What the Assad Regime Hid and Survivors Revealed: Details of a Massacre Revealed 10 Years After It Was Committed

Murad Jandali | 2 years ago




The Guardian newspaper recently highlighted the first detailed investigation of one of the bloodiest massacres in the early years of the Syrian conflict, committed by the Assad regime and its allies against the residents of Darayya a decade ago.

Meanwhile, official media affiliated with the Assad regime said after the massacre that "the army has cleansed Darayya from the remnants of terrorism," while the Assad government has repeatedly rejected statements that its forces committed extrajudicial killings and other atrocities.

The authors of the new investigation and survivors of the massacre hope that United Nations bodies and other legal institutions will use the recently published findings to prosecute the Syrian regime officials involved.


Systematic Attack

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the massacre, the Syrian British Council (SBC), an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom, launched on August 25, 2022, a long investigation entitled: A Decade after Darayya: Documenting a Massacre, the first of its kind that documents the Darayya massacre, which was committed by the Syrian regime and forces loyal to it in August 2012.

The 47-page investigation revealed that the Assad regime, including the Fourth Division, the Republican Guard, the Air Force Intelligence, and shabiha (state-sponsored armed criminal militia), with the support of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian militias, participated in a systematic attack against the civilian population of Darayya between August 20 and 26, 2012.

The investigation, which was prepared by a team of Syrian investigators with the support of SBC, documented the killing of more than 700 people, 514 of whom have been identified, including at least 36 women and 63 children.

"The work of the investigation lasted for two years and relied on the testimony of 23 men and women who survived the massacre and scattered around the world, in addition to two interviews with experts, documentary evidence, and open-source investigations," SBC said in a statement.

"The attack on Darayya was highly planned and coordinated and coincided with tightening security measures and restricting entry and exit through the establishment of checkpoints and the closure of side roads used by local residents," the council stressed.

The investigation spoke of Assad's forces attacking the city's neighborhoods indiscriminately through bombing and air strikes, while local activists confirmed that the Free Syrian Army fighters withdrew from the city days before the massacre began in an attempt to keep the civilians out of danger.

However, on the morning of August 24, 2012, the Syrian government forces and loyalist forces entered the city and carried out many massacres and mass executions, in addition to the arrest of dozens of city residents.

The investigators were able to identify the Assad forces, the Iranian militias, and Hezbollah who participated in the massacre by their uniforms, the ranks they wore, and the weapons they carried. The team also identified some individuals responsible for the massacre.

After the massacre, Darayya was subjected to continuous bombardment and siege imposed by Assad's forces for four years until a committee representing the city's factions and activists reached an agreement with the regime on August 26, 2016, to leave the city for the opposition areas in northern Syria.

The number of victims from the city of Darayya since the beginning of the Syrian revolution has reached 2,911 people, in addition to the arrest of 5,193 people, while more than half of them are still being held in Assad's prisons to this day, according to the data of the documentation team in Darayya.


Missing Justice

Despite the people of Darayya's disappointment with the international system, witnesses gave testimony and recounted the heinous crimes their government committed in Darayya, believing that their story was not only worthy of documentation but might one day help achieve justice and accountability.

Days before the massacre, witnesses interviewed about these events for the first time stated that Assad's forces and its allies began indiscriminately bombing the neighborhoods of Darayya, which led to casualties and injuries among civilians.

While another witness stated: "The escalation of the regime against the city of Darayya began on August 19 and 20, then the shelling intensified, and the worst types of bombardment were used."

Another witness described to investigators the scene in the city hospital after one of the attacks as terrifying, as if it was the Day of Resurrection.

On its part, The Guardian reported that the latest investigation recorded the atrocities committed in Darayya based on the testimonies of witnesses and victims to help victims think more about what happened and recover from it and to tell future generations the truth of what happened from the victims' point of view.

In turn, Yasmine Nahlawi, a lawyer specializing in international law and combating atrocity crimes, acknowledged that "there is little opportunity to present the investigation to the judiciary and hold President Bashar al-Assad and his aides accountable accordingly, but she insists that it is necessary to continue to try."

"When you let the perpetrator get away with it, you're paving the way for more atrocities, and that's what we've certainly seen in Ukraine," she added.

On the importance of documenting crimes and their dimensions, Syrian lawyer Abdel Nasser Hoshan explained in a statement to Al-Estiklal that "documenting events has two dimensions, the first for history, and the other for accountability because these crimes are not subject to a statute of limitations as war crimes and crimes against humanity."

"Re-documenting the massacres committed by the Assad regime, especially in the first years of the Syrian revolution, as a full-fledged crime, is a very important issue because it stirs public opinion. The investigation moves the events from the realm of the narrative that bears ratification and denial to the realm of the established criminal incident in which the final say is given to the international judiciary," he noted.

"The authors of the new investigation did not mention the names of those involved in the massacre in Darayya, despite having obtained some names, and they only mentioned the names of the security and military authorities responsible for the massacre," he also pointed out.

Lawyer Hoshan attributed the reason for not revealing the names of the accused because of the risks involved, the most important of which is the possibility of the Assad regime getting rid of those involved criminals in order to obliterate the features of the crime. The other issue is the secrecy of the work, given that other investigations into related crimes with other perpetrators may emerge from this investigation.

It is noteworthy that based on the testimonies of witnesses presented in the investigation by the families of the massacre victims, there is a possibility to file judicial complaints in European countries to hold the perpetrators of that massacre accountable within the principle of universal jurisdiction, especially since a copy of the documentation of the Darayya massacre was sent to the independent international mechanism for investigation in Syria, and the foreign ministries of several countries, including Britain, the United States, the European Union, and Germany, in addition to the relevant authorities of the United Nations.

Lawyer Hoshan commented: "The Darayya massacre is considered one of the most brutal massacres, and its professional re-publishing will lead to influencing public opinion, and will also be a document for opening criminal investigations in European countries against criminals who may have fled to them."

However, if the people implicated in the massacre were not residing on European soil, these complaints would be in absentia, those involved would not be able to be brought to court, and thus justice would not be effectively served, according to human rights defenders.


Blur the Truth

At that time, the massacre and the images presented by the pro-regime media aroused widespread international condemnation, and the events in Darayya were considered the worst single massacre in the history of the Syrian revolution, while the Assad regime described it as an "anti-terror operation."

The former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the killings of Darayya, describing them as a horrific and brutal crime that must be investigated immediately, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As the former British Minister of State for Middle East affairs, Alistair Burt, said that the massacre, if confirmed, would be a violation of a new level that requires the firm condemnation of the entire international community.

So far, no full UN investigation has taken place into the various crimes committed by Assad's forces during that massacre; with the exception of a brief reference in a broader UN report on Syria in 2013, the report acknowledged that government forces had committed war crimes and that further investigation was needed.

On the other hand, following the massacre, the Assad regime spread misinformation through its pro-regime media, forcing critically wounded civilians to be interviewed with the aim of reinforcing the regime's narrative that the Free Army forces were responsible for the killings in the city.

In this regard, one of the investigators' co-authors, Ahmed Saeed—who grew up in Darayya—said that efforts to conceal the truth of what happened were worse than the massacre itself, stressing that documenting the crimes that took place in his hometown was difficult.


Brutal Massacres

The investigation prepared by SBC comes three months after the release of a similar report that documented the solidarity massacre committed by the Syrian regime on April 16, 2013, which resulted in the brutal killing of 41 civilians in the neighborhood south of Damascus, what caused a shock to all Syrians who recalled the massacres committed by Assad's forces over a period of about ten years.

Towns and neighborhoods near the Syrian capital have been the scene of the regime's most brutal massacres since 2011, which were documented with evidence by media and human rights activists, but the international community has not moved so far to hold the perpetrators accountable.

In April 2013, about 500 civilians were killed (burned and slaughtered with knives) in the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl, west of Damascus, which is inhabited by IDPs from the occupied Syrian Golan.

According to survivors, the massacre, perpetrated by Assad's forces and its shabiha, lasted for several days, which led to the killing of a large number of civilians, most of whom were children and women; at the time, local authorities confirmed the killing of 566 people in the town.

On August 21, 2013, the Assad regime committed one of the most brutal massacres since the start of the Syrian revolution until now, killing more than 1,400 people with poisonous gasses in the towns of Eastern Ghouta of Damascus, which were under the control of the Syrian opposition and besieged from all directions.

The chemical massacre was not the only one in the eastern Ghouta of Damascus, as thousands of civilians were killed and injured over the years by bombing by Assad's air force until April 2018, when the regime committed a second massacre with toxic gases in the city of Douma, to force the people of the area to flee to the north of Syria, According to local sources, about 70 civilians were killed by sarin gas bombardment.

In early 2014, between 1,200 and 1,500 Syrians and Palestinians were killed and missing at the hands of Assad's forces, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias in a massacre known as Ali al-Wahsh Checkpoint on the road between the towns of Yalda and Hujeira, south of the capital, Damascus.

Notably, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 49 massacres with a sectarian character committed by the Assad regime throughout Syria from 2011 to 2015, in which 3,074 people were killed, including five massacres in the Damascus countryside.