Syria's State of Impunity

How to Hold All Sides Accountable for Atrocities During the Civil War

Security personnel loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Hujaira, south of Damascus, November 20, 2013. Alaa Al-Marjani / Courtesy Reuters

Ever since the start of the Syrian uprising three years ago, human rights groups have regularly reported how the regime of Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocities on a massive scale. Well-respected organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, have shown the regime to be responsible for attacks directed against civilians, torture of prisoners, summary executions, and the use of chemical weapons, among other crimes. They have also revealed that rebel forces, especially but not only those associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Levant, have followed the regime’s lead, committing their own atrocities against government sympathizers and competing rebels. Benetech, a Silicon Valley organization, prepared a detailed report last January for the UN that identified nearly 60,000 individual killings, a number that now likely exceeds 100,000.

In short, leading human rights organizations and UN experts, not to mention serious journalists, have shown that Syria’s civil war has descended into mass criminality. Only now there are photographs -- 55,000 of them, which are part of an explosive new report on the alleged torture of 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government since the start of the uprising. On January 20, a law firm in London, retained by the government of Qatar, which backs Syria’s rebels, released the report, concluding that the Syrian regime had committed torture amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report relies on the photographs and the one source who provided them, a police photographer for the regime. The source, code-named Caesar by the report’s authors, defected and was smuggled out of the country by the Syrian opposition, along with his cache of photographs of torture in Assad’s prisons. 

Anyone who has followed the situation in Syria will be prepared to accept the report’s conclusions as true. But the report’s shortcomings risk becoming the

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