This week, the BBC broadcast a compelling “Panorama” programme about Syria (available below via YouTube, but also available here via iPlayer), in which reporter Jane Corbin, tracing the roots of the people’s uprising against the dictatorship of President Basher al-Assad, focused on Deraa, the town of 80,000 inhabitants in the south of Syria where, after intellectuals and human rights activists began protesting in Damascus in mid-March (followed by many arrests), the townspeople of Deraa took over the struggleagainst the Assad regime, protesting about how some of their children were arrested and tortured for two weeks after scribbling graffiti critical of the regime.
The film includes shocking footage taken in Deraa by local activists and journalists, breaking through the almost total ban on foreign journalists, some of which has never been shown before, and it reveals how, from the beginning, the regime responded to peaceful protests with random killings by snipers, designed to quell dissent through fear. The footage also reveals how the security forces targeted medical staff inside ambulances, to prevent them from treating the wounded, and also contains other distressing footage from March and April, when the security forces roamed Deraa, seizing people and taking them away — to be tortured, and often killed.
As the protests spread to other towns, the violence increased, and on April 25, Deraa was besieged by the Syrian army, and many more protestors — men, women and children — were killed, both in the town, and amongst supporters from nearby towns who tried to break the blockade and deliver supplies. Others — including children — were taken away and tortured, as happened with 13-year old Hamza al-Khateeb, and it is estimated that across Syria over a hundred children have been killed by the army and the security services since March.
Jane Corbin also traveled to Turkey to meet one particular defector from the Syrian army, a soldier, who explained how armed gangs — the shabia or “ghosts” — were employed as agent provocateurs and hired killers, randomly assassinating people while pretending that they were part of anti-government forces. She also met up with one of the highest-ranking defectors from the Syrian army, Col. Riad al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syria Army, who had just declared his intention to bring down the regime through force. As The Syria Report noted, the official announcement of the existence of the FSA marks the “beginning of armed rebellion.” Al-Asaad stated, “You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed. But our losses will not be worse than we have right now, with the killings, the torture and the dumping of bodies.”
The programme highlighted the problems facing the opposition to the Assad regime — the allegiance to Bashar al-Assad of the majority of officers in the army, who are from the same background as the Assad family (the minority Alawite sect) — but explained that most soldiers are Sunnis, and that thousands of soldiers are thought to have defected already, creating the possibility that armed resistance may finally prevail where martyrdom has not.
To date, though, at least 2,700 people have been killed in Syria since March, Deraa is still occupied by the army, and, of those killed, 600 have died in Deraa alone, and 3,000 more have disappeared. As violence again erupted across Syria today, this programme is a timely insight into the oppression of the Syrian people by the Assad regime, which, as human rights groups have been reporting since the first stories of torture and disappearances emerged, is guilty of crimes against humanity.
Note: For further information, see the Amnesty International report, “Syria: Deadly detention: Deaths in custody amid popular protest in Syria,” published on August 31.
About the author: Andy Worthington
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.