The Killing Grounds of Idlib

Jerusalem Post, 4/5.

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 against it.

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.

In 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 opposition networks.

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 time.

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 regime.

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.

According to 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 itself.

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 that followed.

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 town.

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 uprising.

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 cause.

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.

Rival local 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.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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