The picture above “went viral” on Thursday. The boy, five-year-old Omran Daqnees, was pulled from a building in rebel-held eastern Aleppo City after an airstrike either by the regime of Bashar al-Assad or Russia.
Like Alan Kurdi last September, Omran’s is hardly a unique case—twelve children were treated at just that one medical centre in Aleppo on Wednesday. But it seemed to capture something of the indiscriminate brutality that has been visited on the Syrian population, which rose against Assad five-and-a-half long years ago.
On the same day this shocking image came to global attention, Amnesty International released a report documenting in greater detail the monstrous scale of the cruelty and murder inflicted on Syrians who fall into the regime’s grasp.
The Amnesty Report
Amnesty’s report, “Torture, Disease and Death in Syria’s Prisons,” interviews sixty-five people who were in Assad’s prisons between 2011 and 2015. “Every one” of them, Amnesty notes, had been “tortured or otherwise ill-treated during at least one of their interrogations, in most cases during almost every interrogation.”
This is hardly new: as far back as 1987, Amnesty documented thirty-eight torture techniques in routine use in Syrian prisons.
Amnesty records that at least 17,723 people have been murdered in the regime’s prisons between 15 March 2011 and 31 December 2015—about nine-per-day—and 65,116 people, 58,148 (89%) of them civilians, have been “disappeared” between March 2011 to August 2015.
While many victims of the regime are opposition activists, the actual pattern of arrests shows a much wider net, encompassing “anyone who could be perceived to be opposing the government” [emphasis added].
Amnesty’s gives a glimpse at the process of arrest and detention in regime-held areas in Syria.
Being Arrested in Assad’s Syria
Arrest can occur on the flimsiest grounds, such as having a relative wanted by the regime or being reported by an informer, who could be motivated by avarice or a personal grudge. Another avenue into Assad’s prisons was explained by “Saad”:
I realized that my friend was in the same cell. He was blindfolded and covered in blood. He had told them that my father and brother had been helping the armed groups, which was not true … He apologized to us: “I was tortured, so I said your names.” …
Most of the former detainees interviewed for this report eventually “confessed” to whatever was asked of them … to end their suffering or to protect their friends or family.
It might not be as true as we wish it was that “torture never works,” but in Assad’s prisons the point is not to elicit the truth. “Hamoudeh” recalled:
He asked me to confess that I was a fighter. So I said I was the best fighter, the master of all those who carried a gun. … Then he asked for names. … I whispered to the guard: “Help me out, I have no names!” They beat me and left, then the guard came back and told me some names of well-known families of fighters.
As Ben Taub wrote in an excellent article for The New Yorker in April, which detailed the way the documentation implicating the regime’s leadership in ordering these atrocities had been smuggled out of Syria, “confessions served no apparent intelligence-gathering purposes, but they did lend a legalistic veneer to the detention process.” The prisoners’ confessions are also necessary to prevent the guards having suspicion turned on them—the self-enforcement of totalitarianism.
The regime made a special effort to persecute Alawis, the sect from which Assad hails, who had not fully committed to the regime side. “Tarek” was providing humanitarian relief in Aleppo in June 2014 when he was arrested. His leg broken during the arrest, Tarek was stuffed into the boot of a car, maltreated at a detention facility, and then taken to an Alawi village where he was “presented as a ‘traitor’,” and the “local population was encouraged to hit and insult him as a ‘punishment.”
Contrary to the oft-heard contention that Assad is secular—heard again recently—the regime and its instruments of terror are deeply sectarian, and trapping the Alawites for use as human shields has been a part of the program from the start.
Women are frequently sexually attacked just in transit, before they ever get to a prison. “Laila,” a peaceful activist from Damascus, reported being gang-raped at the order of one of the regime’s commanders in the car on the way to Military Intelligence Branch 227.
In Assad’s Prisons
Upon arrival, there is a “welcome party”—a beating of prisoners, who have usually been stripped naked, with pipes, cables, and other weapons. A “security check” then takes place that for women is more-often-than-not tantamount to rape.
In the prisons, the torture was systematic and frequent, including beatings when food was being delivered, stress positions, electric shocks (both with cattle prods and victims stood in water), the pulling of nails, scalding with hot water, and cigarette burns. Sexualized violence was also employed on a mass-scale, against both males and females. Sometimes this was done in front of parents; sometimes relatives were brought into interrogations and threatened with rape to secure confessions. Assad’s security forces also make prisoners rape each other.
The use of rape as a weapon of war by Assad is meant to heighten sectarian polarization and to shatter Sunni society. Rape, above even murder, can make it impossible to reconcile communities. It calls for revenge, and it opens the way for the most radical voices—which is what Assad needs since he has presented this as a terrorist revolt. It also uses the society’s mores against it so that the issue can never really be solved.
One way the regime’s security forces justify rape is by reference to “sex jihad,” a piece of disinformation from the regime’s own propaganda department. “She practiced jihad al-nikah with them [the rebels, who are all jihadis according to the regime], so she will do it with us, so that she regrets it,” one female detainee was told before being beaten and raped. This is a “common” trope.
The conditions in which prisoners are kept are inhuman: filthy, overcrowded, alternately too hot and too cold, and without adequate food or medical care. Disease is rife and medical staff participate in the maltreatment.
From the “welcome party” onward, with incidents of near-indescribable sadism, the intent is to humiliate and dehumanize the prisoners. “When they make us dirty, and smelly, and cover our eyes with the blindfold, we are no longer human,” one inmate explains. It makes them easier to kill.
Dead cellmates were left for days—or sometimes specifically brought back when they’d been killed elsewhere. Tarek was eventually taken to hospital and found a “pile of corpses next to [his] bed”. Human life has been completely devalued in Assad’s prisons.
Driven mad in isolation and not even able to shower, some prisoners attempted suicide. One who did was saved and told, amid a renewed beating, “You can’t die at the time that you choose.”
Then there is Sednaya, which has “become the final destination for peaceful opponents of the authorities”. There is space now, after all, since Assad turned loose the prior inhabitants—the jihadists—in a cynical effort to stain the uprising with sectarianism and terrorism.
The unfit are beaten to death upon arrival, one of the louder echoes of the Holocaust that hangs over the entire process. Many of Sednaya’s cells are underground and contain two-to-five centimetres of water. Absolute silence has to be maintained. Guards cannot be looked at. Prisoners are kept hungry, dirty, and frightened; tortured constantly while the guards chant “Bashar is your god!”; and murdered at will.
Amnesty concludes that “Syrian authorities are responsible for crimes against humanity”. This adds to a United Nations report released in February on Assad’s prisons that concluded the regime had undertaken a “systematic attack against the civilian population,” and was guilty of extermination, rape and five other crimes against humanity.
There has been a lot of exasperation in the West that the Syrian opposition has not prioritized the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda above that with Assad and his allies—primarily Iran and Russia, without whom his regime would likely have fallen. Hopefully these reports go some way to explaining why.
Al-Qaeda has carefully avoided antagonizing Syrians and presented itself as a weapon against the regime. IS’s crimes against Syrians pale next to Assad’s; even qualitatively the regime has outdone the takfiris.
A Western policy that doesn’t take these political facts into account is doomed to fail, since it mistakes the symptoms (IS, al-Qaeda) for the cause (Assad) of the misery inflicted on Syria that incubates this menace to the world.