to half a million pages.”

As the Syrians collected documents, Wiley hired military and political analysts, investigators, translators, and lawyers in Europe. By 2015, the CIJA’s budget had grown to eight million dollars a year, and its staff to around a hundred and fifty, including employees at the headquarters and at a video-analysis office elsewhere in Europe, in addition to the investigators in the Middle East. The CIJA employs about as many investigators as the International Criminal Court has working on all its cases combined.

Many of the documents have come from security-intelligence facilities far from the capital. These pages often refer to decisions made by the Central Crisis Management Cell, but to complete the chain of command the commission needed notes from those meetings. Barakat, who now lives in Istanbul, told me that in 2014 Chris Engels and an analyst visited him to examine his documents from the Crisis Cell. (The CIJA, which doesn’t publicly identify witnesses, refused to acknowledge this.) “They spent three days here, asking me in very great detail about the work I did, details about how the meetings would go,” he said. They also photographed the smuggled papers, and Barakat promised them that he’d supply the originals if the case went to trial.

As Barakat and I spoke through a video feed, he lifted up a heap of files, which are usually kept in a secure facility. “These are the meeting minutes for the Central Crisis Management Cell,” he said. He pulled out a page and pointed to the embossed emblem at the top. “As you can see—that little gold hawk? These are the original documents, and they’re signed in green.” The commission began sifting through Barakat’s files, analyzing connections between the Crisis Cell’s decisions and the criminal behavior of security agents in distant provinces.

The task of tracking down former regime agents who were willing to explain their roles in the system was simplified by the fact that so many had defected from the government. Analysts for the CIJA found wealthy defectors in the Gulf states, Turkey, and Europe. They also took witness statements in southern Turkey, in a heavily guarded refugee camp called Apaydın, which is wholly populated by former regime officers and their families. (None of them are listed as suspects in the case, which focusses on higher-level officials.)

Wiley said of the witnesses, “If I could use a rather cold metaphor—they’re a dime a dozen.” The CIJA preferred to interview victims who remained in Syria and had never spoken to reporters, human-rights groups, or the U.N. commission of inquiry. (A defense lawyer could suggest that, inside crowded refugee camps, testimonies might unfairly converge on a damning narrative.) So the CIJA’s Syrian investigators interviewed roughly two hundred and fifty victims across several provinces, to secure “pattern evidence” showing that crimes had been perpetrated in a systematic manner, in accordance with evidence in the documents. The goal was to draw strong links, through regime documents and testimony by witnesses and victims, between Syrian government policies and their effects on individuals.

The Activist

One afternoon this winter, in a hotel room near Amsterdam, I met a gaunt thirty-eight-year-old Syrian activist named Mazen al-Hamada. The story of Hamada, who is not a CIJA witness—those people’s identities will remain secret unless they are called to testify—offers an opportunity to trace the specific effects of the Syrian regime’s policies on the citizens that it was trying desperately to subdue.

Hamada was born in 1977, the youngest of seventeen children in an educated, middle-class family in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. His siblings grew up to be pharmacists, teachers, and lawyers, and he became a field specialist at Schlumberger, the international oil-services company, which operated in the rich oil fields around Deir Ezzor. Members of Hamada’s family were outspoken critics of the government, and even before the revolution they were routinely followed and periodically arrested. They were especially outraged by the government’s failure to do anything about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. “It was all organized to benefit the élites,” Hamada told me. In 2011, the head of the National Security Bureau wrote a secret memo to the chairman of the Crisis Cell, attributing the scarcity of patriotism in Deir Ezzor to “the corrupt judicial system, long delays in adjudicating lawsuits, nepotism, and the resort to bribery to restore rights.”

The security-intelligence agencies in the district were competent, and loyal to Assad. Beginning with the earliest hints of unrest, in February, 2011, the head of Deir Ezzor’s military-intelligence branch, Brigadier General Jameh Jameh, sent instructions to all of his subordinates to “prepare cameras . . . in order to film the participants and instigators so they can be identified and held accountable in the future.” (CIJA investigators later retrieved this order, among many others related to the crackdown, from the military-intelligence headquarters in Deir Ezzor, after it was abandoned.)

Deir Ezzor’s security agents carried out even the most trivial orders from their superiors. On February 4th, the head of the National Security Bureau, in Damascus, signed a directive “to investigate, search for, and arrest” whoever had written “Down with Bashar” on a ten-inch water pipe along a remote stretch of highway near Deir Ezzor. The head of political security for the province spent a month investigating the incident, then replied, “We did not have any information about the perpetrators.”

On March 18th, there was a soccer match in Deir Ezzor between the home team, Al Foutoua, and Tishreen, from Latakia, the team Assad favored. Hamada lived next to the stadium, and could hear the noise from the spectators. “People in the crowd started chanting for reforms, against the regime,” he recalled. Assad’s team won. The crowd was upset, but Hamada just laughed. He figured that the match was fixed. “As soon as the referee blew the whistle to stop the game, everybody came out to the streets,” he said. It was the first substantial protest in Deir Ezzor. All soccer matches were cancelled for the rest of the season.

Through most of March, security-intelligence officials in Deir Ezzor described the unrest in straightforward terms. In a cable to his subordinates throughout the province, Brigadier General Jameh explained that the protests in Syria were influenced by “some Arab countries witnessing youth revolutions calling for change, democracy, freedoms, and reforms aimed at creating job opportunities for young men, improving living standards, and fighting corruption.” But by the end of the month the provincial security chiefs had adopted the language of conspiracy which emanated from Damascus. Hours after Assad gave his televised speech at the parliament building, on March 30th, the members of the Deir Ezzor security committee agreed to consider it “a reference and a pillar in our work,” and most of the group’s future discussions were infused with anxiety over treachery, sedition, foreign infiltration, and “the Zionist American project.”

Hamada and his friends were excited by the prospect of revolution, and every Wednesday they began meeting inside the neighborhood mosque, the Othman bin Affan, to organize protests that would take place after Friday prayers. “It was a logistical issue,” he told me. “Everyone went to the mosque on a Friday, everyone came out.” He laughed, and added, “If we could have come out of churches, we would have come out of churches!”

According to captured minutes from the Deir Ezzor security committee, its members decided to infiltrate the mosques with Baath Party loyalists, “an average of two hundred comrades per mosque, to deal with any case that incites sedition.” The committee divided each group into three teams: one inside the mosque, one doing “reconnaissance” just outside, and the third on standby. But the plan backfired: the following week, the governor of Deir Ezzor informed the committee that “most of the men who were arrested by the security apparatus were Baathist comrades” who had abandoned the Party to join the protesters.

Hamada often videotaped protests as well as the security response. The regime had cut off the Internet in his neighborhood, so he uploaded the videos to YouTube at a relative’s workplace. Some of them ended up in Arabic news broadcasts. To counter such activities, the governor told the security committee, “We should nominate Internet experts among our comrades to deal with hostile Web sites spitting out their venom in the country, such as Facebook.” Even as the committee discussed the importance of showing restraint, the violence escalated. Jameh said that protesters were courting “bloodshed, in preparation for summoning a foreign military intervention,” an outcome that he said he desperately wanted to avoid. Early the next morning, he sent a one-sentence cable to all military-intelligence sections in the province: “You are requested to instruct your agents to strictly refrain from opening fire indiscriminately and killing people.”

In May, security in the province rapidly deteriorated. Men armed with bats, pistols, and incendiary bombs burned two police stations, four police cars, and six police motorcycles. Intelligence agents learned that someone had tried to recruit volunteers to detonate a car bomb outside Jameh’s house. The head of the Deir Ezzor political-security branch warned, “There may be a wave of assassinations.”

Hamada, who was briefly detained twice, continued to organize protests, but he started spending nights in safe houses with other activists. One of his brothers had been arrested and hadn’t been released. In a meeting with the security committee, Jameh warned that the detentions could be “a double-edged sword,” increasing the number of angry people demanding their family members’ release. In late May, Jameh sent several cables expressing his outrage that interrogators were giving detainees electric shocks, putting out cigarettes on their flesh, beating them “on all parts of the body, in a disgusting manner,” and sodomizing them by forcing them to sit on soda bottles. He said that his jail would “refuse to take custody” of torture victims “unless there is a written report about the detainee’s health condition . . . that includes the names of those responsible for beating him.”

Jameh’s scruples apparently waned in the summer of 2011. Evidence obtained by the CIJA shows that detainees at his military-intelligence branch were beaten with fists, cables, and sticks until they were unconscious, their bones were broken, and their teeth fell out; stuffed into car tires and beaten until their feet bled; given electric shocks after having water poured on them; abused until they urinated blood; and beaten to death. Jameh personally participated in many of the interrogations.

The Orders

On the evening of August 5, 2011, the Central Crisis Management Cell held its usual meeting at the Baath Party Regional Command. In five months of revolution, the protests had spread to several more provinces, which members of the committee attributed to “the laxness in handling the crisis,” according to documents captured by the CIJA. They blamed “weak coördination and coöperation among security bodies.” That evening, they devised a plan to target specific categories of people.

First, all security branches were to launch daily raids against protest organizers and “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media.” Next, “once each sector has been cleansed of wanted people,” security agents would coördinate with Baathist loyalists, neighborhood militias, and community leaders to insure that opposition activists could not return to those areas. Third, they would “establish a joint investigation committee at the province level,” made up of representatives from all of the security branches, which would interrogate detainees. The results “shall be sent to all security branches, so that they can be used in the identification of new targets that need to be prosecuted.”

This policy became the linchpin of the CIJA’s case against officials in the Syrian regime. Between Barakat’s documents from Damascus and the commission’s own six hundred thousand pages, retrieved from all over the country, analysts in Europe were able to trace the dissemination of these orders down multiple parallel chains of command from the Crisis Cell. Hisham Ikhtyar, the head of the National Security Bureau, sent the instructions to regional secretaries of the Baath Party, who chaired each province’s security committee, with additional orders to “implement what is requested of you, so as to speed up putting an end to the crisis.” The heads of the four security-intelligence agencies—military intelligence, Air Force intelligence, political security, and the general-intelligence directorate—sent the instructions to the provincial and regional branch heads, who passed them on to local security agents. Members of the Crisis Cell travelled to problematic provinces to oversee the formation of joint investigation committees. For the CIJA, identifying suspects was easy, Wiley said, because “their names are all over those documents.”

“If those are orders that are sent down, but no one acts on them, then it doesn’t really tell us much,” Chris Engels told me. “So it was equally important for us to see reports coming back up the chain of command,” confirming that those categories of people had been targeted for detention and interrogation, and that the leadership in Damascus remained informed of the abuses in detention facilities. “A consistent failure to control one’s subordinates who are behaving in a criminal manner will be prosecuted,” Wiley said. “The law of command and superior responsibility is extremely well evolved.” The Crisis Cell even demanded lists of all arrestees. Some members of the provincial security committees took preëmptive steps to satisfy their superiors. A copy of the Crisis Cell’s instructions was found in Raqqa with a handwritten note: “We did that a long time ago.”

Under international law, governments are obligated to investigate reports of human-rights abuses. In September, the public attorney in Deir Ezzor sent three faxes—later retrieved by the CIJA’s investigators—to the governor, the Syrian minister of justice, and the head of the province’s joint investigation committee, urging them to stop violating Syrian law. In one, he wrote, “Parents and relatives of the arrested persons are asking daily about the fates of sons, fathers, and brothers. You ought to listen to what they have to say. The hospital refrigerator is full of unidentified corpses that have disintegrated, since they have been there for a long period of time.”


Mazen al-Hamada’s name soon appeared on an arrest list in Deir Ezzor. Two of his brothers were also wanted, as was one of his brothers-in-law. One day in March, 2012, a doctor asked Hamada if he would smuggle baby formula to a woman in Darayya, a rebellious suburb of Damascus. He and his nephews gathered fifty-five packages of formula, hid them under their clothes, and travelled to meet her at a café. As soon as Hamada handed over the bags, security agents handcuffed him and his nephews, pulled their shirts over their heads, and shoved them into an S.U.V. “I had no idea where we were going,” Hamada said. “The whole way, they were telling us, ‘We’re going to execute you.’ ”

After they were stripped to their underwear, beaten, and thrown in a holding cell, about twelve feet square, with some forty other detainees, they learned that they were in the Air Force-intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport, one of the most notorious detention facilities in the country.

Two weeks later, the prisoners were put in a small hangar, a little more than forty feet long and twenty feet wide. A hundred and seventy people were packed inside, their arms wrapped around their legs, chins on their knees. “You’re rotting,” Hamada told me. “There’s no air, there’s no sunlight. Your nails are really long, because you can’t cut them. So when you scratch yourself you tear your skin off.” The prisoners weren’t able to wash themselves or to change their underwear. The sores of scabies and other skin ailments covered their bodies. Throughout the country, detainees routinely drank water out of toilets and died from starvation, suffocation, and disease. “People went crazy,” Hamada said. “People would lose their memories, people would lose their minds.” Eventually, he was transferred to a solitary-confinement cell, which he shared with ten people.

One day, Hamada was blindfolded and dragged to another room for questioning. The lead interrogator, whom Hamada knew as Suhail, began by establishing Hamada’s identity. (Some people were detained and tortured by accident; their names were similar to those on wanted lists.) When Suhail asked for information about other opposition activists he had met in Damascus, Hamada hesitated. The torture began. “At the beginning, they were using cigarettes,” he said. “They would stub them out on my legs.” He rolled up his jeans to the knee and showed me four round scars on his left leg, five on his right. There were burns on his thighs, too. They also poured water on him, and shocked him with wires and prods. To end the abuse, Hamada gave up the names of friends who had already been killed in Deir Ezzor.

The names were only the beginning. “How many people from the Syrian Arab Army did you murder?” Suhail asked. Hamada had already confessed to organizing protests, uploading videos, and speaking to the foreign press. “The challenge here is: how do you make up a story that you killed these people?” he said. His hands were cuffed to a pipe near the ceiling. “My feet were sixteen inches above the ground, so all of the weight was on my wrists,” he said. “I felt like the handcuffs were sawing my hands off. I stayed for more than half an hour, and then started screaming. Because I kept screaming, they shoved a military boot in my mouth and said, ‘Bite on this so you don’t scream.’ ” This method of torture was used in most Syrian security-intelligence detention facilities, with creative variations. Many detainees had their wrists bound behind their backs before being strung up by them; some were left hanging for days, others until they stopped breathing.

Suhail’s assistants told Hamada that if he admitted to carrying weapons he would be released. He didn’t confess, so they cracked four of his ribs. At that point, he agreed that he had been armed with a hunting rifle, and they let him down. But, to better suit terrorism charges, Suhail wanted the confession to include a Kalashnikov. Hamada refused, so, he said, “they stripped me out of my underwear and brought a plumbing clamp,” of the kind typically used to moderate pressure in hoses. “They put it on my penis, and started tightening it.” Hamada recalled Suhail asking, “Are you going to admit it, or shall I cut it off?” Hamada agreed that he had carried a Kalashnikov, so Suhail released the clamp and asked how many clips of ammunition Hamada had carried. “How many clips do you want me to have?” Hamada asked. Suhail reminded him that he had to confess on his own, so Hamada said, “I had five bullets.” That wasn’t good enough, Suhail told him: “I need two magazines.” The torture escalated until Hamada confessed to everything they asked.

In hundreds of witness interviews, the CIJA found consistent patterns in interrogation practices across all branches of the security agencies. People were detained following the Crisis Cell’s policy. Besides identifying “new targets,” the results of these interrogations were shared among the agencies. Detainees were routinely kept in inhumane conditions for months or years without entering the judicial system.

Coerced confessions served no apparent intelligence-gathering purposes, but they did lend a legalistic veneer to the detention process. After confessing to violent crimes, anti-government activists could face serious charges, and, if convicted, be kept in detention for years. The confessions also perpetuated the illusion of a vast conspiracy against Syria, as detainees admitted to engaging in sedition or treason.

The brutality took a toll on many interrogators, too. In at least one case, an interrogator begged a detainee to admit to a crime so that he could stop hurting him. “They were very much of the opinion that they had to produce results,” Chris Engels told me. “The ramifications of not doing their job well were real, and there’s evidence of what happened to people who did not.” The final line of the Crisis Cell’s targeting policy ordered the heads of security branches to “periodically supply the National Security Bureau with the names of security agents who are irresolute or unenthusiastic.” Some of them ended up in Hamada’s cell.

Several months after first being tortured, Hamada stood in line with his nephew Fahad to ink their fingerprints onto their reports. Hamada assumed that his included his confession; he didn’t know, because reading the report was not an option. A seventeen-year-old boy stood in line behind Hamada and Fahad. When the guards learned that he was from Darayya, the suburb of Damascus, they knocked him to the ground. One fetched a welding torch and burned the boy “from here to here,” Hamada said, tracing a finger along his jawline. “And then he turned him around and he burned his neck and his entire back. . . . His face—I mean, it was fire. It was melting.”

Recalling the event, Hamada’s eyes grew damp and red. His voice faltered, and he sobbed desperately. For two days, he and other prisoners in the hangar tried to soothe the boy’s injuries as he was dying. When the guards came to retrieve the corpse, Hamada yelled at them. In response, they hung him by his wrists for several hours. He told me, “You want them to kill you anyway, so you can be done with this. You’re sick of the torture. You’re sick of the sleeping, and waking up, and living every single day.”


In early 2013, after nearly a year of detention, Hamada lay on the floor of the hangar. He had been interrogated and tortured seven or eight times. An infection in his eye was dripping pus. The skin on his legs was gangrenous. Prisoners were supposed to stand when a guard entered the cell, but on this day Hamada didn’t. “I’m urinating blood,” he said. The next day, the head of interrogation came to the cell and informed Hamada that he was being sent to Hospital 601, a military hospital that sits at the base of Mt. Mezzeh; the Presidential palace is perched at the top. The head of interrogation also told Hamada to forget his own name: “Your name is 1858.”

Hamada had heard of Hospital 601. Several other detainees had been sent there, and the few who had returned, Hamada said, had cautioned, “This is not a hospital—this is a slaughterhouse.” Despite Hamada’s condition, guards hit him during the drive to the hospital. One used a green pipe; in Arabic, al-akhdar refers to a green object, so security agents all over Syria taunted detainees by calling this weapon Lakhdar Brahimi, who was then the U.N. special envoy for Syria.

In the hospital corridor, male and female nurses started hitting Hamada with their shoes and calling him a terrorist. When he got to the ward, he was tied to a bed with two other prisoners. A nurse asked him about his symptoms, then beat him with a stick. A U.N. report from later that year notes, “Some medical professionals have been co-opted into the maltreatment” of detainees at Hospital 601. Hamada was in disbelief as much as he was in pain.

That night, Hamada woke up needing to use the bathroom. A guard hit him all the way to the toilets, but he went in alone. When he opened the first stall, he saw a pile of corpses, battered and blue. He found two more in the second stall, emaciated and missing their eyes. There was another body by the sink. Hamada came out in panic, but the guard sent him back in and told him, “Pee on top of the bodies.” He couldn’t. He started to feel that he was losing his grip on reality. According to the U.N. inquiry, dead detainees were “kept in the toilets” at multiple security branches in Damascus.

Later that night, two drunk soldiers walked into the ward. One of them bellowed, “Who wants medicine?” Several detainees lifted their hands. The doctors hadn’t given Hamada any drugs—only a mostly empty bag of intravenous fluid—but one of his bedmates, who had been in the ward for several days, warned him not to volunteer. The soldier selected an eager prisoner. With the inmate kneeling at his feet, head facing the floor, the soldier grabbed a sharp weapon and started hacking at the base of his skull, severing the spinal cord from the head. Then he ordered another patient to drag the body to the bathroom. The U.N. report says of Hospital 601, “Many patients have been tortured to death in this facility.” The soldier called himself Azrael, after the archangel of death; other survivors recall him murdering patients in similarly horrifying ways.

“When I saw this, I swear—that’s when I thought this was my fate,” Hamada told me. “I would die here.” On the second day, he begged a doctor to send him back to the Air Force-intelligence branch. The doctor noted that Hamada was still sick. “No, no, no, I am totally cured,” he said. On the fifth day, he was escorted out of Hospital 601 by the same guards who had deposited him there. “You animal, you son of a bitch,” they said. “You still didn’t die.” They hit him all the way back to the branch, then strung him up by his wrists for four hours.

In June, 2013, Hamada’s case was referred to the judiciary. He was transferred to Adra Prison, in Damascus, where he filed an application for proof of the charges against him. (Syrian prisons are nominally subject to judicial oversight; the security agencies are not.) The written reply said that he had been arrested “for the crime of terrorism and has been deprived of his liberty since June 5, 2013”—the same date that the charges were filed. Officially, his fifteen months in the Air Force-intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport didn’t exist.

In the early hours of August 21st, the Syrian government launched rockets carrying sarin gas into densely populated neighborhoods in Damascus, killing more than fourteen hundred people. In response, President Obama, who had earlier committed to a “red line” should Assad use chemical weapons, announced, “I have decided the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.” He said he would wait for congressional approval, but, he continued, “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death, in plain sight, and pay no price?”

Shortly after the chemical attack, Hamada and many other prisoners were transported to al-Mezzeh, without explanation. Agents moved the detainees to a large, empty hangar on the base. At least one of the sarin-gas rockets is believed to have been launched from the base at al-Mezzeh—it was a logical target for an American strike. Inside the hangar, guards jeered at the detainees. They said that when the Americans bombed Syria all of them would be killed.

In early September, the United States backed away from the prospect of a military campaign, and Hamada was returned to the terrorism court in Damascus, where his case was finally heard. The judge noted that he had confessed to attacking checkpoints and killing soldiers. Hamada rolled up his pants and showed the judge the cigarette burns. He held up his wrists, revealing deep purple scars. He showed the black-and-blue welts on his torso. It was a familiar scene inside the courtroom. To each charge, the judge said, “Not guilty.”

Before Hamada was freed, he was interrogated by agents from the political-security department. They asked him about protests he had attended two years earlier. He immediately confessed: “I said, ‘Yes, I was at protests. I called the President an asshole!’ ” He added, “I had been through hell already. If it’s this, I’ll admit to everything.” When the agents brought Hamada back to the courtroom, the judge recognized him and immediately dismissed his case.

Hamada returned to Deir Ezzor, which he described as “a ghost city.” Two years of intense combat and air strikes had destroyed many of the buildings. The minaret of the Othman mosque had been shelled. His two nephews were still detained in the Air Force-intelligence branch in Damascus. Other family members had disappeared in security facilities.

During Hamada’s detention, the revolution had become a sectarian war. Jabhat al-Nusra had established itself as a powerful force, eclipsed in brutality only by ISIS. Moderate rebel groups still existed but were often led by corrupt warlords, and lost fighters to more competent jihadi factions. Many of the revolutionaries who once fought for freedom had been radicalized or killed. Pro-Assad militias arrived in Syria from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iran. ISIS had a significant presence in Deir Ezzor. Hamada said, “They were killing all of the media activists and the democratic activists, and every time they did it in a different Hollywood way.”

He fled to Turkey, boarded a smuggler’s raft to Greece, and travelled more than seventeen hundred miles to the Netherlands, where his sister had moved before the war. He recalled the migration with a shrug, in a single sentence, as if it were nothing.

Hamada’s account of atrocities at Hospital 601 was later corroborated by approximately fifty-five thousand photographs, smuggled out of Syria by a military-police officer known by the name Caesar, an alias. Before the war, Caesar and his colleagues had documented crime scenes and traffic accidents involving military personnel in Damascus. He uploaded pictures to government computers, then printed them and stapled them to official death reports. Beginning in 2011, however, the bodies were those of detainees, collected each day from security branches and delivered to military hospitals.

At Hospital 601, Caesar’s team photographed bodies in the morgue and in a garage bay. Each corpse that was photographed had a unique number, usually four digits—like Hamada’s 1858—scrawled on paper, tape, the chest, or the forehead with a thick marker. Another number signified the intelligence branch in which the patient had been killed. There were about eleven thousand bodies. Caesar’s team sometimes catalogued more than fifty corpses a day—emaciated, mutilated, cut, burned, shot, beaten, strangled, broken, melted.

According to a U.N. report, after Caesar’s team had finished their documentation a doctor at the hospital usually wrote “heart attack” on the death certificate. Then the bodies were loaded onto trucks and hauled away. In rare cases, family members have been able to retrieve a body, but the report noted that in each known instance it “bore marks of extensive torture.” The report continued, “Some bodies were returned from hospital morgues to their family only after the family agreed to sign a statement confirming that the deceased had been killed by ‘terrorists.’ ”

Caesar fled Syria in August, 2013, with flash drives hidden in his socks. The photographs remained a secret until after he had spoken to a team of international prosecutors and forensic experts, the following January. Without a key connecting detainee names to the corpse numbers, identifying the dead is difficult. Many of the faces were thoroughly destroyed, or the eyes were gouged out. Syrian activists close to Caesar published several thousand pictures online, allowing family members to search for missing loved ones. The photographs also circulated in refugee camps. Some families discovered that they had been paying bribes to insure decent treatment for relatives who had been killed long before. So far, about seven hundred and thirty victims have been identified. Hamada recognized several of his cellmates in the files.


Between Caesar’s photographs and the CIJA’s case, Stephen Rapp told me, “when the day of justice arrives, we’ll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg.” Wiley and Engels believe that, should the case go to court, the CIJA has sufficient evidence to convict Assad and his associates on several charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, and other inhumane acts.

Last year, when Assad was asked about the Caesar photographs during an interview with Foreign Affairs, he said, “Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?” In 2011, the U.N. commission of inquiry alleged that a thirteen-year-old boy named Hamza al-Khateeb had been tortured to death in detention. In response, a Syrian investigation concluded that, shortly after the boy died, a “forensic photographer” took “six colored photos” of the corpse. “We attributed the number twenty-three to it.” The Syrians determined that the pictures showed “no beating marks, no traces of torture,” and that the boy had been killed by gunfire, “most probably by his fellow-terrorists.” The investigation also found that a doctor who had reported that the boy’s penis had been cut off “had misjudged the situation in an earlier examination.” Caesar’s collection contains six images of Hamza al-Khateeb’s body. His eyes are swollen shut, and his head is a deep purple, from being beaten. His penis is missing. In every picture, there is a bloodstained note card bearing the number twenty-three.

In a formal response to a U.N. inquiry, Syria’s permanent mission to the U.N. wrote a letter citing Syria’s constitution and domestic laws as evidence that allegations of arbitrary detention and torture are “no longer plausible.” The letter continued, “We have no detainees unlawfully arrested with regards to peaceful demonstrations. If your question concerns individuals who have used weapons or terrorist acts against the state, it is an entirely different matter.” A few months later, Assad told Barbara Walters that Syria’s participation in the United Nations was “a game we play. It doesn’t mean you believe in it.”

This week, a new round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition is set to begin in Geneva, where U.N. officials will shuttle between delegations that still refuse to meet in person. In advance of the negotiations, Barakat, the former mole in Damascus, told me that the opposition delegation asked him for copies of the documents he stole from Assad’s government; the delegation failed, however, to arrange a pickup.

In the past few months, as the Syrian Army has regained territory it had lost to rebel forces, it has come to seem increasingly unlikely that Assad will step down. His foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, recently announced, “We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the Presidency.” Wiley and the CIJA staff avoid comment on regime change. He told me, “We don’t get too caught up in the policy agony” of the efforts to end the Syrian war. “We’re simply confident—and I don’t think it’s hubris—that our work will see the light of day, in court, in relatively short order.”

In the Netherlands, Hamada attends physical-therapy sessions to rehabilitate his scarred limbs. He studies Dutch and organizes anti-Assad protests in public squares, though attendance is sparse. He wonders about his nephews, his brother, his brother-in-law, and many missing friends. “Where are they?” he cried. “Are they alive? Are they dead?” His sister in Syria asks the military police for death certificates, to no avail. Every day is “misery,” Hamada said. “It’s misery. It’s misery. It’s death. It’s a life of death.” ♦

Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Article from:

Refugees brave rain surging river to flee teeming Idomeni camp

Defying E.U., Hundreds of Migrants Enter Macedonia From Greece

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Hundreds of migrants braved a fast-moving river to cross from Greece into Macedonia on Monday, defying efforts by European officials to stop people fleeing war and desperation from traveling through the Balkans to Germany and other destinations.

At least three people — two women and a man, all around 20 — drowned when trying to cross the border, and four people traveling with them were hospitalized, according to humanitarian groups in the area.

The border had been effectively sealed since last week, when Macedonia, along with Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, said it would no longer allow migrants to pass through on their way north.

The result has been growing pressure at the Greek-Macedonian border, where an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 migrants have been stuck in increasingly desperate conditions, including an outbreak of hepatitis A.

On Monday, the border finally gave way, at least temporarily. Hundreds of asylum seekers marched west from a squalid camp near the Greek village of Idomeni and waded into the Suva Reka, forming human chains to pass infants and toddlers over the rushing river to Macedonia.

The three people who drowned were Afghans, humanitarian groups working in the area said. Although Afghanistan is a poor and war-ravaged country, many Afghans are considered to have only a slim chance of being granted asylum after the European Union categorized them last month as economic migrants. Syrians and many Iraqis who are fleeing civil war and the threat of Islamic extremists have an easier case for asylum in Europe.

European Union officials, determined to avoid a repeat of last year, when the asylum system all but collapsed, agreed to a political deal with Turkey last week to stop migrants from pouring into southeastern Europe.

Under the deal, Turkey would receive financial aid and political consideration in exchange for preventing migrants, mostly Syrian, from risking their lives to cross the Aegean Sea. European officials would assess the asylum applications of Syrian refugees — and directly resettle those whose applications are approved — from refugee camps in Turkey.

The terms of the deal are to be hashed out in Brussels this week.

The authorities in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, did not provide an official comment on the situation Monday, but they were said to be considering forcing the migrants back to Idomeni, across the Greek border. Doing so could be politically damaging for Macedonia, a tiny country that was part of the former Yugoslavia and that has been trying since 2005 to join the European Union.

Assad War Crimes Syria

Assad regime war crimes in Syria

Bashar al-Assad regime crimes against humanity

Assad torture syrian civilians

Assad barrel bombing Syrian Civilians Syria

Assad war tribunal crimes against civilians syria

Assad war criminal torture civilians to death

Assad daily torture protestors

Assad syria war crimes against Syrian Children

Assad massacre civilians in Syria

Assad syria bombing innocent civilian men women children

Assad regime mafia war crimes

Article from:

Syria Assad Regime Death Dungeons

Footage of the regime’s detention facilities in Idlib, Syria
Published on Jun 25, 2015

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime

Systematic torture to death by assad regime