30 Aug 2013

Behind the politics, the cost of Syria’s civil war

International politics and diplomacy have masked the reality of torture, sexual violence and death for people living amid the carnage of Syria’s civil war.

Latest reports from the UN catalogue human rights violations being suffered by the men, women and children of Syria. Since the war began in March 2011, close to 100,000 people have died in the country as a result of the conflict.

Headline figures shed some light on the scale of suffering in the Middle Eastern country: 93,000 have been killed, 4.25m have been internally displaced, and 1.6m have fled the country (see graphic, below).

Of those killed, the UN says 6,561 were minors, and 1,729 were under the age of 10. Around 7,000 of the deceased were female.


Massacres, defined by the UN as the intentional killing of civilians in large numbers, have been frequent in Syria.

In the first half of this year, the UN has recorded 17 incidents that potentially match the definition of massacre, two of which were carried out by the Syrian government, one by al-Qaeda linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and 14 which are under investigation:

At Sanamayn, in the Daraa region of Damascus, the UN reported that government forces appeared to target civilians fleeing from the city. The UN also said it had received multiple, second-hand accounts that the government had assisted fighters from Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in carrying out atrocities against women and children.

Read more: the agony of Aleppo's children

In Baniyas, Tartous, video evidence shows dozens of bodies of women and children who were apparently killed at close quarters, the UN said.

“Evidence gathered indicates the perpetrators are government-affiliated militia,” the UN said.

In Dayr al-Zawr a leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Qassoura al-Jazrawi, reportedly shot men who were kneeling in front of him, hands tied and blindfolded, the UN said.


Alongside evidence of massacres, is the evidence of extra-judicial killings and murders carried out by government forces and rebels alike.

According to the report of the Independent International Commission of the inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, people detained by the Assad regime that are thought to be opposition sympathisers are the most common victims of illegal killings.

Over 200 bodies have been recovered from Aleppo’s Quieq waterway since corpses were first discovered there in January, the UN report says.

Many of the victims had gone missing in government-controlled areas of the city, and some had been in detention by the Syrian air force intelligence or military intelligence.

One example of rebels taking part in such crimes was video footage which emerged showing a child participating in the beheading of two prisoners, believed to be Syrian government soldiers.

Torture and sexual violence

Torture is also “endemic” across Syrian detention centres and prisons, it was reported. Beatings with cables and batons, stretching of limbs, electric shocks, the use of boiling water and “dulab”, when people are forced into tyres and beaten, were all reported.

For the women of Syria, and in some cases male detainees, the use of sexual violence has been a “persistent feature” of the conflict, the UN said.

Most of the evidence points to government forces using sexual violence, and the threat of it, during house searches, at checkpoints, and in detention centres.

Read more: rape and sham marriage

There are also a limited number of interviews in which it is implied that members of rebel groups have committed acts of sexual violence.

The UN says the crime has been “chronically under-reported” but is a driving motivation for families fleeing Syria’s violence.

There are reported to be 4.25m internally displaced people in Syria, and 1.6m people who have fled to neighbouring countries such as Jordan, the Lebanon and Iraq.

Roughly half of Syrian refugees are children, two UN agencies reported earlier this month.