An interview with Sarah Leah Whitson
In early December, I conducted a telephone interview with Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the Syrian crisis. HRW monitors and highlights human rights abuses worldwide, and has been documenting the plight of refugees since the outbreak of violence in Syria in March 2011.
In this interview, Whitson talks about how the international community, and particularly neighboring countries where “the streets…are littered with child beggars,” are coping with the refugee crisis.
Whitson also discusses the plight of Syria’s minorities—including Armenians—whose very existence in the country is under threat. “We know that the Armenian community in Iraq was completely destroyed,” she said. “It’s not clear how much longer the Armenian community in Aleppo can withstand or can survive.”
The interview also covers the makeup of the opposition groups; the spillover into neighboring countries; the urgency of referring Syria’s case to the International Criminal Court (ICC); and HRW’s work in Syria.
* * *
Nanore Barsoumian—In September, HRW reported that there are around 2 million Syrian refugees—an average of about 5,000 people leaving Syria daily—and over 4 million internally displaced people. There are also reports of severe food shortages. How are neighboring countries and international organizations coping with the refugee situation?
Sarah Leah Whitson—I think there are a couple of ways you can look at it. I think the first way we have to look at it, particularly from the perspective of Lebanon, most of all, but also Jordan and Turkey, and even Egypt, is that their governments have been tremendously hospitable and generous and accepting of many refugees—two million, as they have. Time and again, countries in this region are shouldering the burden of wars, and this is just the latest example of that. On the other hand, they are tremendously under-resourced. They don’t have the resources to provide for the health, housing, education, and employment needs of this refugee population—much less for psychological trauma and resettlement assistance. And while some money is coming in from UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], it’s just not enough. You can see the streets of Beirut are littered with child beggars from Syria.
N.B.—A report by HRW stated how China and Russia have been reluctant in providing financial assistance to UNHCR for these efforts.
S.L.W.—That is true, but even the countries that are purported to support refugees have not paid up their full quota, their full share and their commitment to the UNHCR, which remains underfunded.
N.B.—What are we looking at in the long term with the refugee situation?
S.L.W.—It’s a disaster. This is one of the largest humanitarian refugee disasters of this decade. We don’t see it getting better. We don’t see the war in Syria wrapping up, and as long as the war doesn’t wrap up, as long as there continues to be fighting on the scale that we’ve seen so far this year, we expect the refugee flows to continue. What I do expect, however, is that the neighboring countries are going to make it harder and harder for refugees to enter their own countries. And we’re going to have more and more internally displaced people who can’t get out.
N.B.—What’s the situation like now for minorities in Syria? We’ve seen pictures of churches being burned, schools and schoolchildren being targeted, civilians executed and used as human shields. I know HRW reported on what recently happened in the regions of Sadad and Latakia.
S.L.W.—I think that one of the worst aspects of the Syrian civil war—and now it is clearly a civil war—is the extent to which it has taken on a sectarian dimension. Long ago [it stopped being] about democracy and freedom in Syria. Sadly it has been distorted into a sectarian conflict, primarily pinning Sunnis against Shias, Sunnis against Alawis inside Syria, but also against the minority communities in Syria, particularly the Christian and Armenian minorities, who because of their identification with the Assad government, have in some cases been targeted by opposition groups.
And they’ve been targeted by opposition groups—by extremist opposition groups, the jihadist opposition groups—because they are Christian and simply because they are minorities. It’s obviously a great tragedy for the Armenians in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, which has been one of the last Armenian holdouts in the Middle East. We know that the Armenian community in Iraq was completely destroyed. It’s not clear how much longer the Armenian community in Aleppo can withstand or can survive—not just because it’s caught up in the war in Syria but also because the Armenian community is finding itself targeted and the subject of kidnappings or robberies.
N.B.—Do you find that it’s important to highlight the minoritieswhitson separately in this conflict? How is their plight different than that of the majority of Syrians?
S.L.W.—Obviously, we at the Human Rights Watch will examine and document the abuses against any group in the country that is being particularly targeted. And so, for example, in Saudi Arabia, we focus on the targeting of the Shia community. In Iran, we focus on the targeting of the Sunni community. Wherever minorities are being targeted because of their minority status, because of their different religion, nationality, national origin, or ethnic origin, it’s something we highlight. The reality in Syria is that many minority groups are being targeted, and one of them is the Armenian minority group…because of the war situation, but also because of their status as Christian.
N.B.—Minorities also fear that the alternative to Assad could be a despotic or fervently Islamic government that would introduce policies restricting their freedoms, in terms of religious practices, education, lifestyle. These are real concerns that can’t be easily dismissed. Could you talk about this, about what the future could hold, and also about the groups that are fighting in the opposition?
S.L.W.—Certainly the Syrian opposition is now sadly dominated by extremist Islamist groups, who are completely intolerant of religious freedom, of basic rights, of free expression and free association, and so forth. Many minority groups that fear the domination of Islamist extremists in any future Syrian government are right to be extremely concerned about the impact that will have on their own status as minorities, on their own religious freedom, and cultural autonomy inside Syria.
I think they have sadly had a bad taste of what these Islamist extremist groups in Syria portend. In Aleppo and other opposition-held areas, we’re currently documenting how, for example, Islamist opposition groups are forcing women to veil, and putting restrictions on their freedom of movement. I think women have the greatest concerns about what Islamist extremist rule might look like.
That being said, I wouldn’t so easily categorize all of the opposition as Islamist extremist, and that the only choice is either Bashar al Assad and his criminal barbaric regime or Islamist extremists and their criminal barbaric practices. Certainly, the Syrian opposition still has a variety of elements in it. They might be weak, they might not have a lot of power, but it would be our hope that a future Syrian government will reflect the diversity of Syrian society and will protect the rights of all minorities. But I would avoid seeing it as an either-or.
N.B.—There have been reports about the many fighters from abroad. What are you seeing in Syria?
S.L.W.—Without a doubt there is a significant presence of foreign fighters inside Syria. There are countless videos and statements and information that make that clear. But I don’t think anybody really knows what percentage of the fighters in Syria are foreign fighters. The estimates I’ve seen put them at less than 10 percent. So while it’s extremely disturbing that people are fighting in Syria with agendas that have nothing to do with democracy and freedom in Syria, I think that the reality is that this remains an overwhelmingly Syrian war made up of Syrian fighters on all sides.
N.B.—In the beginning of the war, there were many Syrians involved who wanted democracy and who were fighting for democracy. At some point, that was all hijacked. What were your observations?
S.L.W.—That’s obviously true. I think it’s very hard to say that what we’re seeing in Syria now has to do with democracy and freedom. I think that sadly the war has evolved far, far beyond that. And what we now see is a civil war in the country that has pitted the Sunni population against the Alawi/Shia-affiliated government. It is as much about a Syrian civil war as it is a Sunni-Shia competition inside Syria—a competition between Saudis and Iran that’s being played out on the backs of Syrians, as well as a showdown between Russia and the United States also being played out on the backs of Syrians. Tragically, the ways in which intervention has happened in Syria (both intervention in support of the government and intervention against the government) has amplified those divisions and morphed it far away from what it was initially about.
N.B.—Do you see a threat of a spillover into neighboring countries, like Lebanon?
S.L.W.—The spillover is already happening: the fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon, over the past month; the continued attacks on Alawi businessmen in Syria; the recent bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. This is all a spillover. The spillover is happening now, and Lebanon as a result right now is in an extremely volatile state. The Saudi government just a few weeks ago recalled all of its citizens from Lebanon, saying it’s too insecure for them there.
N.B.—Human Rights Watch has urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to strip the sides of the feeling of impunity. How effective can that step be in deterring the targeting of civilians?
S.L.W.—I think it can be quite powerful, because ultimately no military commander is going to make that decision to target civilians if he knows that he is going to be awaiting trial. I think the idea is that you create a disincentive for commanders to follow orders that are crimes against humanity. We’re not even talking about the hard cases, where it’s hard to tell; we’re talking about the easy cases, like dropping cluster bombs on civilian areas or launching cruise missiles on civilian areas… The breadth of criminal prosecution can be a powerful one. I don’t think that threat has come into play in any meaningful way because an ICC referral has not yet taken play, but I think the prospect of going the way of [Slobodan] Milosevic and going the way of [Sudan’s Omar al-] Bashir even as an international outlaw can have a very strong deterrent effect.
N.B.— How has Human Rights Watch’s approach to the conflict evolved over the past two years?
S.L.W.—Well, it evolved from being an investigation on the attacks on unarmed protesters—that is how the Syrian uprising started over two and a half years ago—to being a documentation about civil war, in which the government has committed unbelievable abuses, unbelievable crimes, against its civilian population, but which now also involves various opposition groups carrying out terrible abuses, as well.
The challenge in this situation, when we document abuses by both sides or all sides…is how that can be used as a cover, and I think the emphasis—what we have to remind everyone—is that the vast proportion of the crimes, of the violations of international humanitarian laws, are being committed by the Syrian government, a party that is most capable of avoiding these abuses. Whatever weapons the opposition has, whatever abuses the opposition is committing, the vast majority of those killed in Syria—the number that puts us over 100,000 today—falls clearly on the lap of the Syrian government.
N.B.—Could you talk a little about the weapons being used and where they’re coming from?
S.L.W.—Well, the weapons providers to the Syrian government are no secret; this is publicly available information. It includes Russia and it includes Iran. It also includes a few Eastern European governments as well. Those providing arms to the opposition groups are also not making a secret of the arms they’re providing, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as now, of course, the U.S. and France, with the U.K. providing non-lethal material support to the various oppositions.
N.B.—How does HRW get its information? Do you have people on the ground there?
S.L.W.—We have researchers who have been going in and out of Syria for the past two and a half years, both undercover and with government authorization on various trips.
N.B.—It has been reported that some of the pictures coming out of Syria have been manufactured, manipulated, and Photoshopped. Have you found that to be true?
S.L.W.—We don’t really focus on fraudulent evidence. We focus on real evidence—evidence that we gather ourselves from investigations on the ground. This involves not only talking to eyewitnesses and victims, but looking at physical evidence, such as the remnants of weapons that indicate that they’re incendiary weapons, that indicate that they’re cluster munitions, that indicate that they’re chemical weapons. For example, Human Rights Watch was able to document the Syrian government’s deployment of chemical weapons in two suburbs outside of Damascus by using satellite imagery to show the trajectory of the rockets with the chemical weapons…from government bases. We were able to gather evidence of the chemicals that were used through medical facilities, and on-the-ground samples that were made available. In certain cases we also use, look at, examine, and verify video evidence where it exists. Some video evidence is, I’m sure, liable to being manipulated and falsified, but…we have multiple means to verify its authenticity. And we never rely on the evidence of others. We always have our own evidence, our own direct evidence that we ourselves have gathered.