Arab World: The killing grounds of Idlib
Reports of summary executions in the rebellious north highlight the West’s impotence in handling the Syria crisis.
Syrian soldiers near Damascus Photo: REUTERS
Human Rights Watch released this week a report that offers a devastating picture
of the activities of the Syrian regime in suppressing the revolt underway
The report also stands as an indictment of the impotency of
Western and international policy vis a vis the regime.
The HRW document
details the actions of the Syrian 76th Brigade, which forms part of the 4th
Armored Division in the Idlib governate in northwest Syria, in the days leading
up to the “cease-fire” that supposedly came on April 10th. It reveals a regime
determined to crush dissent by all means deemed necessary in the time available
to it. The picture that emerges is one of a country in the midst of a civil war,
albeit one in which the two participant sides are grossly mismatched.
February, the Assad regime began a sustained counter-attack against areas of
support for the revolution against it. The brutal pacification of Homs was the
first phase of this counter-revolution. The regime then turned its attention
toward the rebellious Idlib province.
As United Nations Special Envoy
Kofi Annan quibbled with the Assad regime over the precise terms of the
cease-fire, the 76th Brigade moved from town to town in Idlib, leaving a trail
of destruction in its wake.
The HRW report shows how 95 civilians died
and hundreds were wounded in the period between March 22 and April 6, as Syrian
armor and infantry swept methodically through the towns of Sarmin, Saraqeb,
Taftanaz, Hazano and Kelly. These areas had hitherto been precariously
controlled by disparate elements of the rebel Free Syrian Army and civilian
Of those killed, the report suggests that 35 were
the victims of summary execution by the army or by the Alawi Shabiha
paramilitaries who followed it into the towns.
The methods used by the
regime forces were the same as those witnessed by the world in Homs. But because
of the terrorizing of Western journalists who remained in Homs, no one was
present in Idlib to convey the reality of what was happening in real
In line with the Homs precedent, the towns targeted were first
softened up by sustained artillery fire.
Once this phase was completed,
infantry and armor entered the area, accompanied by operatives of Syrian
Military Intelligence and supported by helicopters.
In some areas, Free
Syrian Army forces put up sustained and determined resistance. In others, the
rebels conducted orderly, rapid retreats, aware of their inability to
successfully hold back armor and artillery.
But in either case, the
result was the same. The civilians of these restive Idlib towns were, after a
short interlude, left alone and defenseless before the forces of the
At this point, the process of summary executions, random arrests
and terrorizing of civilians began.
The government assault was not
characterized by blind rage. Rather, a methodical approach was adopted in which
approximately three days were allocated for the pacification of each town.
Sarmeen was the first to be targeted, beginning on March 22. Operations in
Kelly, the last area to be reduced, were neatly completed by April 6. Taftanaz,
the subject of the regime’s attention between April 2 and 4, was the main site
of mass executions.
In the dry legalese of the HRW report, “The fighting
in Idlib appeared to reach the level of an armed conflict under international
law, given the intensity of the fighting and the level of organization on both
sides. This would mean that international humanitarian law (the law of armed
conflict) would apply in addition to human rights law.”
The report goes
on to note that “Serious violations of international humanitarian law are
classified as war crimes.”
As an example of the kind of activities
unearthed, the execution of 19 members of a single family, the Ghazals of
Taftanaz, on a single day, April 3, is described in detail.
an eyewitness report, at 3:30 p.m, 20 men in civilian clothes entered a house
where the members of the Ghazal extended family had sought refuge from the
shelling. The women and elderly were forced to go down to the basement. The men
and boys were held upstairs for “questioning.” Female members of the family
later reported hearing gunfire.
At 8:30, they ventured back above. They
discovered 16 bodies of male members of their family who had been executed. Five
of the corpses had been taken to a deserted shop next door and burned. An
additional nine, with bullet wounds to the back and head, were in the house
Three more members of the family, including 75- year-old Ghassan
Ghazal, were executed by the roving killer squads of the regime in the hours
This is one representative story from the 76th Brigade’s
pacification of Idlib.
In early February, I spent a week in what were
then, with defiant hope, called the “liberated zones” of Idlib. My stay included
two days in Sarmeen, one of the towns that witnessed the rampage of the 76th
Brigade. I spoke to FSA fighters, civilian activists and ordinary residents of
The mood at that time was one of infectious but entirely
unwarranted optimism. The contrast between the determined self-belief of the FSA
fighters and the obvious inadequacy of their AK-47s and RPG-7s in the face of
regime armor, artillery and helicopters was obvious even then. The men I
interviewed were the ones who later sought – and, of course, failed – to protect
the people of Sarmeen from the assault. Some of them are now dead. The remainder
are in the countryside of Idlib, trying to continue the war, or over the border
in Turkey. The mood now is one of fury.
The failure of the West to
adequately engage with the Syrian opposition, and to act to prevent the war
crimes committed by the Assad regime in Idlib, has not meant the death of the
Rather, it is serving to turn the revolt against Assad’s rule
into what the regime always said it was – namely, an increasingly Sunni Islamist
By avoiding engagement, except though the pathetic offices of Kofi
Annan and his UN observers, the West has effectively abdicated the field to
three Sunni regional powers and Turkey is sponsoring the political opposition.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, through frontmen and in a chaotic and haphazard way, are
seeking to aid the armed rebellion.
Unsurprisingly, the main
beneficiaries of these states’ assistance are Sunni Islamist forces. Reports
from Antakya on the Turkish border suggest that in addition to sectarianism,
Saudi and Qatari efforts are characterized by incompetence.
militias from northern Syria have their representatives in this border town, all
seeking to establish their own channel of weapons and money to their own
particular fiefdom. It is a recipe for the deterioration of the rebel forces in
Idlib into a series of armed sectarian gangs, rather than their consolidation
into a united armed body.
This may suit the agenda of the Assad regime’s
regional enemies. It is also a gift to the regime itself.
Assad has long
portrayed the opposition to him as “armed, terrorist gangs.” The hands-off
approach of the West is helping to make this characterization not entirely a
fabrication. The end result will be to allow the members of the 76th Brigade and
their comrades to continue the systematic slaughter of civilians in Syria.