Video footage of an April 2013 massacre of Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburb of Tadamon has drawn international outrage and renewed calls to hold the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to account for its brutality.
The footage was discovered three years ago by a new recruit to a pro-regime militia, who opened a video on a laptop entrusted to him by a member of "one of Bashar al-Assad's most feared security wings", the Guardian reported April 26.
In the video, date-stamped April 16, 2013, members of the al-Mantaqa branch (Branch 227) of the Syrian regime's intelligence apparatus force blindfolded civilians in Tadamon to run towards a pit, in some cases jeering at them.
The runners -- who clearly do not understand what is happening to them -- are shot dead as they reach the pit, their bodies toppling onto other corpses.
The video was leaked to an opposition activist in France and then to two researchers from the University of Amsterdam's Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the Guardian reported.
The researchers worked for several years to locate the perpetrators of the crime and compile a dossier to hand to prosecutors, as the Syrian source who leaked the video slowly made his way to safety, it said.
In February, the researchers handed over the video and their notes, compiled from thousands of hours of interviews, to prosecutors in the Netherlands, Germany and France, the report said.
The video and accompanying dossier will provide "a cornerstone for a new case" to prosecute those involved in the Tadamon massacre, Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam told Al-Mashareq.
He noted that culpability extends beyond those who carried out the slaughter, stressing the need to conduct an investigation and "prosecute their direct and indirect superiors, including those who gave the execution order".
"A crime like this cannot be committed without higher orders," he said.
A strategy based on fear
The massacre in Tadamon is an example of the Syrian regime's strategy, which is "based on instilling fear in the hearts of the Syrian people", said Syrian businessman Firas Tlass, who now lives in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
"Al-Assad is not concerned at all with whether people love him or not but rather that they should fear him so that they may be subjugated," he told Al-Mashareq.
The Tadamon massacre was not the first carried out by the Syrian regime against its opponents, nor will it be the last to come to light, Syrian activist Mohammed al-Beik said.
In May 2013, the month after the recently revealed Tadamon slaughter, he said, Syrian regime forces carried out widely reported massacres in Baniyas and al-Bayda in Tartus province.
The regime's actions against civilians during that period were horrific, al-Beik said, noting that in Tadamon "the regime's elements turned the Saad bin al-Rabei mosque, located on Daaboul Street, into a real human slaughterhouse".
If a search were to be conducted in the area, he said, it is certain that more bodies would be found, "as a large number of people are still missing, including entire families".
The areas surrounding Damascus were among the hardest hit by "massacres and cruelty, especially during the years 2012 and 2013, when opposition forces controlled large parts of them", he said.
These areas were the gateway to the capital, he said, before Hizbullah and militias affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were deployed to form a cordon around Damascus to protect the regime and its rule.
'Evidence of war crimes'
"We strongly condemn the atrocities depicted in a recently released video," US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in an April 29 statement on the apparent massacre in Tadamon.
"The video, which suggests additional evidence of war crimes committed by the al-Assad regime, is yet another harrowing example of the horrors that the Syrian people have endured for more than a decade," he said.
He commended "the brave individuals who work to bring al-Assad and his regime to justice, often at the risk of their own lives", and Syrian civil society organisations documenting the regime's violations and abuses.
And he stressed the need to hold the regime to account for the atrocities it continues to inflict upon Syrian civilians.
Last July, the United States sanctioned eight prisons operated by the regime's intelligence apparatus -- including Branch 227 -- for human rights abuses victimising political prisoners and other detainees.
The so-called "Caesar photos", taken by former Syrian military photographer known by the pseudonym Caesar, document the injuries of 8,382 detainees in those prisons.
The US government's Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which calls for the regime to be held accountable for its crimes, is named in his honour.
Half a million people have been detained in regime prisons since the onset of the war, with about 100,000 dying either under torture or from insalubrious detention conditions, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Activists also accuse the regime of torturing inmates to death, of rape, sexual assaults and extrajudicial executions.
Al-Assad clan worth millions
The Syrian regime's intelligence apparatus is backed and trained by Russia, learning the art of intimidation from Soviet and Stasi officers in the 1960s, the Guardian report said.
Now, as war rages in Ukraine, "a playbook of state terror on civilian populations rehearsed in Syria is being redeployed by Russian forces, as Vladimir Putin's so-called special military operation turns into a brutal occupation", it said.
"Military intelligence units [in eastern Ukraine] have been at the forefront of savagery, instilling fear into communities through mass detentions and killings of the type that characterised al-Assad's brutal attempts to claw back power."
As Russian tactics honed in Syria are rolled out in Ukraine, al-Assad continues to hold power -- and enormous wealth -- in Syria, thanks to Russia and Iran.
On April 28, the US State Department reported that al-Assad's family -- including his wife, brother, sister, cousins and uncle, most of whom are under US sanctions -- is likely worth $1 to 2 billion, AFP reported.
The State Department said it could provide only an "inexact estimate" with the al-Assads believed to hold assets under fictitious names or through opaque property dealings.
It said the al-Assad family runs "a complex patronage system including shell companies and corporate facades that serves as a tool for the regime to access financial resources".
[Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo contributed to this report]