Syria Insight: The devastating scale of regime sniper attacks on civilians

Syria Insight 20
8 min read
07 September, 2022

In 2011, towns and neighbourhoods across Syria erupted in protest leading to a brutal crackdown by regime forces. As soldiers defected and joined the nascent Free Syrian Army, putting huge swathes of Syria outside regime hands, locals took over civilian affairs in their communities.

In a bid to starve Syrian rebels into submission, or simply punish innocent civilians, from 2012 the Assad regime enforced starvation sieges on opposition areas making the hunt for food and medicine a matter of desperation. 

When civilians were occasionally allowed to leave these besieged enclaves, crossing points became corridors of death scanned by cold-eyed snipers - residents unsure if they would make it to the other side alive.

Intelligence officers and military forces manning checkpoints would routinely 'disappear' residents, where torture and death would likely await those taken away.

Survivors say they witnessed snipers, omnipotent in their power, targeting unarmed civilians of all ages as they sought a few bags of flour or life-saving medicine.

"When civilians were occasionally allowed to leave these besieged enclaves, crossing points became corridors of death scanned by cold-eyed snipers - residents unsure if they would make it to the other side alive"

Targeted killings

In a harrowing new report from the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), the team highlighted the depth and scope of these targeted killings between 2012 and 2017.

It focuses on three areas: Karaj al-Hajiz in Aleppo, the Deir az-Zour river crossings in eastern Syria, and Beit Sahem in the Damascus countryside, where vulnerable civilians trapped in narrow and exposed crossing points were shot dead or bombed with apparent impunity.

This included the massacre of around 45 civilians on 18 December 2013 by suspected regime forces and Iran-linked gunmen at an evacuation corridor of Beit Sahem

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While many residents in opposition areas were killed on the streets, at work, or in their homes, the SJAC team focused on crossing points between opposition and regime areas, which - like other areas, according to international law - should have been safe zones for civilians.

"These crossings were central to the lives of people stuck in opposition areas and in a lot of cases these crossings were the result of forms of isolation and sieges imposed by government and government-aligned forces," Zachary Cuyler, a research fellow at SJAC, told The New Arab about the report.

"People often had to leave through these very narrow crossings to obtain essential goods and services and also to evacuate areas under siege or under bombardment. Because of the circumstances and the physical nature of these spaces civilians were especially vulnerable to attack as they moved in and out."

The report relied on the testimonies of witnesses, media reports, video footage, and even military and intelligence documents to confirm that the regime deliberately targeted civilians.

In late 2016, Syrian government forces had sealed off Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern half, with 270,000 people inside. [Getty]

"In the examples we cited, the Syrian government and its allies had rendered civilians extremely vulnerable and then engaged in what appeared to be highly indiscriminate or targeted attacks on civilians," he added.

"So, we thought that out of all the situations various armed factions that had intentionally or unintentionally harmed civilians, these crossing points seemed to embody some of the core dynamics of the conflict and highlight the extreme vulnerability in which civilians found themselves in."

One of these crossing points was Karaj al-Hajiz, linking the opposition stronghold in Aleppo, Bustan Al-Qaser, with the regime-held neighbourhood of Al-Masharika.

From October 2012 to May 2014, snipers were positioned in buildings surrounding the Karaj al-Hajiz crossing, allegedly including apartment blocks, mosques, a municipal building, Aleppo's radio and television headquarters, and even the city's famed citadel.

From their nests, snipers fired on residents down below with no discrimination between men, women, and children. The Violations Documentation Center documented 197 fatal attacks on civilians in Karaj al-Hajiz between 2012 and 2014.  

The SJAC used satellite imagery, videos, witness statements and other evidence to confirm that sniper fire on civilians in Karaj al-Hajiz almost certainly originated from regime positions.

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The Syrian military command appeared to be aware of the sniper attacks on civilians across the country, as seen in a document sent by Major General Fahd Jasim al-Frayj, deputy commander-in-chief of the army and armed forces, to commanders in charge of checkpoints and military points.

"Certain individual behaviours and actions have been discovered by the general leadership of the army and armed forces that damage the reputation of our armed forces, [which have been] exploited by terrorists in propaganda, and moreover in the attempt to attract more citizens to their side and to cause a feeling of frustration among loyal sections of society," the letter reads.

"Injuring a child, woman, or innocent man with sniper fire under the pretext of firing at a terrorist is considered an indiscriminate or intentional act. 

"Its results are negative, both in taking an innocent life and in allowing the terrorists to exploit this in their propaganda efforts, as well as in inciting civilians [against the government] and thus bringing them into the terrorists' gangs.

"The evidence presented by SJAC fits with other witness statements of deliberate sniper targeting of civilians"

"The general leadership will prosecute the sniper and his commander and send them to court for interrogation on the charges of murder and harming loyal citizens."

It is not known if any servicemen were punished for targeting civilians, which was routine at this point, but it is obvious from the frequency and scale of the attacks that Karaj al-Hajiz was not an isolated incident.

"I think it is fairly significant that the Syrian government and military were aware that these attacks [in Syria] were taking placing very early in the conflict, so as a result it played a critical role in the report," he said.

"But on its own [the document] doesn't tell us that at that point in the conflict, and later on, that Syrian government forces were directly targeting civilians or failing to prevent civilians being targeted."

A defector from the Syrian military mentioned in the report also confirmed that he was ordered to fire on civilians.  

In the southern Damascus town of Beit Sahem, a fierce siege and bombardment of the opposition area led to an agreement organised between a local civilian committee and the Assad regime to evacuate some residents. 

While making their way out of the besieged town via a crossing to the north of Beit Sahem, regime forces - which included Iranian and Shia militias - opened fire on evacuees killing at least 45 civilians and injuring 100 more, according to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria.

The SJAC team investigated video footage of the massacre, which indicated that the most likely origin of the gunfire was from the northeast of the road - a regime-held area. 

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Witness accounts corroborated media reports of the incident. In one video, rebel fighters could be seen hurrying away women and children via a network of trenches running close to the crossing point.

Another series of incidents investigated by the team was a series of attacks on civilian boats crossing the Euphrates River, Deir az-Zour during and before the Syrian regime's recapture of parts of the city held by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Evidence studied by the team "strongly suggest(s)" that the Syrian regime and its ally Russia indiscriminately bombarded civilian barges along the Euphrates between September and November 2017, when bridges became impassable.

This included one incident on 10 September when at least 19 civilians were killed in a suspected Russian airstrike on their boat, as they fled a military offensive in the area.

All these attacks on civilians suggest an obvious violation of international humanitarian law, even though the SJAC admits their report might not be strong enough to be submitted as evidence of war crimes.

Russian video footage, satellite imagery, witness statements, and local media images all corroborated the reports of attacks on civilian targets at the Deiz az-Zour river crossings.

"The scale of civilian casualties and the frequency with which these aerial bombardments targeted civilians suggest a failure to distinguish civilians from combatants," Cuyler said. 

Moadamiya mountain in Damascus [photo credit: Nooraddeen Mokhiber (Dani Qappani)]
Moadamiya civilians were allegedly targeted by snipers from the 4th Division [Nooraddeen Mokhiber/TNA]

Civilian attacks

The evidence presented by SJAC fits with other witness statements of deliberate sniper targeting of civilians, one of whom spoke separately to The New Arab

Nooraddeen Mokhibe was a former media worker in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya until he was forcibly displaced by the regime on 19 October 2016.

He remembers repeated sniper attacks on members of his community, particularly half-starved women and children pushed into the surrounding fields to search for olives and herbs due to the regime's devastating siege.

Surrounding them were snipers from the 4th Division positioned in the Moadamiya Mountain overlooking the town, who fired on the foragers with lethal aim. 

"They could see anything that moved from the top of the mountain, and it was so close to the town they not only used snipers but also DShKs (heavy machine gun), tanks and artillery [on civilians]," Mokhibe told The New Arab.

"If you see a child collecting herbs in the field then you know this is a child and not a rebel. It was used to make life misery for people in these areas and force them to surrender"

"The rebels would dig trenches to get around the city, but for the civilians working on the farms and around the mountain then nothing could be done because the area was so open. Even if you built the Great Wall there, you were still exposed."

Cars carrying food and medicine along a road running close to the mountain were also frequently targeted by snipers. As were UN chemical weapons inspectors' vehicles as they attempted to enter the Damascus suburbs after the regime's 2013 sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta.

Mokhibe remembers seeing a bullet hole in his mother's dress after she returned home from a day foraging for herbs in the countryside area. Another time a neighbour was shot through the heart by a sniper as he quietly sat on a chair outside his home.

"They would mainly target civilians, not the rebel fighters," he said of the regime snipers, who were often from Iran-linked militias.

"If you see a child collecting herbs in the field then you know this is a child and not a rebel. It was used to make life misery for people in these areas and force them to surrender." 

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin