27 Aug 2014

The ‘immeasurable suffering’ of the Syrian people

Murder, torture and rape – a UN report catalogues the “unimaginable” horrors being heaped upon the people of Syria by the government, rebel groups and the Islamic State.

Syrian children

The report, by the independent international commission of inquiry on Syria, detailed the “immeasurable suffering” of civilians due to a systematic campaign of war crimes.

And the report also criticises the international community, saying influential states have “turned away from the difficult work required for a political solution” whilst some states continue to arm the government and rebel groups.

Women and children bear the “gravest consequences” of the conflict, the report says, including children being executed, tortured and recruited to fight, and women subject to sexual violence.

Government forces

Assad’s forces are accused of massacres, unlawful killing of prisoners, torture, hostage taking, enforced disappearances, rape, sexual assaults, gender-based violence, the recruitment of children as young as six to military operations, the targeting of civilians and of civilian infrastructure – such as hospitals and schools.

‘Heart attacks’

Reports of deaths in custody have risen, the commission found, with many of the deceased families being told the detainee had “died of a heart attack”. In most cases bodies are not returned to the families.

Government forces continue to perpetrate massacres and conduct widespread attacks on civilians. Indpendent commission report

In one case from 2013 a 12-year-old boy was detained by security services after speaking with his cousin, a member of an armed group. His family hired a lawyer to track down their son, a search that led to a private hospital.

When they arrived at the hospital they were told the boy was dead. His body bore marks of severe torture including electrocution.

Sticks, pipes, fists

“Tens of thousands” of Syrians continue to be subjected to “torture and other forms of ill treatment” in security facilities, prisons and hospitals, the UN report says.

Detainees interviewed by the commission described how they would be beaten sticks, fists, hoses and pipes and hung by their wrists from the ceiling.

The report also said that there has been a “marked use of electrocution”.

Reports of women being raped and sexually assaulted at detention facilities continue – with victims sometimes as young as 13. Guards often threaten women with rape or to be stripped naked in front of male inmates.

‘White flags’

Civilians have also been shot by government forces when trying to leave areas under siege. In March civilians heard that a road out of East Ghouta, near Damascus, was open and attempted to leave.

The group was carrying white flags, but as they approached a government checkpoint a sniper shot and killed a woman, forcing the civilians to retreat.

Many of the government atrocities are reported to have taken place around Rif Damascus – the countryside area around the capital. Included in this is hostage taking, when female family members are kidnapped to force wanted male men to surrender.

There are numerous accounts of the enforced disappearance of men in the area, with families often too afraid to approach authorities to inquire about the location of their relatives.

Children also regularly suffer – and not just from the effects of indiscriminate regime violence. Multiple accounts received by the commission suggest children aged between six and 13 are used by government forces as informants to locate armed fighters. Children are sometimes paid for these roles, inviting retaliation against them.

Impact of barrel bomb in Aleppo

Against these crimes is the backdrop of illegal weapons being used on civilian areas including barrel bombs (destruction caused by barrel bomb attack pictured above) and chlorine gas.

Islamic State

Executions in public spaces are a common event in Raqqa – the Islamic State stronghold in Syria – often taking place at the main square or roundabout in the city.

Public display

Jihadist social media accounts show the events, where people are beheaded or shot in the head in front of a crowd before being hung on fences or crucifixes.

Residents are encouraged to attend the events, including children, and the reasons for the executions are read out – often the deceased are accused of being part of a rival group or of having broken the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of Sharia law.

Stonings are also reported to have taken place, with women killed for alleged adultery (pictured in Islamic State magazine Dabiq, below).

Stoning hadd in Dabiq

It is not just killings, but also torture that take place in public areas in the Islamic State’s growing area in northern Syria. Amputations, whipping, beatings and mock crucifixions take place.

In May a man’s hand was amputated in Raqqa for alleged stealing and in April men were flogged publicly for accompanying a female member of their family who was deemed to be “improperly dressed”.

Deaths and torture are also reported to take place in Islamic State detention facilities, with detainees held in insect-infested, overcrowded cells and being subjected to whipping with a cable and beatings.


Children from the age of 10 are reported to have been recruited into Islamic State training camps in Raqqa and the Aleppo countryside.

The report says that under the guise of education children are taken to the camps, where they are given weapons training and religious education before being sent on missions, including suicide attacks.

Members of Isis committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance and forcible displacement as a part of an attack on the civilian population. Independent commission report

Several massacres by the Islamic State were also recorded in the report, including one in May when Islamic State fighters entered a village and began executing people thinking they were from the minority Yazidi sect.

Villagers began to recite the Quran to show they were not Yazidis, but only one of the Islamic State fighters spokes Arabic. 15 villagers were killed before it was established that the Islamic State was executing Sunni Muslims, not Yazidis.

Other armed groups

Other armed groups in Syria, who have found their power diminishing in the face of the government’s military might and Islamic State’s advance, are nevertheless still committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, the UN report said.

Fighters from groups such as Islamic Front, the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra are accused of unlawful killings, torture and the use of child soldiers.

The report recommends that the international community impose an arms embargo and sustains funds for humanitarian operations.