Fighting on the Coast Needs Documentation

The conflict in Syria took another turn last week when the country’s coastal region witnessed the outbreak of intense fighting between rebels and government forces. Not only do the clashes portend increasing violence in what had been a comparatively stable region, but it also highlights an area where documentation is markedly poor.

Fighting in the coastal region of Latakia began when a rebel offensive pushed into the largely government-loyal area previously held firmly by regime forces. The rebel attacks were followed by government counterattacks that included airstrikes and artillery bombardment. The government’s official news service reported yesterday that it “restored security” to three villages in the region, but fighting continues as rebels and pro-government forces battle for territorial control.

The rebel offensive into the predominantly Alawite areas has also been met with unverified reports of rebel violations. The Lebanese paper As-Safir reported that Islamist fighters captured 200 Alawite men and women, whose fates remain unknown. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper quoted an Alawite religious leader who said, “We are still finding people who were killed in their homes, and bodies left in bushes.”

Such reports also fuel expectations about retributional violence and the prospect of other violations against Alawites. In one video (in Arabic), FSA rebels speak with an elderly Alawite man, asking him what he expects Alawite fighters would do to a captured FSA fighter. The man says they would probably torture or kill him. The fighters respond that, even though they are Sunni, they will not hurt captured Alawites. The video can be viewed both as a window into Alawite fears of rebel violence as well as an example of the FSA’s increasing messaging efforts to demonstrate their respect for human rights.

Unfortunately, many violations in these areas may go undocumented because the documentation environment is incredibly weak. One of the few groups carrying out what might be called documentation work is the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria, an organization that relies on official government records to collect the names of regime soldiers and regime-loyal shabiha that have died. But the Committees collect few other useful data or specifics, leaving much to be desired in the way of documenting violations. Because Syria’s coastal regions are mainly loyal to Al Assad, they have not permitted the kinds of human rights-focused activist groups that carry out documentation efforts in other parts of the country. Furthermore, any anti-regime groups that might attempt to carry out documentation work in the coastal regions would most likely not criticize violations committed by rebel groups. This is one reason why it’s so hard to document all sides.

Given that existing documentation efforts in Syria are sometimes manipulated to serve political ends—often in support or critique a specific group, or as fodder for propagandizing media campaigns—we can expect that reports of violence in Alawite areas will be even more charged. But neutral documentation offers an alternative to the recurring deterministic narratives of regime-loyalty, retribution, and ethnic cleansing that reduce complex dynamics to simple black-and-white. To the degree that evidence-based documentation records violations committed by all perpetrators, it can emphasize the primacy of accountability over agendas and of justice over vengeance.

More documentation is needed across the country, and there is a particular need to fill the wide gaps in government-controlled areas and to credibly document violations committed by rebel groups. The fighting in Syria’s coastal regions puts this need in stark relief.

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