To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
June 26, 2016
RE: The nature of the Syrian regime

Assad’s Regime of Murder

by Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

Two articles by Ben Taub in recent issues of The New Yorker magazine give information about the murderous practices of Syria’s Assad regime and how these are tied directly to the higher-ups in Bashar Assad’s government. The first, "The Assad files", appeared on April 18. Its focus is on one war-crimes investigator -- Bill Wiley -- who has compiled hundreds of thousands of pages of documents generated by internal offices of the Syrian government. These documents show orders being given from the very highest reaches, up to the president himself, to police and army units that deal directly with anti-regime activists. They document that the inhumane practices being carried out by the police and military, as well as bombing runs of the Syrian air force, are not the result of a "few bad apples" in the Syrian armed forces, but are the direct result of orders sent out from the center of the regime. Bombing hospitals, mutilating little boys, poison gas attacks, burning people with welding torches, hanging, electrocuting, etc.  -- these are not accidents of a badly organized regime, but directly organized plans to practice terror against broad sections of the Syrian population.

The documents have been collected from two major sources: 1) defectors from the regime who previously worked in sensitive departments and gathered the information before fleeing Syria; 2) army and police headquarters buildings that have been captured by anti-regime forces and whose file cabinets yielded a treasure trove of documents. One of the main sources was Abdel-majid Barakat, a young man who was hired to process paperwork for Bashar Assad’s Central Crisis Management Cell. This was a secret security committee set up by Assad in 2011 to coordinate a crackdown against the protests breaking out all over Syria and the Arab world. It was chaired by Mohammad Said Bekheitan, highest-ranking official in the ruling Baath Party, and comprised of high-ranking members of the military, security and intelligence agencies, and Assad’s cabinet. This Crisis Cell met every evening and received reports from local areas about demonstrations against Assad; they then sent out orders to the local areas telling them how to respond. Occasional members of the Crisis Cell included Assad’s vice-president and his younger brother Maher, the most aggressive advocate of violence against demonstrators.

Barakat’s job was to write summaries of reports from local areas and deliver them to the Crisis Cell, then to copy and transmit orders. The Cell also transmitted minutes of their meetings to Assad, who would sign them and order implementation, sometimes with handwritten notes. No security decision, no matter how small, was done without Assad’s approval.  While doing his job Barakat also managed to copy certain documents and leak them to the world press, which eventually earned him the suspicion of higher-ups. In 2012, after being interrogated, Barakat managed to copy thousands of pages of documents and then escaped to Turkey with them.

Shortly afterwards, in June 2012 a meeting of the Crisis Cell was blown up by a bomb. Some of its leading members were killed, including its chairman, the head of the National Security Bureau, the minister of defense, and Assad’s brother-in-law. At the time there were rumors of a coup, and it appeared that Assad’s regime was about to collapse. Some top military and government officials, including the prime minister, defected to the opposition.

But Assad managed to survive by doubling down on his savage repression, doing what he could to disunite the opposition, and gathering international support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. He didn’t hesitate to use poison gas against the opposition, killing thousands of civilians with sarin, and according to recent reports still using chlorine gas. The opposition has been faced with many difficulties, but continues to hold the support of large sections of the Syrian population, who demonstrate their hatred for Assad whenever they can. The opposition also controls some territory including most of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, despite strafing and bombings from Russian and Syrian warplanes. Wiley and his team of investigators continue to gather documents and witness testimony from Syrians who have lived through the repression, and ensure that when Assad’s regime does fall, he and his minions will not be able to find refuge in any country that pays lip service to international law. This will complicate things for the American government as it tries to arrange an Assad-style dictatorship for Syria, only without Assad; but that’s their problem.

Shooting the Wounded, Bombing Hospitals

A second article by Taub, "The Shadow Doctors," appeared in the June 27 New Yorker. This article details the activities of a few doctors, especially those of Doctors Without Borders, to set up functioning hospitals in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. When Assad’s police and military began shooting peaceful demonstrators, this was a shock to the people of Syria, but their response was to hold even larger demonstrations demanding an end to the regime. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets and bravely stood up to the guns of Assad’s henchmen. When the soldiers opened fire -- as they always did -- the result was scores of gunshot wounds. Their family, friends, and fellow demonstrators then tried to take their wounded comrades to local hospitals. But Assad’s soldiers stationed snipers on the tops of hospitals and other area buildings, and they would shoot anyone trying to obtain medical treatment. This became a standard practice of the regime’s forces: it wasn’t enough to kill many demonstrators and wound many more, the soldiers made a practice of killing off the wounded -- and anyone who tried to help them.

For those who did manage to get into hospitals, their fate was often even worse, as Assad’s soldiers would comb through the hospitals, arresting the wounded and dragging them off to be tortured and later killed. The article contains some grisly details of inhumane treatment meted out to such prisoners. Medical personnel who tried to help the demonstrators were also similarly targeted, with the result that very soon 95% of them had fled Syria to neighboring countries.

Stepping into the gap in medical care, foreign doctors have been working underground with Syrian doctors to set up "shadow" hospitals. These are inconspicuous buildings -- sometimes just private homes -- where opposition activists and other civilians who have been injured could obtain medical care. For awhile, as the opposition consolidated control over quite a bit of territory, these hospitals began to function quite regularly. They were chronically short of drugs and equipment and medical personnel, but by spreading training around they were able to deliver a lot of medical care to those in need. This was sorely needed, as Assad’s forces began using artillery, aircraft bombing, and poison gas. Helicopters of the regime would regularly fly over rebel-held territory, rolling out barrel bombs over markets, schools, and hospitals.

Specialists in trauma care trained Syrian doctors and nurses how to care for gunshot and shrapnel wounds, and these in turn trained assistants at the various local hospitals. The doctors worked with LCCs -- Local Coordination Councils -- of the opposition but were trained to help anyone in need. Their job was complicated by the rise of pro-ISIS fundamentalist forces, which targeted medical personnel just like Assad’s forces did. But the article points out that, while the fundamentalist fanatics have killed a few score medical personnel, Assad’s forces have killed over 700.

The article focuses on David Nott, an English surgeon working with Doctors Without Borders, who spent time in Syria providing care by day and training other doctors at night. Using video equipment, Nott and his fellow doctors were able to spread medical knowledge through the areas controlled by the opposition. Today Nott is back in England, but he still consults with Syrian doctors by way of cell phone. He maintains close contact with some Syrian doctors who have refused to leave the country despite the savage repression carried out by Assad’s regime. The latest setback to these "shadow doctors" was the bombing campaign carried out by Russian warplanes. Their intelligence was able to locate numerous shadow hospitals and begin a bombing campaign against them. Just since early June a number of shadow hospitals in Aleppo have been destroyed, while others have been hit and are barely able to function.

Still the "shadow doctors" continue their work of bringing a little bit of humanity to Syria. Their savage persecution by Assad’s forces emphasizes the need to rid Syria of this murderous regime. []

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Posted on July 4, 2016