The Syria Trials/
S1E4: Crossing the Red Line


In the early hours of the 21st August 2013, the Syrian regime crossed perhaps the biggest red line in the course of the war in Syria - and dropped chemical weapons on Al-Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus. We look at that night, and the efforts of activists, documenters and lawyers to hold the perpetrators accountable.

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The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff, and produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with editorial support from Mais Katt. Translation was by Remi Alanini and the voiceover artist was Alaa Hassan. It was mixed by Tobias Withers.

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.

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Episode Transcript

Thaer Hijazi: My name is Thaer Hijazi. I was born in 1986. I'm from Douma, a city in Eastern Ghouta, a region next to Damascus. 

August is a beautiful month in Al Ghouta. The nice weather allows for staying up late at night because the breeze is so amazing. And so we, the youth working in the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee, the activists and the documentaries we used to gather at night and have conversations. 

After a night like this. I eventually went to bed. Then, I was woken up by a doctor. He was standing in the street and screaming so loudly that everyone in the building woke up. He shouted, “Thaer, come down. You must see what's going on. Bring your camera with you.” 

I got up quickly, put my clothes on, grabbed my camera and went downstairs. It was around 1:00 in the morning. 

I noticed that there were children, women and people of different ages on the ground. People were screaming. And that's when I thought to myself, is it possible that Eastern Ghouta was targeted for real? 


Fritz Streiff: In the early hours of the 21st of August 2013, Eastern Ghouta, an area on the outskirts of Damascus, was targeted by the Syrian regime. It was the single deadliest day of the war in Syria. Around 1400 people, mostly civilians, were killed within a matter of hours. Eastern Ghouta and the city of Douma, which had been controlled by opposition forces since the end of 2012, were not only shelled that day. They were attacked with chemical weapons, specifically with the deadly nerve agent sarin. 


Thaer: The smell of chlorine gas is like the bleach solution that we use for cleaning, only much stronger. The smell of sarin gas is totally different. Its smell cannot be described. But I know what it does to the body. You feel like you are suffocating. Foam comes out of your mouth. You are short of breath. The pupils of your eyes reduce to the size of a pin. You convulse, faint and lose all sense of perception. 


Fritz: This is The Syria Trials. Episode Four, Crossing the Red Line. The attack on Al Ghouta was not the first time that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people. The first documented chemical attack was in the Idlib governate in the north of Syria, in October 2012. After that and throughout 2013, attacks using chemical weapons intensified. 


Thaer: In May, Adra, Harsta and Al-Bahariyah were bombarded.


Fritz: These are all neighbouring towns to Douma, in the Al Ghouta region just outside of Damascus.


Thaer: After the regime started using chemical weapons, the fear grew in our hearts. It was impossible to provide a region like Al Ghouta, where more than 500,000 people lived with gas masks. So the doctors gathered and decided to form what we called medical points. We called them that because they were established in basements and huge warehouses with no proper hospital equipment. The fear and anticipation increased until the 21st of August, when the great catastrophe occurred. 


Fritz: Just two years before the horrific events of the 21st of August 2013, Thaer was studying law. It was 2011, and the Arab Spring protests were spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. 


Thaer: The youth who believed in the revolution and the need for change, participated in the first demonstration in Douma on the 25th of March 2011. 

On the 1st of April, 13 martyrs fell in Al-Jala Street in the centre of Douma. The security forces tried to disperse the crowds by clubbing them and throwing tear gas at them. But when they saw that people continued demonstrating and kept on cheering and saying the “Syrian people are united”, they sent people wearing civilian clothes, who were part of the state security I think, to disperse the demonstrators using guns.

After the 1st of April, we founded the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee of Douma City. It consisted of youth who wanted to report what was happening in their cities or villages to the international media. We used Facebook and Skype to organise demonstrations. 


Fritz: During the demonstrations, Thaer would ask after people who had been arrested or detained. He, along with activists and lawyers, had created a legal questionnaire which they used to document information about the arrests.

Thousands of miles away in Manchester, a city in the north of England, another young law student was being swept along with the wave of protests. Of half Syrian, half Egyptian origin, Ibrahim Olabi wanted to help his country and found himself travelling to Syria for the first time in 2012. 


Ibrahim Olabi: So the first trips that I took to Syria were kind of very emotionally driven. I was 19, full of adrenaline and didn't tell my parents. I knew that I am not a lawyer or a specialist lawyer, but I knew I can speak the language, I can research, I can be a conveyor of legal information, of human rights information. There was a clear need and hunger amongst Syrian lawyers, amongst the different armed groups, amongst the NGO workers to get that international legal knowledge. 


Fritz: As the crimes committed by the regime grew in scale and changed in nature, the protesters and activists were looking for ways to hold the regime accountable. 


Ibrahim: People knew that these things were crimes, but they didn't know how the international system is supposed to deal with them and what sort of international framework exists. So I was trying to play the bridge between the activists that are carrying the cause, carrying the blood and tears across, and the international lawyers who have the knowledge but do not necessarily have the Syrian context. In Aleppo in 2013 I did a lot of the kind of international humanitarian law training to the armed groups near the front lines. You know, it's not your kind of conventional workshop attendees with the AK47s, a lot of them were masked, didn’t want to show their faces. A huge amount of scepticism, leaning on their guns, watching, you know, listening to what I've got to say is this guy, you know, talking nonsense or is there something. And I guess a big part of my ability to convince when it came to these principles is that I was there with them. Right. So if I didn't care or didn't think it was important, there was no insurance that was covering me doing that. You know, it's a risk. 


Thaer: In March 2013, Razan Zaitouneh came to Douma.


Fritz: Razan Zaitouneh is a human rights lawyer, friend and colleague of Mazen Darwish and affiliated with his organisation, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, or SCM. Because of her work, Razan was wanted by the regime and had gone into hiding. And when some of her colleagues, including Mazen, were arrested, Razan fled Damascus for Douma, which was then outside of regime control. She hoped that she'd be able to work more freely outside of the Syrian capital.


Thaer: She wanted to establish an office of the VDC, the Violations Documentation Centre. And she contacted me and asked me to be a member of the team. 

Razan trained us in international law and documentation methods. I used to accompany her on the tours she made inside Al Ghouta, to document the bombardment of civilian properties and civil infrastructure. 

We used to document these incidents by conducting field visits to the area and gathering eyewitness testimonies. But I also handled other tasks because I was raised in Douma, which enabled me to reach out to people and to help connect Razan and with them. 


Fritz: Razan and Thaer’s evidence gathering and the work of other members of the VDC would prove an integral foundation to later case building. Steve Kostas, lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, has been working on some of these cases. 


Steve: So we have worked with a few Syrian organisations, the Syrian Centre for Media, Freedom of Expression, Syrian Archive. And among the criteria that they have for selecting a case to work on is does it point to a systematic crime committed with senior leadership involvement? And certainly, the torture programme, if you call it that, involved the highest-level officials as we all know now. The use of chemical weapons was directed from the highest levels, attacks on hospitals involved senior decision making. And so, for them and for us, ultimately to have sort of justice and accountability for Syrian victims and for Syrian society requires the accountability for the architects or the people who were designing these strategies. 


Fritz: And maybe we can go into one of the efforts to get closer to that goal, and maybe you can sort of take us along on a trip trying to imagine how it actually works, building such a difficult and complex case like the chemical weapons attacks. How do you even start doing that? 


Steve: Yeah. So as you know, there are basically two types of chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. One is using chlorine and the other is using sarin, which is a nerve agent, a very sophisticated programme built around the development of that chemical weapon. So we looked at two emblematic sarin attacks, one the 21st August 2013 attacks in Al Ghouta, and the other the 4th of April 2017 attack Khan Shaykhun. And working with Syrian Archive, SCM and consultant investigators, we pulled together what we think is a large body of available information and evidence concerning the perpetration of those attacks. You asked about sort of how one goes about building a case. Should I…? 


Fritz: Yeah, but if we can try to sort of maybe summarise steps taken from the very first brainstorming meeting I guess, through the research and the legal analysis and all the way to the filing of the complaint. 


Steve: Right. So the first step in any of our case building of this kind is to do a comprehensive open source mapping of what we can understand about the attack. In this case, we were looking to understand all of what we call the crime-based evidence. So everything from where the attack was carried out, what type of munition was used, the impact sites of the munitions. Who are the victims? How many victims? Where were they? What hospitals or medical checkpoints were involved? 


Thaer: Sarin gas killed many of them silently. When a chemical missile lands, it does not explode. But the smell spreads over a large area and can eliminate an entire neighbourhood. The regime was clever and used heavy bombardment at the same time as it launched the missiles loaded with the gas. This confused people and they didn't understand what was really happening. 


Fritz: As part of their investigation into the Al Ghouta attack, the United Nations fact finding mission examined the weather conditions for the 21st of August 2013. They found that the air was moving downwards and that temperatures fell between two and 5am, which is when the sarin missiles hit. These were ideal conditions to maximise the impact of the attack. The air pattern and temperature helping the heavy sarin gas to stay close to the ground and make its way into the lower levels of buildings, which is where many people seek shelter during an attack. 


Thaer: The doctors were so busy that they couldn't inform us of what was going on. The medical point I arrived at was inside a basement and I could smell the gas as soon as I entered. It was so strong. I had documented several cases where sarin gas was used and I was able to distinguish the smell of it easily.

I had witnessed the deaths of many people before. But I had never seen as many dead civilians and children as I did that night. I was filming everything, but at one point I turned off my camera because I couldn't shoot anymore. I felt helpless and started to blame myself. Maybe because I was shooting videos and taking pictures while I should have been helping people and rescuing them. But afterwards I realised that the pictures and videos that documented all that happened showed the truth regarding the regime's use of chemical weapons. 


Steve: The additional key part of the project is to understand the perpetrator linkage or who carried it out and what evidence connects the perpetrators to the crime. With the sarin attacks, we approached that in two ways. One is that we carried out a nearly three-year investigation into the SSRC or the Scientific Studies Research Centre. The SSRC is the Syrian government department that is responsible for the chemical weapons programme. We conducted an investigation that was designed to understand sort of who are the officials that work at the SSRC, the chain of command, the parts of the SSRC that are involved in the research and production of chemical weapons, the locations of the sites used, and how they participate in chemical attacks. 


Fritz: And then, so that mapping obviously helps to understand the structure behind the production, the acquisition of the needed materials. You know, how do you then go about linking that with the actual attacks? 


Steve: Right. That's exactly right. So there we took an approach that's primarily based on witness evidence. So we worked with the investigators to identify defectors and people sort of linked with the Syrian government. And then in the Al Ghouta attacks, we looked at the role of, it was a ground-based attack, so it was fired from the ground. Starting backwards from the specific munition that was used, the rocket that was used. We looked at where that could have come from and then we tried to trace that to specific perpetrator groups. So could it have been from a Republican Guard base from a Fourth Armoured division of the Syrian army, different Syrian government units that were in proximity to where the attack occurred? 


Thaer: I start documenting around 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. And went to the medical office to see my friends. I sat there and drank water and tried to calm down. 


Fritz: But Thaer’s long night was not over. As night turned to day, the 21st of August 2013 continued with the news that the chemical rockets hadn't just hit Douma in Eastern Ghouta. Hours after Douma was attacked, Western Ghouta was also struck. Thaer and Razan travelled to the epicentre of the Western Ghouta attack, a town called Zamalka, to document the aftermath there. Their commitment to documenting the attacks in Al Ghouta was and is remarkable. 


Thaer: That night we went back to the office to upload testimonies, documentation, photos and videos we took. And only then did I start to realise how the gas had affected me. I had very strong symptoms, vertigo, a headache, a strong urge to vomit and burns on my face. 

Two or three days after releasing our report and following the meetings and deliberations of the Security Council and the International Inspection Committee of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Al Ghouta, Razan told me that our report went above and beyond. It even reached the United States Department of State. 


Fritz: President Barack Obama had warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a red line for the United States, suggesting that it would warrant US military intervention, potentially with boots on the ground. The attack on Al Ghouta clearly crossed that red line. But the reaction from the big international players was mostly diplomatic. France heavily considered intervening militarily in Syria, but the UK's House of Commons voted against military action, and then eventually President Obama also backed down. Syria became a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013. But we know now that it did not actually fully comply with it and did not destroy its entire chemical weapons stockpile. As evidenced by the sarin strike on Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 which killed at least 89 and injured more than 541 people.


Fritz: That ultimate question, that was always sort of the baseline of much of this work of how to eventually link it to the main architects. Is that something that you were able to show as well in that case building? 


Steve: This is certainly like one of the hardest parts of building a, quote, leadership case is showing the connection between a distant commander and the crimes committed by, quote, people on the ground, you know, the people who physically carried out the attack. And I wouldn't say that we have shown to a criminal standard. So we haven't shown beyond reasonable doubt that this person or that person, the President or his brother, were beyond a reasonable doubt carrying out this attack. But we have provided the prosecutors and investigating judge with information and some witness supported evidence about what we know about how the attacks were carried out. So they certainly have some solid leads to investigate. 


Fritz: SCM and its partner organisations, Syrian Archive and the Open Society Justice Initiative, made their first legal filing in Germany in October 2020, after around three years of investigation. The complaint in Germany related to the chemical weapons attacks on Al Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017. They then filed criminal complaints in France in March 2021 and in Sweden in April of 2021. Thaer has been a witness in these legal filings, but unfortunately Razan can’t be.

On the 9th of December 2013, Razan, her husband and two other colleagues were abducted from the office of the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma. The four disappeared activists became known as the Douma 4, and they haven't been seen since. But SCM brought a case in France against a former spokesperson of Jaysh al-Islam, an armed group active in Eastern Ghouta, suspected of being involved in the disappearance of the Douma 4, as well as other war crimes. The suspect known as Islam Alloush is in detention and awaiting trial. But in terms of the chemical weapons attacks, complaints have been filed and investigations have been opened. But we don't know when, if ever, the perpetrators of these attacks will actually stand trial. 


Steve: For there to be a trial there would need to be a perpetrator who’s available for arrest and prosecution. And senior most people are still in Syria in office. The ones that we've identified. 


Fritz: However, trials are just one of many possible strategic outcomes of this type of litigation. Even if the perpetrators are not in the countries where these investigations are taking place, authorities are still able to issue arrest warrants. Ibrahim Olabi is now a barrister at Guernica 37, a human rights law firm in London. 


Ibrahim: When we talk about litigation, generally, it's just going to court getting an outcome right. So there are so many strategic tactics that matter more than just getting a conviction. Because that should not be the metric with international justice. You know, when you speak a lot of governments and they're like, Oh, but we can't get that person or that person. Our response, well, this is not litigation. This is strategic litigation. Having an arrest warrant against an individual, yes they're not in court. But I'd rather every article that's written about them says who is wanted by X than not have that sentence in. It has that impact on the narrative. 


Fritz: There’s precedent for European authorities issuing arrest warrants for high-ranking Syrian regime members, even if they are still in Syria. The most famous of these is perhaps the arrest warrants that both Germany and France have issued for Jamil Hassan, the head of the Air Force Intelligence, which is a very important and very brutal part of the security apparatus in Syria. 


Steve: I think it has this demonstration effect to everyone, that a rule of law respecting prosecutor, these prosecutors and investigating judges in France, take the investigations very seriously. This is not a political project for them in any way. And so, they are just looking at what is the file in front of them and does it lead to the conclusion that this person or that person, there's enough evidence against them to seek their arrest for prosecution of the crime. That I think would be extraordinarily meaningful to the victims that we represent, to the many thousands of victims of chemical attacks. I'm always hesitant to talk about what sort of deterrent effect it has, but I think it would just show that the law does apply even to these distant crimes, these difficult to prove crimes. 


Ibrahim: Perpetrators like to hide behind the state, the state apparatus. And that was the whole idea of the Nuremberg trials after World War Two, right? Yes, it was the victorious people and so on. But people wanted to differentiate between Germany and those who committed crimes. And I think that's key because we're not against Syria as a state. You know, states exist. It's the people within that state system that are committing those crimes. And so it's important to differentiate them from a country that existed long before them and will hopefully exist long after them.


Thaer: What happened affected me very deeply. To an extent you cannot imagine. I feel that my life's path should be different. I have lost six or seven years of my life and nothing can compensate for that. I have gone through many traumas in addition to losing my father, my brother, my home, and everything I had. I cannot say that I have recovered from the trauma. That's impossible. 

I gathered with a group of survivors from the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. We are working on launching an association called the Chemical Weapons Victims Association. We are trying to preserve the memory of the victims and prevent it from being forgotten. 

We also hope that this association plays a role in the cases that have been filed against the regime and puts pressure on the organisations of the United Nations, in order to change their policies. 

We as the victims who have been affected by sarin gas and other toxic gases used by al-Assad regime. We call upon everyone through your platform to resist defeatism and start taking action. 


Ibrahim: When the regime commits those crimes and gets away with it, they're sending a message to all the parties to the Geneva Conventions, which includes the big actors, that, hey, I can break laws that you've written down and I can get away with it. So it's a power flexing exercise. There is this sense of, I will not be caught. This sense of impunity, really, that exists and existed for a very long time. Perpetrators always thought they can get away with it. Right. And I want to prove that saying wrong. When I spoke at the Security Council recently, I told them, you know, it has been said, Mr. Chair, that you kill one person, you might end up in prison. But if you kill tens of thousands, use chemical weapons and forcibly displace millions, you end up in a peace conference. Right. You get invited to the table as a party, as someone who can get a solution to all the crimes that you've done. And I personally want to prove that saying rule. 


Fritz: Evidence suggests that the ground offensive that accompanied the sarin gas attack on Al Ghouta on the 21st of August 2013 was led by the Fourth Armoured division of the Syrian army. Maher al-Assad, President Bashar’s brother, and quite possibly the second most powerful man in Syria, is the commander of the Fourth Division, which is also one of the, if not the most powerful units of the Syrian regime's armed forces. Some say Maher’s influence even extends beyond just a Fourth Division, with Bashar letting his brother unofficially, basically command the whole army. There's a reason why groups like SCM, Syrian Archive and the Justice Initiative are so focussed on the cases which could lead to holding the highest ranking members of the Syrian regime, like Bashar and Maher, accountable. It is because they bear so much of the responsibility for the huge level of criminality that Syrians have suffered from throughout the war. Their responsibility as state representatives should be to protect their civilians, not to kill and terrorise them. The criminality stretches back decades, even before the war, to the very beginnings of the family who are now at the heart of the Syrian regime. The Assads. The Assads are one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, fundamental to understanding why Syria is where it is today. Next time, in Episode Five of The Syria Trials, we look at the very core of the regime and enter the House of Assad. I'm Fritz Streiff. Thank you for listening.