Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 30 March 2020

In Syria, where even the dead are not left in peace

The vandalising of graveyards and digging up of bodies by the Assad regime demonstrate once again that man’s inhumanity to man is the new normal

A view of a sprawling cemetery in Maarat Al Numan, some 31km south of Idlib in Syria's north. EPA
A view of a sprawling cemetery in Maarat Al Numan, some 31km south of Idlib in Syria's north. EPA

The horror of the footage and the sheer depths of the sacrilege are difficult to fathom. The scenes are so repugnant that words that could possibly describe them are dispersed. It is as though the mind is hoping that if they are lost, it will eventually forget whatever it was that it saw.

These videos appear to have been shot by soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad, who appear to have filmed themselves raiding local graveyards in towns and villages in Idlib province that they reclaimed in recent days. The soldiers, out of spite and a twisted desire for vengeance, are digging up corpses of the dead, and in at least one case have filmed themselves posing with skeletal remains.

The images are revolting, but hardly surprising. This kind of inhumanity is the new normal in war, thanks to nine years of impunity in Syria.

Idlib is one of the last remaining areas in the country outside of Mr Al Assad’s control. Syria’s ruler, has reclaimed most of the country in scorched earth campaigns of great cruelty. But Idlib’s reckoning is catastrophic beyond measure. Three quarters of a million civilians fleeing the great bombardment to the Turkish border. Hundreds dead, hundreds of thousands freezing in sub-zero temperatures under flimsy tents. More than a million children in the crossfire. Dozens of hospitals bombed. Desecrated graves. Ghost towns left in the wake. Not even the pretense of international action, no justice on the horizon.

Syrian government forces are pictured after taking control of the Rashideen Al Rabea area in Syria's Aleppo province. AFP
Syrian government forces are pictured after taking control of the Rashideen Al Rabea area in Syria's Aleppo province. AFP

The apocalyptic humanitarian situation in Idlib has finally managed to garner the attention of international media in recent days. But the latest crisis belies a deeper truth – that atrocities have been normalised over nine years of warfare. Man’s inhumanity to man is the new normal.

Let us consider what has become normal because of the Syrian war.

Mr Al Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons throughout the course of the war. More than a thousand civilians have been killed or injured due to the repeated use of sarin and chlorine. The regime did not face any serious consequences despite violating a clear, red line. Even a programme to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal failed to completely eliminate them.

Since 2011, at least 589 separate attacks against healthcare facilities were documented by Physicians for Human Rights, the vast majority of them by Mr Al Assad and his backers. Attacks against medical personnel are illegal under international law. But the regime has faced no consequences for it, and continued to bomb hospitals under the pretext of a law it passed in 2012 declaring all medical facilities in opposition areas as de facto military targets.

The regime repeatedly used starvation sieges as a weapon of war to force the surrender of rebel-held towns and districts, in tight blockades that forced civilians to eat grass to survive and led to the deaths of children from malnutrition. Rather than pay any consequence, these tactics were repeatedly used and helped the regime to reclaim territory it had lost and win the war.

Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside ride on a vehicle with belongings in Hazano near Idlib. Reuters
Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside ride on a vehicle with belongings in Hazano near Idlib. Reuters

More than a half a million people have died. Thousands of them were killed by barrel bombs, containers filled with TNT and shrapnel that are so inaccurate that their use may be a de facto war crime. They were so inaccurate that the regime’s helicopters often tossed them far behind enemy lines, lest their own soldiers get caught in the bombardment. Thus, the bombing of civilian infrastructure became routine.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain arbitrarily detained in government custody, and most of them have been tortured. There is no recourse for their families, and hardly anyone even talks about them.

Half of Syria’s population has been displaced, millions abroad and millions at home. Their flight was met with rising walls and populist politicians demanding they go home. Refugees are not welcome. Conventions governing how they ought to be treated and enshrining the principles of asylum in the face of tyranny have been flouted and tossed in service of nativism and xenophobia.

Syria’s indelible legacy is the fact that nothing is sacrosanct. The norms of war have to be enforced for them to exist. Customary international law is only that for as long as it is a custom that is observed, rather than challenged, by the community of nations.

After nine years of international silence and inaction, it is the savagery of bombing hospitals and schools that has become customary.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada

Updated: February 12, 2020 04:59 PM

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