Queiq: The River That Streamed Bodies in Aleppo


PhD Researcher

Faculty of Arts & Humanities

Utrecht University

Ali Aljasem is a researcher at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University focusing on paramilitary groups in Syria. He is also the Syria consultant for the Dialogue Advisory Group and a board member of Damaan Humanitarian Organization and Acume


A call to observe episodes of violence with a focus on the perpetrators, rather than the victims. This research highlights how both a focus on the victims and rigid definitions of genocide might help perpetuators evade justice.

The research uncovers an episode of violence in the context of the conflict in Aleppo, Syria, in 2013. It profiles perpetrators, their networks and their main operators. It is very important to address the massacre as an act of violence away from the set criteria of genocide and quantitive measurements. Such an approach will make it very difficult for perpetrators to evade accountability.

Key Findings

This research calls for a greater focus on the perpetrators, rather than the victims. Because while the victims are extremely important, they are no longer living whereas the perpetrators remain and repeat the same violence.

How to use

A review of previous writing and conventions on genocide and former episodes of violence through these new lenses that consider every violent crime as bad, avoiding labelling crimes as a genocide or not depending on the body count.
We don’t need new labels or terminology to change perspectives, instead we just need to be careful how it is used so that it changes perspective, and so it does not feed into the current and rigid categorisation of crimes. Perhaps rather than distinguishing between a massacre or a genocide, as one is interpreted as worse than the other, we should consider them both a crime.
The delivery of justice must not be dependent on the categorisation of a crime. These categorisations help perpetrators argue against a crime and thus evade justice, as they argue that their crime is not as severe as another crime as another crime category. These categories create technicalities that make it harder to prosecute perpetuators.
A collective change is needed where we all play a role. It is everyone's responsibility to change the language surrounding perpetrators. It is not just the media who must focus more on the perpetrators to help hold them accountable, but it is also NGOs and initial reporting that should use less passive language and be more public when discussing a perpetrators responsibility.
This research is relevant to all discourse related to framing justice, and to other contexts such as Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Cambodia, Western Sahara, and China (genocide against the Uyghur people)

Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

Ali Aljasem (2021) ‘Queiq: The River That Streamed Bodies in Aleppo’, Journal of Genocide Research.

About this research

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

Recommended for

UN Sustainable Development Goals

This research contributes to the following SDGs

What it means

I found that there is an issue to how ‘genocide’ is framed. It builds from Dirk Moses recent work on the ‘problem of genocide’, which explores the problem of language and framing when we talk about genocide, and compare crimes. It should not be about the classification and labelling of crimes, instead we should look at crimes as crimes. For example, if the death toll is one less than one thousand in one episode of violence, then it is not technically a genocide. But it should not matter if it is a genocide, a massacre, a homicide etc, it should matter that it is a crime. And these labels only serve to make crimes relative in severity. Death tolls are not a productive way to measure criminal violence.

This research calls for a greater focus on the perpetrators, rather than the victims. Because while the victims are extremely important, they are no longer living whereas the perpetrators remain and repeat the same violence.

But if you look at the data on this case, most of the videos and reports talk about the victims, rather than examine the perpetrators. It is usually easy to collect data on victims as you have enough people to speak to about the facts, their backgrounds, their families etc. Victims are usually easy to identify.

However, it is a lot harder to find out about the perpetrators, and there is a need for specificity about who was behind the violence, the communities and groups they belong to. But how do we research the perpetrators to ensure they are brought to justice and held accountable?

There also seems to be a use of passive language to avoid passing responsibility to the perpetrators. By saying “X people were killed” and “X people were found”, it already strips the responsibility of the perpetrators. And makes it very unclear who was behind the crime. This victim-focused language in the media moves focus away from the individual crimes and perpetrators and obstructs justice from being served.

Therefore, the focus of how we talk about crimes needs to change. Small episodes of violence (in Syria and similar events) should be viewed with a different framing, with a focus on the perpetrators rather than the victims.


This research was based on reports from forensic doctors, nurses, documents from human rights watch, documentaries, news articles, and an interview with one of the perpetrators.

However, there is a scarcity of evidence about the perpetuators surrounding violent acts (such as Aleppo 2013)


Episodes Of Violence
Individual acts of violence (separated from a wider context such as genocides)
All individuals involved in carrying out violent acts
Looking at backgrounds and connections of people involved in episodes of violence to further understand violent acts

Let your research make a social impact

Ben Levett prepared this research following an interview with Ali Aljasem.