UN: Syrian regime, rebels both increasing attacks on civilians

UN investigators said they have strong evidence of human rights abuses committed by both sides of the conflict in Syria, which has left more than 19,000 people, mostly civilians, dead.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters
Residents walk near an area damaged after a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired missiles in Kansfra, near Idlib, Sept. 18.

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As the Syrian conflict spilled into neighboring Lebanon yesterday, the United Nations released a report indicating both the Syrian Army and rebel forces had increased attacks against civilians – which, if proved, would be war crimes under international law.

UN investigators announced they have a “formidable and extraordinary body of evidence” of human rights abuses committed by both sides of the conflict in Syria, and urged the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

“Gross human rights violations have grown in number, in pace, and in scale,” Paulo Pinheiro, who led the UN commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in Syria, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday. “There is no statue of limitations on these crimes.”

The United Nations estimates that over the past 18 months of conflict in Syria, more than 19,000 people – mostly civilians – have been killed. In addition, an estimated 1.2 million are now internally displaced, and close to a quarter million have fled the country.

Mr. Pinheiro, whose team conducted more than 1,100 interviews to put together their report, noted the conflict has spilled into neighboring countries. This includes both via humanitarian ramifications – large waves of refugees seeking safety, food, water, and shelter – and through overflow of actual fighting. On Monday, four missiles were reportedly fired by Syrian jets, which struck a remote area on the Lebanese side of the border, reports The Associated Press.

The Syrian forces were believed to be chasing rebels in the area, which has been the site of clashes in the past between opposition fighters battling Syrian troops just on the other side of the frontier. Lebanese armed forces have in the past detained people in the region for trying to smuggle weapons into Syria from Lebanon.

Arsal is a predominantly Sunni Muslim town, like the majority of Syria's opposition that is trying to oust President Bashar Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syrian shells have hit Lebanese territory in the past but the air raid appears to be the most serious violation. Several Lebanese, including a journalist, have been killed and dozens wounded by fire coming from the Syrian side.

Monday also saw attacks on rebel-held areas of Aleppo and Damascus, reports AP. Pinheiro urged the international community to deploy renewed efforts to help resolve the conflict and end the ongoing violence in Syria.

Yesterday also marked the first meeting of a newly formed group of four Mideast “heavyweights” tasked with finding an end to Syria’s conflict, reports a second AP story. The group consisted of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt – all supporters of Syria’s rebels – as well as Iran, the staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Nobody should expect from one meeting an immediate action plan which we agree upon and could be presented to others,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who added that the “regional ownership” of the Syrian crisis was the most important aspect of the gathering.

Iran recently acknowledged its direct role in aiding Mr. Assad’s army, and Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, said yesterday that “the solution in Syria should be a Syrian solution,” not “imposed from the outside,” reports AP. This stance could make any regional agreement challenging.

The Turkish foreign minister focused more on civilians, saying the ultimate goal should be “a strong Syria” based on the “legitimate rights and demands of the people.”

Yesterday’s UN report comes almost one year after the US and European Union implemented sanctions on Syria in an effort to place non-military pressure on the violent conflict there. Though the sanctions have inflicted economic pain, it may not have reached the intended ranks, reports USA Today.

In August 2011, President Obama announced new sanctions against companies and figures in the Assad regime that barred U.S. citizens and firms from dealing with them. The sanctions were announced the same week that the European Union imposed an embargo of Syrian oil.

Syria's Central Bureau of Statistics revealed last month that consumer prices rose 36% in June from a year earlier amid sanctions on more than 100 individuals and entities. The cost of electricity and gas increased 32%.

But the Assad family, often referred to in the country as a "mafia," has more than 40 years in power established control over much of Syria's domestic corporations and large businesses that are relatively unaffected by sanctions.

Besides controlling most of Syria's national wealth, which runs into hundreds of billions of dollars, the family's personal assets could equal more than $1 billion, [Iain Willis, director of research at Alaco, a business intelligence consultant in London] says.

Pinheiro noted that the combination of economic sanction and unabated violence has in part worsened the situation in Syria. “The Commission maintains that sanctions result in a denial of the most basic human rights to Syrians,” he said. “Scarcity of basic human needs such as potable water food, electricity, petrol and cooking fuel is causing rampant inflation.”

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