Accusations of war crimes rob Syrian rebel fighters of moral high ground

Human rights organizations have both condemned Syrian rebels' turn to kidnappings and executions. The change in tactics could jeopardize international support for the Free Syrian Army. 

Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS
A Free Syrian Army member mans a checkpoint in Dana August 10.

Syrian government forces have borne the brunt of international condemnation of violence in Syria, but with the strengthening and militarization of the opposition, accusations of human rights abuses and war crimes are now falling on the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well.

Amnesty International has been among those raising questions about the actions of the FSA. "While the overwhelming majority of crimes continue to be committed by the Syrian security forces, serious abuses including war crimes by some members of armed opposition groups, including the FSA, are also on the rise, particularly in the province of Aleppo," the human rights organization reported this week. The Obama administration has also been vocal in its criticism.

Opposition members are worried the charges will ruin their relationship with international partners who have been providing critical funds, weapons, and other types of support. The specifics of many of the charges cannot be independently verified, but opposition leaders on the Jordanian border admit that recent events, including the execution of government soldiers and the kidnapping of Iranian pilgrims, point to rising brutality by the rebels.

Kidnapping – of both civilians and regime forces – is the most common allegation made against the FSA. Rebels are reportedly demanding money from family members in exchange for releasing the hostage. Syrian refugees on the Jordanian border say that family members connected to the Assad regime have disappeared, and they assume that opposition groups such as the FSA are responsible.

Samer, one of dozens of FSA fighters who cross into Jordan regularly on "missions," says regime soldiers captured by the FSA are often killed. However, other FSA members in Jordan deny this. They say the rebels in Syria who are kidnapping, torturing, and executing regime supporters are not members of the FSA, and that some of them are just using the group’s name for their own personal gain.

“They don’t care if Assad falls. It is a commercial gain for them. They just want money,” says Ahmed al-Masri, a political and media strategist with the FSA who works directly with the Jordanian government to smuggle in soldiers who have defected.

Mohammad Shakaki, an FSA member who coordinates health-care services and aids Syrian soldiers in defecting, used to fight in the streets of Homs for the rebel group. He says that despite the human rights abuses associated with the FSA, the group is “protecting the civil people and always defending the country.”

“We are going to build a country, not destroy it,” he says. “We are going to attack the terrorists and make good relationships with neighboring countries.”

This week, an amateur video of FSA members executing Syrian government soldiers spread across the Internet. The video shows several prisoners lined up against a wall who are then shot and killed simultaneously. Even after they are clearly dead, rounds are fired at the bodies. Men can be heard in the screaming “Free Syrian Army forever" in the background.

Mohammad Aonad, who works for the human rights bureau of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the umbrella opposition group that has been recognized as a legitimate political representative by much of the international community, admitted that the FSA was responsible for the execution, but says that not all of the crimes can be traced back to the group. He believes that unaffiliated rebels are falsely attributing their crimes to the FSA. 

But the FSA did claim responsibility for the kidnapping last week of 48 Iranian pilgrims who were reportedly traveling to the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque in Damascus. It insists the captives were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, not religious pilgrims, as Iran contends.

Several groups of Iranians, suspected by Syrian rebels of coming to fight for the Assad regime, have been abducted since the beginning of the conflict. In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern over the kidnapping of Iranians in a public letter to the SNC. According to the letter, the Al Farouq battalion of the FSA admitted to capturing seven Iranians in January.

The execution of Assad soldiers and the capturing of the Iranian pilgrims has prompted international condemnation and elicited an angry response from the Obama administration last week. State Department officials said FSA’s brutality measures are unacceptable. 

"This is abhorrent and inconsistent with the type of struggle for freedom and a new Syria that the broad opposition is looking for," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a group of reporters.

In the letter to the SNC in March, Human Rights Watch reported that “armed opposition elements have carried out serious human rights abuses” and called on opposition leaders to “make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap, or execute under any circumstances.” 

In many cases, the abuses attributed to the FSA match those of the Syrian government. But Mr. Aonad argues there is a distinct difference in how the crimes are carried out: the Assad regime is ordering soldiers to kidnap, torture, rape, and kill, while the FSA’s abuses are made by individuals and not on orders from their superiors.

Aonad says that the FSA’s abuses should not be considered war crimes or human rights abuses because the rebel group is merely reacting to Assad’s brutality.

“It's war,” he says. “The FSA is not responsible. It’s revenge.” 

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