Today is the release of the first episode of Unspoken Politics Radio. It’s very much an alpha, I don’t have any prior experience and the sound quality is difficult to get. I hope to have other people on in the future so I have someone to talk to.
Episode is half about the ending of fighting in Homs, Syria, the other half is about flaws in the death penalty and justice system.
A UN-brokered truce in Homs is near (or past) its original end time, though evacuations have continued. I wrote about the situation as it existed last week. Over 1,000 civilians have moved out of the last rebel-head pockets of central Homs. Tuesday the flow of aid and refugees stopped entirely, and men near fighting age have been detained and their ultimate fate is unknown- whether a brief interrogation or an accusation of being a rebel fighter. International groups have reason to be concerned, given abundant evidence that civilians and fighters alike have suffered state-sanctioned torture and execution.
With the last remnants starving and vastly outnumbered, the bloody government victory in Homs could have larger implications. With Homs ‘pacified’ and depopulated, resources could be used to retake other cities that have split control. Whether the various anti-government factions can prevent Assad regime gains remains to be seen.
Patrick Cockburn for The Independent has been the only Western journalist in Homs during a bout of new violence. Homs was a key city in the initial rebellion and has seen constant shelling- hundreds of thousands are displaced and trying to avoid the fighting. Swaths of the city are a ruin (I posted a picture of the destroyed streets in the December snow).
Cockburn gives a vision of what Homs is currently like that I found haunting, speaking of
marks of total destruction are everywhere since this is one of Homs’s “ghost districts” where the buildings have been torn apart by shell fire and their walls are pock-marked with bullets so they look as if they had been gnawed by enormous rats. Where buildings survive, their doorways and windows are boarded up and they look abandoned.
The Syrian Army looks like they are close to defeating the last rebel pockets in Homs- ~400,000 civilians are in the rebel districts, causing aid disruptions. The Army obviously doesn’t want to feed armed rebels, and it’s difficult to feed just noncombatants.
Here is the January 2014 situation in Homs. Red is the Syrian government, Green is the opposition.
Conflict between the government and rebels exists all over the country. A talented young American has produced some maps of Aleppo that show how entrenched and divided the city is- the most important in Syria outside of Damascus.
Time flies- and sometimes we can forget how long this conflict has been going on. These rebel pockets in Homs have existed for almost three years- the American involvement in World War II was less than four. It is carnage, and a civil war that each day has more and more sides fighting amongst each other. It is tough to speak of an “opposition” since some groups oppose the government and the rebels equally- the Kurds control a large amount of territory and mostly fight al-Qaeda-aligned groups, who in turn fight other rebel groups as well as the government.
Over three million refugees– more than 1/8th the pre-war population. Don’t forget about the toll- more than those dead and wounded. It is immense.
One of the big recent stories about the Syrian conflict is new primary evidence of mass detention, torture, and killing of people by the Assad regime. A formal report by war crimes prosecutors with graphic pictures is available here (PDF). Regarding a defector who had been tasked with documentation of it all (alias “Caesar”) Der Spiegel reported:
Caesar provided his testimony and photographic evidence to lawyers and forensic experts at a British law firm. Together, says Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the defector’s evidence shows the “industrial scale” of the killing perpetrated by the Syrian regime. In addition, the photos provide a horrifying explanation for what might have happened to the 50,000 or more missing people in Syria — those who were abducted by the regime of the course of the past two years. They are not included in the casualty figures, which assume a total of some 130,000 killed in the civil war. But prior to last week, there had been no clear indication as to where they might be.
Later discussing a campaign in early 2012 in Homs:
Beginning in February 2012, thousands of Homs residents disappeared in the wake of the 4th Division’s attack on the rebellious quarters of the city. Whether the victims belonged to the opposition or not was irrelevant for the subsequent death sentences — the wrong address was often enough. But the men whose corpses the soldier and the military doctor later saw in the inner courtyard of the Homs military hospital did not yet show indications of systemic starvation, as is evident in many of the images provided by Caesar.
Of course, there is an obvious question- if you’re doing barbaric, illegal killing campaigns on your own people, why leave a trail of evidence? One person defects and they have tens of thousands of photos indicting the regime. The defector has a chilling answer:
Why would a regime, which kills thousands of its own citizens, collects them in a discrete location and buries them in hidden mass graves, photograph and number the dead?
Caesar says that one reason is so that death certificates could be issued. But why document bullet holes and signs of strangulation given the interest in concealing the true cause of death? The second reason mentioned by Caesar seems more important. The regime wanted to make a record of which security service was responsible for what death, he said according to the report. A kind of performance report for brutality.
All of this is horrifying- and a key thing that third parties have to do in these cases is to continue to be horrified. All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.
It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed. Why do politicians get nudged towards action? How do groups like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross get the funding they need? People are disgusted. They spend time and money to react to that. And it can do a great deal of good.
The ruins of Homs, Syria in the winter snow. Courtesy of CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward.
There are no words. Tonight, hundreds of thousands of refugees will sleep in freezing temperatures, with makeshift housing and very little support- as the countries hosting them would rather they not exist.