The following are excerpts from testimony delivered to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Syria United Kingdom, January 23, 2018.
I would like to thank the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Syria and the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Friends of Syria for this opportunity to brief you on our findings from our Bearing Witness trip to Jordan and Turkey to look at ongoing and future mass atrocity risks to civilians. My name is Naomi Kikoler and I serve as the Deputy Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I would like to thank Caesar for entrusting us with his file in the United States. At great personal risk to his life, to his family, he refused to be a bystander to atrocities. We consider Caesar a hero. Because of him we have an unprecedented level of verified information of the brutality of the regime for those held under detention. The images he smuggled out help to set a historical record of what occurred, lay the foundation for future justice and accountability, and has helped some of the families of the missing learn about the fate of their loved ones.
Enforced disappearances and torture is only one of many tools of terror that the regime has used, and continues to use, to terrorize the Syrian people. Different tactics have been used in various parts of the country by primarily regime and affiliated actors to carry out crimes against humanity and war crimes against women, men, and children throughout Syria over the last seven years.
Today Syrians are being subjected to aerial bombardment, chemical weapons attacks, torture, sexual violence against men, women and children, murder, and the deprivation of life saving resources.
We have seen what happens when perpetrators are intent on committing atrocities, and when their actions go unchecked by the international community. A now infamous moment from the Rwandan genocide was the letter sent by a group of Tutsi pastors where they said, "I wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families."
I am sorry to have to be here to say this, over the past nine days, I have heard one consistent and eerily similar message from the Syrians we met with: today, tomorrow and in the near future we and our families in opposition areas and in detention will be maimed, tortured, starved, and killed.
Three Key Points
There are many elements that could be discussed in this briefing, and there is no "easy" narrative about the current situation in Syria. I am going to stick to the one aspect that is clear—civilians will continue to be the intentional targets of mass atrocity crimes perpetrated primarily by their own government and bear the brunt of what has now become a conflict involving a myriad of actors both local and international, notably in that regard, Russia and Iran who are enabling the commission of atrocities by the Assad regime. This briefing thus focuses on the present and future risk of mass atrocities. As I summarize the risks we found and outline areas for engagement, there are three key points to remember:
(1) The worst is yet to come for civilians:
There will be large-scale loss of life and the commission of heinous mass atrocity crimes in a number of the de-escalation zones, notably Idleb and the besieged neighborhoods of Damascus. Tragically there is nowhere for these civilians to flee to. The borders are largely closed and Idleb cannot sustain more internally displaced who flee there or are forcibly relocated there by the regime. Detention will remain ongoing and may very well increase.
(2) The regime is using the fight against "terrorists" as a pre-text to target civilians:
The crisis is not coming to a "definitive" end, it is entering a new phase where civilians will face ongoing and likely heightened atrocity risks and new scenarios of risks outside of these areas may develop as dynamics on the ground change.
The presence of HTS in particular, has been used as a pre-text for the regime to attack civilian areas that are trapped in a defacto open-air prison alongside armed elements.
(3) This is the most critical moment to support local civil society:
These organizations are the ones protecting local communities, they are providing not only life-saving aid, but also are keeping basic services such as healthcare and education going. They are also sustaining a civil society that though non-existent under the Assad regime, has now flourished in opposition areas, supported in large part by the US, UK, Canada, and the EU. Civil society groups provide media training and independent journalism, projects on women’s empowerment, and human rights monitoring.
Civil society survives despite the growing narrative that extremist control opposition areas—these groups do face additional challenges and threats, and the space for them to function will continue to shrink if more support is not given. We have seen numerous examples where local civil society has served as a deterrent to local armed groups like the Hayat Tharir al-Sham.
Civilians today face ongoing mass atrocity crimes notably in Idelb, Eastern Ghouta, and other besieged communities around Damascus, Daraa, and in detention.
2018 thus far is already proving more deadly than 2017. Every day in 2018 there has been an attack on medical facilities; in 2017 those attacks happened every three days. Even more alarming, there have already been three chemical attacks on civilian areas.
Many of the de-escalation zones have become "escalation zones," in particular in the areas with the highest concentration of civilians, in Idleb province with 2.5 million people, and Eastern Ghouta with 400,000. The risks are particularly dire in Idleb.
In addition to the local population of Idleb that has remained in their homes, there are 1.5 million IDPs from elsewhere. Many were evacuated to Idleb as part of evacuations and reconciliation agreements with the government in opposition areas that were overtaken by the regime or where an agreement for cessation of hostilities were agreed to in places like Aleppo, the south, and elsewhere. Those evacuated includes civilians, members of civil society including local civil councils, and other civil society leaders who did not want to go to regime areas where they faced an unknown future that may include forced conscription of men and detention of those perceived to support the opposition.
It also includes the armed groups fighters, including extremist groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This creates defacto an area that has a high concentration of individuals both civilian and armed combatants who are perceived as undesirables and labeled by the regime as terrorists and their sympathizers. As a result, the presence of HTS in particular, has been used as a pre-text for the regime to attack civilian areas that are trapped in a defacto open-air prison alongside armed elements.
Since January, parts of Idleb, south of a strategic roadway that the regime seeks to regain, have been targeted by aerial bombardment. The example of our colleague Jomah is telling, two weeks ago there were attacks on two of the towns neighbouring his home. He went from Turkey to Syria to move his mother to an area that he hoped would be safer in Idleb. Two days later his home was bombed. 15,000 residents of his town fled, along with the 8,000 IDPs who had sought shelter from earlier attacks there. It is believed these attacks will only increase.
In Eastern Ghouta and other besieged communities the siege continues, and as you know well, virtually no medical evacuations have been allowed by the regime. The cost of basic life sustaining goods like food is exorbitant.
The mass enforced disappearance of over 100,000 people held in hundreds of detention centers around the country remains a persistent atrocity crime. Each day more people are taken into detention and worryingly, in areas where there has been reconciliation agreements and/or evacuations, civilians—notably members of local civil society—are going missing. We know that during the evacuation of eastern Aleppo two white helmets were detained and are missing. That was despite Russian guarantees of the protections of evacuees. Three men from Hama who went to the reconciliation office in Istanbul to request permission to return to Hama were detained one week after returning to Syria. Three weeks later their bodies were delivered to their parents.
What is the impact of this mass detention? It reinforces fear for those in opposition areas and in regime areas. Many Syrians have had a family member who has been detained, either under Hafez or Bashir. This system remains intact and forms the backbone of the governance by terror that his government uses. It deters people from returning home. Each of the civil society actors we spoke to fears that they or their family members would be detained if they returned. They are the most vulnerable to atrocity crimes today. The system remains intact and in many ways is more developed and heightened because Assad has gotten away with its use and it has received scant international attention.
We are humbled by the bravery, the courage, the resilience of the Syrian people who are working to protect their own communities. I wish that every one of the 13 million that have been displaced could have the opportunity to sit with you and share their story.
We as an institution stand in solidarity with the Syrian people who have been struggling for one very basic principle, respect for their dignity. It is something that we understand intimately. We know what happens when hate goes unchecked, when governments use the laws (as Assad has with his use of emergency laws to strip Syrians of rights) to persecute communities.
Every single member of my paternal grandfather’s family was murdered by the Nazis, simply because they were Jewish. When I speak with Syrians I see the same trauma, pain, and suffering. They will carry that pain, and it will tragically be multi-generational.
I told you earlier of Jomah. He has three brothers, all were detained. On a visit to see his eldest son, Jomah’s father was detained. When his eldest brother was released he did not speak, the first thing he said after six months was "my father is in prison because of me." Jomah’s father was killed. Jomah became a media activist working to get the story of the Syrian people out. He was in the car when an armed group stopped them and executed in front of him his colleague, an Al Jazeera journalist. Today he runs an orphanage, school, and women's shelter. He lives in Turkey and enters Syria weekly to do this. He has two young daughters.
Two weeks ago he went into Idleb to move his mother to an area that he hoped would be safer. She is a woman that he said is so strong, she is an "Iron Lady" a "Thatcherite."
I asked him if he was able to bring anything out with him. He said his books. 63 books. His "dearest possessions." I asked to see his books.
He risked his life to save his mother and Shakespeare’s King Lear.
That is the Syrian people. Those are the heroes that are pleading for your help.
We have been bystanders to atrocities that have happened in real time. There will be much to learn from this experience—about the unintended consequences of both action and inaction by the international community.
But this is not an academic discussion today, not at a moment where we see an unprecedented risk of atrocities—at a moment where it seems like the world has turned away and believe the crisis is ending.
Until now, Assad has won the narrative—cast millions of Syrians as terrorists and thus has and will continue to intentionally target them with atrocity crimes.
There are few heroes here save for the Syrian people. Jomah is one of them. Please do not abandon him. Please do not abandon the countless Syrians like him.