The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is deeply concerned about the growing risk of mass atrocities in and around the southern Syrian city of Dara’a, where civilian casualties are mounting.
Dara’a has been besieged by the Syrian government and Iranian-backed militias since approximately June 25, 2021. The siege has blocked the flow of food, water, medical care, electricity, and internet access to over 50,000 people currently inside the city. Reports indicate that within the last week, pro-government forces have engaged in the heavy and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian-inhabited Dara’a, using artillery and mortar fire, as well as surface-to-surface missiles. These brutal attacks on civilians are recurring features of the Syrian government’s crimes against its own people, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. There is now a serious risk that Syrian government and allied forces will launch a ground offensive in Dara’a, which would pose a serious risk of mass atrocities.
Naomi Kikoler, Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center, says, “The past ten years have been marked by the Syrian government’s complete disregard for international law and for the protection of Syria’s civilians. We now fear that civilians in Dara’a are at imminent risk of being killed.”
The alarming reports coming out of Dara’a follow a devastating pattern of siege and bombardment employed by the Syrian government throughout the conflict. While the government claims, as it has done routinely since the eruption of protests in March 2011, that it is targeting “terrorists,” those attacked are often civilians. Syrian civilians in besieged areas have been encircled, trapped, and prevented from leaving; indiscriminately bombed; starved, and routinely denied medical evacuations, the delivery of vital food, health items, and other essential supplies in an effort to force the surrender of armed groups in the area. Bombardments, often indiscriminate in nature, have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians across Syria. What have become known as “surrender or starve” campaigns have resulted in mass displacement, as civilians fled their homes. As of the end of July, the pro-Government forces' attack on Dara’a has caused the displacement of over 10,000 people.
The assault on Dara'a is rooted in impunity. The well-being of the tens of thousands of civilians in Dara’a should be a clarion call to the international community to redouble efforts to stop the killing and press for accountability for atrocity crimes. “After a decade of insufficient action, it’s not too late to prioritize protecting civilians, including through supporting prosecutions of those responsible for mass atrocities,” said Kikoler.
The Center calls for the immediate end of targeting of civilians and for the safe, unhindered humanitarian access for relief organizations and United Nations agencies. Measures must be taken to stem the forced displacement of Dara’a residents, and to allow them to remain in their homes in circumstances that fully respect their safety and dignity.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum works to inspire citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. To learn more about the Museum’s genocide prevention efforts, visit ushmm.org/genocide.