Homs at Gunpoint: Satellites Track Assault on Syrian Cities

March 3, 2012

Field Guns Cropped
Field guns deployed at the Shinshar artillery base oriented towards Homs. DigitalGlobe Natural Color Image, Feb. 22, 2012, Shinshar artillery base, Shinshar, Syria, 34 36 23N 36 45 08E

Syrian authorities are continuously escalating tactics to ensure a complete media blackout, as witnessed last week by their deadly attack on a makeshift media center in Homs that killed and wounded several foreign journalists. To counter that blackout, Amnesty has secured satellite imagery to track developments on the ground and document human rights violations.

The images from Homs and Hama show clearly that armed forces have not been removed from residential areas, as demanded by the U.N. General Assembly resolution from mid February. In Hama, the images reveal an increase in military equipment over the last weeks, raising the specter of an impending assault on the city where the father of current President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a bloody 27-day assault three decades ago, with as many as 25,000 people killed. With reports of a ground assault underway in Homs, the analysis of imagery identifies military equipment and checkpoints throughout Homs, and field guns and mortars actively deployed and pointing at Homs. Additionally, the images show the shelling of residential areas in Homs, concentrated on the Bab ‘Amr neighborhood. Artillery impact craters are visible in large sections of Bab ‘Amr, from where we have received the names of hundreds killed throughout the period of intense shelling.

My colleague Scott Edwards perfectly summarized the implications of our findings:

The large field guns detected in the satellite imagery—literally pointed at the people of Homs—are suspected to be Russian made. The Russian government’s refusal to use its influence with Syria to pressure the Assad regime to stop its assault on civilians—and the fact that it is blocking meaningful action on Syria by the UN Security Council—is likewise a gun pointed at the people of Homs, and Syrian civilians at large.

We continue calling on Russia and China to drop their resistance towards a legally binding U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for an end to attacks against civilians and that refers the situation to the International Criminal Court.

How much can satellites do?

In an interesting opinion piece in the Huffington Post, Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, states that satellites and other new technology belie “the fact that in Syria today we don’t need more harrowing images”. I agree. However, it’s a bit of a short-sighted comment, as it clearly doesn’t take the full potential of satellite image analysis into consideration. On the one hand, visuals obtained through satellites can help human rights watchdogs to keep up the pressure to eventually reach stronger international action. Most importantly, they provide an added value that I cannot stress enough and which I can best explain by summarizing comments by Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at an event this Tuesday: Satellite images can help to show the widespread and systematic nature of violations, characteristics inherent to certain international crimes such as crimes against humanity. Additionally, they can help in identifying command responsibility, a key requirement for holding individual perpetrators accountable. Simonovic pointed out that the UN Panel on Sri Lanka relied a lot on satellite images. The same holds true for the current commission of inquiry on Syria, which equally relies on satellite images. Thus, the point is that while satellite images barely deliver the “smoking gun” that leads to a conviction, they can provide major support for international investigations and accountability mechanisms.

The crisis in Syria is only the latest emergency we—and other human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch—are monitoring through satellite images. We will continue using remote sensing and other geospatial technologies over the next weeks to collect evidence of human rights violations in Syria (also take a look at our Eyes on Syria project). Please check back on this blog shortly or follow me on Twitter for an updates on our work.