Syrian government forces have endangered local residents by forcing them to march in front of the army during recent arrest operations, troop movements, and attacks on towns and villages in northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.
Witnesses from the towns of al-Janoudyah, Kafr Nabl, Kafr Rouma, and Ayn Larouz in the Idlib governorate in northern Syria told Human Rights Watch that they saw the army and pro-government armed men, referred to locally as shabeeha, force people to march in front of the advancing army during the March 2012 offensive to retake control of areas that had fallen into the hands of the opposition. From the circumstances of these incidents, it was clear to the witnesses that the purpose of this was to protect the army from attack.
“By using civilians as human shields, the Syrian army is showing blatant disregard for their safety,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice.”
“Abdullah,” a resident of Kafr Nabl, a town in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, told Human Rights Watch that the army forced him and several others to walk in front of their armored personnel carriers when they were conducting a search for wanted opposition activists on March 2. Like most of those interviewed he asked not to use his real name for fear of reprisals. He said:
As we were going to Friday prayer, soldiers from a base near the mosque were rounding up people. They took maybe 25 people, including me. There were also eight children, aged from 10 to 15, among us. They made us march in front and around the military vehicles to some houses where they were searching for wanted opposition activists. We marched for about 600 meters. They were insulting us the whole time. They arrested several people from the houses. Then they made us march back to their base, after which they released all of us, apart from the detained activists. The whole operation lasted for about two hours.
Abdullah said that the army often forced town residents to march alongside them, particularly when they needed to get food supplies.
Raed Fares, an opposition activist from Kafr Nabl, told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian army, which increased its presence in the town when demonstrations there begun seven months ago, started using civilians as human shields in January after opposition forces tried to attack the army with a roadside explosive device. Since then, he said, the soldiers have gathered residents and forced them to walk in front of the soldiers whenever they want to move around in the town. “They take anybody who opens the door when they knock,” he told Human Rights Watch. “It doesn’t matter whether it is a man, woman, or child.”
Fares shared with Human Rights Watch two videos that he has posted on YouTube. In the first video, filmed on February 23, about eight people in civilian clothes are walking in front of several armed soldiers and at least one infantry fighting vehicle. In the second video, filmed on February 28, four people in civilian clothes are walking in front of a column of several infantry fighting vehicles on what appears to be the outskirts of the town. Fares said that the army had compelled the men to walk in front to protect the soldiers.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the identity of the men independently. An alternative explanation, that they had been detained, seems unlikely since they are not handcuffed or blindfolded, a common practice during detention in Syria.