In September, as I stood looking out across a valley in the Latakia countryside, I could hear mortar fire in the distance. There it was, the town of Salma, just kilometers in front of me. I had last visited the rebel-controlled town in December 2012. Then, as now, Syrian government forces were bombarding it by land and air. The government has conducted indiscriminate strikes there, hitting both the rebel fighters who operate in and control the town and the few remaining residents who by choice or for a lack of options have stayed on.
In December, I documented what appeared to be deliberate attacks by the government on the only hospital there. Helicopters had repeatedly dropped improvised aerial bombs in the vicinity of the hospital, finally destroying it on October 5, 2012. Even then the town was in ruins. I could only quickly pass through to survey the damage before night fell and the expected artillery shells began to drop.
The strikes on Salma were continuing in early September. But this time, I was in Barouda, at a Syrian government military position in an Alawite village just kilometers away from Salma, and from which some rebel fighters accuse the government of attacking the town. From the Barouda military position a government military intelligence officer pointed out the opposition stronghold in the distance. We were standing behind a barricade of sandbags and weapon shipping crates. His enemy was there in Salma. If they could, they would hit us, he said. For fear of snipers I ran to the position and back, through exposed terrain, then back to the village.
I was back in Latakia to document for Human Rights Watch yet another series of war crimes in this war with no end in sight. This time, I was looking at a different set of attackers, documenting an attack on August 4 by rebel fighters led by five groups — Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suquor al-Izz. The attackers killed at least 190 civilians and seized over 200 hostages — the vast majority women and children — during the first day of a two-week military offensive, before government forces pushed them back to Salma. At the time of writing the hostages have not been freed.
This is the gravest set of abuses we have documented by rebel fighters; so grave, systematic, and premeditated that they may amount to crimes against humanity. But this is not the first time Human Rights Watch has documented likely crimes against humanity in this conflict. We have long believed that some government abuses also meet this terrible threshold. It was also not the first time family members told me about their relatives being gunned down, their throats slit, their lives shattered. Different attackers, but the victims are much the same.
While the number of sectarian attacks increase in this war, the Sunni, Alawite, Shia, Christian, Kurd, and Druze civilians across the country who have been targeted or are victims of indiscriminate attacks speak with one voice. They describe arbitrary detention, hostage-taking, the agony of not knowing, living with permanent injuries, and picking up the pieces of their shattered lives as refugees, as displaced persons. They want the abuses to stop and the abusers punished. They also comment on us — the nongovernmental groups, the journalists, and other governments — at times seeing us as indifferent to their suffering.
In Latakia, one Sunni man demanded of me: “Who will compensate me for my businesses and buildings that have been destroyed?” One Alawite man detailed the names of over 10 family members who were hostages: “Will you help us see them released?” Another spoke about the execution of his father and his wife.
With the end of the conflict nowhere in sight, as the faltering Geneva II peace negotiation discussions seem to reflect, we all know that more can be done to stop abuses by all sides: states should halt arms sales and military assistance to the government and to rebel groups that commit widespread or systematic abuses; they should adopt targeted sanctions on commanders on all sides implicated in the most serious abuses; and the United Nations Security Council should promote accountability by all parties by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. Victims on all sides of the conflict deserve at least this much.
Lama Fakih is the Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.