The Islamic State (ISIS) militant group is now believed to control more than half of all Syrian territory, according to some estimates.
Civilians continue to pay the largest price as there is no end in sight to fighting between ISIS, on the one hand, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, on the other. Additionally, civilians have found themselves trapped between ISIS and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group also accused of grave human rights violations by critics.
Most recently, on June 25, ISIS fighters disguised themselves as YPG officers and launched a brutal attack on the Syrian town of Kobani, which has been under YPG-control since the Kurdish fighters took it from ISIS.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights [deemed the ISIS assault] as the “second largest massacre” to have taken place since ISIS declared a caliphate in large swathes of Syria and Iraq last year. Hundreds were left dead, while even more were severely injured.
Human Rights Watch researcher Letta Tayler spoke to Syria Deeply about the horrifying conditions Syrian civilians are enduring as the fighting presses on in their homeland.
Syria Deeply: Is there a fear that a singular focus on ISIS can at times let the Assad regime off the hook in the public discourse? How would you assess the international community’s response to the widespread human rights abuses being committed from all sides?
Letta Tayler: There are numerous violations being committed by U.S.-backed coalition forces on the ground. We at Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented horrific acts by Shia militia forces aligned with the Iraqi government in this conflict [with ISIS]. Terrible crimes – razing homes, killing civilians, driving civilians from their villages in areas they have captured from ISIS.
The U.S. government and its allies are finally starting to pay attention to these serious acts. The international community needs to do far more to make it clear to forces like Shia militias and Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria should they be engaging in violations, that the international community has zero tolerance for such abuses. These abuses will only feed the cycle of revenge in Iraq and Syria.
Syria Deeply: What should the international community be doing to mitigate the grievances that drive some Syrians and Iraqis to support ISIS?
Letta Tayler: One of the most important ways the world can try to resolve the conflict is to ensure that groups that feel marginalized, such as Sunni Arabs, do have an alternative to ISIS. I was struck by how many Syrian Sunni Arabs I recently interviewed on the Turkish border told me that they were okay living under ISIS, even though they bridled under ISIS’s harsh rules. They felt that they were safer under ISIS than they were under the Assad regime, or than they would be if they were living under Kurdish rule. This is a startling admission on their part – that they fear ISIS less than the U.S.-led coalition forces or Kurdish forces, for instance. The international community needs to ensure that there is an alternative for Sunni Arabs to ISIS; they need to ensure their political inclusion; they need to ensure that Sunni Arabs have places to live and that they can get on with their lives by rebuilding and repairing in the same way that all other parties to this conflict need to rebuild and repair. Unless that happens there will never be an end to this conflict, in my view.
Syria Deeply: It’s clear that all of Syria is enduring unprecedented violence and humanitarian catastrophe. Are there any particular areas in Syria that need special attention at the moment?
Letta Tayler: I think what needs particular attention in Syria right now is the plight of civilians who are trapped inside, whether it be in camps for internally displaced [Syrians] or sleeping in schools. There are people living in unfinished buildings and bombed out buildings – these are the people that have no place to go and no place to hide. We have seen that there are substandard living conditions for Syrians who have also fled into neighboring countries. To a certain extent, if not in large part, that’s simply because of the overwhelming influx of these refugees to neighboring areas. This is a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. All countries that are taking in refugees are shouldering an enormous burden.
But the plight of Syrians still trapped in Syria is even worse, and I’d say there’s not one particular area that needs extra attention so much as all of the areas where civilians are trapped. The international community should be trying to find ways to develop more humanitarian access corridors to get aid in, to ensure that people have enough to eat, to ensure that they have medicine and shelter. They need to ensure that they can at least flee the immediate areas of airstrikes where the actual combat is taking place.
Syria Deeply: Finally, what are the biggest challenges when it comes to documenting the humanitarian impact of the ongoing violence in Syria?
Letta Tayler: The biggest challenge for groups – this includes Human Rights Watch – is, of course, access because many areas of Syria and Iraq are now too dangerous for us to access. So, clearly that’s one of the biggest challenges.
When I was in Turkey on the Syrian border, many Syrian Kurds offered to take me from Turkey into Kobani [in Syria]. They said it was completely safe to sneak across the border at the time, although they were closed to media [and rights groups]. Many people thought it was perfectly safe – this was maybe ten days after the YPG took Tal Abyad [from ISIS]. Then, of course, on June 25, ISIS attacked Kobani. So there’s always the issue of how to get in and out in order to document what’s going on on-the-ground.
That’s our main challenge. We have to do a lot of work remotely and speak to recently arrived refugees in order to get much of our information about what’s going on.
Clearly, with social media we have more access than we would have in another era, but it can be truly daunting to try to get the hard facts on the ground at times. Of course, we have to do it and we find ways.
If I can, I’d like to add something about the ISIS attack on Kobani on June 25. The estimated number of the dead is 233 to 262. At least 270 were wounded, many of them seriously as a result of bullet wounds. Many of those killed were elderly, children and women. ISIS appears to have spared the very oldest and the very youngest in some cases. I interviewed a family who saw 11 members killed in three adjacent homes, including a woman holding an infant in her arms. So, this is what ISIS was doing in Kobani on June 25. That same week armed militants attacked civilian targets in Tunisia, France and Kuwait, and the world’s attention was understandably focused on these horrendous attacks. Yet, far less understandably in my view, the attack on Kobani went largely unnoticed, even though it killed more than three times as many innocent civilians than the attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait combined.
What I want to say is that the world has tragically become accustomed to slaughters in countries such as Syria and Iraq. It’s understandable that the world is horrified when such attacks take place in areas outside of war zones, in areas such as Tunisia, France and Kuwait. But our attention should be just as much focused on slaughters such as the one in Kobani. The grief of those who lost loved ones in Kobani is no less acute, and the cycle of violence and revenge will continue unless attacks like these are stopped.
Photos courtesy of Ahmad al-Bahri