Russian rights groups slam Moscow's role in Syria

Russian rights groups slam Moscow's abuses in Syria in damning report
6 min read
02 April, 2021
The first-ever report issued by Russian NGOs on the Syrian conflict gives a rare insight into abuses committed by Russian forces.
The report is vital in helping Russians understand the realities of Syria [Getty]
The first-ever extensive report on the Syria war authored by Russian civil society groups was launched on Friday, highlighting the role of Moscow's 2015 intervention in the conflict and its impact on Syrians.
"A Devastating Decade: Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian War in the Syria War" is the result of two-years work by Russian NGOs and human rights defenders, including Memorial Human Rights Center, Civic Assistance Committee, Soldiers' Mothers of Saint-Petersburg, and Youth Human Rights Movement.

The 198-page report provides chilling first-hand testimonials of life inside besieged areas, the widespread use of torture and deprivation in regime prisons, chemical gas attacks, and the barrel bombing of opposition areas.

Coverage of these widespread human rights abuses and the unimaginable suffering of civilians have been sadly lacking in Russian media discourse, which has tended to trumpet the successes of the country’s military and weaponry in defeating "terrorist groups" in Syria.

What has gone almost unreported in Russian state-controlled media is the human cost of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The report could be a vital step in helping Russians understand more about the daily realities of life in Syria, the authors of the report said, where hunger is widespread and the fear of bombing or arrests hangs over the heads of millions.

"We began our work on the report on the assumption that citizens of the Russian Federation, a country involved in the war, knew little about the Syrian conflict and had a one-sided view of the events," the Russian NGOs told The New Arab.

"From the moment Russia entered the war, we began to feel responsibility for the suffering that the military, including the Russian military, is inflicting on ordinary Syrians. The least we could do was tell Russian citizens what we saw and heard from the Syrians we interviewed about their experiences."

The report is critical of all parties in the conflict - from the US-led coalition to the Syrian military - but highlights the impact of the Russian intervention on opposition areas and how it changed the outcome of the war in Bashar Al-Assad’s favour
The report is critical of all parties in the conflict - from the US-led coalition to the Syrian military - but highlights the impact of the Russian intervention on opposition areas and how it changed the outcome of the war in Bashar Al-Assad’s favour.

Most horrifying are the accounts of former detainees in Syrian regime jails where starvation and overcrowding appear to be a deliberate and systematic tactic to inflict unbearable suffering and death on the prison population, according to the report.

A comparison is made between the maximum occupancy of a 4m x 5m cell set by the Council of Europe and those operated by the Syrian regime, where 70 people share a single room and with detainees taking it in turns to sleep.

Prisoners are given little or no access to hygiene facilities and fed meagre portions of rotten food, with one potato shared between several men. Detainees are frequently stripped naked and subject to a range of torture techniques, often resulting in death.

The dying and the dead are left to rot in the packed cells, where detainees are witness to the horrific screams of the tortured or told by guards their relatives are to be raped, the report says.

Human rights groups believe tens of thousands of detainees have been killed this way, with their deaths marked as "heart failure" or "stroke" on death certificates by authorities. None of the families of detainees interviewed for the report were ever given the remains of their loved ones.

Life for civilians in opposition areas is marked by a daily struggle of finding food and avoiding regime bombing and shelling. The report details the siege tactics imposed on opposition towns, forcing residents to live off grass or cats. In Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, the Islamic State group operated small farms at their bases while the residents starved from a regime siege.

"[The people] couldn’t withstand all this… The Islamists would have never established themselves among us if it hadn't been for the famine," one Yarmouk resident told the NGOs.
The authors said the report is the culmination of two years of research and interviews, with references to the work of other NGOS.

"Today we hope to present our human rights report to Russian citizens. Rather than providing the reader with an elevated political view of the conflict, we present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die," the authors said.

"With this report we seek to draw Russian society's attention to the tragedy that has unfolded in Syria and to fill the vacuum of reliable information about the Syrian conflict."
Today we hope to present our human rights report to Russian citizens. Rather than providing the reader with an elevated political view of the conflict, we present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die
- Authors of the report
For five years, Russian state media have presented glowing reports of the effectiveness of the country’s weaponry in the war and Moscow’s competition with the US in the theatre, but seldom mentioned the human suffering the war has brought.

"Many Russians' worldview regarding the Syrian war is shaped by a sense of involvement in the formation of an empire and the fight against terrorism. The extremely difficult position of independent media in Russia further reduces the possibility of covering other aspects of the war," the authors added.

With a decrease in military activity in Syria resulting in less media coverage of the war, public perceptions of Russia’s role in the conflict are changing. A recent poll conducted by the Levada Center showed that a majority of Russians backing a military withdrawal from Syria.

In 2019, after a string of successes by the Moscow-backed Syrian regime, the Russian ministry of defence organised  a patriotic propaganda campaign entitled "Syrian Breakthrough" with a train carrying weaponry and trophies touring the country. The exhibition was widely reported by Russian media and attended by a million people, but there has been little to promote the military’s role in Syria ever since, where Bashar Al-Assad presides over a bankrupt and lawless state.

"This was the last notable event in Russia related to the war in Syria. It was not announced in connection with the anniversary of Russia's participation in the war, and the five-year anniversary of Russia's entry into the military conflict in Syria in 2020 passed rather unnoticed by Russians," said the authors.

It is hoped that this study will provide Russians with a more balanced picture of conditions in Syria, where Moscow’s attempts at stabalising and centralising power in the country has not borne fruit.

"Russians know very little about Bashar al-Assad's internal policies, the root causes of the conflict, and the massive human rights violations in Syria," said the authors.
"The report is a way for us to start a dialogue about this in Russian society and with all interested parties. We would also like to further develop contacts with Syrian activists and civil society organizations and work together to protect human rights in Syria, ultimately working towards the goals of peace and reconciliation."

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin