Military headquarters within civilian communities… Protected by Syrians yet not protecting them
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Regardless of their affiliations and orientations, no military entity in Syria is exonerated from the responsibility of killing the civilians, whether by intentional targeting or indirect ways. This has made the civilians pay the largest human cost during seven years of war.
The military and security forces planted their headquarters in the civilian areas, and they protected themselves with the civilians instead of protecting them. They left their weapons and ammunition stores behind their houses, using the sidelines of the military customs. This has compelled the civilians in Syria to live in a forest of explosives that might end their lives overnight.
The explosion that took place in the city of Sarmada on 12 August has shed the light on the risks of surrounding civilians with military centers. The explosion of an ammunition depot in a residential building caused the death of 67 civilians and the injury of dozens.
The incident brought back to the surface dozens of related incidents that caused the death of dozens of civilians, who had no fault except that the military and security centers chose their areas as their locations.
The military authorities concentrated their centers between the civilians under the pretext of various security or military reasons, using the sidelines of international laws and gaps that have made the whole of Syrian territory a legitimate target, and civilians as firewood to ignite the fire of war to present.
Security and military purposes
Why are the military formations setting their centers in residential areas?
With different military orientations and objectives, there are different reasons for a military entity to set up its centers, weapon depots, or security branches close to the residential areas or even inside them.
According to the military analyst, Brigadier General Khaled al-Mutlaq, these reasons are rendered to security and military matters. In other words, the military bodies either resort to set up among civilians to be protected by them, or they place strategic munitions or files at nearby civilian areas.
The nature of revolutions
Al-Mutlaq explained that the nature of the revolutions forces the “revolutionists” to be concentrated among civilians for security reasons. Civilians therefore become the popular incubator. This has happened with some of the Syrian opposition factions that have settled in areas that fell out of the regime’s control.
Al-Mutlaq added that “there have not been cases in the entire history in which the air forces bombed their people as in the Syrian situation. Therefore, the faction leaders set up some military centers near the residential areas.” He considered that “the leaders have committed a huge mistake, especially that they did not take into consideration that al-Assad’s forces would target those centers.”
The sideline of the military customs
According to al-Mutlaq, military customs ban the placement of any piece or center within populated areas. They rather must be placed at least 2 km away from the areas, except for centers of Chiefs of Staff and strategic centers, which contain certain strategic weapons or important information.
Al-Mutlaq pointed out that there are conditions to be followed when placing these centers inside residential areas. He added: “There is security data for the placement of the centers, and all the armies of the world follow this plan. However, the storage of weapons in residential areas is absolutely restricted.”
The Syrian situation is controversially different from the general situation “because the military factions and revolutionists are convinced that al-Assad’s forces cannot bomb the residential areas or military centers inside them. Thus, they set these centers up as a camouflage, as the exposed areas are more vulnerable to the targeting of the air forces, especially in the absence of anti-aircrafts,” according to al-Mutlaq.
The security branches of al-Assad’s forces and the regime’s Joint Chiefs of Staff are fortified with air and artillery cover, such as those located in Mount Qasioun, which contains an artillery battalion and the battalions of OSA and Pechora air defense tanks, which constitute the garrisons of the military and strategic centers in the capital Damascus.
Since the revolution turned to an armed way, and after every targeting of opposition-controlled areas, al-Assad’s forces have been using the pretext of existence of “terrorist” groups in the targeted area, regardless of which authority or faction controlling the area.
Under these ready pretexts and justifications, the regime forces killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 195 thousand civilians since 2011, including more than 22 thousand children and more than 21 thousand women.
The real numbers are higher than those presented by the Network. However, mass massacres and documentation difficulties prevent human rights networks from documenting a large part of the victims.
Many civilians have been killed in “massacres” in which hundreds were killed in one day, such as the massacre the regime forces committed in the city of Duma in August 2015, resulting in more than 110 victims, mostly civilians.
Pro-regime media said at that time that “the air forces of the Syrian Arab Army targeted military centers belonging to Jaysh al-Islam.”
Human Rights Watch quoted witnesses in the area as saying that there were no military sites near the popular market in Duma, while the nearest military site was 1.5 kilometers away from the target area and issued a statement in which it called the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the “Syrian government”.
The organization said in a statement that this came following repeated government air strikes on popular markets and residential areas in the city of Duma, killing at least 112 people.
“The bombing of a market full of shoppers and vendors at the daylight reveals the Syrian Government’s disrespect for civilians,” said Nadim Houry, Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.
According to the military analyst, Brigadier General Khaled al-Mutlaq, al-Assad’s forces do not target military centers. They rather focus their bombings on densely populated areas such as markets and public squares, putting pressure on the factions that control the targeted area, as was the case in the recent military campaign on Eastern Ghouta.
These were not the first attacks on crowded areas or markets. Human rights watchdogs documented air raids on Hamouriyah on 25 January 2015, killing more than 40 civilians, and on the market of Kafr Batna on 5 February of the same year, killing 45 civilians. The air raids came under the pretext of the presence of militias affiliated to the opposition.
The Syrian regime and its Russian ally invoked the presence of ISIS to target several regions, most notably the violent crackdown on Yarmouk Basin in the countryside of Daraa last July, before the area was handed over to the regime. The bombing was carried on by means of continuous warplane raids, Phil rocket launchers, and artillery which caused numerous deaths among civilians.
Hospitals and schools were also a direct target of the regime, as they were attacked by its forces and allied Russian aircraft, under the pretext of the detection of members of the opposition factions hiding in these locations.
Placed by the regime in the cities,
Security headquarters turned into a curse on the population
Syrian security services are divided into four main sections: Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, State Security Service, and political police. Thus, the aforementioned four security bodies have 48 branches, in addition to regional headquarters situated in different governorates.
These branches play the role of the main engine within the Syrian regime’s system of repression against the population. This mechanism is the most important means of security control, and often contains cells in which detainees are imprisoned and tortured.
Over 40 years, the regime has distributed most of these security facilities in densely populated areas and within residential neighborhoods in central Syrian cities.
During the years of the revolution, a number of the regime’s security headquarters were subjected to various attacks, whether by mortar or improvised explosive devices and explosive belts, which caused the death of civilians near these premises.
In addition, a number of military and party headquarters, which have been targeted by opposition factions over the past seven years, are situated in cities and within densely populated neighborhoods.
The headquarters of the Syrian army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was bombed in several occasions during 2012, is located in the center of Damascus at the Umayyad Square, facing the General Radio and Television Authority, the Opera House, and the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, as well as near the Dama Rose hotel.
Few kilometers to the west, there is the security compound that includes the headquarters of the ministries and security as well as intelligence agencies in the center of Kafar Souseh neighborhood. Despite significant security precautions and barriers placed in the vicinity of the area, the compound was bombed three times, namely in 2011, 2013, and 2017.
During 2012, Damascus had witnessed one of the biggest bombings ever, which took place within the neighborhood of Qazzaz near the Palestine Branch and killed 55 people, mostly civilians, amid reciprocal accusations between the regime and the opposition over the responsible side.
The criminal security branch in Bab Musalla and al-Midan Police department were also bombed which caused the death of several civilians as well as security elements and members of the regime’s forces.
The vicinity of Saadallah al-Jabiri Square in the center of the city of Aleppo witnessed several explosions, most notably the bombing that occurred in October 2012 and killed about 35 people, including civilians.
The security headquarters of the regime and Baath Party are surrounding the square. As such, during the years of the revolution, these buildings were transformed into a compound gathering the regime’s military members and its allied local militias. Later, the square was targeted twice in 2013 and 2017.
The military intelligence building, located in al-Furqan neighborhood, was a direct target of the opposition factions that have been stationed in western Aleppo during the past years.
In February, 2012, the building was also exposed to a violent explosion that killed a number of military members inside, as well as civilians in the neighboring residential buildings.
In the same year, the political police building in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Sulaymaniyah was bombed by a car bomb and a civilian was killed in the explosion.
The security compound, which includes the branches of Military Security and State Security Service, is situated in the center of Homs, near Haj Atef square. In 2017, both branches were subjected to a sudden attack by three gunmen, and the two bombings killed nine people, most of them are security members.
The city of Homs also comprises other security branches in areas populated by civilians, including the Air force Intelligence branch near Al-Hal market.
Moreover, the military college adjacent to al-Wa’r neighborhood as well as the blood bank was also frequently targeted by the opposition factions.
There are concentrated security headquarters in Daraa as well, in the centre of the city and within neighborhoods, most notably the political police branch located in the airport district adjacent to the old municipal stadium as well as the Air Force intelligence branch which is located in al-Kashef neighborhood of Daraa al-Mahatta.
The criminal security branch is located behind State Security Service building near Dawar al-Hamama, while, the military security branch is located in al-Sahari neighborhood. Likewise, the military security headquarters were relocated to the new party building in al-Qusoor area.
Security headquarters in Daraa have been attacked through heavy bombardments and shelling by the military factions present in areas beyond the control of the regime in the governorate.
ISIS’s recent attack on al-Suwayda, which caused the death of some 250 people, mostly civilians, was the gravest since the beginning of the revolution.
ISIS targeted the regime’s security headquarters in the city, as well as locations where civilians are concentrated in the countryside of al-Suwayda.
The security headquarters are located in al-Suwayda inside residential neighborhoods. The Political Security branch is located near Dawar al-Zanbaqa in the center of the city whereas the State Security Branch is situated opposite the building of the orphan care center, while the Air Force Intelligence Branch is located next to Dawar al-Anqud at the entrance to the town. The Military Security Branch is found near the hotel in al-Kalaa neighborhood.
Victims of the International Coalition: Legally justified massacres
The US-led coalition raids on sites of ISIS in Syria have resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, which the Coalition reluctantly acknowledged, giving several reasons, such as the magnitude of the military objective compared to the number of civilians killed following the targeting, or centers and headquarters of ISIS being overlapped with residential neighborhoods.
According to a human rights report issued by the Syrian Network for Human Rights last year on the third anniversary of the intervention of the international coalition forces in Syria, the coalition has killed at least 2,886 civilians as part of its war on ISIS since 2014.
The report presented detailed statistics of the killings the International Coalition Forces have committed since the intervention in Syria until September 23, 2017. The report pointed out that the Coalition killed at least 674 children and 504 women, and committed an estimated 124 massacres.
The report considered that the Coalition has significantly changed the pattern executed by its forces since the start of attacks in September, 2014. As such, the Coalition’s attacks carried out by the end of 2015 were more specific and focused, causing less civilian casualties.
The report pointed out that the attacks documented in 2016 and 2017 “were random and unjustified and caused hundreds of civilian casualties as well as the destruction of large civil vital centers.”
In response to the report of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the International Coalition acknowledged the killing of at least 800 civilians during the airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Therefore, the International Coalition did not recognize the real number of civilian casualties.
The Coalition faced many international criticisms, including a statement issued by Amnesty International last May accusing it of endangering the lives of the civilians in Raqqa in order to restore one of ISIS strongholds in Syria. Amnesty International noted that the coalition did not take the necessary measures to protect civilians and reduce the danger threatening their lives.
The US-led International Coalition denied the violation of international law and endangering the lives of civilians in Syria.
In an interview with an American TV channel, Coalition Spokesman, Colonel Sean Ryan, declared that ISIS is the party responsible for committing crimes against civilians in Raqqa. He stated that the Coalition investigated all reports of violations against civilians in the city.
In order to justify the killing of civilians, the Coalition referred to Article 23 of the Hague Convention which states that, “when striking military targets, one must be careful not to exceed the anticipated collateral damage to the anticipated military advantage.”
Legal rigor and loopholes that have been exploited
International law has been and remains firm about targeting civilians during war and conflict, declaring a charter and “moral and humane” rules that would regulate the state of war and urge the distinction between military and civilian targets. However, the international community was unable to hold accountable those who violated this law in many cases.
International humanitarian law explicitly states that operations must be restricted to military targets and that attacks against civilian objects should not be carried out under Articles 22 and 23 of the Hague Convention IV tackling the International Armed Conflicts.
Accordingly, international law prohibits the establishment of military and security headquarters within residential communities, taking advantage of civilians as human shields during international and local armed conflicts under article 34 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and customary international humanitarian law issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2005.
Syrian Legal Officer Ibrahim Albi, director of the Syrian Legal Development Program, believed that the establishment of military and security headquarters in civilians’ neighborhoods makes these headquarters a legitimate military target.
During an interview with Enab Baladi, he stated that “the parties to the conflict in Syria have not complied with this law.” He pointed out that Syrian forces, armed opposition groups, and militant Islamist groups had not been careful enough when choosing their military headquarters, putting the assets and lives of civilians at risk.
According to Albi, international humanitarian law condemns the two parties, the first party for setting military targets among civilians, and the second party for not taking enough care and measures during the targeting of these headquarters.
Unjustified abuse by law
International law considers the act of deliberately targeting civilians as a “war crime;”, even if they are near “legitimate” military targets. However, the conflicting parties have exploited several loopholes in this area by. Article 23 of the Hague Convention states that “when striking military targets, one must be careful not to exceed the anticipated collateral damage to the anticipated military advantage.”
This article summarizes an established international norm known as proportionality, in which the number of civilian casualties is measured compared to military utility. The parties to the conflict in Syria have justified their violations against civilians using this rule.
The parties to the conflict justify targeting civilians and consider it as legally permissible in case the desired military advantage is greater than collateral damage using the principle of proportionality.
The international coalition in Syria has been subject to much criticism because of this during its operations against ISIS. These operations claimed the lives of civilians under the pretext of the coalition, which suggested that ISIS took advantage of civilians and used them as human shields.
Amnesty International also accused ISIS of the same charge during the battles which took place in Raqqa in 2017, considering that it was difficult for the coalition to avoid targeting civilians.
The British Ministry of Defense justified the targeting of a civilian in a raid carried out by one of its drones against sites belonging to ISIS in Syria, saying that the raid was targeting three persons suspected of belonging to the organization, but the civilian got into the shooting range suddenly and the murder “was not intentional.”
This is the first time that Britain officially recognizes the killing of civilians since it has joined the international coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
However, international humanitarian law requires all parties to the conflict to take all possible precautions in order to avoid or minimize collateral damage under ICRC rules 15 and 24.
Poll: Who is responsible for killing civilians by targeting military and security headquarters established in their neighborhoods?
The opinion poll which Enab Baladi has conducted on its official website and on its Facebook page revealed that most of its readers blame the party which has established its headquarters among civilians or near civilian compounds, for killing them when another party would target their headquarters.
“In your opinion, who must assume responsibility for the killing of civilians by targeting military and security headquarters established in their neighborhoods?”
59 percent of the 535 respondents indicated that those who set up their headquarters among civilians or near civilian gathering must assume full responsibility, while 28 percent considered that the parties targeting headquarters, despite their presence in residential areas are responsible for the killing of civilians because of the shelling.
13 percent of the respondents did not define their point of view and replied “I do not know”.
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