About Nine years of the Syrian war: continuous killing and destruction while war criminals go unpunished. Russia and Iran are the regime’s winning cards and the “Islamic State” shifts to “Sleeper Cells”. The geography of influence and control is constantly changing

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,

January 2020

Another year proceeds without any signs for a solution to the Syrian crisis on the horizon, as only two months left for the crisis to end its consecutive ninth year since its beginning in 2011. Nine years have passed while the international community was unable to save innocents from the continuous killing machine that did not stop for a moment at the hands of the various parties of the conflict. With almost nine years of the conflict, the situation remains catastrophic on with developments and the shifts in areas of control and influence from one party to another. The Syrians unfortunately remain the main victim of all parties. Within the nine years of this crisis, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented and monitored all developments taking place on the ground as well as on the political scene, seeking to document all the violations against the Syrian people. The Observatory hope the day will come when the perpetrators of war crimes during all those years will be held accountable for their actions. In spite of the events and changes that the nine years brought about and changed the scene on the ground in Syria, there are prominent events that represented a turning point in the history of the Syrian revolution that turned into a civil war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recalled the most prominent of these events over the past nine years, which left hundreds of thousands dead, millions injured, millions internally displaced and refugees abroad, not to mention the massive damage to the infrastructure throughout Syria as a result of the massive indiscriminate shelling by the parties of the conflict without any attention to what the fate of civilians.

Freedom and Democracy seekers: demonstrators repressed the regime and a revolution turning into a civil war

On March 6, 2011, regime forces arrested 15 boys for writing anti-regime slogans on some walls in Daraa southern Syria, prompting dozens to go out in demonstrations demanding “freedom” and the toppling the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whose family has controlled the country since 1971. Regime forces began suppressing the anti-government demonstrations by force as those demonstrations spread to other Syrian cities. Only few weeks after the outbreak of the events in March 2011; regime forces began a massive campaign of arrests that affected tens of thousands, the fate of large numbers of whom is still unknown. Over the past nine years, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the killing of 16,152 Syrian civilians in prisons and detention centers, which became more like “death centers”. Civilians’ death toll since the start of the Syrian revolution is categorized as follows: 15,964 young and old males, 125 children and 64 females since the start of the Syrian revolution. This toll is what the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights managed to document in full names and identities, out of 104 thousand that the SOHR obtained information about their death in prisons, through execution and killing. According to SOHR information, 83% of the 104 thousands were killed or died inside detention centers between May 2013 and October of 2015. Reliable SOHR sources confirmed that more than 30 thousand detainees were killed in the notorious Sednaya prison, while the second highest number of civilians killed inside regime prisons was in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate.

Only few months passed, the so-called “Free Syrian Army”, consisting of civilians deciding to take up arms and defectors of the Syrian army, was established in order to fight regime forces and protect civilians. Then violent battles ensued. During these battels, opposition fighters succeeded to control important areas, especially in Homs and Aleppo. In March 2012, regime forces took control of the opposition stronghold, Homs, and several areas witnessed bloody military operations, especially in Hama, after massive demonstrations against the regime. In July 2012, opposition factions launched the “Damascus Battle”, in which they managed to control large areas on the outskirts of the capital, most notably Eastern Ghouta.

In 2013, the Syrian war saw a new phase that changed the scene on the ground and created a series of countless crises in Syria, where warplanes and helicopters began firing rockets and dropping explosive barrels (barrel-bombs) on the opposition-controlled areas, while, simultaneously, regime forces laya suffocating siege to those areas. Since then, regime forces have not stopped committing the most heinous crimes and violations against Syrian people under the pretext of fighting terrorism and regaining the areas controlled by opposition factions.

Hezbollah’s intervention: A turning for the revolution

In April 2013, Lebanese Hezbollah announced engaging in the Syrian war in support of its ally, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, which represents a new violation committed by Assad against his own people by drawing on external powers to carry out the worst forms of killing against Syrians, as the participation of Lebanese Hezbollah in the conflict was accompanied by generous Iranian military and material support, military advisers and Shiite fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Iran also started its attempts to impose Shiite influence and control over Syrian land, where Iran, with the help of Hezbollah, launched a fierce campaign against the Syrians that resulted in the death of thousands of Syrians and displacing tens of thousands, with regime forces regaining control of large parts of the country over the past few years, at a time when Iran has been working to impose its influence over Syrian regions, through Shiites and attracting Syrians to belong to its factions and militias in return for attractive financial salaries.

While regime no longer has the reins and cannot control country without its allies, silence continues on the part of the regime about Iranian forces and militias’ recruitment operations in their favor in southern Syria and the western banks of the Euphrates River, through their spiritual proxies or Shiite centers, such as “Saraya al-Areen” of Brigade 313 in North Daraa, in addition to centers in the Al-Lajat area, other areas in Daraa countryside, Al-Mayadeen and its suburbs, ​​Albukamal and others in the countryside of Deir Ezzor west of the Euphrates River. According to the sources of the SOHR, these conversions to Shiite are ongoing in exchange for money and continuous usage of religion and sectarianism, where the number of volunteers in southern Syria increased to more than 4,620 volunteers, while the number of young men and Syrian men of different ages who were recruited in the ranks of the Iranian forces and their militias recently after converting to “Shiite” increased to about 2870, within the area west of the Euphrates river in the countryside of Deir Ezzor, as Iranian militias intentionally intensified recruitment operations, coinciding with the Russian side being too busy with military operations and recent agreements with Turkey regarding Northern Syria.

The “Caliphate state”: A new chapter in the Syrian crisis with the “Islamic State” declaring its control in Syria and Iraq

Syrians were up for a new turning point in June 2014, when the leader of the “Islamic State” announced what the rise of the so-called “caliphate state” after controlling large areas in Syria and Iraq. After the group took control of large areas in Syria, ISIS members committed several violations against Syrian people in the areas under their control, where they worked to expel the people from their homes, arrest them, impose penalties and levies on them, in addition to countless violations.

The turning point of the “Islamic State” was its attempt to take control of the Syrian border city Ain al-Arab (Kobani) on September 13, 2014, as the region witnessed violent battles between Kurdish units “People’s Protection Units – YPG” and ISIS fighters, where Kurdish fighters were able to repel the attacks of ISIS. On January 27, 2015, Kurdish units managed, with the help of air strikes launched by the international coalition against ISIS, to defeat the group and causing the first defeat of ISIS since Its control of vast areas in Syria and Iraq. That battle was considered a turning point in the operations to defeat the “Islamic State”.

Since then, violent battles began between the YPG in cooperation with the international coalition and ISIS, as the international coalition launched its operations in Syria, and the United States has been searching for reliable allies that can be supported to form a ground force to provide with air cover and support, ending up in alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the YPG is its core force. In cooperation with the International Coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), managed to control an area of ​​28.8% of the total territories of ​​Syria, equivalent to ​​53,396 square kilometers, including the entire area of ​​Manbij and its countryside in the west of the Euphrates River, the entire region of eastern Euphrates, with the exception of several areas controlled by regime forces and their allies in the east of the Euphrates opposite of Deir Ezzor. In October 2019, the situation changed after the Turkish military intervention, as the coalition forces withdrew in favor of the Russian forces in accordance with the initial agreement between regime forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces sponsored by Russia, which stipulates the deployment of the Russian military police and regime forces in northern Syria.

The coalition and SDF operations in Syria culminated in announcing the defeat of ISIS and the end of its control over Syrian territories in March 2019, and then announcing the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, after the SDF in cooperation with the international coalition, regained control over Raqqa, which was considered the most prominent stronghold of the group in Syria, as ISIS called it “the capital of the caliphate”. After that, the group turned into “sleeper cells” that carry out suicide operations and bombings from time to time within the security chaos in the SDF-held areas in Deir Ezzor, in addition to the group’s control of 1.8% of the total Syrian territories in Al-Badia.

Russian intervention: Regime draws in external powers to regain control of lost territories in exchange for the blood of its people

On September 30, 2015, the Council of the Russian Federation granted Russian President Vladimir Putin a mandate to intervene militarily in Syria. Putin announced at the time that Russian intervention would be limited to air strikes in order to defeat the “Islamic State” and extremists in the legal war of the Syrian army against these groups, at the request of regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Russian forces immediately began launching air strikes on the “Islamic State” positions, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, after which they launched a series of strikes, raids, and military and political aid to the “Assad” regime, resulting in the Syrian regime regaining control of about 71.7% of Syria after it controlled very small parts of the Syrian territory. According to SOHR statistics, situation changed in the wake of the Turkish military intervention, as the SDF is now controlling only 29,220 km2, or 15.7% of Syria, with the regime controlling 133,3262.8 km2, equivalent to 72% of the Syrian territories. Meanwhile, the “Islamic State” remains in control over 3283 km2, or 1.8%, while the various factions supported by the United States and Turkey and the fighting factions control 10.5% of the total Syrian territories, equivalent to 19,414.2 km2.

Turkish interventions: Military operations to gain control and influence inside Syria

On August 24, 2016, Turkey announced its direct engagement in the Syrian crisis through a military operation “Euphrates Shield”, which it said was aimed at confronting “Islamic State” and “Kurdish terrorist groups on borders”. Turkish forces and allied Syrian armed opposition groups launched violent operations until March 29, 2017, when the Turkish army officially announced the successful completion of operation “Euphrates Shield”, after which Turkey took control of large areas in the west of the Euphrates. On January 20, 2018, Turkey once again launch a new operation in which it violated the Syrian territories, in cooperation with Syrian fighters loyal to it, as it launched an unprecedented attack in northern Syria against the YPG in the Afrin region. After nearly two months of violent battles within what is known as the operation “Olive Branch”; the Turkish forces and the Turkish-backed factions managed to control the Kurdish-majority Afrin, which resulted in the death, injury and displacement of tens of thousands, not to mention the almost daily violations documented by the SOHR, at the hands of the Turkish-backed factions under the supervision of the Turkish army against the citizens, without any regard for the laws, charters and treaties of wars and areas of conflict.

Despite the relative calm that dominated the SDF-held areas in northeastern Syria after declaring the defeat of the “Islamic State”, this calm was not destined to continue, as Turkey announced once again a new military operation against the SDF in northeastern Syria under the name of operation “Peace Spring”, in which Turkey managed to control the area between Ras Al-Ain and Tal Abyad, after US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from northern Syria on October 6, 2019, which prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces to take refuge to Russia and the regime to conclude deals for the deployment of regime forces in several areas in northern Syria, to counter the Turkish engagement  in the region.

Political negotiations: Russia’s objectives to restore Syrian territory under regime’s control

Russia was not satisfied with its military engagement in the Syrian crisis; that it decided to use the political sphere as well to shift the world’s eyes away from the Geneva negotiations. On the 23rd and 24rd of January 2017, Russia launched the first version of the Astana negotiations between regime’s government and “opposition”. Over almost 3 years, Syria witnessed tremendous shifts in the areas of control over the land, and those negotiations became the starting point through which Russia, with the help of Turkey, succeeded in returning control of most of the Syrian territories to the Syrian regime, so that Russia and Turkey would have presented Bashar al-Assad’s regime what it failed to attain in years. Back in January 2017, the regime-held area did not exceed 35,944 square kilometers, which is equivalent to 19.4% of the total territory of Syria, while the Syrian Democratic Forces controlled 34,230 square kilometers with a total 18.5% of Syria, while the lion’s share was that of the “Islamic State”, which then controlled 79,293 square kilometers, equivalent to 42.8% of the total Syrian territory, while the Islamic and fighting factions, operation “Euphrates Shield” and the Western-backed factions controlled 35,713 square kilometers, equivalent to 19.3% Of the total Syrian territories, according to the statistics of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. However, the negotiations which were supposed to be aimed at settling the crisis and focusing mainly on stabilizing the ceasefire agreements, have turned into an outlet for both Russia and Turkey to consolidate regime’s control over Syria through the agreements reached under the auspices of Russia and Turkey. By January 2, 2020, regime regained control over about 72% of the total Syrian territories.

Nine years on: The killing machine continues to claim lives of Syrians. 380,000 documented dead while the real number of deaths exceeds that figure

Over the past nine years, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented the death of 380,636 people on Syrian territories, since the start of the Syrian revolution on March 15, 2011 until the beginning of the first day of 2020. The human causalities were distributed as follows:

Civilians: 115,490 Syrians, including 21,949 children under the age of eighteen and 13,612 females over the age of eighteen

Syrian fighters of rebel and Islamic factions and other various factions, movements, and organizations: 53,799

Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish units: 12,658

Syrian army defectors: 2,625.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces: 66,620; fighters of NDF and Syrian regime loyalists: 51,594; fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah: 1,682; and gunmen of non-Syrian nationalities loyal to the regime forces of the Shiite community: 8,245, of whom, 264 were Russian soldiers and mercenaries

Turkish soldiers: 111.

Jihadis of Hayyat Tahrir Al-Sham (former Nusra Front), and other various jihadi organizations: 26,758

ISIS members: 37,707

Non-Syrian fighters of SDF: 930.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was not able to document the number of deaths of the International Coalition, due to the extreme secrecy.

Unidentified people whose death was documented by pictures and videos: 417; in addition to 3,691 persons whose names were documented by SOHR in 2017.

These statistics, documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, do not include the nearly 88,000 civilians killed under torture in the detention centers and prisons of Bashar al-Assad regime (SOHR obtained information about their death during the period of their detention.) The statistics also do not include the fate of more than 3,200 abducted civilians and fighters in the prisons the “Islamic State” organization, or the fate of more than 4,100 prisoners and missing members of the regime forces and loyalist militiamen, and more than 1,800 persons kidnapped by rebel and Islamic factions, “Islamic State” organization and Fateh al-Sham Front (former Jabhat Al-Nusra) on charges of loyalty to the regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that the real and actual number of people who were killed to be in the region of 105,000 persons, well above the numbers that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was able to document, simply due to the extreme secrecy on the number of casualties by the warring parties; Furthermore, the Observatory has been unable to document many civilians deaths due to the difficulty of reaching some remote areas in Syria.

Additionally, the ongoing military operations, shelling, bombardment and various explosions have injured more than 2,000,000 Syrian civilians with varying injuries, wounds and permanent disabilities.

About 12,000,000 other civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children and women were displaced. Infrastructure, hospitals, schools, and private and public property have been substantially damaged or destroyed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also meticulously documented, in spredsheets, the death toll according to the ‘perpetrator’ category. A breakdown of total number of civilian deaths of 115,490 by the ‘perpetrator’ category is as follows:

Civilians killed by Al-Assad regime forces and Syrian and non-Syrian loyalist militiamen: 45,188 civilians, of whom 27,834 were men, 10,874 children under the age of eighteen and 66,480 females over the age of eighteen.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime warplanes and helicopter: 26,280 civilians, of whom 16,588 were men, 5,926 children under the age of eighteen and 3,766 females over the age of eighteen.

Death toll in regime detention centers and prisons: 16,152 civilians of whom 15,963 were young and old men, 125 children under the age of eighteen, and 64 females over the age of eighteen.

Death toll by foreign powers, intervening in Syria under the pretext of helping the Syrian people to achieve justice get rid of oppression, is as follows:

Russian missiles and airstrikes: 8,427 civilians, of who 5,107 were old and young men, 2,040 children under the age of eighteen and 1,280 females over the age of eighteen.

International Coalition bombardment: 3,833 civilians, of whom 2,150 were men, 972 children under the age of eighteen and 711 females over the age of eighteen.

Attacks by Turkish forces and warplanes: 993 civilians, of whom 675 are old and young men, 193 children under the age of eighteen and 125 females over the age of eighteen.

Turkish Jandarma (Border Guard Forces): 445 civilian, of whom 324 were young and old men, 79 children under the age of eighteen and 42 females over the age of eighteen.

Israel’s ground and air attacks: eight civilians, of whom three were men, three children and two women.

Death toll caused by various ‘anti-regime’ formations and groups such as ISIS, opposition factions, Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), and other groups in Syria:

Opposition factions: 7,981 civilians, of whom 6,019 were men, 1,217 children under the age of eighteen and 745 females over the age of eighteen.

ISIS: 6,183 civilians, of whom 5,266 were men, 520 children under the age of eighteen and 397 females over the age of eighteen.

Nearly eight years and ten months since the start of the Syrian revolution and its shift into a civil war, during which the killing machine that all sides of the crisis have adopted has not stopped to claim the lives of Syrian civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its assurances that all the suffering of the Syrians and the repercussions over the region and the world, could have been avoided if the international community had shown a genuine will to interfere and put pressure on the regime, its supporters, other parties of the conflict and their supporters, in order to stop shedding the blood of Syrians.

A new year proceeds, but it does not bring with it solutions on the horizon to resolve the crisis, at a time when Russia, the regime, Turkey and other parties are strengthening their operations in Syria in an effort to reap the greatest possible gains and influence. On this basis, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its appeals to the international community to take a decisive stance towards that bloodshed at the hands of the various parties. The Syrian Observatory confirms that the international community’s continued neglect of the essence of the crisis, contentment with condemnation and condemnation and trying to contain the side effects of the conflict will only result in the loss of more innocent people and victims who have been displaced in the open in difficult humanitarian conditions and inside refugee camps that lacks the minimum essentials for a decent human life, and refugees in foreign countries living in the worst possible conditions while some of them are a burden on poor countries, not to mention hundreds of thousands of children who have dropped out of school and are living below the poverty line, in addition to hundreds of thousands of injured with permanent injuries and disabilities.

The past years have largely destroyed the fabric of Syrian society, especially in light of the violations and attempts by Turkey to demographically change the Syrian society, which the SOHR documented over the past few years. Once again, the immediate solution that protects Syrians from new scourges and saves the entire region from the effects that will extend to decades, is to take decisive decisions to stop the Syrian war machine and impose a political solution over all parties of the conflict. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights appeals to the concerned international relief organizations to consider the living conditions of the displaced and refugees, including hundreds and possibly thousands of informal camps that suffer the worst humanitarian conditions and threaten with a new humanitarian disaster, which would be the largest in the Middle East during the past decade.

Based on the doctrine of the SOHR and its belief in the right of Syrians to a democratic state and a dignified life, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights shall continue to document and monitor all what is happening on the Syrian territories and the violations committed by the various parties. The SOHR also confirms it is ready to provide all documents and evidence to the concerned international organizations upon request, in order to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirms that neglecting to hold those responsible for war crimes to accountability, will entrench a new global doctrine of impunity. Accordingly, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calls on the international judicial authorities to investigate the crimes and violations that took place in Syria, to find the perpetrators and hold them accountable, and to ensure that they do not escape punishment justice.

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