The violence in Syria appears to be worsening, as Syrian troops renewed their attacks on protesters in the key opposition city of Homs and military defectors launched one of the largest attacks yet on government forces. And a new report provides evidence from defectors that Syrian forces are being ordered to use deadly force against unarmed civilian protesters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based watchdog with a network of contacts in Syria, says that Syrian forces opened fire on protesters, killing one, after traditional Friday prayers today in the city of Homs, writes the Associated Press. The group says that 200,000 people took to the streets in Homs to protest the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. AP notes that it could not confirm the report, due to Syria's ban on foreign journalists.
But the opposition has also stepped up violence, as the number of military defectors increases. The New York Times reports that, according to the Observatory, defectors killed 27 Syrian troops around the city of Daraa, in an apparently coordinated assault on sites inside and outside the city. If true, the Thursday morning attack would be one of the largest and most sophisticated yet by the opposition against Syrian forces.
The Observatory did not give any information about the defectors' casualties in the attack. The Times adds that residents living in the city have confirmed fighting between armed groups in the area, with the Syrian forces suffering casualties. The Observatory has reported four attacks against government forces this week, including an attack on Wednesday that left eight Syrian troops dead.
The attacks come the same week that the UN revised its estimates of the death toll in the Syrian conflict upwards to 5,000. UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said that she recommends that the UN Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court to investigate the regime for war crimes.
In addition, Human Right Watch released a new report Thursday, "By All Means Necessary." Based on interviews with Syrian military defectors, it detailed orders they were given to use deadly force and torture against Syrian unarmed protesters. HRW found that "military commanders and officials in the intelligence agencies gave both direct and standing orders to use lethal force against the protesters," citing 20 specific instances in the report, and said senior Syrian officials, including President Assad, bear responsibility for the abuses committed by their subordinates.
HRW writes that all the defectors reported being under standing orders to “stop the protests at any cost” and “by all means necessary,” and often were explicitly ordered to use lethal force against protesters. A soldier recounted one such incident in which troops were told to shoot at protesters:
On August 27 we were near a police hospital in Harasta. About 1,500 protesters came there. They requested the release of an injured protester who was inside the hospital. They held olive branches. They had no arms. There were 35 army soldiers and about 50 mukhabarat [intelligence] personnel at the checkpoint. We also had a jeep with a mounted machine-gun. When the protesters were less than 100 meters away, we opened fire. We had previously received the orders to do so from [Brigadier General Talal Makhlouf]. Five protesters were hit, and I believe two of them died.
A sniper deployed in May near the key opposition city of Homs said that soldiers were given quotas of casualties they should inflict. "During the protests, the commanders gave us a specific number, or a percentage, of protesters who should be liquidated. For 5,000 protesters, for example, the target would be 15-20 people," he said.
Another defector, a soldier sent to suppress protests in Douma in April, said "At one point we killed eight people in 15 minutes. The protesters were unarmed. They didn’t even have rocks! That’s when I decided to defect."
The report is based on interviews HRW conducted with 63 defectors from Syrian military and intelligence agencies between May and November 2011. Interviewees included troops deployed all over the country, including the flashpoints of Damascus, Daraa, and Homs, and their positions ranged from conscripted soldier to lieutenant colonel.