War-crime accusations emerge as Syrian rebels take strategic town

Syrian regime forces may face logistical problems after withdrawing from the strategic town of Saraqeb. The UN says a video that has emerged appears to show rebels committing war crimes.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters/File
Residents and members of the Free Syrian Army protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Saraqeb near Idlib in this October 15 file photo.

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Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have left a key town between Damascus and the battleground city of Aleppo, hindering the regime's ability to supply its troops. But the rebels' takeover of the town of Saraqeb also appears to have involved war crimes, which were recorded and published online.

Reuters reports that, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Saraqeb and its surroundings are now "completely outside the control of regime forces" after the regime pulled its troops from their last base in the region. The town, located at the crossroads of two major highways (see a map here), is a key strategic point between Aleppo, where rebels and government forces have been fighting since July, and Mr. Assad's stronghold of Damascus. The Observatory's director, Rami Abdelrahman, said that, as a result of losing Saraqeb, the military would be forced to send its supplies to Aleppo via smaller rural roads or via a dangerous road from the east.

But while the military's withdrawal from Saraqeb may be a strategic victory for the rebels, the fighting in the region also appears to have entailed war crimes committed by the opposition. A newly posted video on YouTube shows disturbing footage of what seems to be several rebel soldiers executing unarmed and wounded regime captives. Reuters reports that the executed men were soldiers captured during rebel attacks on three checkpoints around Saraqeb before the withdrawal.

The video footage showed a group of petrified men, some bleeding, lying on the ground as rebels walked around, kicking and stamping on their captives.

One of the captured men says: "I swear I didn't shoot anyone" to which a rebel responds: "Shut up you animal ... Gather them for me." Then the men are shot dead.  

Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

Mr. Abdelrahman said the attacks resulted in 28 soldiers killed, including those executed in the video. He also said the killers in the video were members of the Al Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group.

Ann Harrison of Amnesty International told The New York Times that the footage "depicts a potential war crime in progress, and demonstrates an utter disregard for international humanitarian law by the armed group in question." A United Nations Human Rights Council spokesman made similar comments when shown the video, reports Reuters.

Whether or not the executioners in the video were members of Jabhat al-Nusra, jihadists are a growing presence in Syria and are proving attractive to aspiring revolutionaries in the country.  The Monitor's Scott Peterson reported yesterday that while the US and other Western nations offer words of encouragement and small arms and communications equipment to Syrians fighting Assad, the jihadis offer weapons and manpower.

"We hoped the American government would help us in our revolution, because it fights for the democratic flag in the world – and toppled Saddam Hussein in the name of democracy," says a Syrian judge who runs a temporary court in a rebel-controlled district of Aleppo. He gave his name as Abu Ibrahim.

"But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did nothing. America failed us," says the secular Syrian, whose tailored suit and pressed shirt contrasted sharply with the motley collection of rebels who man the frontline a few streets away. "This whole thing about jihadists is an excuse not to support us."

"The jihadists in Aleppo are so few, and we take them as a burden. We don't need them, we need their weapons, their fighters," Abu Ibrahim says. "We are ashamed to tell them to get out. They came to fight with us and we must appreciate that. We can't stop them because the West has not come to help."

But the Guardian's Martin Chulov, reporting on foreign jihadist fighters working with native rebels, writes that some rebels think that the jihadists and the Syrian rebels' cooperative relationship may prove to be short-lived.

Bound by social customs that offer wayfarers shelter and hospitality, this rebel unit seemed to sense that trouble is brewing between them and the growing band of global jihadis. Many rebel groups the Guardian spoke to this week said a showdown was looming with the new arrivals.

"I give it six months," said one rebel officer at a checkpoint in the old market place in the central Aleppo suburb of Midan on Thursday. "Maybe a year," said another. "I was in Iraq fighting the Americans and I saw how they changed once they sensed they had power."

"It's so mixed up," said a third young rebel, a defector from Damascus. "And this is just how Bashar wants it."

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