Most horrifying are the accounts of former detainees in Syrian regime jails where starvation and overcrowding appear to be a deliberate and systematic tactic to inflict unbearable suffering and death on the prison population, according to the report.
A comparison is made between the maximum occupancy of a 4m x 5m cell set by the Council of Europe and those operated by the Syrian regime, where 70 people share a single room and with detainees taking it in turns to sleep.
Prisoners are given little or no access to hygiene facilities and fed meagre portions of rotten food, with one potato shared between several men. Detainees are frequently stripped naked and subject to a range of torture techniques, often resulting in death.
The dying and the dead are left to rot in the packed cells, where detainees are subject to the horrific screams of the tortured or told by guards their relatives are to be raped, the report says.
Human rights groups believe tens of thousands of detainees have been killed this way, with their deaths marked as “heart failure” or “stroke” on death certificates by authorities. None of the families of detainees interviewed for the report were ever given the remains of their loved ones.
Life for civilians in opposition areas is marked by a daily struggle of finding food and avoiding regime bombing and shelling. The report details the siege tactics imposed on opposition towns, forcing residents to live off grass or cats. In Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, the Islamic State group operated small farms at their bases while the residents starved from a regime siege.
“[The people] couldn’t withstand all this… The Islamists would have never established themselves among us if it hadn’t been for the famine,” one Yarmouk resident told the NGOs.
The authors said the report is the culmination of two years of research and interviews, with references to the work of other NGOS.
“Today we hope to present our human rights report to Russian citizens. Rather than providing the reader with an elevated political view of the conflict, we present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die,” the authors said.
“With this report we seek to draw Russian society’s attention to the tragedy that has unfolded in Syria and to fill the vacuum of reliable information about the Syrian conflict.”
“Today we hope to present our human rights report to Russian citizens. Rather than providing the reader with an elevated political view of the conflict, we present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die.”
– Authors of the report
“Many Russians’ worldview regarding the Syrian war is shaped by a sense of involvement in the formation of an empire and the fight against terrorism. The extremely difficult position of independent media in Russia further reduces the possibility of covering other aspects of the war,” the authors added.
With a decrease in military activity in Syria resulting in less media coverage of the war, public perceptions of Russia’s role in the conflict are changing. A recent poll conducted by the Levada Center showed that a majority of Russians backing a military withdrawal from Syria.
In 2019, after a string of successes by the Moscow-backed Syrian regime, the Russian ministry of defence organised a patriotic propaganda campaign entitled “Syrian Breakthrough” with a train carrying weaponry and trophies touring the country. The exhibition was widely reported by Russian media and attended by a million people, but there has been little to promote the military’s role in Syria ever since, where Bashar Al-Assad presides over a bankrupt and lawless state.
“This was the last notable event in Russia related to the war in Syria. It was not announced in connection with the anniversary of Russia’s participation in the war, and the five-year anniversary of Russia’s entry into the military conflict in Syria in 2020 passed rather unnoticed by Russians,” said the authors.
It is hoped that this study will provide Russians with a more balanced picture of conditions in Syria, where Moscow’s attempts at stabalising and centralising power in the country has not borne fruit.
“Russians know very little about Bashar al-Assad’s internal policies, the root causes of the conflict, and the massive human rights violations in Syria,” said the authors.
“The report is a way for us to start a dialogue about this in Russian society and with all interested parties. We would also like to further develop contacts with Syrian activists and civil society organizations and work together to protect human rights in Syria, ultimately working towards the goals of peace and reconciliation.”
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin