The researchers working to bring Syria war crimes to light

A picture taken on February 15, 2020, shows a mural inspired by the 2011 Syrian uprising in the deserted city of Kafranbel, south of Idlib city in the eponymous northwestern Syrian province, amid an ongoing pro-regime offensive
8 min read
22 December, 2021
In-depth: War crimes in the Syrian conflict have been documented and archived almost exclusively by independent researchers. These one-time amateurs are now paving the way for a new brand of accountability.

When the first protesters were gunned down on the streets of Syria in March 2011, the world witnessed their deaths through grainy videos uploaded onto the internet by activists.

The Syrian regime, fearing that the mass pro-democracy uprising would lead to its overthrow, directed its security forces at the protesters, detaining and killing activists in their thousands.

Syria, largely closed to the outside world, became one of the first conflicts to be monitored, chronicled, and archived almost exclusively by citizen journalists and amateur researchers.

Thousands of miles away, investigators worked to verify footage of the mounting regime bombings, while others collaborated with Syrians on the ground to count the death tolls after Syria’s numerous massacres.

The work of these one-time amateurs paved the way for a new form of journalism that identified the weapons used on civilian populations, counted the dead, and recorded the names of those who had been disappeared.

It is hoped that one day their work will be used by victims to bring those responsible to account.

"Syria, largely closed to the outside world, became one of the first conflicts to be monitored, chronicled, and archived almost exclusively by citizen journalists and amateur researchers"

Open-source journalism

Eliot Higgins, founder of open-source intelligence and investigative source Bellingcat, would see footage of bombings in Syria and Libya on social media almost every day.

From his home in the UK, Higgins used online tools and resources to determine the weapons used in these attacks and the locations of the massacres.

"It started as a hobby as I had been following what had happened in the Arab Spring. There was always a debate from one side or the other saying 'this video is fake', 'not it's not', but nobody was bothered to figure out if it was or not," Higgins told The New Arab.

"So, I started using satellite imagery to see where videos were coming from in Libya. I enjoyed it because one it increased my understanding of what was happening in the conflict and two I could share what I found."

At the beginning of the war in Syria, social media showed the growing ferocity of the regime's crackdown on the uprising, as sniper fire on protesters developed into the wholesale shelling of Syrian towns and villages. Eventually, gas was used to kill hundreds of civilians in opposition strongholds such as Ghouta.

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Opposition activists documented these massacres with thousands upon thousands of photos and videos, while Assad loyalists would denounce the posts as propaganda.

Higgins set up the blog Brown Moses in 2012 to sift through the footage and determine their veracity. He set himself the task of writing one post a day, but this developed into a blog that was to be widely used by human rights groups and journalists covering the war in Syria.

"Over time I learned how social media was being used by Syrian opposition groups in a fairly systematic and organised way, so you could catalogue all the social media channels. I would go through them every day for the most interesting videos and because I didn't speak Arabic I focused more on the arms and munitions in the videos," he said.

"The following months and years it became obvious that there was more to this than an interesting blogpost. There were human rights and accountability (issues). With the launch of Bellingcat I began to focus more on how to get accountability."

Syria war
Social media showed the growing ferocity of the regime's crackdown on the uprising. [Getty]

Fight for justice

Bellingcat became one of the foremost investigative journalism websites, uncovering information on the poisoning of Russian dissidents, the movement of missiles in Ukraine, and of course other developments in Syria and Libya.

This has coincided with actions taken in European courts by victims against alleged and convicted perpetrators of war crimes and corruption in Syria.

This includes a case filed by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, Open Justice Initiative, and Syrian Archive in France against the Syrian regime for "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity", including the 2013 chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta.

In Germany, activists and victims of torture won a landmark case against a key Syrian regime intelligence officer under the principle of "universal jurisdiction", over the detention of protesters, leading to their torture and deaths.

"You know the expression history is written by the victors, I don't think this is going to be the case in Syria because there is such a collection of evidence that is publicly available, and accountability is being done"

The evidence collected by Syrian prison photographer Caesar when he defected in 2013 was crucial to the creation of a law that targets key regime figures and the businesses operated by them.

Future cases will likely rely not only on the testimonies of victims but also on the evidence presented by groups such as Bellingcat.

"I think we are going to see accountability through these processes rather than the International Criminal Court. You also have the work of the IIIM on Syria trying to gather evidence and create case files, verifying information from a variety of sources, including open sources," Higgins said.

"You know the expression history is written by the victors, I don't think this is going to be the case in Syria because there is such a collection of evidence that is publicly available, and accountability is being done. I think a lot of this is due to people on the ground documenting this, and sharing it, from the early days of the conflict and that has allowed this to happen."

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Counting the dead

While journalists such as Higgins have worked to identify perpetrators of bombings and attacks in Syria, others have undertaken the grim task of counting the dead.

In January 2014, the UN admitted it was no longer updating its body count of Syrians killed in the war, after recording nearly 200,000 dead. In September 2021, the UN's human rights office issued its first death toll since then, documenting 350,209 deaths between March 2011 and March 2021.

While acknowledging this was "an undercount" the number appeared to be well below the figures given by most opposition groups over the past two years of around half a million dead.

The UN’s estimate of 1 in 13 victims being women and children also appeared to be below the civilian death count of other monitors. The UN did not respond to The New Arab’s request for clarification on its documentation process.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNFHR) was among the groups that contributed to the UN report and is probably the most trusted of all Syria monitors due to its transparent methodology and openness.

It says it uses hundreds of trusted sources inside Syria to document and verify reports of civilian casualties, ensuring there was not a blank when the UN stopped updating its death tolls.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of SNHR, realised at an early stage in the Syrian uprising that the Assad regime would fight tooth and nail to survive and so there was a need to document the casualties.

"It came to my mind after Syrian activists were disappeared by the Assad regime and extrajudicial killings started at an early stage in the war. After a few months, I was concerned about who is recording and archiving these killings and the disappearances. I didn't find anyone doing this job so using my private email, I began to do this," Abdul Ghany told The New Arab.

Verification

Abdul Ghany found that the few groups monitoring the violence at the start of the war were politically aligned and unprepared for the devastation that would be unleashed by the Assad regime, which at one point would average well over 100 deaths a day.

"They expected Assad would fall very quickly so they didn't establish a department following and recording what was happening in Syria on a daily basis. At the Syria Network we did and built a database of the deaths," he said.

Abdul Ghany was well connected with a wide range of people in Syria, from civilians to leading activists, which became a crucial part of collecting and verifying information.

"I knew a lot of activists on the ground and that enabled me to collect information. Some of those activists are still members of the SNHR until now and we grew like a child and that can be seen (year-on-year) in our reports. We keep learning, and we keep expanding," he said.

His team has recorded 228,009 civilian casualties killed by all parties between March 2011 and September 2021 with the Syrian regime responsible for almost 88 percent of the deaths.

"The regime is the main perpetrator and that is the reality. It was the first perpetrator and they have used the security forces - with 200,000 people - and all their equipment. They have dropped thousands of barrel bombs, used fixed-wing planes, and shelled places across Syria."

The number of dead

The SNHR documented 11,667 civilians killed by regime forces in 2011 as the repression of protesters escalated into the wholesale massacres of villages and the unsparing shelling of opposition towns as the uprising spread.

As the anti-government insurgency intensified in 2012, Syria witnessed the bloodiest year of the conflict with 65,982 civilians killed by regime forces, according to the monitor.

"The regime was shelling everywhere, crowded neighbourhoods, markets, hospitals so the regime killed this tremendous number of civilians," he said.

This dwarfed those killed overall in the war by the rebels (4,173), the Islamic State group (5,043) and Syrian Democratic Forces (1,310), who all lacked the air power and heavy weaponry of the regime.

Russia meanwhile killed 6,910 Syrian civilians when it entered the war in September 2015, while the US-led coalition campaign against IS resulted in at least 3,047 non-combatants killed, the monitor said.

"I think our figures represent the truth of what is happening on the ground. Of course, we missed some incidents on all sides, but overall, I think the percentage would remain the same and it would not change who the main perpetrator is," Abdul Ghany said.

The process of keeping track of those killed has proven an exhausting and macabre task for all those involved, but a vital one in keeping the memory alive of all those who have died in Syria.

For the future generations of tyrants, torturers, and militia leaders, it will also be a vital lesson that no matter the cost of victory in war there will be someone keeping track of all their crimes.

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin