News / Middle East

Analysis: Syrian Savagery Will Thwart Reconciliation

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra in front of a burning vehicle, caused by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet in Raqqa province, Syria, May 12, 2013.
A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra in front of a burning vehicle, caused by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet in Raqqa province, Syria, May 12, 2013.
Syrian soldiers slowly stab a man to death, puncturing his back dozens of times. A rebel commander bites an organ ripped out of an enemy combatant. A young boy hacks the head off a prisoner. A soldier mutilates the genitals of a corpse.
These are the images of Syrian conflict, the first war in which the prevalence of camera phones and Internet access has allowed hundreds of gruesome war crimes to be broadcast, spreading hatred and fear. They are defining the war that is spilling across Syria's borders and making reconciliation an ever more distant prospect.
Brutality has been used as a tool since the revolt began two years ago, when videos emerged of government soldiers torturing pro-democracy protesters. In response to the crackdown, the opposition took up arms and now fighters from both sides are filming themselves committing atrocities.
Ghoulish footage of violence is not filmed surreptitiously, but with pride by the assailants who often speak to camera.
Rebel commander Abu Sakkar, known to journalists and revered by many rebels, was shown in a video on Sunday cutting organs out of a dead soldier, addressing the camera as he ripped the flesh: “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers,” he warned President Bashar al-Assad's forces as his men cheered.
Sakkar was a founding member of the Farouq Brigade, one of the main rebel units in Syria, but has since formed his own battalion as the opposition fragments. In the mosaic of hundreds of opposition groups, Sakkar's men are seen as neither secular nor hardline Islamists, but as some of the hardiest fighters.
Another picture posted online shows a rebel holding the severed head of a man, supposedly an Assad loyalist, over a barbecue as if to cook it. The fighter smiles and poses confidently, gripping a tuft of hair.
Zero sum game
Reinoud Leenders, an associate professor in the war studies department of King's College London, says that these brutal displays are used as a tool of war by both sides.
“It's the ultimate expression of disrespect and dehumanizing your opponent,” he said.
In the face of an insurgency, he says, Assad's forces have used mass killings and torture to root out rebel fighters hiding among civilians.
“The regime has difficulty in pinning down opposition members, so they scare civilians from the area to get the rebels exposed. It looks irrational and emotional but there are rational reasons,” he said.
Nadim Houry, a Syria and Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, has documented abuses since the start of the revolt and says that he is seeing more and more brutal acts.
“Both parties are acting like they are facing an existential threat,” he said. The opposition and the government see the war as a zero sum game, both fighting for survival, he says.
This fear of defeat silences condemnation from supporters of both sides, he says. The main Syrian opposition group condemned the video of a rebel commander taking a bite from the dead soldier but many opposition supporters dismissed the brutality.
On some opposition Facebook pages people celebrated the act. Others berated the media for highlighting one particular event, saying they should focus on indiscriminate killing of men, women and children by Assad's war planes and militia.
The Syrian government has never acknowledged brutality in army ranks, instead referring to people killed by soldiers as “terrorists” and areas captured by its forces as “cleansed”.
Syria's war started as a popular uprising against the Assad dynasty, which has ruled for over four decades using secret police, intimidation and brute force.
But majority Sunni Muslims lead the revolt, while Assad gets his core support from his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, leading to sectarian fighting and hatred.
International powers have taken sides, with the West and Gulf countries supporting the opposition, while Iran and Russia back Assad. While war crimes are condemned in words, there has been no real deterrent for the perpetrators, which Houry said has allowed atrocities to continue.
“What is particularly troubling is the silence of the international powers,'' Houry said. He referred to a recent army and loyalist militia attack in the coastal town of Banias in which at least 62 people, including babies, were killed.
“We have been seeing (these massacres) for over a year. What is shocking is the level of indifference. People shrug their shoulders and look away,'' said Houry.
Since Syria never signed up to the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, the court could only investigate allegations of brutality there with a referral from the United Nations Security Council - something permanent members Russia and China have so far blocked.
The United States and Russia have proposed a peace conference to try to end the war, but savagery from both sides means that the unlikely event of a peace agreement might not stop atrocities and fighting between increasingly disparate militias.
“The ideas of reconciliation are now unrealistic. The conflict is as much about the conflict itself than pro- or anti-regime,” Leenders said. “I see a total mismatch between the US and Russian narrative and what is going on in Syria.”
In its sectarian nature and big power inertia, the Syrian conflict has drawn comparisons with Bosnia, which was torn apart by Serbs, Croats and Muslims in a 1992-95 war that gave the world the term 'ethnic cleansing' and was marked by some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War Two.
Almost 17 years since that war ended, the wounds are still raw. Bodies are still being dug up and a cycle of blame and denial weighs on efforts to reconcile communities. Bitterness runs deep and spills into politics, stifling development.
Details of the worst atrocities are coming to light even now. Each side clings to its own narrative of the war.
In March, an ethnic Montenegrin man was jailed for 45 years for killing 31 people and raping at least 13, including a pregnant woman in front of her young child.
The judge in the case said the defendant, Veselin Vlahovic, nicknamed Batko, sometimes forced his victims to kiss his hand as he beat them, and once ordered a man to have sex with the corpse of a woman whose throat had been cut.
In Srebrenica, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were gunned down in five summer days in 1995, their bodies bulldozed into pits, buried and reburied in a bid to conceal the crime. Many Serbs still dispute the figures, despite mountains of testimony at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The strength of feeling on all sides has made political compromise in the name of peace difficult, at times impossible, and acts as a brake on development.
In Lebanon, which lies next to Syria and fought its own 15-year civil war which ended in 1990, fault lines between religions remain strong and armed militias still come to blows as a weak government looks on helplessly.
Many Lebanese fighters accused of war crimes are now politicians as people support powerful members of their sect to safeguard against the influence of their foes.
“We don't have real reconciliation in Lebanon right now. Reconciliation requires justice,'' said rights researcher Houry, who lives in Beirut. “There is a tear at the fabric of Syria, similar to what we saw in Lebanon.”

You May Like

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs