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.
Reuters
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.
 
Reconciliation
 
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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid