Syria Feature: Regime Attacks Deliberately Target Civilians, Killing 1000s

EA FEATURE :  April 11, 2013 at 8:26 | James Miller in EA Middle East & Turkey, Middle East and Iran

Raw footage from the Human Rights Watch investigation:

In a detailed report, “Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians”, released today, Human Rights Watch indicates that civilian deaths are far from “collateral damage”.

According to the report, the regime is making ordinary Syrians the targets of its airstrikes, in a deliberate tactic to instill fear:

    The Assad regime is both deliberately and indiscriminately targeting civilians, a clear violation of international law. The non-government organization is also clear – the regime’s attacks have absolutely nothing to do with the presence of Syrian rebels, insurgents who were in fact absent in almost all cases. The regime’s violations are systematic and deadly, and those who are committing these acts are guilty of war crimes.

The 75-page report is based on visits to 50 sites of government air strikes in opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia Governorates, and includes more than 140 interviews with witnesses and victims.

At least 152 civilians died in the airstrikes that HRW directly documented. The organisation, working with the claims of activists, estimates that aerial attacks have killed more than 4,300 civilians across Syria since July 2012. EA Worldview asked the report’s co-author Ole Solvang, who is on the ground in Syria, whether insurgents had been present at any of the sites of airstrikes in which civilians died.

Solvang told us that while there had been some airstrikes targeting opposition fighters, those attacks did not result in the deaths of civilians. According to Solvang, such strikes were extremely rare compared to those attacks on non-combatants: “We did not document any attacks where we concluded that civilian casualties were collateral damage in the sense that they were lawful. In virtually all cases we documented the strikes did not hit any legitimate targets.”

Solvang noted that HRW had found two exceptions to this — both in al-Bab Province, apparently hitting legitimate targets, but not leading to civilian casualties. These strikes were not included in the 59 unlawful attacks HRW documented. “More important for our analysis, however, is that the government used means and methods that did not allow it to precisely target the attacks,” Solvang added. Even when potentially legitimate targets were present at the site of an aerial bombardment, Solvang said it was difficult to directly tie the strikes to these targets. He said, “We were able to identify possible targets for many of the strikes (although the bombs usually missed), but to me, many of these attacks seemed random as well.”

Asked whether the insurgents had carried out any attacks targeting civilians, HRW said their team had been unable to document such incidents, often because the Government prevented access.

Solvang told EA Worldview that there had been incidents where anti-Assad groups did attack and where civilians died. Those incidents include car bombings — attacks that many in the opposition have condemned — as well as the mortar strikes near Damascus University.

Human Rights Watch reported that these incidents are isolated actions, perpetrated by smaller insurgents factions, in contrast to the widespread regime strikes against civilians.

“We have not recorded any instance of opposition attacks that we believe deliberately targeted civilians,” Solvang told us.” Human Rights Watch supports its claim that the regime’s airstrikes appear designed to inflict maximum human damage by noting the use of cluster bombs, “barrel” bombs, incendiary explosives, unguided bombs, and ballistic rockets, often in areas of dense population. The organisation is clear that these are not effective surgical strikes, specifically targeting and destroying insurgent positions. The report concludes that these attacks, beyond the physical destruction, are designed to spread fear and terror as the regime tries to restore its control over the Syrian populace. Thus, in the words of the report, these are unlawful actions. They are “crimes against humanity”.