In war-torn Syria, tactic of targeting civilians is on the rise

Under international law, it's a war crime to target civilians in a war zone. That hasn't halted the tactic in Syria, where hundreds of civilians have died in attacks such as one Sunday at a bakery in Halfaya in a rebel stronghold.

Samer Al-Hamwi/Reuters
Syrian jets targeted a bakery in Halfaya on Sunday, killing dozens of civilians who were waiting for bread. A day later, the storefront is still full of bombed-out rubble.

The tactic employed increasingly in the Syrian conflict is particularly heinous and craven: Watch for shuttered bakeries in conflict-torn towns to reopen after receiving shipments of flour, and when the bread lines of the desperately hungry form, attack.

That scenario was repeated Sunday, in the Syrian town of Halfaya in the rebel-stronghold province of Hama, when a reopened bakery that had attracted hundreds of people seeking bread was bombed by government warplanes, according to news reports quoting local residents. Such attacks on spots that attract large numbers of civilians, such as bakeries, are a war crime under the 1949 Geneva Convention. Hundreds of Syrians have died in such attacks in a brutal civil war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since early 2011, mostly civilians. 

But it was not apparent that the United Nations-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, brought up the Halfaya attack or the tactic of bread-line targeting when he met Monday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Speaking with reporters at his Damascus hotel after his meeting, Mr. Brahimi said he had had the “honor” to meet with Mr. Assad and to share with him the perspectives of regional and world powers he has consulted with on the crisis.

Calling the Syrian conflict “worrying,” Brahimi said it was his hope that “all parties are in favor of a solution that draws Syrian people together.”

But in a video released Sunday by Syrian rebels and claiming to show the aftermath of the Halfaya bread-line bombing, a man is shown screaming at the camera, “Where is the world? Where is the outrage?” Locals claimed that more than 100 people were killed in the attack after Syrian jets fired missiles at the bakery, which had been without flour for at least a week.

Proving who is responsible for the rising attacks on groups of Syrian civilians is particularly difficult because independent sources on the ground, including foreign journalists, are few and far between. But human rights groups did report on nearly a dozen bakery attacks during fierce fighting in the city of Aleppo earlier this year that were assumed to have been carried out by government forces. 

Representatives of the Assad regime claim the bread-line attacks are carried out by rebel forces seeking to incite international rejection of the Syrian government. But one pro-Assad website seemed to acknowledge that the attacks are carried out by the regime when it said the dead were “terrorists” who were taking the bakery’s products for rebel forces.

According to Human Rights Watch, not only the military commanders ordering such attacks but also the pilots carrying them out are subject to punishment for committing war crimes. In a statement in August, when the targeting of civilian gatherings was mounting, the international rights organization released a statement noting that the Geneva Convention bars such tactics in its section defining minimum standards for treatment of civilians within a war zone.

American and other Western officials have tried to encourage Syrian officials and forces backing Assad to abandon the regime by publicly reminding them over the course of the nearly two-year-old conflict that perpetrators of war crimes will be held accountable for violations of international human rights.

Yet even as the Syrian conflict intensifies – the UN’s Brahimi had to reach Damascus over land from Lebanon because the capital’s airport road is the scene of intense fighting and too dangerous – it does not appear that regime supporters are abandoning Assad as quickly or in the numbers that Western powers hoped.

US and European officials continue to predict that Assad will be out of power within a matter of months, but at a Sunday press conference, the Syrian government’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, had a message for them: “Forget about this,” he said.

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