Evidence of 'industrial-scale killing' by Syria
January 20, 2014 10:34 PM   Subscribe

A team of war crimes prosecutors has produced a report [PDF, alternate PDF] showing "clear evidence [...] of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government". The report is based on more than fifty thousand photographs, showing approximately eleven thousand individuals. The photographs, which were taken to substantiate the victims' execution, demonstrate that many of the detainees were emaciated and had been tortured.
Primary coverage of the report has been produced by The Guardian and CNN.
posted by Joe in Australia (41 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
What evidence is there that these individuals were tortured under the current regime and not, say, older photographs? What evidence is there that these are current situations? What evidence is there that these photographs depict actual prisoners of Syria and not some other country altogether?

What really bothers me, and I'm not pulling a Tu Quoque, because, frankly, this was Syria who is alleged to have done this to those who were... and here's what bothers me... extraordinarily rendered unto them. There's plenty of quotes from CIA people and others who've come out who have said that Syria tortures individuals who the US sent them. The wiki article said "hundreds" of people were rendered by the US. I don't think (dear God, I *HOPE*) that the US sent 11,000 individuals to Syria to be tortured this way. But what role did we play in at least some of these poor people's deaths?

I wish a simple overthrow was an easy answer. I do hear that there's plenty of factional fighting in the resistance (in order to get rid of the al-Qaeda aligned groups)...

This whole thing is terrifying, for the people who have to live through this, for the people just "doing their job", for the people fighting against the regime. For people who live in the region who have to fear for a greater conflagration should any of the larger world powers get involved and a tit-for-tat possibly ensue.

I wish I could say I believe all this information. The individuals behind this seem more trustworthy than I would give credence to any sort of US investigation. I guess I'd have to read the report. Hopefully they have some of the answers to my questions.
posted by symbioid at 10:58 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Symbioid: it's very much worth reading the report, which will indeed answer some of your questions. A sample of the images have been examined by Stephen Cole from Acumé Forensics, who says that they were not digitally altered. The report has descriptions of the corpses, prepared by a forensic pathologist and a professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology; so we know they're actually corpses. The bodies in question are numbered, so we know that they come from the same source. The inquiry team interviewed "Caesar", the person who actually took the photographs, and they accepted his testimony.

I suppose it's always worth being sceptical, but in this case you would have to either justify belief in a massive forgery that deceives a number of trained examiners from different fields, or at least believe that someone other than the Syrian government has secretly starved, beaten, tortured, and killed more than eleven thousand young Arab men within the period that these digital photos could have been taken. I don't think that's a plausible argument.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:15 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


Jesus, symboid, RTFA. Alternatively:

The evidence was provided by a single source, whom the investigators determined to be extremely credible. All of the evidence presented was supplied by this individual. The 50,000 photographs were apparently all from the previous 3 years, when the source provided evidence as having worked as a photographer for the Syrian government documenting deaths in custody. While in this position, the source regularly sent images to a relative outside Syria for safe-keeping.

It is unusual for such significant and overwhelming evidence of a war crime to be provided. It will be interesting to hear the response from those that actually have the power to do something about it.
posted by bigZLiLk at 12:18 AM on January 21 [9 favorites]


Well, that person is my hero of the day. Both gathering evidence of murders from torturers and killers and bringing all of that evidence forward is very brave indeed.
posted by jaduncan at 12:32 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


The above applies especially in this case in particular since Syria doubtlessly know exactly who it is. It's the most nailed on asylum claim I can imagine, and I hope they are able to retire somewhere anonymous with a healthy stipend.
posted by jaduncan at 12:35 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


Of course, as always, there are larger geopolitical games being played here. Qatar has a pretty big interest in derailing the upcoming Geneva peace talks, having already been found to be supplying MANPADS to the Syrian rebel groups and possibly funneling further money and support to the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front and other Sunni jihadi organizations in the country. If Qatar really as all-in on the sectarian side of the warfare going on in Syria as they seem, they'd want to put a spike in the peace talks coming up so they can keep on trying to knock off the Shi'a leadership of al-Assad and put another Sunni Islamist state into play, and one that will be loyal to the Saudis to boot. Saudi Arabia has already been trying their level best to ensure these talks are a failure, this might be the final nail in the coffin.

That's not to say that these photos are anything less than genuine - I believe that they are. It's more that the timing of the release is suspicious, especially since the narrative already includes Qatar holding onto the pictures for an unspecified period of time. Would they have released the pictures if there wasn't the peace talks in Geneva coming up? It's certainly a question worth asking. It's all academic anyway; unless the incredibly unlikely circumstance comes up that these pictures aren't authentic (and again, I believe that they are), then it's a good question to be asked if there's even a peace to be had here at all.

And, of course, we're already rehashing the "should the Western nations get involved" discussion we had after the sarin gas attack on Homs, and the central problem still hasn't changed: we have no friends there. Save the Free Syrian Army (made up of Syrian Army defectors, the largest non-sectarian participant in the conflict but also one of the smallest factions, both numerically speaking and in terms of territory held) and some of the Kurds in the north, pretty much everyone that's fighting al-Assad are jihadis that have already killed Western soldiers in other fields of battle. Do you think that al-Nusra or Hezbollah will decide that their enemy's enemy is their friend, or do you think they'll just try to blow any Western soldiers up on top of attacking al-Assad? ISIS (al-Qaeda in Iraq) got kicked the fuck out by the other jihadi groups for being too interested in turning Syria into a puppet state of the al-Qaeda jihadis in Iraq - I don't think that they'll hesitate for a moment to turn against any Western involvement. So, going into Syria to stop al-Assad ourselves will immediately turn into a quagmire to make Afghanistan look like a Model United Nations debate.

Which begs the question, what can we do? I certainly wish there was a way we could just zap in there and make the vortex of suck that Syria has turned into magically go away, but...I don't see any reasonable way we could even stop these horrors from occurring, let alone stop the conflict.
posted by Punkey at 1:19 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


The Obama administration seriously considered taking military action against the Assad regime when it was revealed that chemical weapons were used and in one reported attack 1,400 Syrian civilians were killed.

Those 55,000 photos are of approx. 11,000 victims of torture and execution. I guess we will see from the international reaction if, on the scale of bad things, the business of torture and execution ranks higher or lower than the use of chemical weapons.
posted by three blind mice at 1:40 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I disagree with that perspective entirely, three blind mice. Both are appalling things that should never, ever be done, and I am completely certain that no one in the military or the White House or Brussles or anywhere that even halfway supports basic human rights and decency would even entertain that debate. They're both fucking terrible, this isn't some contest where the winner gets to be crowned Most Horrible Thing Ever Done To The Syrian People and wins the least token effort to stop the conflict.

The problem is that when the Homs gas attack happened, Obama and the White House seriously thought that they would A: have the international backing to go in and stop al-Assad (which turned out not to be the case), and B: thought that the American public would rise up and support military action against al-Assad (which also turned out not to be the case). Obama did a lot of really, really stupid things in his handling of Syria (declaring a "red line", prevaricating on whether or not al-Assad was a bad guy when he very fucking clearly was), but let's not forget that the Obama Administration were the only ones pushing for international action on stopping al-Assad beyond finger-waving. It was a really stupid idea, but it was one that they were willing to follow through with until the lack of international and domestic support killed it.

(Edit: Yes, after pretty much ignoring the conflict until it grew into the horrible disaster that has destroyed a country from the inside. The White House has certainly fucked up their handling of Syria.)
posted by Punkey at 1:50 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


I believe Obama would've more maneuvering room if he had turned over Bush administration officials for war crimes prosecutions early on. At present, he's merely another stooge of the U.S. military-industrial complex, so he lacks any legitimacy when committing violence for humanitarian aims.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:47 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


Like Punkey, I don't question that these pictures are genuine, but the timing of their release is fishy as hell. Put simply, this is most likely a deliberate act by a state intelligence agency to weaken Assad's position, and by implication Iran's position as a supporter of Assad. Shia muslims will not have missed this not-so-subtle nuance.

It is also easier for us to focus on Assad's considerable crimes and the distraction of Iran's nuclear program than any number of issues across the Middle East - what the jihadi rebels are doing in Syria, repressive Sunni regimes like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, longstanding political and civil rights issues in Israel, mass daily bombings and a proxy civil war in Iraq, the political messes in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan.

Really, I'm not sure what we're supposed to do at this point than look on it in horror and wonder how each new generation of US politicians does not learn the lesson that switching patronage and blithely talking about fostering a new democracy in the Middle East is cheap talk that costs lives each and every time it happens - be it in Iran, Iraq, Syria or elsewhere.

We've known the Assads were violently repressive for more than three decades, a fact which didn't stop them becoming a sort-of ally in the first Gulf War, when we needed whatever support we could get to attack Iraq, and then being tepidly welcomed back into the fold prior to the Arab Spring. Hafez Al Assad killed tens of thousands of Syrian rebels in Hama in the early eighties and tortured tens of thousands more after that.

So who will hold the Syrian government to account?

Not the authoritarian Sunni regimes that violently repress their own people and are funding and arming jihadism in Syria? Not the US, which which withdrew its ratification of the International Criminal Court, and whose track record of creating instability across the Middle East is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Not India or China, neither of whom have ratified the ICC. Not Israel, for obvious reasons. Nor military-led Egypt, little changed from before the Arab Spring. Probably not the UK or France either, whose colonial and post-colonial legacy across the Middle East is the source of so many of the problems.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:56 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


So who will hold the Syrian government to account?

Let Israel, Russia, and China deal with it. It's somebody else's turn.
posted by Renoroc at 5:19 AM on January 21


We need to do something to enforce international law. Syria has been a mess of clear war crimes for months now. The international communities attitude of letting these crimes go on cannot stand.

Our fellow men and women are being murdered over there, in vast numbers. It horrifies me that leaders of countries with the necessary might to bring those responsible to justice appear to favour diplomatic ties with stronger nations to protecting the weak. The right of a human to their basic rights should surely be our highest priority, far higher than the effects it may have on our trade relationships.

I read in the Guardian's initial report that Britain and the US might be unwilling to press the point of referring this to the Hague, and that Russia and China would be likely to block it anyway.

Yes, we're civilised, invading Syria would achieve very little and would mostly likely make things worse. But part of being civilised and enlightening is holding everyone to account, and while imperfect the ICC is our only way of doing that in a calm, collected and measured way.
posted by ElliotH at 5:52 AM on January 21


11,000? Wow, that's impressive just on a quantity level. Over two years (since 2011), what is that like, 15 a day? And really, why torture them at that point? That's just a lot of work.
posted by destro at 6:17 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


We need to do something to enforce international law

Indeed we do. However, international law is not an immutable thing. Stronger countries disregard it when they want to and give protection to smaller countries who also break the law.

Many will not sign up to the International Criminal Court because they have no wish for a mechanism that allows weaker countries to hold them accountable for their actions.

In effect what 'enforcing international law' tends to come down to is either politically motivated application of justice under the banner of "international law' or targeting isolated, strategically and politically unimportant countries for justice.

Hence: the ICC has only basically taken an interest in Africa so far.

Syria is a proxy war, which is why it is so attritional and has sustained itself for so long at stalemate. The problem is that it isn't a 2 way proxy war. In effect when we look at the horrors we are not just looking at the actions of Syrian actors, but the countries that support them. Iran and Russia on one side, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on another side, and the US, UK et al, who were supporting the Free Syrian Army etc etc. (I simplify: in reality, the sheer number of opposition factions is bewildering).
posted by MuffinMan at 6:25 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Just to clarify, lest some people think I'm a conspiracy nut or some defender of authoritarian brutal regimes: I am not trying to deny the evidence, and as I said, I am quite likely to trust the credentials of those who are working (apparently) independently of the US. As MuffinMan said, Syria is a proxy war, and there is so many issues surrounding it that it's terrifying to think what would happen if we do end up in a war... This also means that both sides have vested interests in controlling narratives. I apologize for doubting the veracity of claims by the US when it comes to claims of causus belli, but Iraq changed a lot of things (and that's not just Bush Jr. but even the run-up to the first Gulf War had propagandistic lies told to the media).

It's disturbing because I want to be able to rely on those who determine such things to be as honest as possible, but credibility has been strained by previous leadership and historical events in general. I also fear that these are very true and it makes me very very sad to think that al-Assad did this. I am upset that there isn't an easy alternative that makes a solution a nice safe at least mostly democratic system for those who will have to live in the country after the conflict is over.

This shit is a clusterfuck, and I am all for bringin al-Assad to war crimes tribunals over this, but of course, it isn't that easy. And I don't want to see an even larger conflagration break out that could be some very nasty business.
posted by symbioid at 6:48 AM on January 21


Once you commit the act and decide to keep it secret, the timing of its revelation will always be at the convenience of your enemies. This is as ever it was - protestations of "suspicious timing" are laughably irrelevant and depend on the intended audience being more naive than they are, as Governor Christie is also discovering.

The only way this could be glossed over is if the Assad regime hadn't committed the atrocities. Do you really think the Syrian Opposition is unaware of what's been happening to tens of thousands of their countrymen? This strengthens their hand ahead of negotiations, of course their allies are going to reveal it now.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:18 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


symbioid:

It's disturbing because I want to be able to rely on those who determine such things to be as honest as possible, but credibility has been strained by previous leadership and historical events in general.

This report wasn't produced by the US so why would the Iraq War cause you to doubt it? If anything the Iraq War increased my confidence in the UN because Hans Blix was shown to have been the voice of reason all along.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:29 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Here's the view from Craig Murray, former ambassador and Human Rights activist, on this and Geneva...
"Qatar will be present at Geneva, and Qatar has just launched a pre-emptive media offensive by launching a dossier on torture and murder of detainees by the Assad regime, which is being given first headline treatment by the BBC all morning.
There would be a good dossier to be issued on torture in detention in Qatar, and the lives of slave workers there, but that is another question...
What is reprehensible is that the BBC are presenting the report as though it were produced by neutral experts, whereas the opposite is the case. It is produced not by anti torture campaigners or by human rights activists, but by lawyers who are doing it purely and simply because they are being paid to do it...
If the Assad regime and not the government of Qatar had instructed [Sir Desmond De Silva] and paid him, he would now be on our screens arguing the opposite case to that he is putting. That is his job
."
Which is I think to say: careful now.
posted by chill at 7:33 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


This is as ever it was - protestations of "suspicious timing" are laughably irrelevant

I don't follow your argument.

They're about to enter into negotiations. The timings are absolutely relevant, as they are for any tactical leak or exposé. Of course people in Syria and elsewhere know what happened. Nobody is suggesting otherwise, despite your oh-so-patronising tone.

Knowing it and exerting pressure through international news headlines are entirely separate issues, however.

Once you commit the act and decide to keep it secret

Both sides have committed mass torture, of course, albeit that the Assad regime is likely to have done so at a far larger scale. Noting that an apparently neutral, highly publicised, report on one side's crimes appearing right before negotiations demands some skepticism is not naivety about who knows what.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:41 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


This single source... it says in the report that "the need of of the regime to have photographic images of the persons who were killed is wholly consistent with the need of the regime to ensure that orders for the killing of persons in detention facilities has been carried out." Does that sound realistic? Is there precedent for regimes documenting their own war crimes, rather than trying to hide all evidence?
posted by chill at 8:18 AM on January 21


Tons of precedence. It's almost a cliche. The Nazis had tons of records, for example.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:22 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Thanks, I somehow did not know that.
posted by chill at 8:25 AM on January 21



What evidence is there that these individuals were tortured under the current regime and not, say, older photographs?


The photographs are given specifically to the families of a deceased as a warning. [edit] not this collection apparently. I stand corrected.
posted by ocschwar at 8:51 AM on January 21


There is talk that Iranian special forces has essentially been running the war for Assad. It is hard to believe they wouldn't have been aware of the torture. I'd really like to find ou

Obama did a lot of really, really stupid things in his handling of Syria (declaring a "red line", prevaricating on whether or not al-Assad was a bad guy when he very fucking clearly was), but let's not forget that the Obama Administration were the only ones pushing for international action on stopping al-Assad beyond finger-waving. It was a really stupid idea, but it was one that they were willing to follow through with until the lack of international and domestic support killed it.


I disagree. Obama declared a "red line" to deter Syria from using chemical weapons. Deterring the use of chemical weapons is a good thing. Obama was also aware that the majority of Syrians did not want a war at all, and would probably much rather continue to live under Assad then see there lives destroyed completely in an endless war with Al-Qaeda. Perhaps if Obama hadn't made the issue with chemical weapons, Russia never would have convinced Assad to destroy them. The talk about Obama losing "credibility" because he didn't follow up by lobbing cruise missiles into Syria is just noise, imo. I have yet to hear anyone suggest what he could have done much differently that would have turned out better. Support Al-Qaeda?

Where is the outrage at Iran and Russia? They could have prevented the massacre, and I'm sure Obama would have been willing to cooperate with them if that was their intention.

Syrians describe brutal prison torture

‘Syria’s Torture Machine’: British Documentary Offers Cause For Concern In More Ways Than One


Human Rights Watch says US undermining efforts to bring Assad's regime before global court
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the U.S. had focused too strongly on bringing the warring parties together for peace talks at the expense of putting "real pressure" on Assad's regime to end atrocities and hold those responsible to account.

The group also accused Russia and China of shielding their ally Syria from concrete action at the United Nations, such as arms embargoes.

"We cannot afford to wait for the distant prospect of a peace accord before the killing of 5,000 civilians a month comes to an end," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters as he presented the group's annual report in Berlin. "The mass atrocities being committed in Syria should be a parallel focus of the peace process."

Human Rights Watch said the United States had "its own reasons" for opposing the referral of Syria to the Hague-based International Criminal Court, including concerns that this could have legal implications for U.S. ally Israel. But Washington has also been reluctant to lean on Russia for fear of jeopardizing diplomatic efforts to bring all parties together for a peace conference in Switzerland this week.
I don't know. I think an intervention is necessary in Syria. Russia and Iran (not the US, but with the backing of the US) should remove Assad and replace him with a regime that is acceptable to moderate Sunni's and all minorities who could then fight alongside the new regime to push out Al-Qaeda. The best thing Obama could do is end the proxy war, and convince the "proxies" to put stability and an end to violence ahead of their personal interests.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:03 AM on January 21


All depends on who you ask to do the killings and how personal they make the killings, chill. The Armenian Genocide wasn't quite so clear in the records because the Turks hired psychopaths from Prison who they could knew would make sure the murder happened. Conversely, Nazi's had problems with SS officers who executed Jews occasionally committing suicide until they switched to gas.

Syria specialized in torture under Bush, et al.. So they've enough psychopaths to not necessarily keep excessive records, unless they need em' for intimidation like ocschwar says.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:08 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]



Syria specialized in torture under Bush, et al..


Actually, Syria specialized in torture under Alois Brunner. This goes a long way back.
posted by ocschwar at 9:17 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Wouldn't referring Assad to the ICC be counter-productive? If he could ever be convinced to cede power, having a prison-term waiting for him once he leaves office would seem to only strengthen his commitment to staying in control. A life in comfortable exile would seem to be the only 'carrot' that could be offered...

But even that is probably not realistic. Assad's regime collapsing would almost certainly result in an dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Alawite and Shia communities in Syria - even with Russia's and Iran's prodding I doubt Assad and his cohorts could be offered any deal than involves them losing power that they would accept.

Plus I think we are past the point of a 'moderate' from any camp being acceptable to anyone.

All this to say... I personally believe there is no solution. A long-term cease-fire with regions controlled by two different 'governments' seems the most likely to result in a near-term end to killings, except even that would probably never happen.
posted by rosswald at 11:57 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Also, thank oschwar - I had no idea
posted by rosswald at 12:05 PM on January 21


Wouldn't referring Assad to the ICC be counter-productive? If he could ever be convinced to cede power, having a prison-term waiting for him once he leaves office would seem to only strengthen his commitment to staying in control.

I agree. Ending violence and finding some sort of political stability should be the goal not criminal courts, but exposing these crimes is essential.

All this to say... I personally believe there is no solution.

That is probably what everyone believes which is maybe one reason to hope for a radical solution, considering the alternative is massacre and absolute hell for most of the country.

A long-term cease-fire with regions controlled by two different 'governments' seems the most likely to result in a near-term end to killings, except even that would probably never happen.

Maybe this would work, but I'd be concerned about jihadists taking over the Sunni territories and using it as a base to take over parts of Iraq and continue the war against Damascus. I guess what's really missing is any Syrian leaders who could bring about or are even proposing a sane solution.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:30 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]



All this to say... I personally believe there is no solution. A long-term cease-fire with regions controlled by two different 'governments' seems the most likely to result in a near-term end to killings, except even that would probably never happen.


If we can organize a deal where both sponsoring sides (Saudi versus Iran & Russia) agree to withold support, the war will continue, but it will reach a point where the Syrians are throwing rocks at each other.
posted by ocschwar at 2:14 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't referring Assad to the ICC be counter-productive?

Not going to happen as long as a) Assad is in power b) Russia gives Syria cover on the Security Council.

Syria has not signed the Rome Statute. It either needs to issue a declaration that it accepts the jurisdiction of the ICC or the UN Security Council needs to refer Syria to the ICC. Which it won't do as long as Russia has the veto.

In July 2012 China and Russia vetoed a resolution threatening sanctions against Syria.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:00 AM on January 22


If there are the votes for it, the General Assembly could recognise some group of rebel forces as the legitimate government of Syria, which could then issue such a declaration. Vetoes only hold in the Security Council. I'm not sure if that's been proposed yet.
posted by topynate at 6:28 AM on January 22


Come to think of it, that'd be quite a neat fuck-you to Russia and China for doing exactly the same thing to Taiwan in 1971 over the objections of the US.
posted by topynate at 6:30 AM on January 22


The Syrian Shadow Government the World Forgot
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:28 AM on January 22


Syria’s Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth
posted by homunculus at 1:23 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


The Economist asks: Can he manipulate the West?
President Bashar Assad’s hopes are rising that he may be able to use the conference in Geneva to bolster the legitimacy of his regime.
posted by adamvasco at 7:58 AM on January 24


Syria's Assad accused of boosting al-Qaeda with secret oil deals

SOC member Michel Kilo claims evidence of Assad links to ISIS
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:09 AM on January 24


Deal Gives Women, Children Safe Passage From Besieged Syrian City
posted by homunculus at 5:44 PM on January 26


Syria's heritage in ruins: before-and-after pictures
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:02 PM on January 27


It's like Leningrad, basically: Syria’s Slow Death
While the international community is haggling over his chemical weapons, Bashar al-Assad is killing thousands through starvation.

posted by Joe in Australia at 10:58 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


The Disappeared: Reporting and surviving a war with no rules.
posted by homunculus at 9:30 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


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