Notes on Accountability

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

Recovering the body of a victim of an incendiary attack in Arbin, Eastern Ghouta, 22 March 2018.
Photo: Syria Civil Defence via Siege Watch.


In February to April 2018, Assad regime and Russian forces took the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus by air and artillery attacks, cluster bombs, firebombing, and chemical attacks.

The assault came after over four years of siege against a population that by 2018 had dwindled to 393,000, down from 1.5 million in 2011.

According to the Atlantic Council’s new report, Breaking Ghouta, one single day, the 21st of February, saw 1,658 air and artillery attacks recorded. Locals said corpses and body parts were left rotting under rubble and strewn in the streets due to the danger in retrieving them. Many victims were buried in mass graves, with numbers put on their improvised shrouds. Relatives were unable to reach hospitals to identify them.

Medical centres that were attacked included two whose locations had been ‘deconflicted’ by sharing them with the Russian military via the UN.

There were at least 25 attacks with incendiary weapons, mostly upon urban areas behind the front lines.

Six suspected chemical attacks took place. The deadliest, on 7 April, killed at least 70 civilians in the town of Douma, precipitating its final surrender one day later. This attack led to limited retaliatory strikes by the US, UK, and France.

By 22 April 2018, more than 158,000 people had been forcibly dis­placed, approximately 66,000 of them to opposition-held areas in northwest Syria, including the Idlib pocket.

The full report is available online at:


In Spring, the last of Syria’s sieges ended in military assaults and forced displacements. Siege Watch published their final quarterly report in two parts: one on Eastern Ghouta; the second on southern Damascus, northern Homs, and on Fuaa and Kefraya, towns in Idlib besieged by opposition groups and HTS.

More than 1,700 civilians were estim­ated killed and 5,000 injured in the final offensive against Eastern Ghouta.

In southern Damascus, opposition-controlled neighbourhoods surrendered between February and May, and ISIS-held areas Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad were subjected to a scorched earth military campaign and depopulated.

Northern Homs

The cities of Talbiseh and al-Rastan in northern Homs, along with towns in al-Houleh, had been besieged by pro regime forces since 2013.

Russia’s de-escalation zone for the area showed itself to be a military strategy masquerading as a peace plan, according to Siege Watch. Instead of leading to good faith negotiations, the zone put military operations in Homs on pause, allowing the regime to strengthen positions elsewhere and focus on the opposition-held areas one at a time.

As operations in Damascus came to an end, regime forces deployed to Homs. On 24 April, the regime’s ‘reconciliation’ minister Ali Haidar (see photo) confirmed to Reuters that northern Homs was the regime’s next military target.

On 29 April, bombing escalated. Attacks on al-Rastan city killed civilians. A healthcare clinic in al-Zaafaraneh and al-Zaafaraneh Surgical Hospital were bombed. The hospital had been de-conflicted, meaning its location was shared with Russia. On 30 April, Al-Rastan field hospital was bombed.

Russia’s forces took part in attacks, even as the Russian military led talks with the local negotiating committee. Russian negotiators threatened committee members that their homes would be destroyed and children killed. On 2 May, the committee agreed to Russia’s terms, and 35,000 people were displaced from northern Homs to northwest Syria over the next fortnight.

Fuaa and Kefraya

Fuaa and Kefraya were a pocket of regime control within the opposition-controlled area of Idlib province. The two towns, including the civilian population, had been besieged by opposition groups and by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) since 2015.

Unlike the opposition-held areas besieged by pro regime forces, Fuaa and Kefraya received regular airdrops of aid by the Assad regime and its allies.

On 17 July, the regime announced a deal with HTS; a prisoner exchange, with all remaining fighters and civilians to be transferred out of the towns the next day. Around 7,000 people were forcibly displaced out of Fuaa and Kefraya to regime-held territory, as the regime released hundreds of detainees. The deal left the two towns completely depopulated and under HTS control.

HTS is sanctioned by the UN Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee.

The aftermath

A total of over 200,000 people were displaced in the first half of 2018, with 110,000 of them forcibly transferred to northern Syria, according to Siege Watch. Major parts of the Damascus suburbs were depopulated, with some areas 90% destroyed.

Months on, survivors are neglected. Post-surrender communities are isolated due to regime restrict­ions. As Siege Watch reporting ends, other sources tell of continuing repression in post-surrender areas. According to Ana Press, women who had worked as medical staff in Ghouta are being imprisoned by Syrian intelligence. According to researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, 18 former White Helmets were arrested in Homs.

There has been little improvement for displaced people in northwest Syria, according to Siege Watch. Under-resourced Syrian humanitarian groups are unable to meet the scale of the crisis, and calls for help go unanswered. International agencies are increasingly choosing to register with the regime in Damascus, which will give them access to areas that the regime wants to reward, but will obstruct them from giving aid to areas that most need support.

Victims face the possibility of permanent exile, with the Assad regime using new laws to confiscate and redev­elop the property of displaced people.

In July, Jamil Hassan, Head of Air Force Intelligence, made clear that perm­anent forced displacement is regime policy, saying, ‘A Syria with ten million trustworthy people obedient to the leader­ship is better than a Syria with thirty million vandals.’ He said that anyone getting in the way of the government’s plans will be considered a ‘terrorist’ and that more than three million displaced Syrians are already on their wanted list.

Justice and accountability

This final Siege Watch quarterly report closes with calls for action on justice and accountability:

Donor countries should fund and give diplomatic support to international justice and accountability mechanisms, the COI, the IIIM, and should support ICC referral. Donors should continue to support Syrian civil society groups to document violations, litigate criminal cases, and advocate for accountability.

States with universal jurisdiction should investigate crimes, strengthen the legal basis for universal jurisdiction, enhance capacity of relevant authorities, and increase cooperation with other states and investigative mechanisms.

The UN COI and others should open investigations into all incidents with clear evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity—not only on chemical weapons—including violations against the health sector, removal of medical supplies from convoys, bombing of medical facilities, as well as continuing abuses in post-surrender communities.

Victims and survivors should be supported, to organise and to take part in international political processes and justice and accountability initiatives.

The UN Secretary-General should appoint a panel to conduct an internal review of UN actions regarding besieged areas of Syria, similar to the 2012 review of UN actions in Sri Lanka.

An interna­tional mech­anism to document property claims of displaced people is needed to collect and preserve proof of property, and to prepare for justice including property restitution and reparations.

All Siege Watch reports are online here:


Speaking at ‘Alive in Graves,’ an event at Amnesty UK in September, Syrian lawyer Anwar Al-Bounni told of efforts to bring cases in European courts.

Anwar al-Bounni focuses on crimes against detainees. More than 150,000 people are imprisoned or disappeared in Syria, according to Anwar al-Bounni. Of those at least 60,000 are believed killed.

In June, Germany’s federal prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Air Force Intelligence chief Jamil Hassan (see photo) for his role in the deaths of ‘at least hundreds of people’ between 2011-2013 in Syrian prisons, acc­ording to Der Spiegel.

Anwar Al-Bounni and journalist Mazen Darwish interviewed dozens of survivors of detention and torture for the case. Germany’s federal prosecutor is charging that Jamil Hassan ordered his men to torture, rape, and murder prisoners.

Jamil Hassan has been under EU and US sanctions since 2011. According to Syria in Context, Hassan has a role in controlling aid flows via Damascus, as he personally signs facilitation letters that permit aid deliveries inside Syria. These letters also include signatures of the Head of Military Intelligence and other ministries. These permissions are sought by NGOs and UN agencies. Syrian government control of aid flowing via Damascus has allowed the regime to weaponise it, leading to malnutrition and deaths in besieged areas.

Speaking at the same event, Toby Cadman, of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, explained that cases are being pursued through national courts because a UN referral to the Interna­tional Criminal Court (ICC) has been vetoed by Russia, a party to the conflict itself responsible for war crimes.

While the ICC route is blocked, there are bodies to investigate crimes in Syria and to prepare cases.

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established in 2011 by a Human Rights Council resolution, has a mandate to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011.

A separate body, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), was established in 2016 by a UN General Assembly resolution to prepare cases for trial by national courts or by any international court that may have jurisdiction in future.

In a recent interview with Syria Untold (Part 1, Part 2) Anwar Al-Bounni pointed to the ongoing case in Argentina against the Franco dictatorship as an example of the power of universal jurisdiction. After the death of Spanish dictator Franco, a law was passed in Spain granting amnesty for crimes committed under the dictatorship. As Spanish courts have been unable to prosecute these crimes, Spanish victims have taken their cases to an Argentinian investigating judge.


Working with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, Anwar al-Bounni and colleagues have submitted four cases to prosecutors in Germany: one case targeting three military security branches—‘We call it the Death Branches’—together resp­onsible for the deaths of very many detainees; the second case is on Air Force Intelligence; the third case on the ‘Caesar’ photos, the tens of thousands of photographs smuggled out of Syria showing the dead bodies of victims of torture and abuse; and the fourth is about Sednaya Prison. ‘The last one could touch and target Bashar al-Assad himself, as a criminal, not as a head of state,’ Anwar al-Bounni said. Arrest warrants have been issued for several Syrian officers, but the federal prosecutor has revealed only one name so far, Jamil Hassan.


In Austria, Anwar al-Bounni and his colleagues have submitted a case against perpetrators in Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, and Daraa. The Austrian case has got off to a good start, with the prosecutor deciding to hear testimony from witnesses.


In Spain, Toby Cadman’s chambers, Guernica 37, are representing a Spanish citizen whose brother was killed in detention in Syria in a case against members of the Syrian regime’s security forces. The Spanish state successfully appealed against the case on grounds of jurisdiction, and the case has now gone to Spain’s supreme court.


In 2016 a case was filed in France against Air Force Intelligence for the forced disappearance in 2013 of two French-Syrian dual nationals, Patrick A. Dabbagh and Mazen Dabbagh.

There is also a French case open against the Syrian regime for the killing of French photojournalist Remi Ochlik and the attempted killing of French journalist Edith Bouvier in the same 2012 attack that killed Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and injured photographer Paul Conroy.

United Kingdom

A case of particular interest in the UK is that of British Doctor Abbas Khan, tortured and killed in detention in Syria in December 2013. A UK coroner’s court jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing on his death.

On the lack of progress in this case, Toby Cadman said, ‘The unit that is responsible for these cases, the Counter Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police, SO15 as it’s called, has very limited resources.’

‘They are required to investigate domestic terrorism cases, international terrorism cases that have a connection to the United Kingdom,’ Toby Cadman continued.

‘In the case of Dr Abbas Khan, initially the evidence that was available to them was in their view insufficient to launch an investigation; based on that it was unclear in what facility Dr Khan had been killed, and by extension who was responsible; and of course due to a lack of understanding by the Metropolitan Police as to whether there’s a reasonable basis for concluding that he could have been killed by rogue elements within the prison establishment.

‘We have made it very clear to the Metropolitan Police exactly where he was killed, and in any event it doesn’t matter if he was killed in facility one, two, or three, because the command structure is the same for all of these facilities, so it makes no difference.

‘And there are no rogue elements operating within these facilities. This is a policy, and there is a credible basis for bringing an investigation. Helped by individuals such as Anwar who helped to educate me on how the system operates, and who was responsible, we were able to identify a number of individuals who bear criminal responsibility.’


The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act passed another hurdle in the US Congress when it was approved by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 26 September.

The act will impose comprehensive sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses and attacks against civilians.

The act puts forward a list of 47 names, beginning with Bashar al-Assad, and requires the President to justify the non-inclusion of any person on the list in sanctions. Some but not all of these names are already on the US Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals list.

The act would also impose sanctions on individuals and entities that knowingly provide ‘significant financial, material or technological support’ to the Syrian regime’s gas and oil trade, or that provide aircraft, or provide goods, services, or technologies associated with the operation of aircraft or air carriers ‘to any foreign person operating in areas controlled by the Government of Syria or associated forces that are used, in whole or in part, for military purposes.’


On 26 September 2018, European Union ambassadors agreed a new faster mechanism to sanction people anywhere in the world responsible for using chemical weapons.

Names are to be added to a chemical weapons blacklist by EU diplomats in an ‘EU Council working group’ rather than at the level of EU leaders or ministers.

While the EU develops its new chemicals regime, the Dutch parliament called for a more extensive EU-wide ‘Magnitsky Act’ against Russian and other human rights abusers. But an EU diplomat told EUobserver that ‘we don’t necessarily see it as a follow-up to the new chemicals regime.’

In a written answer to a question from Sammy Wilson MP in April, the UK’s Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt wrote that ‘at present, no Russian individuals or entities are sanc­tioned under EU Syria sanctions.’

The Minister more recently had to correct himself on his response to an Emergency Question on Idlib in the House of Commons on 10 September. Stephen Doughty MP had asked, ‘What sanctions have been issued against individual Russians and others who command responsibility for operations in Syria?’

The Minister had replied ‘sanctions are already in place against Russian entities in relation to this’; in his letter of correction, Alistair Burt wrote that the correct response should have been, ‘sanctions are already in place against Syrian entities…’

In the same debate, a number of other MPs also focused on Russia.

Tom Tugendhat asked, ‘Should we not also stand up to the Russians, who are financing this war, and to banks such as VTB that are trading on our markets and raising debt in this country?’

Peter Grant asked, ‘Will the Minister give an assurance that the pursuit of all those responsible for war crimes in Syria will also apply to members of the Russian military who are involved, including, if necessary, the commander-in-chief who has given the orders for these atrocities to take place?’

Bob Seeley asked of the Minister, ‘Will he confirm that as well as naming and shaming those Syrian military units, he will name and shame individual Russian and Iranian units, pilots and chains of command?’

Tom Brake asked ‘how many Syrians, Russians and Iranians are subject to asset freezes and travel bans and of how many cases are being built against those people for prosecutions for alleged war crimes,’ and asked whether both Assad and Putin ‘fall into that category?’


In the 10 September debate on Idlib, Stephen Doughty asked the Minister, ‘Is he tracking, and will he publish details of, air attacks on civilians from wherever they come?’ Alistair Burt replied, ‘I am not sure it is technically possible to track every air strike. Certainly we know when they have happened, but I am not sure how we would be able to find out from where they are being directed…’

The idea of tracking aircraft to pin responsibility for individual attacks has been raised by several MPs. Publishing radar data could make a case for sanctions against individuals with command responsibility, be they Syrian or Russian, and could also provide evidence for prosecutions, particularly for attacks on hospitals and humanitarian workers.

In evidence to the Commons Defence Committee on 15 May 2018, Air Vice-Marshal Stringer told of how RAF E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft track Coalition, Russian, and Assad aircraft. The US also demonstrated what is possible when they published radar tracking data to show which Assad regime air base was responsible for the April 2017 chemical attack.

An alternative to radar tracking is now available from Hala Systems who provide early warning of air attacks through their Sentry Syria system. This uses data from aircraft spotters to rapidly predict where Assad regime or Russian aircraft will strike. UK support for this system was highlighted by Alistair Burt in the 10 September debate.