The war of assassinations in Syria

Mourners at the funeral of Asem Bader Waw, a 31-year-old shot dead by a Syrian army sniper in Al Qsair. Jan. 31, 2012
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Mourners at the funeral of Asem Bader Waw, a 31-year-old shot dead by a Syrian army sniper in Al Qsair. Jan. 31, 2012

It has been common to frequently come across assassination incidents in local Syrian news, which turned them into expected news. The daily killing and atrocities committed in Syria contributed to normalizing this phenomenon not only internationally but locally as well. However, the scale of these incidents and their significant impact on the local dynamics of the conflict make the assassination war in Syria stand out as an important issue that can’t be ignored. Understanding the dynamics of this secret war and the motivation of its main actors may have a positive impact on mitigating the ongoing conflict and reducing the damage it may have on any future political solution in Syria.

It is extremely difficult to have a clear picture regarding the exact number of assassinations attempts in Syria due to the lack of systematic data collections and the secretive circumstances in which these attempts took place. However, there is a number of general observations that could be concluded from the published local news reports related to this issue in 2015.

The assassinations are not occurring equally all over Syria, as they are more frequent in Daraa and Idlib. According to a recent report, 105 people were assassinated between January and December in Daraa alone. The number of unsuccessful attempts is expected to be higher, as not all attempts succeeded in eliminating their targets. There are no similar statistics available for Idlib; however it comes in second place according to a quick scan of public local media reports from the past three months. Moreover, the majority of assassination attempts are either done through planting explosive devices under the cars of the targets or by ambushing and shooting them.

Islamist figures and groups, namely Ahrar al-Sham, are the number one targets of assassination attempts. Killing Abu Rateb al-Homsi, a leader in Ahrar al-Sham, was the latest in a string of unsolved assassinations in rebel held territory. It is worth mentioning here that most of Ahrar al-sham’s top leaders were assassinated while they were meeting in one of the group’s secret locations. Some of these incidents may look like part of an unspoken war between two groups. For example, each of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were targeted three times in Idlib in July 2015. While it could be a coincidence that both groups were targeted by the same number of assassination attempts, there may be something more significant that needs to be read into further.

Additionally, assassinations are not limited to armed fighters or to territories inside Syria. At least 5 people were killed in Turkey in the past few months, four of which were media activists and a Free Syrian Armyleader. There was a difference in the methods used in those incidents and the suspected parties behind them (three were slaughtered by ISIS, one was killed by an explosive device and the last one was shot in the head).

It was also observed that assassination attempts increase significantly in some periods more than others. In Daraa alone, 30 assassinations of local figures were documented in October 2015. These significant shifts may be related to the situation on the front lines, or to a specific occasion (negotiations or initiatives). For example, the recentassassination of Zahran Aloush, former leader of Jaish al-Islam, was perceived by many people as a Russian attempt to push the group from being part of the opposition negotiating delegation, in order to weaken the latter in the upcoming negotiations with the Syrian regime on January 25, 2016 in Geneva. There was also the case of the murder of Oussama al-Yatiem, the head of an influential court in Daraa, who was advocating for the creation of a joint court between all groups in Daraa. His assassination and the assassination of his deputy before him gave the impression that they became targets because of their initiative.

It has become a habit for groups to immediately link these incidents to sleeper cells affiliated with either Assad’s regime or ISIS or both, even before looking at the evidence. Part of this tendency is due to the systematic involvement of the Syrian regime and ISIS in secretly targeting and eliminating their opponents. Nonetheless, forever blaming the seemingly obvious enemy is certainly convenient, but whether there’s truth in such claims is far from evident. There are unconfirmed reports about the involvement of other armed groups and foreign actors and governments in this assassination war through local proxies. Jaish al-Islam was publically mentioned in videos published allegedly by a local hit man from Ghouta accusing the group of hiring him to eliminate a number of local armed groups’ leaders. The videos showed weapons, money and phone calls used in the planning and executing the assassination as well as the names of the targeted people. These videos were allegedly released because the hit man was scared of being eliminated by the group to protect its secrets. However, the group denied all these allegations without sending its members to undergo an independent investigation to clear its name.

In general, Sharia courts and armed groups in rebel areas do not show genuine efforts to hold assassins accountable for their actions, which is clear from the way they are handling the investigations. They do not normally reveal the results of the investigations, and they always tend to accuse the usual suspects, Assad and ISIS, because it's convenient. However, this approach gives the impression that its so easy for perpetrators to get away and most likely to have a negative impact on stopping future assassinations. It may also harm any future political solution and intimidate groups or communities in order not to push them away from it. Therefore, a different approach should be adapted in dealing with these incidents in order to ensure accountability and future stability.