More Atrocities in Syria?: This time Human Rights Watch blames rebels

Just weeks after it issued a damning report which connected the Syrian government to chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held areas outside Damascus, Human Rights Watch issued a new report today on human rights abuses and possible war crimes, this time implicating groups which are part of the armed Syrian opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to an H.R.W. report, armed opposition groups in Syria killed at least 190 civilians and seized over 200 as hostages during a military offensive that began in rural Latakia governorate on August 4, 2013. At least 67 of the victims were executed or unlawfully killed in the operation around pro-government Alawite villages.

The 105-page report, “‘You Can Still See Their Blood’: Executions, Indiscriminate Shootings, and Hostage Taking by Opposition Forces in Latakia Countryside,” presents evidence that the civilians were killed on August 4, the first day of the operation. Two opposition groups that took part in the offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, are still holding the hostages, the vast majority women and children, H.R.W. alleges. The findings strongly suggest that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.

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“These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This operation was a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population in these Alawite villages.”

“We woke up around 5 a.m. to the sound of gunfire coming closer to us. We started to run away, but as we were running we saw some people getting killed in front of us,” the New York–based Human Rights Watch quoted a resident of the village Abu Makkeh as saying. “I was fleeing with my mother, father — there were about eight of us, including my brother’s newborn daughter. Three neighbors died right in front of me. We walked into the fields nearly three kilometers (1.5 miles) to get to safety.”

The high civilian death toll, the nature of the recorded wounds—for example, multiple gunshot or stabbing wounds—and the presence of 43 women, children and elderly among the dead together indicate that opposition forces either intentionally or indiscriminately killed most of the remaining victims. The scale and pattern of the serious abuses carried out by opposition groups during the operation indicate that they were systematic and planned as part of an attack on a civilian population. The evidence strongly suggests that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses committed by opposition forces on and after August 4 rise to the level of crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.

The report said it is not clear what role, if any, the Free Syrian Army—the armed wing of the main opposition coalition that is openly supported by the United States, Britain, France and Sunni Muslim Gulf states—played in the offensive. In a video posted on Aug. 11 and apparently filmed in Latakia, F.S.A. chief Salim Idriss said his group was participating in the offensive “to a great extent,” but HRW researchers could not confirm if the FSA was present on Aug. 4, when the alleged atrocities took place. Al Jazeera reported today that it was not possible to get comments on HRW’s report from all 20 rebel groups it mentioned, but Abu Muhammed al-Husseini, head of the Sunni Ahrar al-Sham’s political office in Raqqa, said its fighters had not killed any civilians.

“If someone uses a weapon against you, you have to fight them. If they do not, you must not kill them,” al-Husseini said.

None of the rebel groups cited by H.R.W. as primary participants appear to be under the control of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council. The extremist, foreign-led Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, in fact, has recently clashed itself with other Syrian rebel groups. Nonetheless, the report cannot help but weaken the position that such independent groups can be contained by the F.S.A. maintained by some policymakers and politicians who support a more prominent role by the United States in supplying the "moderate" Free Syrian forces.

To provide victims a measure of justice, the human rights group urged that the U.N. Security Council should immediately refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Human Rights Watch has previously documented war crimes and crimes against humanity it charges were committed during the two-year old conflict by Syrian government forces.

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted an on-site investigation and interviewed more than 35 people, including residents who survived the offensive, emergency response staff, and fighters and activists on both government and opposition sides. Human Rights Watch found that at least 20 distinct armed opposition groups participated in the operation they alternately termed the “campaign of the descendants of Aisha, the mother of believers,” the “Barouda offensive,” or the “operation to liberate the coast,” which lasted until August 18. It is not clear whether all or most of these groups were in the villages on August 4 when the vast majority of abuses apparently took place.

However, five groups that were the key fund-raisers, organizers, and executors of the attacks were clearly present from the outset of the operation on August 4: Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suquor al-Izz. Human Rights Watch concluded through multiple interviews, the on-site investigation, and a review of opposition statements and videos that these five armed groups are responsible for specific incidents that amount to war crimes.

Through the on-site investigation, witness statements, videos and photographs, and a review of hospital records, Human Rights Watch determined that opposition forces unlawfully killed at least 67 of the 190 dead civilians who were identified. For the rest of those killed, the group says further investigation is required to determine the circumstances of their deaths and whether the victims died as a result of unlawful killings.

The opposition fighters attacked between 4:30 and 5 a.m. on August 4, the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan. The fighters overran government army positions guarding the area and entered more than 10 Alawite villages. The government began an offensive to retake the area on August 5, regaining full control on August 18.

In separate interviews local residents and a government military intelligence officer serving in the area told Human Rights Watch that opposition fighters first entered the Sheikh Nabhan area of Barouda, where government soldiers were positioned. Once the opposition overtook that and other neighboring military positions, they attacked the villages of Barouda, Nbeiteh, al-Hamboushieh, Blouta, Abu Makkeh, Beyt Shakouhi, Aramo, Bremseh, Esterbeh, Obeen, and Kharata. In the following days, opposition fighters also gained control of Qal’ah, Talla, and Kafraya.

Fourteen residents from eight of these villages told Human Rights Watch that they awoke to the sounds of gun and mortar fire and the voices of incoming opposition fighters. They described frantically attempting to flee as opposition fighters stormed the area, opening fire apparently indiscriminately, and in some cases deliberately shooting at residents.

In some cases, opposition fighters executed or gunned down entire families. In other cases, surviving family members had to leave loved ones behind. One resident of the hamlet between Blouta and al-Hamboushieh described fleeing his home with his mother as opposition fighters entered his neighborhood, and having to leave his elderly father and blind aunt behind because of their physical infirmities. He said that when he returned to the neighborhood after the government retook the area, he found that his father and aunt had been killed:

My mom was here in the house with me. She came out of the house first, and I was behind her. We saw the three fighters just in front of us, and then we fled on foot down behind the house and into the valley. The three fighters that I saw were all dressed in black. They were shooting at us from two different directions. They had machine guns and were using snipers. My older brother came down and hid with us as well. We hid, but my dad stayed in the house. He was killed in his bed. My aunt, she is an 80-year-old blind woman, was also killed in her room. Her name is Nassiba.

Fourteen residents and first responders, interviewed separately, told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed executions or saw bodies that bore signs of execution, including some corpses that were bound and others that had been decapitated. A doctor working in the National Hospital in Latakia, which received the casualties from the countryside, told Human Rights Watch that the hospital received 205 corpses of civilians killed during the August 4-18 operation.

The doctor showed Human Rights Watch a medical report the hospital prepared on August 26 stating that the “[c]ause of death in several of [the bodies] was multiple gunshot wounds all over the bodies, in addition to stab wounds made with a sharp instrument, given the decapitation observed in most bodies … Some corpses were found in a state of complete charring, and others had their feet tied …” The medical report reflected that the degree of decomposition of the corpses was consistent with the victims having been killed around August 4.

According to opposition sources, including an opposition military officerfrom Latakia involved in negotiations, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, are holding over 200 civilians from the Alawite villages as hostages, the vast majority women and children. Nine residents from the Latakia countryside separately told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had been taken hostage. Three of these residents said they saw their relatives in the background of a video published on YouTube on September 7. The video showed civilians from the area held hostage by Abu Suhaib, the Libyan local leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar.

A Barouda resident told Human Rights Watch that 23 of her relatives were missing. She said she saw several of them on the YouTube video: “The oldest son of my brother… [who was executed] would have just been starting school … He has two sons, [one] who is six, and [another] who is four-and-a-half.” Other residents told Human Rights Watch about cases in which opposition fighters executed adult male family members, and then captured women and children from the family as hostages.

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