Shlomo Bolts & Mohammed A. Ghanem
Apr 9, 2017
On the night of April 6, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signaled a radical shift in America’s policy towards the six year-old Syrian civil war by ordering multiple airstrikes against the Al Shayrat airbase near the city of Homs. Two days earlier, the airfield had been used by Bashar al Assad’s regime to launch a horrifying chemical weapons strike against the town of Khan Sheikhnoun, in which more than 80 people were murdered and hundreds more severely wounded. Reportedly, the nerve agent used in that attack was sarin – giving the lie to former Secretary of State John Kerry’s confident assertion, on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ in July 2014: “With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”
Whether Trump’s gambit will lead to the removal of Assad remains an open question. The stakes are certainly high, since the American airstrikes were not just a blow against Assad himself, but against his Russian and Iranian allies – the two outside powers that had secured, so went the conventional wisdom, his long-term survival through the brutal conquest of the northern city of Aleppo in December 2016. Five months on, the tyrant looks decidedly more insecure, now that he is in the sights of the world’s most powerful military.
The choice of Al Shayrat as the target for the Tomahawk missile strikes dramatically highlights the regional and global dimensions of the Syrian conflict. Russian military personnel are based there, as part of the extensive military aid which Moscow provides to Assad – they received advance warning from the Pentagon that the strikes were imminent. The base has also served officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Assad’s principle backer, and the shock troops of Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy. Geographically, the airbase lies in the portion of south-western Syria, extending into Lebanon, under the control of Hezbollah and the IRGC.
Al Shayrat also highlights a too-often ignored aspect of this war, and the focus of this article: that Iran and Hezbollah have carried out grave war crimes and crimes against humanity – strongly resembling the crimes committed by the terrorists of the Sunni ISIS – against the Syrian people on Assad’s behalf. These took place, as we document here, not only in Aleppo and its environs, but in locations like Homs City and Tel Kalakh – with Al Shayrat serving as a launchpad for the attacks.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its affiliated foreign fighters have long been the true drivers of Bashar al-Assad’s war against his own people.
When pro-regime forces launched an assault in 2013 on Homs, then the “Capital of the Syrian Revolution,” Hezbollah led the charge. When Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels threatened the capital Damascus in March 2015, Iran-backed foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon beat them back. When the FSA along with Sunni Islamist factions launched an assault near Assad’s heartland of Latakia a few months later, Hezbollah stepped in to counter them. The horrific slaughter in Aleppo late last year was only made possible after the Iran-backed Iraqi Nujaba Movement, which mirrors Hezbollah ideologically and operationally, turned the tide in Assad’s favor.
Given the Assad regime’s history of fanning sectarian tensions and turning a blind eye to extremists, its claim to be running a “secular” model of government was always largely propaganda. But Iran-backed foreign fighters dispense with that pretense completely. As Phillip Smyth notes in “The Shiite Jihad in Syria,” Iran-backed foreign fighters in Syria are recruited with the stated purpose of defending Shiite Muslims and Shiite holy sites. Smyth also details how this recruitment is heavily linked to Shiite religious scholars who preach vilayet e-faqih, the ruling ideology of the Iranian regime, which holds that the only form of legitimate rule is that of Islamic jurists.
Political and operational ties between Iran and its foreign fighters in Syria are quite clear. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated openly in August 2016 that “Hezbollah’s budget—its salaries and expenditures, its food and drink, weapons and missiles—are from the In January 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that the IRGC recruited thousands of Afghanis to “defend Shia sacred sites” in Syria by offering various material incentives. And the spokesman for Nujaba said in 2015, “We are all the followers of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and will go and fight to defend the holy sites and Shiites everywhere.”
Furthermore, evidence suggests that Iranian oversight of its proxies in Syria extends to the highest levels. Only two months before Hezbollah began its assault on Homs in 2013, top IRGC commander Hassan Shateri was killed on the Syrian-Lebanese border. IRGC head General Qassem Suleimani appeared on the front lines of the crucial battle for Damascus in early 2015. Both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War believe that, around this time, the IRGC took direct command of operations by its foreign proxies in Syria, allowing Iran to “implant military leadership over a base of irregular fighters that it organizes, funds, and equips.”
General Suleimani also surfaced multiple times in the greater Aleppo area during the regime’s takeover of the city late last year. The National Council of Resistance to Iran believes that the bloody takeover was executed under the direct command of the IRGC, specifically commander Javad Qadiri, who was headquartered alongside commanders from Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi militias at the Behuth fort south of Aleppo. It should be noted that the United States Institute of Peace previously observed that IRGC proxies in Iraq were under the direct command of Suleimani himself. In all, at least 17,500 foreign extremists—and possibly up to 60,000—are now fighting in Syria under IRGC command.
Iran-backed foreign fighters, and in particular those of Lebanese or Iraqi nationality, are guilty of numerous war crimes against Syrians that are likely prosecutable in international courts. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had the authority to prosecute those guilty of “willful killing,” “torture or inhuman treatment,” “extensive destruction and appropriation of property,” rape, and “persecutions on political, racial, and religious grounds” in connection with the Bosnian genocide. In Syria, Iran-backed foreign fighters have committed many of the crimes in these categories.
At times, the abuses committed by Iran-backed foreign fighters have plumbed the depths of degeneracy usually associated with ISIS. This includes burning civilians to death, mass killings, systematic rape, torture, and the deliberate killing of children. Yet while ISIS crimes are roundly and rightfully condemned, the crimes of Iran’s proxies are frequently neglected, ignored, or downplayed by Western governments and commentators, to the point that many analysts even regard these groups as potential partners in an anti-ISIS coalition.
Such ideas need to be exposed in order to ensure that Iran and its proxies are held accountable for their atrocities in Syria. In what follows, we will demonstrate that Iran-backed militias are responsible for six different types of war crimes: mass murder, rape as a weapon of war and intimidation, torture, mutilation, appropriation of property, and collective punishment.
These six categories directly parallel the prosecutorial focus of the ICTY described above.
Iran-backed militias in Syria have committed numerous acts of mass murder throughout the war. The most notable massacres took place in the towns of al-Nabk, Rasm al-Nafl, and Mazraa. They included the targeting of children, the burning of civilians to death, and slaughter with knives.
Iran-backed militias carried out massacres in al-Nabk, an opposition-held border town directly across from Hezbollah’s Lebanese stronghold of Baalbek.
The battle for the town took place between November-December 2013 and was interspersed with the slaughter of civilians as pro-regime forces advanced. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, local residents identified an Iraqi militant group called the Thu al-Fiqar Brigade as responsible for the bulk of the massacres. The brigade overlaps with another Iraqi militant group, the Abu Fadel al-Abbas Brigade, which is identified by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium as the “primary front group for Iran-backed combatants and organizations based in Iraq.”
The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the deaths of 210 civilians at the hands of Thu al-Fiqar from December 7 to 27, 2013 while the pro-regime coalition moved into al-Nabk. Among the dead were at least 56 children and 55 women. In the aftermath of the massacres, residents found numerous burnt or carbonized bodies and reported widespread looting by the invading forces. Among the most notorious incidents was the mass killing of the Hassoun and Moussa Hassan families, in which 45 people, including 30 women and children, were “burned to death and then sprayed with a chemical substance.”
In early June 2013, fresh from a string of victories near the Lebanese border, thousands of Hezbollah fighters massed outside Aleppo in an effort to push deeper into Syria. Regime officials announced on June 17, 2013 that an offensive against the city was imminent. On June 21, Hezbollah fighters seized Rasm al-Nafl, a rebel-held village along the main regime supply route to Aleppo. A brutal massacre quickly followed.
Testimonies collected by the Syrian Network for Human Rights suggest that the slaughter of Rasm al-Nafl residents was carried out in a particularly sinister fashion. First, large numbers of civilians were concentrated in a few houses and provided with false assurances that they would be safe. Then, these structures were bombed, killing nearly all of those assembled inside. As one survivor testified, “Many families gathered in one house, about 56-57 residents were there, they asked them to enter the rooms of the house and then they bombed the house and killed them all.”
A second survivor gave a more detailed account, including of the false assurances provided by Hezbollah: “A Syrian regime-affiliated militia … told us that we have nothing to worry about and we can come back to the village. Some of the residents returned to the village, they gathered most of them in three houses and told them to wait until they can search them. Afterwards, they bombed the houses and killed all of them and collected the ashes.” The massacre, which was reported by multiple Syrian opposition sources, killed some 200 civilians, with some being slaughtered with knives as well as bombs.
While Hezbollah appears to be the primary perpetrator of the massacre, some sources mention an important role for the Abu Fadel al-Abbas Brigade, also backed by Iran.
Only weeks after the Rasm al-Nafl massacre, Hezbollah and the forces fighting alongside it advanced to the nearby village of Mazraa and carried out similar acts of slaughter. A survivor of the attacks testified to the Syrian Network for Human Rights that “we recognize [Hezbollah] from their dialect, clothes, and flags.” Opposition media sources also reported Hezbollah involvement in the attack. Similar details were reported by both the Syrian Network and Syrian Revolution General Commission.
As Hezbollah and regime forces moved in, residents of the town initially tried to escape, but they were prevented from doing so by deliberate shelling that blocked the exit roads. Regime troops and Hezbollah fighters then gathered remaining residents in a central square. A commander—belonging to Hezbollah in some accounts and the Assad regime in others—shouted out, “Bring me the youngest child!” When a child was brought forward, he was promptly killed in front of his parents and siblings. Somewhere between 45 and 75 residents were then blindfolded and thrown inside a well, where all but one of them perished. An additional 25 people were herded inside a house and burned alive. The final death toll was reported to be in the range of 70-100 people.
The above cases constitute only the most notable examples of mass murder by Iran-backed forces in Syria. But there are many other cases, such as the massacre of 69 civilians in the village of Malkiya in March 2013 and the summary execution of 26 young men in Khanasser in February 2014. Iran-backed foreign fighters were also essential to the regime’s capture of Aleppo in December 2016, and some activists hold them responsible for mass killings that took place. Iranian Major General Rahim Savafi openly boasted that Russian airstrikes on Aleppo were based on targeting information from the IRGC, Hezbollah, and Assad forces. These airstrikes were so ferocious that rescue workers stopped providing casualty figures because they could no longer count the dead.
Over the last two decades, rape has increasingly been established as a war crime under international law—further recognition that violent conflict exposes women to grave additional risks simply because of their gender. UN Security Council Resolution 1820, passed in June 2008, states that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”
Iran-backed militias in Syria have committed numerous acts of rape during the conflict. As human rights and international organizations have observed, rape in wartime is often an intentional policy to create shame and disrupt cohesion within the society of the victim group. Rape carries a tremendous stigma and even more so in conservative cultures such as Syria’s. As such, there are likely many Syrian rape victims of Iran-backed militias who have not come forward.
Yalda is a fairly populous opposition-held town located just north of Sayda Zeineb, the main Shiite shrine in Syria, and Yarmouk, which is the main Palestinian refugee camp in the country. According to the United Nations, a number of Palestinian refugees live in Yalda as well. The Pal Iraq website, which tracks Palestinian refugees in the Levant, records that Palestinians were among the victims of a major atrocity.
The Syrian League for Defense of Human Rights called the events outside Yalda on January 5, 2014 the “largest instance of mass rape” to have occurred in the Syrian conflict. The Iraqi Abu Fadel al-Abbas Brigade appears to bear primary responsibility, with some accounts indicating involvement from Hezbollah as well. At the time of the incident, Yalda and its neighboring towns had been under a suffocating siege for six months.
The League describes the circumstances leading up to the mass rape:
The regime promised residents of besieged Yalda that civilians would be free to leave the town via a checkpoint controlled by the Iraqi Abu Fadel al-Abbas militias. On the morning of January 5, 2014, nearly 3,000 civilian residents gathered at that checkpoint. Checkpoint personnel allowed many residents to pass, as regime television channels filmed them “in good condition” and “passing into safety” while they received bread, water, and cigarettes. But the regime then closed the checkpoint and opened fire on those gathered, killing 10 civilians and wounding others, including women and children.
[Abu Fadel al-Abbas forces] then separated the men from the women and children in a savage operation that included the severe beatings of many women. They confiscated [the women’s] identity papers and looted what they found in gold and money. They arrested 1,200 men and took them to an unknown location while the rest of the women, children, and elderly were forced to return to the besieged city. These events were accompanied by summary executions—both shooting and stabbing—of dozens of young men in front of their families. They also included the largest instance of mass rape yet. Some 40 women and girls were found in a catastrophic condition afterward.
While the League only alludes to the mass rape, local activist Habib al-Amar provided a more detailed account to opposition media. He stated that the 40 women raped included elderly women and girls as young as 16. Most of the women bore signs of torture on their bodies, included an 80-year-old who had been violently whipped. After they were assaulted, the women were abandoned alongside the Barada River, where they were found by Yalda residents in a state of severe trauma.
The town of Tel Kalakh lies on the northern border of Lebanon, and is therefore of strategic value to Hezbollah. The terror group joined the regime in attacking the town in June 2013, and both parties committed extensive abuses, including public acts of rape.
Hezbollah and regime troops besieged Tel Kalakh on June 18, 2013 and stormed the town itself on June 22. The Syrian Network for Human Rights began receiving reports of rape inside Tel Kalakh on June 24, but firsthand testimonies were not available until refugees from the attack fled to Lebanon the following month, at which point one witness told NOW Lebanon,
Regime forces had only just entered the city when soldiers began looting all the houses one after the other. Women were all put in one place and searched in a hurtful way. Some of them were exposed to rape in front of everyone. … When the city was stormed … regime forces and Hezbollah struck like lighting. They burned all houses they passed and stole all properties. Even children were killed after being crushed to death by military vehicles that zoomed past all obstacles without mercy.
A second witness gave a quite similar account, specifying that the invading forces engaged in looting and burning before committing mass rape before large crowds.
After the Free Army in Tel Kalakh City withdrew from the western neighborhood toward the market, regime forces and Hezbollah began looting houses, burning them, and destroying them. They burned everything, including any items they could not loot. They separated the women and started raping them in front of their relatives as an act of revenge against city residents. They looted our houses, burned them, and murdered our men before burning them as well.
The vast majority of Tel Kalakh residents fled and never returned. As of September 2016, only a few thousand residents remain in Tel Kalakh out of a pre-war population that numbered some 25,000 people.
The city of Homs was known as the “Capital of the Revolution” and served as the center of Syrian opposition activity for most of 2011-2012. Starting in February 2012, regime forces began heavy bombardment, then besieged the city and expelled the remaining residents in a “ceasefire” in May 2014. While the role of Iran-backed militias was more limited in the regime’s reconquest of Homs, there are still numerous credible reports of rape by Iran-backed forces.
In July 2013, BBC News talked to a Syrian refugee who escaped Homs in 2012 and recalled the horrors she experienced. She recounted how her teenage daughter had deliberately burned her skin black while sunbathing in the hopes that this would make her a less appealing rape target for pro-regime forces. Then she stated,
Iranian and Hezbollah fighters came into our neighborhood with their swords drawn. The women they found, they raped. They burned our homes. … I saw maybe 100 women stripped naked and used as human shields, forced to walk on all sides of the army tanks during the fighting. When their tanks rolled back into the [pro-regime] Alawite neighborhood, the women disappeared with them.
A second woman who resided in Homs at the start of anti-Assad protests in 2011 also recalled the involvement of Hezbollah fighters and possibly Iranian military personnel in the earliest crackdowns on demonstrators that included the use of rape.
The army entered accompanied by members of Hezbollah—they had [distinctive] flags around their arms—and Iran. I could not understand what they were saying [i.e., they were speaking a foreign language, probably Farsi]. They lined up the girls, the women, the boys, and the men each by themselves. … The Iranians took [my daughters] and signaled to the army to slaughter them. … They put four or five men in a car and burned it. … They tied [the women] up by their hands while they were naked, started laughing at them, and killed them after [raping them].
The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as an act in which “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” The Convention further clarifies that inflicted pain is more likely to constitute torture if it is meant as a punishment, an intimidation tactic, or an attack on a group.
In Syria, torture and mutilation are frequently employed by Iran-backed militias. In some cases, corpses are found mutilated after Iran-backed militias withdraw, and it is unclear if the victims were mutilated before their deaths—which would constitute torture—or afterwards.
Torture of Refugees
According to a set of interviews conducted by Lebanese news stations in September 2012, Syrian refugees were arrested by Hezbollah forces, tortured, and forced to “confess” to being affiliates of FSA rebels. The accounts of three refugees are excerpted below:
Refugee 1: “Eight armed men appeared … they told me I was in the Free Army and that I was a supporter and organizer … for 15 days I was tortured. They broke me. They put me in a coffin … they isolated me, and electrocuted me.”
Refugee 2: “They threw me in a car and took me to an unknown location … [they brought] accusations, all with no truth to them, such as ‘you are in the Free [Syrian] Army’ … on the first day, they hit me.”
Refugee 3: “They hit me in the car … they caused me three separate wounds … they put me in solitary confinement until morning.” Then, this refugee was made to confess before pro-regime cameramen to being an FSA commander.
Child Torture in Madaya
The town of Madaya, 40 miles northwest of Damascus, has been under siege since June 2015, when Hezbollah defeated rebel forces in neighboring Zabadani and forced the vast majority of Zabadani residents to leave for Madaya. After they reached Madaya, Hezbollah forces besieged the town to the point that children were compelled to eat leaves from trees to survive. Some even attempted suicide in a final desperate effort to escape their surroundings. Hezbollah enforces the siege through sniper attacks on civilians who seek to flee, including a five-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl targeted in August 2016.
Hezbollah also tortures individuals who are caught while escaping. One such victim was Mohammed Shaaban, a 17-year-old teenager from Madaya who died in April 2016 due to malnutrition and a spinal cord injury sustained while in Hezbollah custody. The opposition news website AllforSyria reported:
The child Mohammed Shaaban of Madaya town died Monday morning behind the walls of siege … he was afflicted with malnutrition and with a nerve injury sustained after his arrest by Hezbollah forces. His arrest by Hezbollah came during an attempt to rescue him after he had been injured by sniper fire … after 20 days, he was returned to Madaya with signs of torture clear on his body. … Since that time, his father says, “He walks the streets screaming in a loud voice. I don’t know was happened to him while he was arrested.” His father notes that his body was covered in bruises and open wounds and that his spinal cord was injured under torture. He was normal before, without any nerve damage.
Further Torture in Qalamun
Madaya lies at the southern end of the Qalamun Mountain Range, which abuts both the Lebanese border and Damascus. Additional acts of torture have occurred elsewhere in the Qalamun area, particularly in the town of Yabrud, which was seized by Hezbollah in March 2014.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission published a leaked video from a Hezbollah detention center in Yabrud two months after the area was seized. In the video, Hezbollah fighters are shown repeatedly slapping a blindfolded man in the face and near his eyes. The camera then pans to a second prisoner being verbally abused, beaten on the shoulder with a stick, and slapped in the face. A third prisoner is then shown being whipped, before the camera returns to the first prisoner in time to see him howl in pain as he is punched in the testicles. At least six prisoners are seen bound and blindfolded in the prison facility and they presumably all faced similar abuse.
A second report from Yabrud last month records the arrest and torture of a refugee woman who attempted to visit her old neighborhood of Qaa. The woman herself, under the pseudonym “Um Ahmed,” tells her story:
I faced a large amount of psychological and physical torture because they charged me with being an information source for the revolutionaries in Jrud [al-Qalamun, a rebel-held town in the Qalamun Mountains]. … Therefore, they beat me violently, tortured me with electricity, and threatened me with rape unless I revealed information on individuals tied to the revolutionaries.
Sources in the Yabrud Revolutionary Council reported last month that Hezbollah administers its own prisons in the Qalamun region and can transfer prisoners to Lebanon and back without Assad regime approval.
Torture and Mutilation in Aleppo
The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented torture and mutilation by Iran-backed militias in Aleppo Province as early as winter 2013, when the “physical torturing [of] a number of people” was reported in the village of Malkiya on February 27. Hezbollah was reported to have “killed six young men from the village before they burned their dead bodies” in the town of Tel Shgheib on March 1.
This was followed two weeks later by a gruesome video from nearby Adnaniya in which a number of corpses were shown burned and blackened, many of them with large gashes and wounds in the torso area—unmistakable signs of torture. Iran-backed militias, many of whom were shouting “For you Zaynab” (a tribute to the Shiite Sayda Zaynab shrine in southern Damascus) and “For you Hussain” (a reference to Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed and a key Shiite religious figure) were also reported to have burned a number of dead bodies in the town of Thiyabiya in October 2013. All of these incidents in the southern Aleppo suburbs were, according to the SNHR, perpetrated mainly by Iran-backed foreign militias.
In November 2015, soon after Nujaba undertook a major redeployment to Aleppo on the grounds that “We are all the followers of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei,” a video surfaced of its fighters celebrating and chatting as an unidentified body burns behind them. Many of the fighters bore the circular yellow logo of Nujaba on their backs and/or the phrase “For you, Zaynab” written on their arms. The Syrian Opposition Coalition alleges that the civilian was burnt alive, and there is evidence for this in the video, as a Nujaba fighter at one point exclaims, “Wow, he’s alive! He’s moving!”
In August 2016, rebels fighting in the “Great Battle of Aleppo” offensive, which sought to break the siege on the city, discovered a torture chamber built by Nujaba fighters in Aleppo. A picture from the chamber published by the Coalition shows a bar with two armholes hanging from the ceiling, most likely for the purpose of forcing prisoners into the “Shabeh” torture position. As Aleppo fell to pro-regime forces last December, the Anadolu News Agency reported that Iran-backed militias “burned four women and nine children while they were still alive and killed 67 men with gunfire.”
Nujaba was integral to Assad’s final successful conquest of Aleppo. Reports of the rape campaigns conducted by Nujaba and other Iran-backed fighters led many women and girls in the city to commit suicide rather than be brutally violated as pro-regime forces advanced.
Iran-backed militias’ use of mass murder, rape, torture, and mutilation are horrifying enough. But they are most likely a means to an end: the sectarian cleansing and appropriation of the property of vast swathes of the Syrian population as a means of solidifying Iran’s position in Syria through demographic changes. If we map out the most notorious war crimes carries out by Iran-backed militias in Syria, they appear to take place in areas that are of the highest strategic importance to Iran and its proxies.
The mass killings in al-Nabk, the public rapes in Tel Kalakh, the torture of children in Madaya, and the abuses against detainees in Yabrud all took place in the strategic Qalamun Mountain Range that borders Hezbollah’s home base in Lebanon. The mass killings and mutilations in Rasm al-Nafl, Mazraa, Malkiya, and Khanasser occurred along the regime’s only ground route into Aleppo City, which is essential for a potential Iranian ground corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran-backed militias might well have carried out the particularly egregious mass rape against Yalda residents because the town is the closest opposition population center to Sayda Zeineb, the main Shiite shrine in Syria.
As we detailed in a recent report, “No Going Back: Forced Displacement in the Syrian Conflict,” Iran-backed militias are deeply implicated in the Assad regime’s program of population transfers carried out in order to further the strategic goals of both Damascus and Tehran.
Hezbollah bombarded civilians for weeks in the town of Qusair in order to force the vast majority to flee, and turned the area into a ghost town before setting up a military base nearby. A Hezbollah military base is also under construction near Zabadani, from which Hezbollah displaced the vast majority of residents to nearby Madaya, which it then besieged.
Iran-backed militias are deeply implicated in the Assad regime’s program of population transfers carried out in order to further the strategic goals of both Damascus and Tehran.
Similarly, even at the time the city was stormed, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported on sectarian cleansing in Tel Kalakh by Hezbollah. The vast majority of residents fled Tel Kalakh for good during the assault for fear that they would soon fall victim to the kind of mass killings and rapes reported in nearby neighborhoods. Since that time, Iran-backed militias have reportedly barred Sunni Muslims and ethnic Turkmen from nearby towns, prevented most former residents of the city from returning, and allowed Shiites and pro-Assad Sunnis to move in until they comprised the majority of the population.
In Yabrud, which saw numerous acts of torture as Hezbollah forces rolled in, the central neighborhood of Qaa is now so packed with Hezbollah families that the area has been renamed “Zahra” after a Shiite religious figure. In the town of Maliha three miles north of the Sayda Zeineb shrine, Iranian buyers have purchased property on a massive scale—with Iranian regime encouragement—after locals were displaced and their houses looted by pro-regime militias. In Daraya, four miles west of Sayda Zeineb, fighters from Nujaba have moved their families in to replace locals who fled after a years-long siege.
The list of towns taken over by Iran-backed militias continues to grow, and Aleppo could soon become their crown jewel. Nujaba has referred to Aleppo as a “Shiite city” in its propaganda. As civilians fled Russian airstrikes and the militia’s onslaught in the final days of the assault on the city, at least 800 people were detained, beaten, and stripped of their belongings. In a clear example of collective punishment, they were told that “this is payback” for supposed acts against Shiite towns elsewhere in Syria. An ambulance carrying a pregnant woman and her husband was detained. After the husband was shot dead, the expectant mother delivered a stillborn child before being kidnapped. Such atrocities will persist for as long as the international community continues to allow Iran-backed militias in Syria to operate unchecked. This could create thousands more innocent victims and a process of destabilization that may eventually consume the region.