Julian Borger reports: One day in February 2014, a dusty and dented pick-up truck approached an Isis checkpoint outside the Syrian border town of Tell Abyad, carrying two men dressed in the simple djellaba robes and loose keffiyehs worn by local farmers. The fighter on duty checked their identity cards and cast an eye over the fertiliser bags and scraps of wood piled in the back of the vehicle. The driver and his passenger said they were in the area to visit relatives, and the fighter waved them through.
The two men drove across the Turkish border, having cleared the last – and potentially most lethal – obstacle on a long clandestine journey. Hidden under the sacks of fertiliser in the back of the truck was a batch of documents salvaged from the battlefields of Syria’s bloody conflict, and smuggled across the country at enormous risk. Amid the thousands of pages of military orders and government reports that had just come across the border was vital evidence of war crimes, which could one day form the core of an international prosecution of Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
The driver of the pick-up, a stocky man in his 40s named Adel, was the chief investigator for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). An independent organisation set up by experts on humanitarian law, with funding from western governments, its aim is to collect evidence of atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and opposition, in preparation for the day when they can be judged by a tribunal. Adel and his team of 50 investigators had made many such trips in the three years since the CIJA was established, but these smuggling runs through Tell Abyad in the first months of 2014 would prove to be the most fruitful. They were carrying the greatest find of the investigation so far: a complete set of documents from the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, which provided a clear picture of the regime’s machinery of repression, and showed how tightly it is controlled by Assad and his inner circle.
Adel had visited Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in December 2013, with introductions from mutual acquaintances to a handful of the commanders of Islamist militias in the region. These militias had scored a string of victories over the Syrian army earlier that year, seizing government buildings in the process. Adel was interested in what was inside these buildings – the paperwork left behind in filing cabinets and underground archives. In Raqqa, leaders of the local Salafist militia offered to help collect what Adel was looking for; over the next few days, they came to him with plastic bags and cardboard boxes full of papers from the abandoned secret police headquarters in the town of Taqba and from Raqqa city itself.
In Deir ez-Zor, the situation was more complicated. The dominant military force there was the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida offshoot opposed to any venture associated with the west. But one of the group’s local commanders – a man of “grace and education”, according to Adel – agreed to covertly provide assistance. His fighters allowed Adel’s investigators to comb through the military intelligence building and sweep up the files and loose papers scattered around its deserted shell.
By January 2014, Adel’s archive had rapidly grown to fill a dozen boxes – about 150kg of paper – which were stacked against the walls in a house he had rented in Raqqa. He had collected documents from many abandoned government facilities in his earlier sorties into Syria, but had never seen anything like this. “I opened the first box of documents and I saw right away how important they were,” he said. “They were from the security service, not just the military, and they provided a blueprint of how things happened in the regime’s security apparatus. What was particularly important in the documents from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor was that their security branches kept copies of orders coming down from Damascus and the reports going up the chain. They provide the vital linkage evidence of crimes occurring on the ground.” [Continue reading…]