BEIRUT – Syria’s residents, already terrorized by a conflict now in its third year, are also being stalked by the increasing threat of kidnap, with motives ranging from sectarianism and prisoner exchange to ransom.
Syria’s government Tuesday offered kidnappers an amnesty deal, giving them 15 days to hand over victims or face harsh sentences of life with hard labor or even execution if their victims are murdered or sexually abused.
The decree speaks to the scale of the problem, which has spared virtually no corner of the country, affecting civilians and fighters from both sides and implicating both opposition forces and supporters of President Bashar Assad’s regime. But it is unlikely to stem the flow of disappearances carried out by regime loyalists, nor convince rebel forces or criminal gangs operating in largely lawless swaths of the country to turn themselves in. Motives appear to vary widely, even overlapping at times, with kidnappers targeting victims on the basis of sectarian affiliations but also demanding ransoms.
Lama Fakih, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Syria and Lebanon, said the group has also documented “tit-for-tat kidnappings, sometimes between neighborhoods, where people take someone in order to exchange them for someone else.”
“We also see some instances of kidnappings where it does seem that religious minorities are more vulnerable to these sorts of attacks because they are seen to be supporters of the government,” she said.
Activists say kidnappings motivated by sectarian hatred are more common in areas where communities of different religious backgrounds live near each other but are separated by front lines. Men, women and even children have been affected, and kidnappers often demand sums around 3 million Syrian pounds ($42,000).
Some Damascus residents say they have altered their habits accordingly, ditching expensive cars for nondescript vehicles, dressing down and avoiding walking in the street alone when possible.
“Most kidnappers are motivated by a desire for financial gain,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, describing the emergence of “organized gangs” of kidnappers.
“They are warlords who take advantage of the insecurity that is ravaging the country,” he said.
Observers say it is impossible to know how many people have been affected, but Abdel Rahman said “several hundred people have been kidnapped on a sectarian basis, and several thousand more for money.”
Activists acknowledge that rebels are also involved in kidnapping, seeking ransoms to finance their fight. In the area around Damascus, one activist said, “most (kidnapping) has been committed by regime forces — including proregime militia — or rebels. We haven’t seen many (criminal) gangs motivated purely by financial gain emerge here.”
Amnesty International says it has documented sectarian kidnappings by opposition fighters. “These have included people captured apparently because of their nationality . . . or their political views, notably for belonging to the ruling Baath Party or for otherwise supporting the Syrian government,” the group said.
The opposition has criticized such behavior. “We condemn kidnapping in all its forms, and whatever the excuses used to justify it,” said Ahmad al-Khatib of the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
And opposition members are also victims of the phenomenon, with thousands reportedly “disappeared” — usually abducted by government forces or supporters of the regime. “The numbers of individuals that are disappeared that are affiliated with the opposition are incredibly high,” Fakih said. “So it’s certainly not something that’s just happening on one side of the conflict.”