In early 2019, in Paris, Uğur Ümit Üngör, researcher at the NIOD Institute of War, Holocaust & Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam, is taking part in a university conference when a Syrian activist residing in the French capital asks to meet him discreetly.
A few hours later, the professor finds himself in possession of 27 unique and unpublished videos. They have just arrived from Syria, exfiltrated by a young pro-Assad militiaman from a military intelligence computer in Damascus. On these recordings: scenes of mass atrocities committed by the Syrian services.
Three years later, on April 27, 2022, The Guardian publishes shocking images of the execution of 41 civilians. The British newspaper explains that this massacre, which took place on April 16, 2013 in a southern suburb of Damascus, Tadamon, was revealed by two researchers from the University of Amsterdam: Uğur Ümit Üngör and his Syrian colleague Annsar Shahhoud, a researcher on mass violence in the Syrian conflict.
The day after this revelation, the two researchers published in the american magazine New Lines an article explaining the academic framework of their covert investigation (Covert Research) to the killers. This took them three years of secret work, which they did not tell anyone, not even their respective family members.
The published video, they claim, does not show everything; the Tadamon massacre saw the execution of 288 civilians, including 7 women and 12 children. This is a short sequence from a long film of cleansing, extermination and various forms of violence against the civilian population.
After completing the investigation of the Tadamon massacre, Uğur and Annsar handed over all the videos in their possession to the competent public services in the Netherlands, France and other European states. They are unaware of the use that will be made of these videos and are no longer the owners.
As part of my research on the narrative and vocabulary of the Syrian conflict, and with the aim of informing the French-speaking public about the Tadamon massacre, I have tried, through an activist and former Syrian political prisoner, to contact Annsar and Uğur.
The day after my request, I got a meeting with them on Zoom. Here is the report, which takes up the whole thread of this secret investigation.
The decision not to release the videos immediately
The two researchers kept the 27 videos in their possession secret from the time they received them in June 2019 until April 2022. Only the Dutch police knew about them, Uğur tells Today in Focus, so that the researchers and their center fulfill their “fiduciary duty” with regard to their temporarily private use of these videos.
“Our ambition was to speak to these professionals about mass violence. They didn't know we had videos of their crimes! »Uğur Ümit Üngör
Uğur tells us that he was faced with two possibilities; make the videos public immediately through the media, or integrate them into the NIOD project on mass violence in syria at the University of Amsterdam.
“Our ambition was to speak to these professionals about mass violence. They didn't know that we had the videos of their crimes! “says Uğur.
“Making the videos public was doing no favors,” he says; Admittedly, the Syrian activists “were going to identify and denounce the perpetrators of the massacre on social networks”, but that would have been a waste in the face of the possibility of an investigation. The revelation of the videos would simply have allowed the "culprits to hide themselves and the Syrian regime to deny the authenticity of the documents". Posting the videos immediately would have meant "5 minutes of thrills", of "emotional" overuse on social media, but without profound results. What's more, he concludes, "we could not make the videos public until the young militiaman who had copied them could leave Syria (end of 2021)".
"Anna Sh.", a Facebook character infiltrated into networks loyal to Assad
When Uğur returns from Paris with the videos, mid-2019, Annsar Shahhoud is preparing a thesis on "the role of Syrian doctors in the murders and torture organized by the regime since 2011".
Already, she uses a half-false half-true Facebook account where she is called “Anna Sh.” and where she introduces herself as a Syrian researcher living in the Netherlands, Alawite and loyalist to Assad. She was investigating, she told her interlocutors, the "success" of the Syrian army in the conflict that started in 2011.
Through this account, Annsar has a network of Facebook friends made up of several dozen affiliates of the Syrian regime: regular army soldiers, agents of the internal intelligence services and members of the National Defense Forces (militias loyalists).
The videos brought by Uğur open up new lines of inquiry for Annsar and her character "Anna Sh." They investigated three videos of six minutes each in which soldiers filmed themselves wearily and bored executing a group of 41 civilians.
The facts and the investigation
Here is what we see on the only video made public so far. A viewing that we do not recommend to sensitive people.
Surrounded and filmed by his colleagues in broad daylight, a soldier kills, one by one, 41 people. Blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, the victims got out of the minibuses that transported them. They are ordered to run to escape an alleged “neighborhood sniper”. They start running... and fall into a previously dug pit. They are then shot down with one or two bullets. As night falls, their bodies are burned as seen in the images obtained by The Guardian.
By examining the metadata of the videos, Uğur and Annsar were able to discover the date of the massacre, April 16, 2013, but nothing allowed them to identify the place, the perpetrators and the services responsible. For a year, they believed that the killing had probably taken place in Yelda, another suburb of Damascus, until Syrians in southern Damascus managed to identify a street in the Tadamon district, seeing some footage of the videos sent by researchers.
In January 2021, after a year and a half of research, a twist: "Anna Sh.", having consulted thousands of profiles linked to her Facebook network, managed to discover the profile of the man we see on the video executing almost all of the victims.
She comes into contact with him. Quick calls, suspicious responses from the noncommissioned officer. But six months later, he calls back and opens up. Anna Sh. manages to hold and record two video calls with him.
He is a Syrian military intelligence non-commissioned officer. He didn't tell her about Tadamon, but he admitted “not even remembering the number of people he had killed, so many he had killed”.
With this investigation, the researchers not only succeeded in the task of identifying the alleged assassin, but also and above all of his direct affiliation with Syrian military intelligence (Industry 227). This is the first visual and fully documented evidence of the involvement of the Syrian regime's security apparatus in acts of extermination or crimes against humanity.
A few days after our exchanges, the Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed the identity of the non-commissioned officer to the general public, assuring that the latter, by the name of Amjad Youssef, is now "detained" by the regime. Syrian (without knowing in what context and what fate will be reserved for him), following the New Lines investigation.
As for the victims of the massacre, they went from the status of “cases of enforced disappearances since 2013” to that of "victims of the Tadamon massacre", a massacre committed - and filmed - by forces of the Syrian regime.
The research framework of the Tadamon survey
As specialists in mass violence and experts on the Syrian dossier, Uğur and Annsar study the conflict that is ravaging this country within a broader theoretical framework than that offered by Tadamon's video. They also observe it in restricted micro-spaces and below the territorial totality of Syria.
They explain that the Tadamon massacre is only an "instantaneous sequence" illustrating a security policy applied in "all of the southern suburbs of Damascus" from 2012. As a consequence of this state policy, little by little , they claim, an "array of systematic cleansing and extermination".
"In the context of Syrian violence, there is an important difference to be made: the mass violence perpetrated by the Mukhabarat (internal intelligence services), which emanates from professional training, and the violence of amateurs, namely civilians engaged in armed conflict. » Uğur Ümit Üngör
To explain the type of cleaning practiced, the two researchers employ a methodology of “case studies” which consists of dividing the conflict “into micro-spaces – provincial, city, neighborhood or village – where the analysis of the evolution of violence leads to more fruitful results”. The ambition is to establish, they continue, a chain of command as complete as possible incriminating the security institutions and their political hierarchies, up to the head of the Syrian regime and its president.
Ansar Shahhoud clarifies:
“Our studies of micro-spaces in Syria have also enabled us to distinguish between the regime's general approach – pushing for the escalation of violence – and its local and particular approach – the manipulation of communal tensions in a particular spatial environment. In Homs, for example, in 2011, that is to say before the start of the demonstrations, kidnappings on both sides (between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods) had very early installed an atmosphere of civil war. What we see in Tadamon's video is characteristic of the regime's policy in various Syrian micro-spaces. I suspect that the social nature of a space, its communal fabric, and other factors play a role in the means adopted by the regime to achieve the goals of this escalating policy. »
In other words, in certain areas like Tadamon or the city of Homs, political oppositions (pro- and anti-regime) are intertwined with identity and confessional oppositions (Alawites and Sunnis). But when these identity oppositions are lacking (as in Aleppo), the regime applies its policy of mass violence to the entire civilian population of the areas held by the rebels.
How to qualify the Syrian conflict: revolution, civil war or war of extermination?
Through its theoretical framework (mass violence), its micro-spatial approach (case studies) and the data collected by "Anna Sh." (including the covert investigation of Tadamon), the project of the University of Amsterdam stands out as an essential contribution to the methodological elaboration of the narrative on the Syrian conflict.
In a way, the confusion about the nature of the factors that precipitated Syrian society into civil war is beginning to dissipate, at least in part.
In its article on the mass violence in Syria, Uğur underlines that to designate the forms of violence in a context of conflict, it is first necessary to make a conceptual separation between “the extent of the fighting of the military factions among themselves” and “the scale of mass violence targeting civilians.
The rapid escalation in Syria after the 2011 uprising did produce, for him, "a complex and asymmetrical civil war", but on the side of the Syrian regime, the forms and scale of the proposed violence expressed "a deliberate genocidal dynamic targeting indiscriminately the entire population of the areas taken by the rebels.
Thus, in the Syrian context, he tells us, the application of the notion of “civil war” is not erroneous as a result of the escalation of the conflict. But the use of “civil war” also has the flaw of overshadowing the corroborated factuality of the “mass violence organized and orchestrated by the Syrian regime since the beginning of the revolution”.
However, the video of the Tadamon massacre also reveals a problematic aspect regarding the narrative about the Syrian conflict and the nature of it. The literal or immediate description that one can draw from this video when one is Syrian is a simplistic and characteristic description of civil wars: an Alawite soldier (recognized by his accent) methodically kills 41 civilians from the suburbs of Damascus, of Sunni.
“The reality is that one of the assassins in the video was Alawite, but the other, who filmed him, was Druze. Their superior is Sunni, but their superior's superior is Alawite. These nominal identities are not unique to the Syrian conflict, and the only true sect in Syria, in my belief, is called the Mukhabarat. »
Since the construction of a security empire by Hafez Al-Assad, the term Mukhabarat has an effect Big Brother on Syrian society. It refers to secret agents present everywhere, in telephone cables, at work or even somewhere in the home.
According to Uğur, belonging to the Mukhabarat endows these individuals with a fantasy and somewhat supernatural personality expressed by the rhyming and unidentifiable nicknames of their members: “Abu Ali”, “Abu Stef”, “Abu Saqr”, etc.
Annsar adds, following his interviews with members of the Mukhabarat:
"Even when speaking with a Mukhabarat, one should not pronounce the word 'Mukhabarat' because their members are also afraid of the Mukhabarat! It's an endless cycle of fear, paranoia and terror. »
Regarding the arrest of Amjad Youssef, the Syrian Network for Human Rights clarified that no warrant or justification for the arrest was mentioned.
Uğur told us:
“This regime is smart and keeps its criminals under control. He spies on them, holds them together or gets rid of them if need be. This country is a locked chest, a state of killers. »
Mohamad Moustafa Alabsi, Postdoctoral Fellow at Mellon Fellowship Program, Columbia Global Centers, Amman, House of Human Sciences Foundation (FMSH)
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.