This report argues that the grossly careless and malicious destruction and appropriation of civilian property and the forcible displacement and transfer of civilian population taking place in Syria since March 2011 amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined by international humanitarian law.
It further argues that both types of crime appear to be part of a systematic policy of sectarian cleansing being carried out in certain parts of the country.
The policy appears to be driven by a combination of mafia-style war profiteering linked to the inner circle of the Syrian regime and a Shiatisation programme pushed and financed by the Iranian regime.
The report focuses on certain parts of Syria, such as Homs and Damascus, and argues that the aim of destroying and reconstructing these areas is to create loyalist zones and strategic military corridors. The task of conquering and securing them was assigned primarily to sectarian, Iranian-controlled militias (Hezbollah Lebanon, Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, etc.), which were seen as more reliable and better organised than the regular Syrian army.
The ultimate aim of this scheme, which arguably amounts to sectarian cleansing and to a foreign occupation, appears to be securing the Damascus–Homs–Coast corridor along the Lebanese border in order to both provide a geographical and demographic continuity of regime-held areas and secure arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, while at the same time cutting off those of the rebels coming from or through eastern Lebanon.
Indeed, the main reason behind the Iranian regime’s uncompromising determination to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime and take over control at any cost is to maintain its ability to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria. This will ensure maintaining a strong deterrent against any possible Israeli and/or Western attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This ‘line of defence’ is meant to secure the Iranian regime’s survival. If the Assad regime falls, Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah are likely to stop and Hezbollah would no longer be the threatening deterrence against Israel that it is now.
The Iranian regime would therefore feel more vulnerable and would not be able to negotiate from a strong position during nuclear talks with Western powers, as it is doing now. It may even have to give up its nuclear dreams once and for all. That is why Iran has been mobilising all available resources (human, economic, military) to achieve the strategic aim of building nuclear bombs without fearing a massive military retaliation on its soil.
The authors review previous reports documenting the destruction in Syria, including those produced by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar), and conclude that further research is needed to contextualise the figures and maps used in such reports against reliable news reports and witness statements about what was happening at the time and in the attacks’ aftermath. This is necessary to establish who the perpetrators were and whether or not the destruction was justified by the ‘necessities’ of the war as defined by international law.
They also review reports on planned demolitions, including a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013.” The authors agree with HRW’s finding that the cases of demolition documented in the report were in violation of international humanitarian law because they either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians.
However, the authors argue that the demolitions examined by HRW and other similar cases are linked to the armed conflict in two other ways (not just collective punishment and disproportionate harm).
Firstly, the targeting and destruction of certain areas appears to have been intended to not only punish the communities supporting the revolution or the armed rebels, the majority of which happened to be Sunni, but also to ‘cleanse’ those areas of all ‘unwanted elements’ and prevent them from returning home in the future. The result is changing both the political alliances and the demographic composition of those areas.
Secondly, at least in some areas, it appears that the war has been utilised as an excuse or a cover to implement long-term or pre-existing plans of sectarian cleansing and demographic change.
To achieve this double aim of cleansing rebel areas and implementing long-term plans of demographic change in those areas, destruction and demolitions had to be followed by ‘reconstruction’ projects.
To prove these claims, the report examines the Syrian regime’s policies and presidential decrees in recent years concerning ‘urban planning’ of ‘unauthorised’ residential housing areas. It shows that, in a number of cases, there had already been plans for ‘reconstructing’ the whole area well before the current conflict started.
For example, the demolitions in al-Mazzeh in Damascus appear to be a continuation of a long-standing plan of creating an ‘Iranian zone’ in the area similar to the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburb of Beirut (al-Dahiyeh). The plan was simply accelerated because of or under the cover of the war. And the Iranian embassy in Damascus appears to be at the heart of this plan.
The authors conclude that, in addition to the wanton destruction of civilian property (i.e. grossly careless and malicious), these urban planning schemes amount to an unlawful appropriation of civilian property not justified by military necessity, even though they took place in the context of the armed conflict.
Various Iranian officials appear to be implicated in these schemes, including the Iranian ambassador to Syria, the Iranian mediator in Homs known as Haji Fadi, Iranian businessmen and Sepah Pasdaran commanders with responsibilities in Syria. The main Iranian official that would be implicated is General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Sepah Qods, the foreign arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Sepah Pasdaran).
The report also examines media reports about the Syrian and the Iranian regimes buying – either directly or through agents – property en masse in Homs, Damascus and, to a lesser extent, in Aleppo. It also examines reports of ‘legally stealing’ property by falsifying official documents.
However, more concrete evidence is needed of fraudulent or coercive measures linked to the armed conflict that are allegedly being employed by the Iranian regime or its agents to acquire property in these areas.
More evidence is also needed to show that the practice has been widespread or systematic enough so as to reflect a state policy (or that of a de facto authority). Only then can it be said that these property purchases amount to unlawful appropriation of civilians’ or the enemy’s property tantamount to a war crime, as defined by international law.
The report then examines various ‘reconstruction’ projects being implemented by old-new mafias linked to the inner circles of the Syrian and Iranian regimes as part of these alleged schemes of sectarian cleansing.
Particular focus is given to Rami Makhlouf’s company Cham Holding, Iyad Ghazal’s Cartel Group, the Damascus and Homs City Councils, Sepah Pasdaran’s construction and engineering arm Khatam al-Anbia, as well as other Iranian cement and construction companies.
The authors argue that the ongoing war and the mass destruction it has brought about present a golden opportunity for many Iranian companies that already have contracts in Syria to expand their business there. The new market also presents an opportunity for Iran to not only evade international sanctions but to also consolidate its economic and political power in Syria.
In other words, such plans are more political than economic. They are based on the assumption that investments in Syria will, in the long term, give the investors or partners significant leverage in how the country is governed, even if the investments do not return financial profit in the short term.
The authors recommend that all the above-mentioned Iranian and Syrian entities involved in the construction business, as well as many others that have not been mentioned in this report, should be investigated. If any links are found to unlawful activity, such as using the war as a means or a cover to further dubious reconstruction projects, they should be sanctioned and their owners punished accordingly. This should include their role in facilitating, aiding, abetting or providing the means for the commission of the above-mentioned war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The report then examines two aspects of what appears to be a silent and slow demographic change taking place in Syria: the forced displacement of millions of Syrian civilians, most of whom happen to be Sunnis, and the importation and settlement of foreign nationals of Shia origin.
While it is no longer a secret that Shiatisation in Syria is on the rise, both on a popular and on a state policy levels, much of the coverage of such phenomena tends to be sectarian, conflating the religious and cultural with the political. The only issue that should concern us here is whether there is sufficient evidence to accuse the Syrian and the Iranian regimes of changing, or attempting to change, the demographic composition of certain parts of Syria using unlawful means.
In this regard, the authors examine reports about the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) appropriating land and property surrounding historic Sunni shrines and tombs and giving or selling them, along with the shrines, to Iranians, who then claim the sites belong to historic Shia personalities and build new structures on site. It also examines reports and rumours about the Syrian authorities’ granting or planning to grant Syrian citizenship to thousands of foreign Shias.
However, the population transfer prohibited under international law concerns civilians, not combatants. Furthermore, the majority of the Shia militiamen fighting in Syria are not Iranian nationals; they are mostly Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan. This means that, in the majority of these cases, Iran cannot in theory be accused of transferring its own civilian population to Syria. It is argued, however, that the Iranian authorities, particularly Sepah Pasdaran, exercise de facto authority over these Shia fighters.
In any case, more reliable evidence is needed to determine the truthfulness and scale of these alleged population transfer schemes. There are, however, enough indications and leads to warrant a systematic international investigation by specialised bodies into this serious issue.
While the violence and destruction committed by Syrian and Iranian regime forces and militias against civilians and civilian objects have been largely indiscriminate in many cases, especially in big cities, there is evidence that, at least in certain areas, they have had a sectarian character. And there are a number of reasons for this.
Soon after the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011, with an increasing number of regular army soldiers defecting and joining the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian and the Iranian regimes resorted to largely sectarian militias, both old and new, to fill this gap. Thus, even if the aim was political (to suppress mass popular protests), the discourse used to mobilise and recruit for these militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran was sectarian (protecting Alawis and Shia from Sunni fundamentalists and so on). It is no surprise, then, that many crimes committed by these militias were sectarian-motivated – at least in the minds of the militiamen – as evidenced by countless videos and comments posted by them on social media.
It is true that not all members of the Syrian National Defence Forces (NDF), known among Syrians as shabbiha, are Alawis, as they are often portrayed in Western or Syrian opposition media reports. In certain areas, however, such as Homs and south Damascus, the militias fighting alongside or on behalf on the regime have been largely Alawi or Shia. It is in these areas that most of the crimes that are the focus of this report occurred and continue to occur.
Mass destruction and demolitions were also often preceded, followed or accompanied by other, related crimes committed by Iranian-controlled militias, such as pillage and destroying or seizing the enemy’s property without that being demanded by the necessities of the war.
In this regard, the report highlights the role of the NDF, the paramilitary force which was created by Sepah Qods and the Syrian regime for the sole purpose of doing the “dirty work” of suppressing peaceful anti-regime protests at the beginning of the revolution in early 2011. As such, it can be safely argued that the NDF has been acting with a common “criminal purpose,” as defined by the Rome Statute, and that the highest levels of the Syrian regime, as well as Iranian and Hezbollah Lebanon commanders, were well aware of this criminal purpose and those criminal activities, but have done nothing to stop or punish them.
Furthermore, the Iranian regime, particularly Sepah Qods, played an essential role in creating, arming and training the NDF, which was modelled on the Iranian Basij force. This role, provided with knowledge and intent, amounts to “furthering the criminal activity or criminal purpose of the group,” according to Article 25 of the Rome Statute.
The authors therefore argue that Iranian commanders and leaders are also implicated in the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by these militias by way of their superior or command responsibility for these crimes. A detailed discussion of superior responsibility and the notion of ‘effective control’ – which is not limited to formal ranks or positions but encompasses both de jure and de facto command – is provided to support this claim.
The report concludes with a call to all concerned Syrian and international bodies, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in Geneva, as well as the US and the EU’s sanctions committees, to investigate the above-mentioned crimes and all their perpetrators and facilitators.
Naame Shaam particularly calls upon the ICC’s Prosecutor to initiate an investigation into these crimes of her own initiative (proprio motu) on the basis of this report and other information that the ICC has received in this regard.
The crimes discussed in this report clearly fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC, as the second chapter explains, and the Prosecutor should use the powers bestowed upon her by the Rome Statute to initiate an international investigation into them, even if this is vetoed by Russia and China in the Security Council.
Naame Shaam also appeals to the ICC Prosecutor to accept an offer made public in March 2015 by the chairman of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Mr. Paulo Pinhero said the Commission was “ready to share” names and details from its “secret lists” of suspects with any prosecution authorities preparing cases. The lists apparently include military and security commanders, the heads of detention facilities and commanders of insurgent groups. The aim of this move was reportedly to sidestep the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have prevented the issue being referred to the ICC for prosecution. The ICC Prosecutor should therefore demand to have access to these lists to assist an ICC investigation.
To assist such legal efforts, the second chapter of the report outlines the legal framework of investigating the types of crime that are the focus of this report in the Syrian context, with in-depth discussions of various relevant legal questions. These include the definitions of wanton and unlawful destruction or appropriation of civilian property and of forcible displacement or transfer of civilian population, and whether those committed in Syria amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity that fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC.
The report discusses various legal avenues available for trying those responsible for these crimes, and elaborates on the issue of whether the conflict in Syria should be treated as an international or non-international armed conflict, which had been discussed at length in a previous Naame Shaam report about the role of Iran in Syria.
The authors conclude that the ongoing war in Syria should be treated as an international armed conflict that involves a foreign occupation by the Iranian regime and its militias and a liberation struggle by the Syrian people against this foreign occupation.
Yet, even without it being recognised as such, international law governing armed conflicts should still apply to the Syrian case, particularly in light of the high unlikeliness that the Syrian and Iranian governments will ever be willing to initiate independent, impartial investigations and prosecutions that are not masquerades aimed at shielding the real culprits from criminal responsibility for the crimes in question.