Amid a global pandemic, one of the largest and most devastating humanitarian crises of the 21st century rages on, stumbling into its 10th consecutive year in March. And as 60 Minutes reported this Sunday, the parties responsible for countless alleged war crimes, extensive human rights violations and brutal torture on its own civilians have yet to be held accountable by the international community.
The decades-long Syrian conflict began in 2011 as part of the larger Arab Spring movement that rippled across the Middle East and North Africa. Syrians took to the streets in January 2011 to protest the iron-fisted rule of the Bashar al-Assad regime, demand the release of political prisoners and call for democratic reform. What started as minor demonstrations transformed into large-scale uprisings in March of that year, after security forces opened fire and killed protestors in the southern city of Deraa. But instead of succeeding in its apparent attempts at silencing and suppressing, the Assad regime's violent response triggered national unrest, plunging the country into a civil war that has yet to be resolved. Since 2011, over 400,000 Syrians have been killed, more than five million have become refugees, six million are internally displaced, and almost 12 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, according to the World Bank and United Nations.
60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley produced five pieces on the conflict in Syria and have been covering the issue since 2014.
In a 2018 report "War Crime," 60 Minutes reported on a chemical warfare strike that the Syrian government was alleged to have used on its own people, airing never-before-seen footage of a nerve gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, a small farming town in northwestern Syria. Edmond Mulet, who led the investigation of chemical attacks in Syria for the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said airplanes flew over the town on April 4, 2017. Bombs were dropped at 6:30 a.m., killing over a hundred people and affecting over two hundred. Mainly women and children were struck. Poisonous gas overwhelmed their nervous systems, paralyzing lungs and seizing muscles. The images were graphic and difficult to watch.
"Some people were fainting...there were cases of trembling and convulsions, foam coming out of the respiratory tract and mouth," Mustafa Al-Haj Yousef, head of the volunteer search-and-rescue organization "White Helmets," told 60 Minutes. He counted the bodies of more than thirty children, "young children, three months, four months, five months, some two years old."
Yousef told 60 Minutes that warplanes bombed hospitals the day before the chemical attack, making it nearly impossible for doctors to treat the wounded. Despite the lack of access to resources and medical equipment, doctors and members of the White Helmets were able to help confirm that the gas used in the attack was sarin, a human-made chemical warfare agent that was outlawed by international law in 1997.
According to 60 Minutes reporting, the attack on Khan Shaykhun should not have been possible. By 2014, 1400 tons of poison were allegedly destroyed by the Syrian government, after the U.S. and Russia pushed for the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles after a sarin attack near Damascus left 1,400 dead. The Syrian government accused rebel forces of staging the 2017 Khan Shaykhun attack, but the UN's Mulet says the attack was verified to have come from the government itself.
"It's so difficult to produce, you need very sophisticated and big laboratories to do that," Mullet says. He says "The manipulation of the sarin is extremely complicated. It's extremely volatile. One single drop here right now would be killing everybody in this studio immediately… not anybody can do that."
In 2017, 60 Minutes broadcast "Wounds of War," a report on one of the biggest alleged war crimes committed by the Assad regime during the years of civil unrest: the destruction of hospitals.
"The bombs would land so close they'd knock you off your feet. And at times, they would directly hit the hospital," Dr. Samer Attar, an American orthopedic surgeon who volunteered in makeshift Syrian hospitals, told 60 Minutes at the time. "You work with the understanding that you might find yourself dead, or crippled, or dismembered on the floor next to the people you're trying to save."
The bombing of hospitals became an outlawed war tactic by the Geneva Convention in 1928; and yet, the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has corroborated 595 attacks on at least 350 separate medical facilities in Syria from March 2011 through February 2020. PHR states that their methodology veers conservative, and recognizes that their figures likely "undercount the true extent of the attacks." Even so, the NGO reports the deaths of 923 medical personnel, crediting 90% of the attacks to the Syrian government and allied forces. The frequent bombings and missile strikes led to the creation of underground hospitals. According to Attar, the Syrian-American Medical Society has spent more than $3.5 million on "cave hospitals," with funding from private donations as well as the United Nations. And though the Syrian government tried to root out these covert hospitals with attacks, medical workers continued to respond.
"We'd find ourselves doing surgeries, sometimes without anesthesia, on people lying on gurneys in the hallway, because you're just so over-stretched," Attar said to 60 Minutes. "[But] the Syrian nurses, and the doctors, the rescue workers that I met told me that they would rather risk their lives dying in Syria, trying to save lives than grow old comfortably from a distance, watching the world fall apart."
This week, Scott Pelley and his 60 Minutes team continued their reporting on the Syrian conflict byand reported on how some officials hope to hold responsible parties to account.
"Now we have 800,000 pages of original documents, signed and sealed with original signatures going all the way up to Assad that document this whole strategy," Ambassador Stephen Rapp told Pelley. Rapp is a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice. He believes that the documents and photographs taken of the atrocities committed by the Assad regime create a trove of some of the strongest evidence ever seen in war crimes tribunals.
"We see reports back about 'well, we've got a real problem here, there are too many corpses stacking up, somebody's gonna have to help us with that,'" Rapp explained. "Everything is handled in this sort of totalitarian system where they frankly think they can get away with things...they were...so bureaucratic that they were almost stupid, that they followed these standard operating procedure things, even though they created evidence. And that's to a larger extent in the nature of this regime."
Some of that evidence included thousands of photographs taken by a military photographer, who goes by the alias "Caesar." His Syrian military job after the conflict in 2011 was to take pictures, along with a team of photographers, of dead bodies that had been tortured or killed by different intelligence branches. During Caesar's time in Damascus from 2011 to 2013, it is estimated there were at least 11,000 dead bodies, which he said was "just a snapshot both in time and geography of what's unfolding in the entire country."
"As the amount of civilians that were being killed increased, we started to take photographs of these bodies in the garage, outside, just to be able to fit them as a number of people," Caesar told 60 Minutes through an interpreter.
"They were emaciated bodies, purely skeletons. There were people, most of them had their eyes gouged out," a disguised Caesar said. "There was electrocution...there was utilization of knives and also big cables and belts that was used to beat them. And so we could see every type of torture...every day we took photos of them."
Looking to the Future
Eyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian intelligence service agent, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail this week, for arresting and transporting protestors to an interrogation center known for torture. This landmark case was the first of its kind to hold a Syrian official responsible for allegations of state-sponsored torture. According to Ambassador Stephen Rapp, Al-Gharib was arrested in Germany in February 2019, along with former Syrian military colonel Anwar Raslan, who was purportedly in charge of a site responsible for more than 4,000 cases of torture, rape, and murder.
Though justice for the countless victims of this long war is far from reached, this case is being tried on the principle of "universal jurisdiction," which allows foreign countries to prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity charges regardless of where those violations occurred. It is perhaps the first glimmer of hope that there will be accountability for committing the most heinous of war crimes during this decade of conflict. A conflict that sees no end in sight.