In Syria, the regime and Islamists publish videos demonstrably showing their human rights violations. Mid-East expert Bente Scheller of the Heinrich Böll Foundation explains the intentions behind this in a DW interview.
Deutsche Welle: Are the human rights violations in the Syrian war part of a strategy?
Bente Scheller: I think that especially with these two groups that have most egregiously violated human rights, there is a strategy behind their behavior. Essentially, it's humiliation and intimidation of the opponent. The regime and the radical Islamists, which are both perceived as particularly prominent human rights violators, have made a point of not only committing atrocities, but also filming and distributing videos of them.
You're saying the regime has also distributed such videos?
Yes, we saw this in a truly bizarre form at the beginning of the conflict. There are countless videos available on YouTube that show members of the regime torturing people. At first, we thought that these films had been captured, for example, on the cell phones of regime soldiers who were arrested or killed. But that wasn't the case at all. Many of the videos were sold by the protagonists themselves, who were proud of being seen this way. There was clearly an utter lack of any kind of guilt. These people were sure they were going to evade punishment.
Are there variations in the types of human rights violations committed by different actors?
After having seen many videos, I can say that the films posted by radical Islamists are mostly about killing someone. Beheadings are very prominent. With the regime videos, I believe, the majority is about inflicting agony on other people.
Can one observe changes in the violations over the course of the conflict?
In the first year, we actually only saw human rights violations by the regime. There were six months where the revolution didn't have any armed fighters. By now, we have so many videos that it's hard to tell whether there has been a change in the radicalism.
The general assumption is that all sides commit these violations, which is correct to a certain degree. But that doesn't mean that they commit them in equal measure. It's been clear and it's still clear that the regime prevails here in a sad way by killing and torturing significantly more often. And they are documenting it in an extremely self-assured way, too.
Human rights violations by Islamists take up more and more space in the Western perception. Does this serve both Islamist as well as regime propaganda?
Yes, regime interests meet Islamist interests here. The former party wants to present the Islamists as the gruesome opposition and imply that if Assad fell, the whole country would be dominated by Islamists. The Islamists, on the other hand, find it useful to be perceived as ruthless and cruel. They are fighting for power after all. So the propaganda interests of both sides go hand in hand.
Is there a chance that the many human rights violations will one day be prosecuted?
I think we're quite far away from that; it's hardly discussed at the moment. But an important report has been presented right before the Geneva II Conference: the documentation of the people tortured to death in Syrian prisons. According to the numbers, we are looking at around 11,000 people systematically killed by torture. There are photos that prove this, too.
The investigators said this is the largest data volume about such atrocious actions they have come across since Nuremberg [the Nazi war crimes trials in the city of Nuremberg from 1945 to '49, Ed.]. So clearly, the evidence could be the basis for trials. But in order for that to go forward, the Syrians would have to decide to pass on this information to international courts in the first place.
Do reports like the one by the US State Department on human rights violations have any influence on the conflict?
Compiling these reports is important work, in my opinion. But I don't think that they influence the conflict parties. The most radical and those who do the most damage among the population act the way they do even though they know they can be put on trial. They are sure that this won't happen anyway and they see their violence as a sign of pride. These people are of course not impressed by such a report at all.
Bente Scheller is a political scientist and expert for foreign policy and security. She is the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Middle East Office in Beirut, Lebanon. Scheller is the author of the book " The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game. Syrian Foreign Policy under the Assads".
The interview was conducted by Andreas Gorzewski.