War crimes committed by the Bashar Assad regime to oppress civilians and crush the opposition, including the use of chemical weapons, rape, torture, the targeting of civilian settlements and the deployment of terrorist organizations, have been documented in reports by the United Nations and independent human rights organizations.
Many actors involved in the Assad regime's brutal repression in the civil war that began in March 2011 have been implicated as war criminals. However, who gave the instructions for committing these war crimes and the chain of command the regime members followed remains unclear.
According to information obtained by Anadolu Agency (AA) correspondents, on the instructions of Assad and the country's National Security Bureau, the decision was made to establish a team of high-level security officials, called the Crisis Cell, in the capital Damascus to suppress the peaceful demonstrations that began in March 2011.
Chaired by then-Chief of General Staff Hassan Ali Turkmani, the Crisis Cell consisted of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and head of general intelligence Ali Mamlouk, along with members of the political security department, military intelligence and air intelligence.
Along with the Regime Protection Unit, the Criminal Security Department, the police and special forces units, Baath Party elements, organizations and militias affiliated with the Defense Ministry, the consortium consisted of four intelligence units operating across Syria, namely the Political Security Branch, the Military Intelligence Branch, the General Intelligence Directorate and the Air Intelligence Directorate.
The security committees, which were established by Assad and have branches in every region and province, were among the institutions tasked with suppressing the demonstrations with the full authority of the Crisis Cell.
The committees, which suppressed the peaceful demonstrations on a provincial and regional basis, formed teams consisting of military, intelligence, police, special forces and regime protection personnel. The teams implemented a policy of arbitrary arrest and execution by finding those who attended the demonstrations, those who organized them and those who supported them.
Numerous political figures and military officials took charge of the security mechanisms established by the regime to carry out these tasks. Many civilians, called Shabiha paramilitary militants, were also recruited and deployed by the People's Committees and other security institutions.
These security structures, which are directly linked to Assad, soon turned into crime-making mechanisms that acted independently of the civil or military judiciary. In nearly a decade of civil war, their war crimes have been documented by numerous organizations.
A "black list" showing the figures involved in the regime's crime-making mechanism was published in 2019 by the organization Pro-Justice with the contribution of many lawyers and officers, including former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces also submitted a list of war criminals to the International Criminal Court.
Regime’s crimes remain unpunished
The Syrian regime has regularly rejected reports of torture and extrajudicial killings in a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Assad himself has in the past denied such accusations against the security apparatus.
Most recently, the U.S. announced new sanctions on the Syrian regime for its crimes, targeting 39 new entities under the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which Trump signed into law in December.
The act is named after a Syrian military photographer who leaked tens of thousands of gruesome images that showed some 11,000 victims systematically tortured to death by the regime. The photographs showed evidence of starvation, beating, strangulation and other forms of torture.
A U.N. inquiry published in March 2018 and based on 454 interviews said that Syrian troops and regime-linked militias systematically used rape and sexual violence against civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, says at least 100,000 people have died from torture or harsh conditions in regime custody since the conflict began.
Already in 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Syria was holding tens of thousands of detainees in a "torture archipelago." It documented 27 detention facilities nationwide used to hold people swept up in the regime's crackdown on protesters.
In February 2016, U.N. investigators said "the mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination."
A year later, Amnesty International said as many as 13,000 people were hanged between 2011 and 2015 at the notorious Saydnaya military-run prison near Damascus.
This came on top of the 17,700 people it had already estimated as having perished in regime custody since the start of the conflict.
In May 2017, Washington claimed that Damascus had built a "crematorium" at Saydnaya to cover up thousands of prisoner deaths.
Furthermore, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 146,825 individuals are still detained arbitrarily or forcibly disappeared since March 2011.
HRW has also accused the Syrian regime forces since 2012 of using banned incendiary weapons against its opponents.
The Observatory and other activists claim the regime has dropped TNT-packed barrels from aircraft.
There have also been several allegations of the use of chemical weapons, including sarin and chlorine, which the regime denies.
In April, the global chemical weapons watchdog for the first time explicitly blamed the Syrian regime for toxic attacks, saying Assad's air force used the nerve gas sarin and chlorine three times in 2017.
However, despite the regime itself remaining unpunished, some of Assad’s torturers have been on trial. A Syrian doctor living in Germany has been arrested on suspicion of carrying out crimes against humanity at an Assad regime prison. The suspect, identified as Alaa M., is accused of having "tortured a detainee ... in at least two cases" at a prison run by the Syrian intelligence services in the city of Homs in 2011, German federal prosecutors said in a statement.
Last year, five Syrian torture survivors living in Norway filed legal complaints against senior officials of the regime. The complaint filed by the Syrian nationals documented crimes committed by 17 senior officials connected to the regime's Military Intelligence, General Intelligence and Political and Criminal Security divisions.
Lawyers asked the Norwegian prosecutors to investigate these 17 intelligence officials and issue international arrest warrants.
One of the plaintiffs, who was detained by the Syrian General Intelligence and subjected to various torture techniques, said he wanted to see those responsible for Assad's torture system stand trial.
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