The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which was set up by the UN, has submitted its latest report to the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. Although it is biased in terms of laying the primary responsibility for the massive human rights violations taking place in Syria on government forces, at the same time it provides an enormous amount of information indicating that there have also been crimes and violations committed by the rebels who are being supported by the West. It is a reality which is no longer possible to ignore…
The document covers investigations carried out between 15 May and 15 July 2013. Its findings are based on 258 interviews and other collected evidence. As far as the Syrian government is concerned, it has already been assigned all the blame by the western media. The section of the report touching on the notorious actions of the opposition is hardly referred to at all. This is what we are going to turn our attention to now.
The report points out that in the period from 15 May to 15 July 2013 with regard to violations concerning the treatment of civilians and combatants not involved in military actions, anti-government armed groups had established their own «quasi-judicial mechanisms». The lack of codified law led to an inconsistent administration of justice. Essential judicial and procedural guarantees were rarely accorded, and most judicial mechanisms did not reach the necessary level of independence and impartiality.
The punitive mechanisms established by some armed groups deny the right to counsel and the opportunity for appeal, given that executions were carried out immediately after sentencing. In reality, the judges of these kinds of courts are acting on the orders of the commanders of illegal armed groups. Moreover, captured soldiers or pro-government fighters who «confess to killing a fighter for the Free Syrian Army» face immediate extrajudicial execution.
The execution of 15-year-old Mohamed Qatta in Aleppo on 8 June by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Catholic priest Father François Murad in Idlib simply for belonging to the Christian faith are given by way of example.
With regard to arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention, the number of people being detained by anti-government groups is constantly rising, as is the number of instances of arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention. In April, a doctor in Aleppo was detained for refusing to allow Jabhat Al-Nusra to hoist its flag over a field hospital. More than 150 people were detained in the same location, and none had access to counsel. Family visits were also prohibited. In Ar Raqqah, ISIS fighters detained several hundred prisoners, including women. There is no indication that detainees are being given the opportunity to use their fundamental rights at the present time.
With regard to hostage-taking, the report recognises that this is being carried out by both government forces and anti-government armed groups. Recently, the number of such cases has risen sharply. «Armed men, motivated by financial gain or to exchange prisoners held by opposing forces, abduct and hold individuals under threat of death. Scores remain captive; others have been released after negotiation. In the period under review, dozens were killed».
In terms of the use of torture and ill-treatment, «there are strong indications» that such practices by anti-government armed groups are on the rise. In mid-May, for example, members of a sharia committee in northern Aleppo city arrested and detained several activists who had taken part in a peaceful demonstration and subjected them to physical violence, including beating them on the soles of their feet. The group Liwa Asifat Al-Shamal operates a 300-person capacity prison in Azaz (Aleppo) where, as a method of interrogation, detainees are put in a 1.5m deep hole in the ground and covered with sheet metal for 48 hours.
The violation of children’s rights is also a common practice among the rebels. Children have been killed as a result of the shelling of residential areas. On 15 June, a 10-year-old boy in Al-Fou’a (Idlib) was killed as a result of shelling. On 8 June, three armed men executed 15-year-old Mohamed Qatta in Aleppo. Two children were among 27 people killed in Hatla (Dayr az Zawr) on 10 June.
Some armed groups have recruited children under the age of 18 into their ranks. The ranks of both Liwa Al-Tawheed and Jabhat Al-Nusra include fighters between the ages of 14 and 18. As is explained in the report, children are recruited because «they fight with enthusiasm; they are fearless». A 13-year-old boy enlisted with an FSA brigade in Dara’a after the school where he studied was closed. He was used as a porter, whose duties included carrying the wounded and medicines, and preparing ammunition. He was seriously wounded in May.
In terms of violations concerning the conduct of hostilities, the report points to the unlawful attacks carried out by anti-government armed groups, including operations carried out in civilian areas in violation of international legal obligations to avoid positioning military objectives within or near densely populated areas. Anti-government armed groups including Liwa Al-Tawheed, for example, continued to shell the Shia settlements of Nubl and Zahra in northern Aleppo using artillery and home-made rockets.
From March to July, a coalition of armed groups, including Ahrar Al Sham, Liwa Al-Tawheed and Jabhat Al-Nusra, shelled Aleppo central prison. In Aleppo city, armed groups fired rockets and shells indiscriminately into government-controlled neighbourhoods. Snipers belonging to these groups also shot indiscriminately into government-controlled neighbourhoods of Aleppo city, causing civilian casualties.
On the whole, «anti-government armed groups used mortars, rockets and snipers» throughout the country «in a manner that made no distinction between civilian and military objectives».
There have also been attacks on specifically protected persons and objects. On 28 May, Liwa Shuhada Al-Huran attacked the national hospital in Dara’a. Medical personnel were not given any warning prior to the attack. In the two days following the attack on Hatla (Dayr az Zawr) on 11 June, Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters looted and then blew up the Shia memorial to Imam Al-Hussein and Imam Murtada and the Shia Al-Rasoul Al-Muaddam mosque. A church was also barbarically destroyed in Ghassaniya (Idlib) with its statues dismembered and icons painted over. On 27 May, a correspondent from television channel Al-Ikhbariya, Yara Abbas, was killed when her crew’s vehicle came under fire from anti-government armed groups in Al Qusayr. Some armed groups have detained journalists for extended periods. Their subsequent release without trial, and the confiscation in some cases of their equipment, indicates an attempt to prevent journalists from performing their professional work.
Sieges and attacks on food security have become a common occurrence. Since July 2012, militants in northern Aleppo have laid siege to Nubl and Zahra, blocking food, fuel and medical supplies to its residents and government forces inside. Since April, armed groups, including Liwa Al-Tawheed, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ghoraba Al-Sham, have besieged the predominantly Kurdish town of Afrin. Supplies of food and electricity to Afrin have been blocked. Due to the lack of clean water in the town, there has been a rise in infectious diseases. In April, armed groups imposed a siege on Aleppo central prison, blocking supplies of food and medicine to the prison.
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Assessing the situation in Syria following the period covered in the report, the head of the Commission that prepared the report, Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, reported on 16 September that: «Across northern Syria, there has been an upsurge in crimes and abuses committed by extremist anti-government armed groups along with an influx of rebel foreign fighters. There are now a number of brigades made up entirely of non-Syrians». Carla del Ponte, a member of the commission, declared for her part that she believes the estimate that nearly half of the Syrian oppositionists are radical Islamists is realistic. «The information is completely justified. I would even say that the number is slightly higher», she admitted on 23 September, commenting on a report by the British research group IHS Jane’s on the Swiss television channel RTS. «In Syria, events are developing as follows: the number of oppositionists who are actually democratically-minded and in favour of a peaceful resolution is decreasing, while the number of extremists is increasing, and, as a consequence, the number of crimes they are committing is also on the rise», says Del Ponte.
In light of the information given above, the conclusion arrived at in the Commission’s report (the Commission was mostly made up of representatives from Western countries) is of fundamental importance: «There is no military solution to this conflict. Those who supply arms create but an illusion of victory. A political solution founded on the tenets of the final communiqué of the Action Group for Syria (the Geneva communiqué) is the only path to peace».
One can only hope that the decision makers in Western capitals will take this conclusion and the recommendations of their own experts on board.