Civilians in Syria will enter the new year facing fear and uncertainty after a year in which world governments continued to turn their backs on their needs despite an escalating humanitarian crisis, ongoing repression and continuing attacks by the Syrian regime and Russia.
2022 was also a year in which Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine brought familiar scenes of fleeing civilians being bombed, attacks on humanitarian workers coupled with disinformation – a painful reminder for Syrians of the heavy cost of impunity for war crimes.
Raed al-Saleh, head of Syria’s Civil Defence, the White Helmets, said:
“I firmly believe that the failure of accountability for atrocities in Syria paved the way for Putin’s crimes in Ukraine. That Russia has not been held accountable gives dictators anywhere in the world the impression that they can act with impunity.”
In one of the biggest shifts towards normalization with Assad yet, Turkey last week signaled the possibility of closer ties with the Syrian regime after Erdogan reportedly called for a meeting with Assad and Putin causing alarm among civilians and raising fears of instability.
Next month, in January 2023, a UN resolution sanctioning the delivery of lifesaving cross- border aid into northwest Syria is due to expire. If Russia, which vetoed a year-long renewal of cross-border aid last July, blocks renewal of the resolution it will leave millions who depend on this aid facing a humanitarian catastrophe in the middle of winter and at a time when humanitarian needs in Syria are at their greatest.
Dr Hala al-Ghawi, Syria director for MedGlobal said:
“2023 is going to be a very difficult year for humanitarian needs amid indications that cross-border aid could be discontinued, which would have a hugely damaging impact. Any alternative means to provide aid will leave a huge gap. The public does not trust the regime – they have seen their own government imposing sieges on civilian areas and denying people access to lifesaving supplies.”
Over the past year in northwestern Syria attacks by the regime and Russia have continued unabated. In one of the most horrific incidents on 6 November, three children were among nine people killed and more than 70 injured when Syrian regime and Russian forces attacked civilians living in displacement camps, including through the use of internationally banned cluster munitions. In the northeast, Turkish airstrikes terrified civilians and damaged critical infrastructure coupled with repeated threats of a ground operation in the last two months of the year.
Ghalia Rahha, head of the Mazaya Center for Women’s Empowerment described the hardships faced by many living in northern Syria:
“Civilians living in displacement camps face endless violations, they live in constant fear of systematic airstrikes from the regime and Russia. Their suffering is compounded by a suffocating economic crisis amid soaring prices, shortages of energy supplies with the onset of winter, lack of healthcare and widespread unemployment which places psychological strain on families and society.”
In regime-held areas the Assad regime continues to instil a climate of fear through arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture. More than 111,000 remain disappeared, according to the Syrian Network from Human Rights.
Further evidence of the Assad regime’s brutality also came to light this year when video footage emerged showing Syrian regime forces carrying out a massacre of 41 people in Tadamon, a neighborhood of Damascus, in 2013. Despite this, the UN and governments have failed to launch an independent probe into the killings and the perpetrators and those who gave them orders have not been brought to justice.
Outside the country, Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, the UK and Denmark have been met with growing hostility, threats and discrimination as some governments stepped up plans to forcibly return refugees to Syria ignoring evidence from human rights groups highlighting the dangers for those who return which range from detention and disappearance to torture and sexual violence.
Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign said:
“The past year has seen no end to the suffering of Syrian civilians wherever they live who continue to face bombings by the Assad regime and Russia, a humanitarian crisis as well as unprecedented economic hardship resulting from years of war and the regime’s corruption. Across the country people feel utterly abandoned by the international community and abroad refugees face deportations and rampant discrimination.
“The world has displayed a chilling complacency towards the ongoing impunity for crimes in Syria. Seeing the courage of Ukrainians struggling for freedom and Iranian protesters standing up to tyranny this year is a reminder that Syrians are not alone in their struggle for justice – and also of what is at stake if we allow Assad, Putin or any dictator to escape accountability for their crimes.”
There were also glimmers of hope this year through the hard-won victories of Syrian activists and family and victim groups who have stepped up their work to call for truth and justice. The year began with a German court in Koblenz sentencing the first regime official for crimes against humanity for his role in the torture of at least 4,000 people at intelligence branch in Damascus. Although comprehensive justice for Syrians remains out of reach, this verdict was a testament to the efforts by Syrian human rights lawyers and bravery of victims and survivors of atrocities.
In another promising step, in August 2022, the UN Secretary General recommended that an institution dedicated to uncovering the fate and whereabouts of Syria’s disappeared should be established. This was a key demand of family and victim groups and a tribute to their success in raising issues of detention and campaigning for justice for their arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared loved ones.
Laila Kiki said:
“Despite a year of ongoing suffering and abuses with no end in sight, the hard-won victories of Syrian human rights defenders and family and victim groups over the past year offer us hope. Their strength and resolve in the face of injustice inspires us to continue our struggle for a better future for Syria.”
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights:
996 civilians were killed by all parties to the conflict, including 232 children
2,221 people arbitrarily arrested or detained including 148 children
132 people killed under torture
Key moments in 2022:
In January 2022, Anwar Raslan was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of crimes against humanity for his role in the torture and killing of detainees at the notorious al-Khatib intelligence branch in Damascus. He is the first high-ranking member of the Syrian regime to have been brought to justice for his crimes.
Kholoud Helmi from Families for Freedom, a women-led movement that highlights the demands of families of the disappeared in Syria described the trial as an important step towards justice:
“Anwar Raslan’s conviction sends a clear message to perpetrators of war crimes in Syria that they can and will one day be held accountable for their crimes. We will continue to call for accountability until all those responsible for atrocities in Syria are brought to justice and all arbitrary detainees are free.”
On 27 April 2022, the Guardian published shocking new video evidence showing blindfolded men being executed in cold blood and thrown into a mass grave in the Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus in 2013. The perpetrator identified as Amjad Youssuf, a regime major in branch 227 of the Syrian military intelligence, remains free.
Yasmin Mashaan of Caesar Family Associations said:
“The Tadamon massacre was a gruesome reminder of the horrifying brutality that the Assad regime is capable of. I lost five of my brothers to enforced disappearance, torture and killings, it brought painful memories flooding back forcing us to relive the trauma we experienced when we discovered our loved ones had been killed. This damning video evidence must now be used to prosecute those responsible for these horrific war crimes and bring them to justice. It is also vital to uncover the fate and whereabouts of those missing, based on the recommendations of the UN Secretary General, in partnership with survivors and victims’ families.”
On 30 April 2022 the Syrian regime announced the release of 539 detainees, however the authorities failed to publish an official list of names of those released. As a result families of the disappeared and detained poured into the streets in large crowds to search for answers. The burden of documenting names amid the chaos fell entirely on family members with a notable absence of help from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Damascus.
Diab Serrih from the Association of Detainees and the Missing at Sednaya Prison said:
“The regime has used the prisoner releases in an attempt to delude the world into thinking they are doing a good deed, but in fact the total number released is just a tiny fraction of the total number arbitrarily detained in Syria. From the moment the regime announced the amnesty – the families of detainees were left completely in the dark. Even at that moment the regime denied families’ their right to know, leaving them confused and vulnerable to misinformation and having to search through huge amounts of information online to find news of their loved ones or walk the streets in an attempt to find out any news.”
In July 2022 Russia vetoed a key UN resolution authorizing the renewal of cross-border aid for one year displaying a chilling disregard for the humanitarian needs of Syrian civilians. Instead, a six month extension was forced through which will expire in January. Failure to renew the resolution would leave millions facing a humanitarian catastrophe and would leave those in need at the mercy of the Syrian regime which has a history of withholding aid from people under siege.
In a rare outbreak of protests relating to the economic crisis dozens of angry demonstrators in Sweida, southern Syria stormed a government building tearing up and burning pictures of Assad and chanting anti-government slogans. The regime responded with brutality, killing one protester and injuring others.