Massive War Crimes: Syrian Regime Tortured, Starved, Murdered 11,000 Prisoners

(By Juan Cole)

A new report by three respected jurists argues that photographic evidence provided by a defector from the Syrian police proves systematic torture and summary execution of thousands of prisoners by the Baath regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. Ian Black at the Guardian broke the story .

The authors of the report write,

“The inquiry team was mandated to determine the credibility of a defector from Syria whose occupation prior to his defection was in the service of the military police of the Syrian government . . . in that role it fell to him to photograph scenes of crimes. With the onset of the civil war the nature of his occupation changed. His duties, and those of his colleagues, now were to photograph and document the bodies of those brought from their places of detention to a military hospital.

The bodies he photographed since the civil war began, showed signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing. The defector who was codenamed “Caesar” by the inquiry team had, during the course of his work, smuggled out some tens of thousands of images of corpses so photographed by his colleagues and himself.

The authors are Professor David Crane, (brought charges against President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court),Geoffrey Nice (who prosecuted former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic); and Desmond de Silva, a former chief prosecutor in Sierra Leone.

“Caesar” did not see the torture or executions himself, but photographed the bodies afterward. The report explains, “The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold: First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out.”

That is to say, the Baath officials who ordered these 11,000 executions of prisoners of war were afraid that prison guards would take bribes to release the prisoners and just report them dead. The photographs were to prove to their superiors that they had actually followed through and polished the prisoner off. They were an anti-fraud measure.

The authors find that this bureaucratic rationale for the photographing, and the sophisticated numbering system used to keep track of the bodies, are strong evidence on the face of it that the regime ordered the deaths. Likewise, the assembly-line character of the photography work, with 50 bodies a day recorded, points to a systematic regime practice.

They write, “In the view of the inquiry team the need to photograph those who were killed is a strong pointer to the fact that the killings were systematic, ordered, and directed from above.”

Many of the bodies showed signs of external frontal trauma. The photographs do not show internal injuries or injuries to the back of the body. They weren’t autopsy or forensic photos. They were just proof of death for the banal evil bureaucracy.

The authors explain:

“The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, “Caesar’s” function being to photograph the corpses. He informed the inquiry team that there could be as many as fifty (50) bodies a day to photograph which required fifteen to thirty minutes of work per corpse.”

The regime appears to have denied nutrition to many of the prisoners, who were skin and bones by the time they were executed, and their emaciated corpses often show signs of torture as well:

“These photographs also included those who appeared to have been starved to death, some with signs of torture prior to death. Indeed, there were marks of beatings and burns even upon those emaciated bodies. In some cases the bodies had no eyes.”

They scrutinized in detail over 800 of the bodies photographed. Most were men between the ages of 20 and 40. Nearly half, or 42%, were emaciated. Clear signs of inflicted trauma were visible on 1/5 of the bodies. Equivocal signs of trauma were present in another third of cases.
Although many had rope marks around the neck, they weren’t hanged but rather the kind of ligature marks present indicate that they were strangled. The authors think it possible that the strangulation began as part of the interrogation, as a form of torture.

A significant minority had been bound hand and foot with ligature marks showing on wrists, and beaten with rods.

Their youth made it highly unlikely that any of these symptoms or indeed their deaths were natural.

It should also be admitted that the rebel forces have also been guilty of torture, summary executions and ethnic cleansing of minorities. Given their limited resources, however, it is unlikely that they have committed such crimes on the same scale as the Baath regime, which has a long-standing bureaucracy that was clearly mobilized for the mass killings.

It seems clear that President Bashar al-Assad and other high officials of the Baath regime in Syria ought to be charged with war crimes or perhaps more, crimes against humanity (given the apparent systematicity of these abuses). Unfortunately the International Criminal Court only has jurisdiction over countries that have signed the Rome Statute (Syria has not). The only other way for the court to intervene is if the UN Security Council forwards a case to it, as happened with Muammar and Saif Gaddafi in Libya. So far Russia appears determined to run interference for the regime. One can only hope that this extensive proof of organized mass torture and summary execution will give Russia and Iran pause in their effort to ensure Bashar remains in power. If you back to the hilt a war criminal, some of the crime sticks to you.

The full report is here.

Related video

AFP reports on “Torture in Syria”

51 Responses

  1. Creating sadness, pain, and suffering is the right of the Islamic republic, either in Syria or in Iran as a sovereign state and the leader of Islam and with the power of veto from Russia . This right must be taken away.

    • The Russian Federation has veto power on whether to take away their Security Council veto – so don’t hold your breath.

      The other option is to replace the United Nations with a more effective international policing body.

      The Korean War was defended by U.N. forces only because Russia staged a “walkout” and boycotted the Security Council vote on military intervention.

    • I saw this movie when it was first released. It should have ended with “Mission Accomplished.” (Or is it OK if you’re a Sunni?)

    • Air strikes against Syria, including the presidential palace and bunkers, could change their minds about negotiating peace.
      What else can be done at this point? More “hand wringing” and statements about how horrible it is while thousands aree dieing?

      • How about stopping the funding of the jihadists fighting to overthrow Syria?

    • Syria is not an Islamic republic. Its political basis is Ba’athist; the Ba’ath Party was/is (if it still exists in any real form) secular, socialist and pluralist.

  2. The proxy war in Syria is descending into total barbarism and violence by both sides. Instead of playing geopolitical games over the lives of millions of people it is time for the “international community” to come together and put an end to this carnage. The West, the Saudis, the Turks and the Qataris have been backing the terrorists as a part of the plan to weaken Iran and the Hezbollah, while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have been sending weapons, funds and fighters to fight on the side of the government. There is evidence that despite denial and apparent change of heart, Turkey is still arming the jihadists. link to

    Even if the Geneva Conference takes place, despite the debacle of finally inviting Iran and then de-inviting Iran the following day under US pressure, and some sort of a communiqué is cobbled together, there is no guarantee that it will have any effect on the ground. The Syrian National Coalition, which has agreed to attend the conference under the threats that all funding to it would be cut off if it didn’t, represents only a small part of the opposition, while the real fighting is being carried out by the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, which are affiliated to the Al-Qaeda. All sides should realize that sometimes “my enemy’s enemy is also my enemy.” What is really needed is for the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are the main players in this deadly game to get together and force both sides to declare a ceasefire, followed by elections under international supervision. Otherwise, the carnage will continue and will spread.

    • “The proxy war in Syria is descending into total barbarism and violence by both sides. Instead of playing geopolitical games over the lives of millions of people it is time for the “international community” to come together and put an end to this carnage.”

      I think I agree with your conclusion, or the liberal and humane part of me does anyway. But we’ve become cautious regarding specifically American military interventions in that region. We weary of the burdens inherent in the blow-back from neoconservative doctrine and the unhealthy nature of our relationship with Israel. For most of us probably the idea of more boots on the ground in Syria after all that has happened seems obscene; it’s as if we can not benefit from experience and are somehow doomed never to emerge from it.

      You know both worlds. Have you anything to offer us which might benefit all concerned?

      • Hunter, I was not suggesting any military action. What I meant was that instead of all this grandstanding and conferences with representatives of 40 nations most of whom have nothing to do with Syria, the main players should get together and reach a deal to put an end to all the bloodshed, similar to the deal that was reached over Syria’s chemical weapons. Watching the first day of the conference in Montreux leads one to believe that neither side really means business. It is simply a platform for putting more pressure on Assad to resign.

        • Farhang, thanks for the clarification. I had misunderstood.

          After a tiny introduction I will ask you a question.

          My personal interest is with the American role in the region since roughly 1967. That role and its spin-offs have been catastrophic for almost everyone concerned including Israel which has been far too clever to understand her own interests or to allow us to determine them for her.

          As everything we touch there seems foredestined to fail, it’s doubtful that the Syrian Civil War with all its factions and obscure motivations can be ‘jawboned’ by Americans into an enduring settlement any more readily than Iraq and Afghanistan have been.

          On the other hand can’t we see that the contradiction of American military involvement to bring peace to the country will lead to nothing but more intense and prolonged violence?

          Given the American National catastrophe in your region, don’t we need a fundamental reassessment of our interests there and of the militarization of our foreign policy in the developing world generally?

          If we have legitimate interests there which can not be served by a 21st century version of “showing the flag” in the region once in a while, I am unaware of them.

          I would appreciate it if you would suggest a few principles for a new American foreign policy in the region which would meet the tests of legitimacy and benefit all concerned.

    • “the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are the main players in this deadly game”

      Are there no Baathists in Syria? Are there no Syrian rebels?

      What is going on in Syria is, and has always been, mainly about the Syrians. The presence of backing by foreign powers does not make the war mainly about them.

      • Joe, you are absolutely right. I thought that it was a given that the Syrian sides, both the government and the opposition, will also be involved in the final settlement. Otherwise, it makes no sense.

      • This is radical! We’ve been told all these years by our dear friend and ally in the region not to speak to terrorists. And she has also been so kind as to point them out for our convenience.

  3. I do not recall historical cases of leaders outside of established democracies stepping down gallantly rather than using all available means to stay in power. There are cases where the leadership has fled, usually when provided a very nice destination and confronted with the likelihood of defeat by a unified opposition. That is, no one plays by the rules when the alternative is personal ruin. So worsening of civil war does not lead me to conclusions about the responsibilities of the parties, except that they are not great or courageous thinkers.

    Perhaps international institutions should always ensure the security of leaders however bad who defer to international control; and guarantee the interests of all parties under international surrogate government, and the segregation and support of groups in conflict, and the demilitarization of warring factions. No doubt it has been US military adventurism and arm-twisting of the UN which has prevented the development and acceptance of such institutions of conflict resolution. The US has allegedly threatened to militarily attack the Hague if it prosecutes US personnel for war crimes. Certainly it has shown no interest or capacity in serving as peacemaker, nor in promoting its alleged ideals abroad.

  4. link to

    What are your thoughts on Craig’s response to this report (see later half of his article)? I tend to side with Craig on this one, and considering all the lies and fabrications produced by the opposition, media, and their western allies, it’s extremely difficult to gain any understanding in this conflict of who’s doing what.

    As for my opinion, when the guns stop blazing, the whole lot should be put on trials – by their peers – from the regime to the rebels.

    • You will have to judge it by its logic and the credentials of its authors. We don’t get anywhere casting aspersions on the Quataris. As far as I can see they just funded it. It was a London law firm which organized it.

      We really ought to get on the right subject. And that’s what the great powers ought to do about it and why.

      • You mean the former British Empire, and the USA, who specifically targeted, tortured and murdered 70,000 civilians in Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, and has helped kill millions of people in the Middle East since 1979 alone?

        Those types of countries?

        I think they need to focus on their own war criminals and, as the UN recommended, stop planning and funding the slaughter in Syria right now, which is part of their operation to weaken an Iranian ally before moving on to attacking Iran.

        They don’t hide these plans. They are empire-building, neo-colonial style. The USA has bases in virtually every Mid Eastern country except Syria and Iran. It’s not a coincidence that the West constantly lies to create pretexts to invade and attack these countries, but mentions nothing about their insane dictatorial allies like the child torturers of Bahrain and the terror supporters of Saudi Arabia. The “great powers” just want control of Mid East oil. This has been planned by the USA since 1945. US and UK started working for regime change in Syria in 1957, right after they overthrew Iran’s democratic parliament, installed a king into absolute power, and took 40% each of Iran’s oil. You are a fool if you think the “great powers” have humanitarian motives.

        When resources were discovered on Native American lands that the USA promised the natives could keep, the USA then cleansed the natives from the land and took it for “national security”. The USA has simply moved to doing this on a global scale.

        The “great powers” need to prosecute their own war criminals and stop committing crimes. That’s what would help bring about peace.

        • Rob,

          Do I mean the U.S? Hell no! I want us out of there. I want the realists’ off-shore policy.

          I mean those members of the international community capable of acting effectively in a situation like this. Who might you prefer? I don’t give a damn so long as the carnage stops.

          Farhang uses the term ‘international community’. Does it suit you? If not, define it any way you like. We’ll let you designate the intervenors.

          It’s fine if you’re against any and all interventions for humanitarian purposes. That’s a defensible position on some sort of ideological grounds I’m sure. Perhaps you can explain it.

          But it doesn’t do anything at all for the Syrians. Are you really okay with that?

        • An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”[1]), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument.

          link to

  5. Anwar

    His day will come. How many have Bush, Blair, Cheney & rest of #NATO’s leaders murdered in Afghanistan Yemen Syria Libya Somalia ?

  6. The brutality of this was goes without saying on both side. You don’t need any pictures or youtube video to realize that this conflict is perceived to be a zero sum gain on either side.

    I think leadership of any country that is not working toward an immediate ceasefire in this conflict should be investigated for war crime. Iran, Russia and China are indeed supporting the government but that in it of itself is not what this war is raging on. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their allies are trying to use the miseries of the Syria to maintain their totalitarian grip on power and score political gains against their perceived opponents. I think any reasonable outcome should involve accountability for the government and the supporters of the rebels.

    • The massacre of 30,000 by Assad’s forces at Hama in 1982 was seen as the major ralllying point of those supporting the Free Syrian Army. The ongoing torture and kilings by Assad’s security services since 1982 have led to the increase in rebel activity that exists to the present.

      The Free Syrian Army enjoys the vast support of the Syrian-American community, particularly Sunni Muslims, who have donated millions through the Syrian Support Group (SSG). The SSG has also been funded by the U.S. State Department and been publicly praised by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford.

  7. I don’t understand US policy vis Syria and would appreciate some interpretation of Washington’s goals and interests.
    I assume Washington’s Syria policy is authored in Tel Aviv. Is this right? Does Riyadh have much say in Washington these days as it did when Bandar “Bush” was resident ? Is Prince Bandar personally running the Saudi side of the Syria war? Is his star likely to fall if the anti-government forces are crushed, or would he be immune from any fallout?
    Why is Bandar so interested? Religion? Need for a hobby?
    Saudi national interest in Syria is not obvious to me. Somebody please clue me.
    Wouldn’t US/Israel prefer the war to rage long and bloody to allow all sides to be weakened, as was US policy during the Iran/Iraq war?
    I don’t see how a negotiated settlement would be in the interest of US/Israel before a whole lot more blood has been spilled, but I’d like to hear other, less cynical views.

    It would seem to be in the Pentagon’s interest ( job security ) to have yet another failed state in SW Asia. What are they supposed to do with themselves after the Afghan draw down or exit or whatever the marketing people at Pentagon call it?
    I can’t believe the boys at Pentagon have lost their appetite for costly, regionally destabilizing opportunities for defeat. There may be elements at P. who are more sensible, but those few are going against their institutional culture.
    Can I believe that US policy seems confused because nobody knows what they want to do and the US has no good moves available? I don’t see why Russia is so invested, except for sunk costs, and the port at Tartus. Maybe that’s enough for them. Is Iran invested because they fear a Sunni domino effect? What is Iran’s interest? Turkey cares because they will have a long term unstable neighbor, but does Turkey care who winds up running Syria as long as Syria is stable from Turkey’s point of view? Turkey has the most to lose, both long and short term, but who is their dog in this fight? Besides, isn’t Turkey having leadership problems?
    Is Turkey in a position to make much difference in Syria?
    Can Turkey manage to get the other players together?
    There is sure a lot I don’t know when it comes to Syria.
    Poor Syria.

      • Israel has no declared policy as to “taking sides” in the conflict, however several policy considerations have been discussed:

        (1) seeing Assad deposed will interfere with the Iran-Hezbollah weapons supply line that threatens Israel – so the rebels in Syria should be supported;

        (2) Assad has kept a fairly peaceful border with Israel on the Golan Heights and rebel control of that area could conceivably endanger such calm;

        (3) Gen. Salim Idris – head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army – made claims last spring that the civil war has destabilized the internal security of Syria and allowed outside parties to freely enter Syrian territory – Idris staed that the Mossad had agents within Syria attempting to gather evidence of illegal chemical weapons use to provide to the U.S. government to incite further American action.

        • We shouldn’t expect much but short term self-interest from that quarter. When we search for principled behavior they respond by pointing out their typhoon aid to the Philippines.

    • This theory that the United States pursues a policy of destabilization in the MENA region runs contrary to the historical record. The US has always worked to promote stability as its main foreign policy goal there, even at the expense of other interests. For example, backing the military dictatorship in Egypt during the Cold War, or its relationship with the House of Saud. What country would desire instability in the region where its energy supplies come from?

      I think the error comes in looking at the outcome of the Iraq War and concluding that it must have been the plan all along, as opposed to a debacle that the Bush administration unleashed and couldn’t control.

      It’s true, the Obama administration has downgraded stability as a goal, and elevated other considerations like reform, out of a combination of principle and a recognition that the old order is inevitably changing, but that doesn’t mean they are actively setting out to promote instability. Remember, their initial diplomatic stance towards Syria upon taking office was to pursue a diplomatic thaw with Assad, and it was only after the Arab Spring protests and their suppression that the policy changed.

      Look at the oil price spike that was set off by the Libyan Civil War. Would you “instability” in the corner office of the company that delivers your heating oil?

      • “This theory that the United States pursues a policy of destabilization in the MENA region runs contrary to the historical record.”

        That’s my impression too, though it’s not been the goal of the Israelis while we’ve been rampaging through the region on their behalf. They were on the ground massaging the Kurds of Iraq and there is talk of partitioning Syria too. They will be supporting whomever wants that. In both cases their rationale is to weaken a traditional enemy. They also are very fond of their great friend and ally’s tendency to bomb them back into the stone age for the same reason. It’s the suppressed central tenet of neoconservatism. One is known by his friends.

  8. This is almost 1/6th as bad as the USA’s operation Phoenix in Vietnam, for which the USA specifically targeted, tortured, and murdered 70,000 civilians, and tortured or disappeared a total of 80,000.

    Before venturing out, the USA should go ahead and get the prosecutions of its war criminals involved in these and its much worse crimes going, then think about recognizing the ICC, then, once it gains some international credibility and respect, think about helping other countries prosecute war criminals, and in actual trials, not the predetermined farces the US put on with Milosevic and Hussein, where they wouldn’t let Hussein be tried for gassing the Iranians and Kurds because US complicity would have been brought up.

    And this is of course not to mention that the US started training proxy terrorist armies to destabilize and overthrow Syria in 2007, and Obama continued the plans verbatim.

    Over 100,000 US-backed deaths and counting.

    • Go to the ICC website and you will see the list of ICC prosecutions is mainly limited to sub-Saharan African leaders and warlords.

      Prior to the ICC the international community relied upon ad hoc tribunals – such as Nuremberg – to mete out justice where the facts warranted.

      The U.S. and other major powers are fearful that their own citizens may face such an international tribunal.

  9. Thank you for your post, Professor Cole. I’d like to also bring the attention of you and your readers to this CS Monitor piece, which raises some valid reasons to view the report with some skepticism: link to

  10. The forensic report described by Professor Cole may cover only a part of the country and represent but the tip of the iceberg.

  11. Syria’s descent into gang level violence could have been and was forecast as a probable result of international inaction. Arguments that worse would come by doing nothing, clouded by what may now be seen rather temporary political positioning, were not as effectively made as they should have been to avoid the present.

    In the interest of fairness, without which we cannot claim to be impartial or just, I would like Dr. Cole to finally comment citing evidence his conclusion why he has rejected the claims in this and similar previous stories:

    link to

    Yes it is from Russia Times, but the opinion is by a former UN weapons inspector. As far as I am aware, countering arguments, confused by certainty that Assad forces performed gas or biological attacks, have relied on assertions.

  12. Presume, arguendo, that the report from London is highly professional, unbiased and accurate. What positions do we take on Mr. Jahanpour’s forthright challenge found in the first two sentences of his post? It could not be more direct and certainly deserves thoughtful responses.

    Most of us appear to be Americans. As a nation we have an immense responsibility to get this right. Our overall track record in that region is miserable. And quite a few if not most of the participants here know a lot about the history of the Middle East.

    How would you like to be Barack Obama just now?

    • I think it grossly underestimates the involvement of Syrians in Syrian politics and civil war by looking at it purely through the lens of international affairs.

      • What conclusion do you draw? Perhaps it’s my background, but what I did see was an evaluation of the evidentiary quality of the smuggled photographs against the background of war crimes prosecutions.

  13. This result of lousy Obama deailing with the terrorest Bashar Al Asad and his group.
    Also Obamas red line about chemicals only means any think asad doing below that is no problem , so we see this 55000 picture for hunger and death at Asad illegal prisons and another millions of illegal war against millions of civilians asking for freedom only.

  14. Just a couple of things:
    First, if I want the real skinny on what’s happening in the ME, I come here.
    Assad ain’t going to bargain away his position. I don’t think his Stalinist tendencies have been accounted for. I think he’s willing to die or stay in power. Assad and Kerry are natural enemies but maybe Kerry can tummy rub him in a back room?
    The rebellion wasn’t supported by the majority of the people so it’s either destined to fail or end with another dictator in charge. If Kerry wins, it’s another dictator. A friendly dictator could obtain the tools required to keep the rabble in line.
    Interventionists bear responsibility also. “Out by Xmas” was bull. Anyone with half a brain knew Assad was no paper tiger. Probably tougher than his old man who was a really mean guy.

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