OPERATION CAESAR: At the Heart of the Syrian Death Machine.

AuthorHarris, William

OPERATION CAESAR: At the Heart of the Syrian Death Machine

Author: Garance Le Caisne (translated from the French by David Watson)

Published by: Polity Press, Cambridge, 2018, 176pp, US$33.95.

Even relatively conservative counts of deaths from violence through Syria's war period from 2011 to 2021 register around half a million fatalities. As with the Covid-19 pandemic, our sensitivity to death in the Syrian war has diminished with increasing numbers of victims. Nonetheless, the Syrian toll ranks as the leading case of human inhumanity to humans in the 21st century so far, and the primary responsibility rests not with non-state actors and religious extremists but with the Syrian state and regime. Determined to retain command of the largest Arab country of the Levant, the apparatus headed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deployed its broad array of heavy armaments and intelligence agencies to stamp out recalcitrance.

Caesar is the pseudonym of a Syrian military police photographer who, as the conflict intensified after early 2011, found himself mainly photographing bodies of male civilians tortured to death in state prisons. The state recorded the victims as having had heart attacks or respiratory complaints. Such flimsy cover reflected contempt for ordinary people and a drive to terrorise; senior Syrian officials believed themselves beyond accountability. Caesar, dismayed by embroilment in the developing 'death machine', copied thousands of documents and high-definition photos, all smuggled to the West for later use against the Syrian regime in courts, official circles and international institutions. He fled Syria in late 2013 and joined futile efforts to persuade Western governments to take serious action to stop the atrocities.

Garance Le Caisne's fine account, rendered into English by David Watson, tells the story of Caesar, his friends and 26,948 images of 6627 bodies of civilian detainees who were incarcerated in 24 detention centres and killed by the Syrian state between 2011 and 2013. Le Caisne also provides a detailed back-up survey of other shocking, often lethal, Syrian experiences. The book is very helpful context for a case and photo collection that has become a cause celebre in the United States and Europe. The graphic indications of regime barbarity ensured bipartisan backing in 2020 for US Congressional activation of the 'Caesar Bill' for new US sanctions against prominent Syrians...

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