In places that are experiencing ongoing atrocity crimes, the Museum undertakes “Bearing Witness” trips to assess first-hand conditions on the ground, understand the toll of the conflict on survivors of violence, and document personal stories to call attention to those crimes, assess current and future risks to civilian populations, and formulate recommendations for future protection efforts.
Threats to Civilians
In January 2018, Simon-Skjodt Center staff traveled to Jordan and the Turkey-Syria border to highlight ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes as well as assess the risks facing civilians still inside Syria. At the time of the visit, the Assad regime—with the support of Russia and Iran—had regained control of much of the country through brutal campaigns directly targeting civilian populations. There were ongoing attacks by Assad and his allies on the remaining areas of opposition control, despite the establishment of so-called de-escalation zones negotiated by the Russians in late 2017.
Through interviews with displaced Syrians, United Nations officials, US government officials, and humanitarian actors in Amman, Istanbul, and Gaziantep, staff concluded that Syrians face heightened risks in 2018, particularly those in Idlib province, Eastern Ghouta, and civil society leaders who find themselves in territory returning to regime control. Unless something changes, the men, women, and children of Syria will continue to suffer aerial bombardments, enforced disappearances, detention, chemical weapons attacks, and more.
Fleeing the Violence
In February 2014 the Museum sent a delegation to Jordan to bear witness to the plight of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. At the time of the trip, some 9 million civilians—almost half the population of Syria—had been displaced from their homes and 2.4 million of them were living as refugees in neighboring countries.
With assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mike Abramowitz, director of the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide; Michael Gerson, a former Museum Council member and a Washington Post columnist; and photographer Lucian Perkins visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and traveled to that country’s eastern border with Syria.
There they spoke face to face with families fleeing from the cities in the middle of the Syrian conflict, including Homs, Aleppo, Dara’a, and suburbs of Damascus.
Lives in the Balance
Most of the refugees had seen their homes destroyed, often by heavy bombing by Syrian government helicopters and war planes, and they described efforts by government forces to deliberately starve civilian noncombatants into submission. Their stories left little doubt that the unstated goal of the government’s military strategy is to target and eliminate civilians in Sunni neighborhoods that are strategically important to the Assad regime.
The refugees gave voice to a deep sense of despair about the situation inside Syria. The Museum delegation returned to the United States certain that thousands more civilians will starve to death, be displaced, or be killed unless there is a much more vigorous effort from the international community to halt the conflict and address the growing humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the impact of the crisis extends far beyond Syria to places throughout the Middle East and will have widespread human and strategic consequences for years to come.