The Next Chapter of Syria's Revolution Will Be Digitised

Syrian activists in Europe have spent years documenting and verifying footage of attacks, in the hopes of one day holding the regime accountable.
March 11, 2021, 3:54pm
Syrian men wait to receive treatment at a make-shift hospital in the rebel-held Salihin neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo following a reported air strike on July 9, 2016.
Syrian men wait to receive treatment at a make-shift hospital in the northern city of Aleppo, following a reported airstrike in July 2016. Photo: FADI AL-HALABI/AFP via Getty Images

Activists are using cutting-edge AI and visual technology to document potential war crimes in the Syrian civil war.

The Berlin-based Syrian Archive, founded by Syrians who fled the conflict, has spent seven years collecting and verifying open-source footage and images that have come out of Syria over the past decade, in the hope of it one day being used in court proceedings.

With what's left of the Syrian opposition trapped in a tiny pocket of the country's north-west, and a little left of the rebel groups, the Syrians in Europe are using the digital frontier in their fight for justice and accountability for the crimes carried out in the past decade.

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This week, Syrian Archive published the first comprehensive database of 410 separate attacks on 270 medical facilities in Syria, the majority of which were carried out by the Syrian regime and allied Russian forces.

The hope is that the evidence can be used in future war crimes trials, breaking down the sense of impunity that currently surrounds Bashar al-Assad's regime.  

The new database is public and searchable, Syrian Archive's spokesperson Mohammed Abdullah told VICE World News in a phone interview. He said it was the most comprehensive publicly available database.

"By creating a documentation-based database, conducting a thorough open-source investigation for each identified incident, and organising resulting information in the way we did, we can establish in the aggregate what individual videos or testimonies cannot," he said. 

Hospitals and medical facilities are protected under international law but have been targeted throughout the Syrian civil war, arguably the most documented conflict on social media in history. During the last two years of East Aleppo's siege by the Syrian regime and allied forces, there were 26 recorded targeting of hospitals and medical facilities. In September 2016, a UN humanitarian aid convoy to the besieged area and a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse in Urem Al Kubra were bombarded, despite prior coordination and permission from the Syrian government. 

The Syrian Archive database also documents 46 incidents of illegal weapons use such as cluster bombs and sarin and chlorine gas against hospitals. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons last year accused the regime of using Sarin gas in 2017. Syria and Russia have consistently denied all allegations of using chemical weapons.

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The Syrian uprising is generally accepted to have begun on the 15th of March 2011, which means we are approaching a full decade of conflict. The bulk of the fighting is now largely over, with the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad effectively winning the war. But parts of the country remain outside of the regime's control. Whole cities are in ruins, hundreds of thousands of people are dead and six million are displaced.

Syrians outside the country are still looking for channels to finally hold the regime accountable. Last month, a court in Germany convicted a former Syrian secret police colonel of crimes against humanity, in a landmark verdict delivered under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

The Syrian Archive played an instrumental role in compiling evidence, and testimonies for a complaint filed to a special court for war crimes in France last week over the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons – the first case of its kind – focussing on attacks on the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Eastern Ghouta in August 2013.

The latest database on hospital attacks has also been complied with a legal audience in mind, Abdullah added. 

"Our new research and tagging methodology were created to map and track aspects of attacks that are notable," he said.

"It may give someone building a case a good lead on which incidents they want to invest time and resources investigating further. It can be a crucial piece of the puzzle."