Talk: Organized by MENA Prison Forum & UMAM D&R
A Conversation with Uğur Ümit Üngör and Annsar Shahhoud
Via Zoom
MAY 12, 2022

On May 12, 2022, the MENA Prison Forum hosted an online talk with Professor Uğur Ümit Üngör,  professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam and the NIOD Institute in Amsterdam, and researcher Annsar Shahhoud, a researcher with a focus on state violence in Syria. The two spoke with the MENA Prison Forum audience about their project investigating the recently leaked video of a massacre that took place in 2013 in Tadamon, Damascus. There has been extensive coverage of the video, including an article they wrote about their work published by New Lines, soon to be translated into Arabic with Al-Jumhuriya, as well as an article about them in The Guardian

As these articles offer extensive analysis of the process the two academics took in tracking down and speaking with one of the perpetrators in the video, the two instead focused this talk on the connection between massacres and the prison system in Syria. This is part of Professor Üngör’s larger work, for which his book with Jaber Baker on the Syrian prison system entitled “Syrian Gulag: A History of Assad’s Prison System, 1970-2020” was recently published in Dutch, and coming soon in other languages. 

In light of this, Professor Üngör kicked off the discussion by stating that any discussion of violence in Syria has to focus on state violence. He then provided a brief but thorough overview of the four structures of Syria’s “coercive apparatus:” 1) the army and police, which he calls the normal security branches that are present in many states in the world; 2) the intelligence branch, which has four sub-branches within it and even further offshoots within these branches; 3) special forces, which are elite troops tasked with responsibilities such as suppressing an uprising and protecting the regime, under which, again, there are many sub-organizations; and finally, 4) the shabiha, militias that the Syrian state has always claimed operated outside of the state. Each of these branches, as part of their attempts to control the Syrian population, runs its own prisons all over the country, resulting in a system of incarceration that spans, overlaps, and imposes a state of fear and oppression over the whole country. The multitude of carceral subsystems has created a collective system that operates as a state within the state, and one whose pervasiveness creates a deeply totalitarian prison culture in the country, both for those who have been within the system and those who have not. Professor Üngör’s work has found that the gulag system in Syria was designed to destroy all politics that are deemed impermissible by the state; the Muslim Brotherhood, Communists, liberals, and any movement part of the 2011 revolution opposition have all been labeled as impermissible by the regime and the system of prisons is dedicated to destroying them. 

With this background, the conversation moved to the specific case of the Tadamon massacre. Two key findings from their analysis of the video is that there is proof beyond any doubt about the collaboration between the intelligence bodies and the militias, and that the two, in partnership, run an extermination campaign against Syrians. The first finding is vital, because the regime has consistently denied that they had any link with the shabiha in the face of UN and other inquiries. The evidence of this in the video comes from the presence of individuals in the footage wearing two different uniforms, showing the involvement of two different organizations. Additionally, the killings took place and were filmed in broad daylight, in Damascus, and away from any frontline of fighting, all of which are behaviors that would only be allowed under Syrian intelligence capacity and impunity. Lastly, the identity and behaviors of two of the men perpetrating the killings in the video are telling. One of the men, Najib al-Halabi, who has died since the video was filmed, was part of the shabiha in Tadamon, as he set up one of the first groups. The other, Amjad Yousef, is an intelligence officer for Branch 227, the branch of the intelligence that is present and responsible for the area of Damascus where the footage was taken. In the video, teamwork and collaboration can be seen between the two men in undertaking the killings, burning of bodies, and mass grave burials, showing collaboration between the two allegedly separate units. 

Professor Üngör then addressed the methods he and Shahhoud took to do this research. He noted that they had been asked recently why they didn’t try to travel to Syria to investigate the massacre more closely, and that issues around “informed consent” in their interviews with Amjad, one of the perpetrators, had also been raised. He reiterated in this talk the complete impossibility of doing this research from within Syria, and that the methods they chose to use to investigate, from afar and through the Internet, was the only viable way to gain access and information on this topic. He notes the ethical dangers of suggesting or pretending that research from within Syria on this topic would have been, in any way, feasible or safe. The path to accessing and asking questions about state-sponsored violence to a sitting intelligence officer in Syria was novel, and the first time that this type of interview has been able to be done. The access to and being able to speak directly with Ajmad was vital in this research, as speaking with him directly gives insights to other individuals like Amjad who are operating in other branches of the intelligence around Syria. His commentary, for example, illuminated elements of the specific power he held over Tadamon, as a combination of condoned and discretionary violence. Shahhoud and Professor Üngör are, as a result, developing a new set of ethical procedures for how to collect evidence on state violence, as the current system of academic ethics impedes and precludes research on this type of violence in these types of settings. 

Annsar Shahhoud then expanded further on the implications of the video footage. Over the years, there have been persistent questions about the link between individuals who were disappeared at militia-run checkpoints and the regime. What the footage from Tadamon shows is that there is a system of arrest, detention, torture, killing, and destruction of evidence that goes on between various actors. This dynamic of collaboration between the intelligence and the militias of detaining individuals and then exterminating them had not been seen before, but what the video shows is an overlap in policy between the two at this time. This can most clearly be seen in the fact that the intelligence officer in the video knew the detainees by name, showing a personal and prolonged engagement with them prior to their killings. It is important to note that the killing is just one element of the process, and that the detention within the prison system is a key part of the system. In Tadamon, for example, Shahhoud showed that there were 52 prisons in just one kilometer of urban area in Tadamon under regime control leading up to the frontline.

Another vital element gleaned from the video is due to the location of the massacre: Tadamon was not a contested area being fought over by different parties, but instead it was under regime control at this time. Despite this, the system of prisons and massacre in this area shows how the Syrian regime turned cities into prisons against anyone who was constructed or seen to be an enemy. This means the Syrian policy of extermination extended to areas under its own control, in addition to the vast amount of evidence from recent years of the regime’s annihilatory approach to Syrian civilians in opposition areas. Tadamon is just a small example of the extension of the genocidal approach the regime took to its own held territory.

In the lively discussion sessions between the 70-plus participants and the two academics, questions arose around areas of further research and exploration that the video raises and cannot answer alone. Professor Üngör addressed some of these, noting that an important question is why the regime taped these acts in the first place? Several hypotheses were discussed, the first of which led to a second question around the metadata of the footage. The film name was the date and a file number that was in the 300s, prompting the question of is this the 300th video of this nature that exists on this laptop or drive? If not, what are the other files of? Is there systemic documentation done of all killings undertaken by regime apparatuses? Another hypothesis is that this is a trophy video, as there are claims that similar videos of violence undertaken by the regime have been shared throughout closed pro-regime social media groups, that have still never leaked. Yet another hypothesis is that the motivation for the filming was performative among the perpetrators, as we see Amjad intentionally positioning himself to be seen in the filming, and this could be part of his construction of his identity as a killer. A question was raised about the possibility of this video having been filmed as possible blackmail against Amjad and the other perpetrators, as keeping documentation of such acts could allow the regime to keep Amjad and others loyal out of fear of being denounced. While this theory is in line with findings that Bashar al-Assad does keep documents on members of his own cabinet to use as blackmail should he need it, the feeling among the academics was that someone like Amjad would have a low chance of defecting from the regime system. As an interesting side note, Professor Üngör and Shahhoud shared that they had combed through videos of anti-regime protests in Tadamon at the beginning of the revolution, and Amjad is standing to the side in one such video. A further possible hypothesis for the use of the video could be training: that the video was filmed to be shown to new recruits on how to conduct a massacre and the steps needed to cover the evidence.

Another question without an answer is how and why the regime destroyed evidence in some ways, but captured it in others? Shahhoud has done other research on the ways in which the Syrian regime has co-opted the medical system to forge and manipulate records for those killed under regime control: this can perhaps be best seen through the medical photos in the Caesar photos leak.  In the video, the individuals are killed, then burned, and then bulldozed, all of which seems to be part of a premeditated plan and strategy: the gasoline cans and the bulldozers can be seen nearby as the killing is taking place, waiting to be used.

Another question is how and why the victims were chosen to be killed? A hypothesis is that this could be around the financial burden of the detention system in Syria, that the cost of arresting, detaining, investigating, and documenting individuals in Syria was overwhelming for the regime, and a found solution was simply to eliminate detainees as needed.  The location of the massacre in the video is telling, as the area was right by the frontline, and therefore provided a misleading cover that the bodies and the killings were related to the active conflict, not from internal decisions made within regime-controlled areas. 

A further question was around the timing of the massacre: why did this occur when it did? The massacre occurred in 2013, a year that saw a large uptick in regime violence. There is a hypothesis that there was a regime decision to increase the level of violence, but this will only be definitively proven with a leak of official government orders. However, we can make inferences by looking at the timing, methods, and involved institutions in massacres around Syria and try to identify patterns and behaviors that could indicate official coordination and implementation.

A question from the audience was about the response in Syria to the release of the video this past week. It seems the response was overwhelming among the Syrian diaspora and within Syria as well, as stories have come out of individuals recognizing their family members in the video and subsequent high levels of re-traumatization. The unequivocal realization that this footage forces is that the regime has been executing its own citizens in the streets of the capital in broad daylight, in a context where Western governments are using language of normalization and returns of refugees to Syria under the claims of safety. The video brought back to the forefront attention on state violence, the systemic abuse of Syrians under the Assad regime either through massacres, enforced disappearances, or detention, has been rekindled in conversation. An interesting additional note is that the academics have on good authority that Bashar al-Assad read the Guardian article himself. Much of the comments from the audience were of gratitude and support for this type of academic work, and the chat box was full of shared links and references to further or similar work.

Annsar Shahhoud holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam and NIOD Institute in Amsterdam. Her research focuses on state violence in Syria.

Uğur Ümit Üngör is Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam and NIOD Institute. He has published books and articles on various aspects of genocide, including Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State (Oxford University Press, 2020) and the forthcoming Syrian Gulag: Assad’s Prison System, 1970-2020 (Boom Publishers, 2022).