Amid widening Syria violence, a new war-crimes charge

Syrian refugees say Assad's soldiers are forcing women and children to march in front of advancing tanks to prevent rebels from opening fire. International law forbids the use of human shields.

Local Coordination Committees in Syria/AP
In this citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and taken on Saturday, Syrians chant slogans and wave Syrian revolutionary flags during a demonstration in Daraa, Syria.

Syrian security forces have started using civilians as human shields to prevent attacks by Syrian rebels, according to refugees. The tactic appears to have dissuaded at least some rebels from opening fire, but a prominent human rights group has pointed to it as yet another war crime committed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Refugees fleeing Syria's northern Idlib province gave the Monitor detailed eyewitness accounts of numerous human shield incidents – many involving women and young children – in recent weeks. They described seeing Syrian soldiers forcing children to march in front of their tanks as government forces advanced into rebel strongholds.

In one instance, when loyalists advanced on the hamlet of Shaturiya, a few miles from Janudieh, a construction worker who had fled to a nearby hilltop saw the troops putting small groups of women and children in front of the approaching tanks.

His son, a 13-year-old who stayed behind in the village when his father fled, was one of those forced to serve as a human shield, according to both of them. The son, slender-framed and matter-of-fact, said he was forced to stand in front of the tanks in the village "for almost six hours, until around midday, without touching food and water."

When the Army left town, the father came back, took his wife and children and went directly for the border. The family now lives in the Turkish refugee camp of Yayladağı. They are among the record 24,000 Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey, raising the regional stakes for a solution to the Syria violence.

Brutal tactics ahead of April 10 cease-fire

The testimonies regarding Syria's use of human shields – provided to the Monitor by eight individual refugees interviewed in the city of Anyakya and in refugee camps in Turkey within days of their fleeing – painted a picture of a regime crackdown on its own population that appears to be growing more brutal by the day.

The accounts of these eight refugees are supported by a Human Rights Watch report that documents similar tales, some corroborated by video, which together suggest the practice has become more widespread in recent months.

With an April 10 deadline for a cease-fire just hours away, the regime's relentless shelling of residential neighborhoods, its deliberate targeting of civilians, and its attacks on unarmed protesters appear to be continuing.

The Syrian authorities said yesterday they would not withdraw without written guarantees from opposition fighters that they will lay down their arms. Indeed, Syrian forces opened fire on a refugee camp on the Turkish side of the border on Monday, wounding three persons and enraging the Turkish government.

In its report, Human Rights Watch said the Syrian regime's use of human shields "is yet another reason why the UN Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court."

Ole Solvang, the Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote the report, said the use of human shields amounted to "a serious violation of international law." The practice is prohibited under the Geneva Convention.

"The use of human shields is a war crime and those responsible should be held accountable," Mr. Solvang said.

HRW also issued another report today documenting more than a dozen incidents of summary executions, in which Syrian forces killed at least 101 civilians and wounded or captured rebels.

'I saw them forcing women to walk in front of tanks'

In early March, government forces began pouring into the restive Idlib province, where rebels had found refuge in the mountainous Jabal al-Zawiyeh region, a cluster of small, difficult-to-reach villages southwest of the provincial capital.

Solvang said the regime appeared to begin using human shields here in response to the rebels use of roadside bombs.

As the Syrian government forces advanced into their villages in mid-March, residents said their fellow villagers were forced to march in front of the advancing armor columns.

Two Syrian refugees from the village of Janudieh said that when Syrian tanks entered their village on March 11, the troops smashed up local shops and the village pharmacy. Groups of local villagers, mostly women and children since the men had mostly fled to avoid arrest, marched alongside tanks, they said.

"I saw them forcing women and children to walk in front of the advancing tanks," said one of the two refugees, who was a high school teacher in the village. He declined to give his name out of fear of his safety, like most of the individuals interviewed for this article.

His 21-year-old friend, a private who defected from the Syrian Army who gave his name as Nour, said he, too, witnessed the incident. He spoke from his hospital bed, with a foot-long wound across his abdomen, which he said he suffered later that same day.

Tawfik Kalash, a young lieutenant who defected from the Army, fled Janudieh early in the morning when he heard the government tanks were approaching. On his way out of town, he said he saw a soldier forcing a woman from his village to climb on top of a tank.

"Once they saw there were no rebel fighters around, the troops let the civilian go," he said.

Rebel: 'We had to stop and leave'

Ghassan Alewi, a barber from Silat al-Zuhur in the Jabal el-Zawiyah region, was sheltering in the nearby village of al-Lij when the regime forces moved in in mid-March. Before trying to get back to his house, he saw the soldiers grab some women who were passing by and put them in front of the advancing troops. 

"If they are looking for a certain Mohammed, for example, they would take his wife,"  Mr. Alewi said.

The tough regime tactic appears to have worked. Abu Zhaki, a rebel commander in Jabal el-Zawiyeh, said that in mid-March he was with his men in the village of Ayn Larouz when government forces came. The rebels engaged them, but soon had to stop.

"During the fighting, we saw the soldiers gathering civilians in front of them. We had to stop and leave," he said.

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