Civilians continue to pay the heaviest toll as Syria’s civil war persists into its fifth year without pause, says Letta Tayler, a Human Rights Watch researcher who specializes in terrorism and counterterrorism for the group’s emergencies division. Tayler has been on the ground on the Turkish side of the Syrian border and in Iraq, where she spoke to victims of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other armed groups in those countries.
Earlier this year, the United Nations estimated that more than 220,000 people have died as a result of the fighting between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime and anti-Assad rebel groups. More than 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, while at least 4 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Meanwhile, Syrians who have stayed in their homeland continue to bear the brunt of the violence, Tayler says. They are caught between the Assad regime’s daily attacks, the brutality of many rebel groups and the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes.
The following is the first segment of a two-part interview Syria Deeply conducted with Tayler about the plight of civilians caught between groups like ISIS and the Syrian regime.
Syria Deeply: Widespread human rights violations by ISIS have been documented in Syria and Iraq. What are some of the most alarming trends you see taking place? And do any of ISIS’s practices vary significantly between Syria and Iraq?
Letta Tayler: I actually find that ISIS pretty much operates the same way in both Iraq and Syria. If you’re Sunni Arab and follow the rules, you’re pretty much left alone. You go to prayer and wear your pants a certain length; if you’re a woman, you veil and don’t go out unaccompanied. Unless you’re a government employee, in which case you can be harassed or killed. If you are of another religious or ethnic group, you’re often in trouble and you could be driven out, killed, rounded up or your children could be taken and forcibly enlisted. You could be raped or made a sexual slave. In other words, all the things we’ve seen happen with the Yazidi [religious sect in Iraq].
I think the kind of treatment that we’ve seen by ISIS in areas it controls is very much the same on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. ISIS has said that this is one caliphate and it is certainly acting like that’s the case in areas it controls.
Syria Deeply: To what extent is ISIS persecuting Syrians and Iraqis along ethnic lines and not solely religious lines?
Letta Tayler: Yes, certainly in Iraq. Look at the mass killings of Shia cadets in Tikrit. There was a trial about that in Iraq, which made headlines. Look at the mass executions of Shia prisoners outside of Mosul on June 10 of last year, when ISIS first came into Mosul in northern Iraq. This has not been greatly reported, but it’s a case I documented. I spoke to survivors of this attack, who told me that ISIS liberated the prison, took everyone outside, corralled them into the prison yard, and separated the Sunni prisoners from the Shia inmates. They let the Sunni prisoners go, and drove the Shia into the desert and lined them up and executed them one by one. There were hundreds of prisoners and whatever crimes they committed had nothing to do with them being in combat against ISIS.
They were for the most part common criminals, petty criminals and other serious criminals. But they were certainly not among the forces that had been fighting ISIS. They were rounded up and executed. So, we definitely see that the sectarian and ethnic violations are both being committed.
Syria Deeply: Can you speak a little bit about ISIS’s practice of child recruitment? What does that mean in terms of international human rights law and international humanitarian law?
Letta Tayler: ISIS has routinely rounded up children and put them into military training. We’ve all seen the grizzly videos of children being used to commit atrocious crimes for ISIS. This is clearly a war crime. This is an unspeakable horror for the children. It’s an unspeakable anguish for the parents. I can’t tell you how widespread this is, though. We know that it’s taking place, but we have no idea when it comes to numbers or percentages.
Most, if not all, sides to the conflict in Syria and Iraq have been deploying child soldiers to one degree or another. For example, the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, have deployed child soldiers and in fact are still using child soldiers in what they claim are non-combat positions. Even forces that are backed and loved by the U.S., such as the YPG, are to some degree using children in this conflict. It would be incorrect to single out ISIS for child soldier recruitment. But they are certainly among the worst abusers, if not the worst abuser. They are going into communities, kidnapping families, taking women and girls into sexual slavery and then herding kids into training camps in order to have them commit atrocious attacks.
Syria Deeply: Both the Assad regime and ISIS’s human rights violations have been reported thoroughly. Now there have been many claims that Kurdish militias have committed grave human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing in certain areas of Syria. What does that mean for civilians on the ground who are caught between all these different groups?
Letta Tayler: First, I’d say that ethnic cleansing is a very strong accusation. We at Human Rights Watch have not yet seen at this point – and I emphasize ‘at this point’ – evidence of ethnic cleansing by Kurdish groups, whether in Iraq or Syria. We have, however, received numerous complaints alleging that the YPG in Syria and the Peshmerga forces in the Kurdistan region of Iraq are discriminating against Sunni Arabs and in some cases forcing them out of their neighborhoods and even destroying their homes. We do not have concrete evidence at this time if this is taking place or – if it is – whether these accounts are exaggerated.
If there is some forced displacement of Sunni Arabs, there are situations in which this is allowed under the laws of war. Parties are allowed to temporarily expel civilian populations out of military necessity or to protect civilians from harm, but this must be in the least restrictive way possible and it must be temporary. So, even if some of these activities are taking place, it’s not clear whether some or all of it might be lawful. In addition, many people may be fleeing advancing Kurdish forces out of fear that something may happen. They may be fleeing coalition airstrikes. All of this is to say that it’s an extremely complicated and muddy issue. Until we have further information, we have to be very careful to not make accusations of ethnic cleansing. I’m not ruling it out, but we have to be very careful with this term.
Of course, we are very concerned about these allegations. Even the U.S. government has said it has no tolerance for these activities if they’re taking place. In the case of the YPG, the U.S. government has gone on the record saying that even the perception of such abusive tactics against Sunni Arabs will not be tolerated. So, I think there is certainly concern about this and it’s something the world should be watching closely.
What is indisputable is that civilians are feeling – and in many cases are – under attack from all sides in this conflict. While I was on the ground in Turkey near the Syrian border recently, I spoke to dozens of civilians who told me they fled one warring party only to end up seeking temporary shelter in an area that was then overrun by another force. They were forced to flee to another area which was then invaded by another force that they feared. People are fleeing the Kurds; they are fleeing coalition airstrikes; they may be trying to get into Turkey, where they are often stranded at the border. You have Kurds in Kobane being massacred by ISIS. You have situations on all sides where civilians are simply caught in the middle. One day it’s a barrel bomb from the Assad regime; the next day it’s a slaughter by ISIS; after that it’s the fear of a coalition airstrike. So, all parties to this conflict must be doing more to protect civilians, who are ultimately the victims of this very terrible violence.