Assad’s ‘killing machine’ and the Syrian ‘free fire zone’
BEIRUT - Right from the start of the Syrian war, the Damascus regime has used deliberate, systematic and overwhelming violence to crush dissent. Initially, Syrians staged peaceful pro-democracy protests in March 2011, the “Arab spring”, but the regime’s murderous response transformed the confrontation into a bloodbath in which more than 240,000 people have died, the vast majority of the deaths caused by Bashar Assad’s killing machine.
The regime uses indiscriminate air strikes with witheringly destructive barrel bombs — factory-made weapons fashioned from gas canisters, metal water tanks and the like, and with explosives, shrapnel-like metal shards and which often include incendiary materials — that can sometimes take out whole city blocks.
The UN Security Council banned the use of barrel bombs with Resolution 2139 in 2014, but the regime continues to use them against largely civilian targets, such as the vegetable market in the Damascus suburb of Douma on August 16th. More than 100 civilians were killed in a series of air raids on the market.
The regime also uses its stockpile of chemical weapons, one of the largest in the world, and its vast stocks of Russian-made missiles and heavy artillery to pound rebel areas. But one of the regime’s vilest tactics is as old as warfare itself: starvation — besieging rebel-held zones, mainly in urban areas and cutting off food supplies, water and electricity.
“Systematic deprivation of food, shelter and medical care have taken a toll as well,” said Jeffrey White, a former US intelligence officer and now an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Regime forces have besieged rebel-held urban areas… They have destroyed crops, livestock and bakeries and targeted medical facilities in opposition areas,” he observed.
“Poisoning of water supplies has also been reported. These activities have produced famine and made medical treatment difficult to come by — all part of the regime’s plan to reduce support for the opposition and force population displacement from rebel-held areas.”
The United Nations estimated that more than 1 million people are trapped in urban areas where international relief aid has been blocked by regime forces. The situation is so bad in Aleppo, where the regime and rebels each hold parts of the city, that activists say cats have become “fast- food”.
The regime’s strategy is brutally effective because this makes rebel-held areas extremely difficult to govern. This policy of collective punishment aims to starve the civilian populace and turn them against the rebels. It does, up to a point. But in the end, the “Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, helps perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group observed.
“By attacking ISIS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the US inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-Jihadist narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis…
“As has become clear throughout Syria, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for that capacity to emerge.
“Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment.”
White observed that a dominant feature of the war has been the steady escalation of regime firepower.
“From beatings, mass arrests and small arms, Assad’s forces quickly progressed to using tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, heavy mortars, field artillery, rockets, combat helicopters with barrel bombs, fixed-wing aircraft with incendiary and fragmentation weapons and surface-to-surface missiles and, finally, chemical weapons.
“This escalation has been accompanied by arrests, torture, field executions and efforts to deprive… entire communities of food, water and medical services… Much of Syria has effectively become a free-fire zone for regime forces.”
Mass killings and executions by jihadist groups have been well documented and rebel forces have killed large numbers of people, many with their improvised “hell cannons”. But the regime is far and away the greatest killer in Syria.
It has also used chemical weapons several times, most lethally in a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of East Ghouta on August 21, 2013, which killed about 1,500 people.
Under a deal brokered by Russia, the regime was supposed to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal. Significant stocks were handed over to a UN-backed commission but Western officials suspect Damascus has a large inventory hidden.