In Syria, Assad's killers are more prolific than Islamic State's
By HUGH NAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: September 7, 2015
BEIRUT — President Bashar al-Assad's government has killed far more people in Syria this year than the Islamic State, monitoring organizations and analysts say, even as the extremist group grabs headlines with its shocking brutality.
Between January and July, Assad's military and pro-government militias killed 7,894 people, while the Islamic State killed 1,131, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain. In a single day last month, government airstrikes are said to have killed more than 100 people in a residential area of Douma, a suburb of the capital, Damascus.
"No human being should have to endure what Assad is putting us through," said Hassan Takuldin, 27, who witnessed the Douma attacks.
Government forces are responsible for many more of the estimated 250,000 deaths in the four-year-old conflict than are the Islamic State militants and rebel groups, analysts and monitoring groups say. The figures, they say, underscore how Assad's indiscriminate use of violence has empowered the Islamic State and other extremist groups and forced millions of Syrians to flee to neighboring countries and Europe.
"For all the Islamic State's horrendous brutality, we can't forget that the Assad regime has been the main source of death and destruction in Syria since 2011," said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "You can't solve the conflict unless you find a way to address this, which the world hasn't yet."
The conflict began in 2011 as a peaceful Arab Spring uprising that turned violent, many Syrians say, because of Assad's brutal response to unarmed demonstrations against his rule. But the Islamic State shot to world attention only a year ago as it rampaged across parts of Syria and Iraq. As the media spotlight shifted to the group's grisly beheadings and mass executions, Assad's forces continued to ravage entire neighborhoods and the lives of people who live in them.
The Syrian leader has increasingly relied on his air force — by far his most lethal weapon — as his military suffers huge losses to advancing rebels, analysts say. Assad now controls less than half of Syria's territory, even though no opposition group possesses air power. The government's Russian-supplied aircraft can fly practically unopposed over rebel-held areas to launch airstrikes, which include releasing barrel bombs, metal drums packed with explosives.
Rights organizations and analysts say that these air raids are tantamount to war crimes and serve a number of calculated goals. These include preventing the formation of local rebel-run authorities and making the population think twice about allowing insurgents into neighborhoods.
The air raids have leveled swaths of Douma, said Takuldin, who recalled the carnage of the attack on that day in August. After the attack, he said, once-bustling streets were littered with mangled bodies of men, women and children.
Assad, Takuldin said, "is killing my neighbors. He is killing my friends. He is killing my family."
During a 10-day period in August, air bombardments killed or wounded about 1,300 people in Douma and surrounding areas, according to figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another monitoring group based in Britain.
Abu Hamza Doumani, 35, a resident of Douma, said the attacks collapsed the home of his aunt, her husband, their daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren, trapping them under twisted rebar and shattered concrete.
None survived, he said.
"Where is the world? Who can save us from this?" Doumani said.
As government forces continue to lose territory to insurgents, the frequency of aerial attacks appears to be increasing. In July, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented nearly 7,000 government airstrikes conducted around Syria — the highest monthly number since the conflict began. Some of the areas that sustained the heaviest bombardments include the northwestern province of Idlib, which fell to rebel forces in recent months.
"These indiscriminate attacks have continued, but there aren't measures in place to protect civilians," said Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The rising death toll is fueling an exodus that has overwhelmed neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan with millions of Syrian refugees, who are increasingly streaming into Europe. For those still in Syria, the desperate circumstances appear to be benefiting al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist opposition groups, said Hassan Hassan, a Syria analyst and co-author of the book "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." The groups have attracted many followers as they continue to seize territory. In the process, they have overrun moderate, Western-backed rebel forces that were poorly armed and seen by many Syrians as ineffective against Assad's forces.
Analysts say the government attacks are indirectly hindering U.S.-led military initiatives against the Islamic State. A year of airstrikes by a coalition led by the United States has not stopped the group from expanding, and a U.S. plan to train and equip thousands of Syrians to fight the Islamic State has struggled to attract participants. For many Syrians, a key issue with those efforts is that they do not target Assad's forces, Hassan said.
"Most Syrians still consider Assad as the biggest criminal and their worst enemy," Hassan said. "And that means any initiative to fight the Islamic State, including the ones by the Americans, is bound to fail if rebels and Syrians in general see it as a diversion from fighting the Assad regime."
The Obama administration has long said it supports diplomacy to secure the eventual removal of Assad. But while U.S. and European officials view Assad as a key driver of Syria's chaos, they also express concern that his sudden fall from power could permit extremists to wreak even more havoc.
Yousef al-Boustany, 24, a Douma resident, said he wants the Syrian leader's immediate ouster. Assad's forces have besieged Douma for years, killing dozens of Boustany's family members and friends with indiscriminate bombings, he said.
"Assad is massacring us," he said. "We don't support the Islamic State, but if its fighters came here to save us, believe me, the people would welcome them with open arms."
Sam Alrefaie and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.