War /

The United Nations has announced a plan for the release of tens of thousands of women, children, elderly, and sick Syrians who are languishing in detention as the country’s civil war grinds towards a bloody conclusion.

Addressing the UN Security Council on Thursday, Geir Pedersen, the UN’s peace envoy to Syria, called on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other armed Syrian factions to work with the Red Cross aid group to release detainees.

According to estimates, more than 100,000 Syrians have been detained during the country’s eight-year civil conflict – 90 per cent of them in regime lockups, where they endure beatings, humiliation and lingering deaths from sickness.

Pederson called for “real action on detainees, abductees and missing persons… in a meaningful way and at meaningful scale”. “All sides should engage in unilateral releases and move beyond ‘one for one’ exchanges – and I believe women, children, the sick and the elderly must be released at scale,” said the envoy.

Since December 2017, officials from Turkey, Iran and Russia have worked in a UN-sponsored peace process to free detainees in Syria, but these prisoner swaps have yielded only 109 releases to date. Pederson called on the Syrian government and other forces to draw up complete lists of detainees. Meanwhile, the Red Cross can liaise with Syrian families and devise a database of missing relatives, he said.

Then “all sides should engage in unilateral releases,” Pedersen told diplomats in New York.

Damascus denies running a large-scale abduction, torture and execution program, saying all arrests and detentions are in line with Syrian law as the government fights terrorists and the presence of foreign forces. Pedersen’s comments on detainees – who are often referred to as “the disappeared” in Syria’s long-running conflict – were echoed by envoys from France and other members of the 15-nation UN Security Council.

Diplomats met in New York as Syrian forces, backed by Russian airpower and Iran-linked ground forces, pressed forward in their assault on Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, the last remaining rebel stronghold in a bitter, drawn-out conflict.

As Assad consolidates control over re-taken areas of Syria, he is under mounting pressure from civilians who want news of their detained relatives. Meanwhile, mass detention is costly, and foreign reconstruction funds will be contingent on freeing detainees and other human rights issues. Estimates of the number of “disappeared” range up to 140,000. UN reports reveal that food is scarce in government lockups. Few have toilets, diarrhoea is rife. Sick inmates cannot see doctors; many perish in drawn-out deaths. Detainees have reportedly been flogged, hung by their wrists, forced inside tires and electrocuted. Others have been told to act like animals, beat one another or have been doused with gasoline and torched alive.

The UN’s Commission of Inquiry has described “extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, and imprisonment in the context of its widespread and systematic detentions of dissidents”. A trove of some 55,000 photos from inside the regime’s sprawling mass detention system was made public in 2014, depicting thousands of victims of strangulation, long-term starvation, eye-gouging and other terrors.

War crimes prosecutors have amassed documents showing that regime officials signed off on arrests and torture at the state-run Saydnaya prison, near Damascus, and other lockups, amounting to “clear evidence” of systematic torture and mass killings.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011 and sucked in the United States, Turkey, the Gulf and other players.