The Syrian government has committed "crimes against humanity" as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have sought to quell the uprising of opposition groups in the area of Homs, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch released today.
The authors of the report called on the Arab League, scheduled to meet in Cairo on Saturday, to suspend Syria's membership and urge the United Nations Security Council to enact an arms embargo and sanctions.
Although the Syrian government has blamed armed gangs for fomenting the country’s unrest, saying they have killed hundreds of soldiers and police, the Human Rights Watch report found that there is likely widespread government-sponsored violence. HRW drew on interviews with 110 victims and eyewitnesses. Foreign journalists are banned from the country so many reports are difficult to independently verify.
Homs – both the city and the governorate by the same name – has been one of the main centers for opposition against the Assad government. The BBC reports that the situation became more armed and violent as government forces began defecting to the opposition. Between mid-April and August, Syrian forces have killed at least 587 civilians in Homs and a recent UN report found that as many as 3,500 Syrians have been killed since the up rising began.
“Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government’s brutality,” said the Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson in an official statement. “The Arab League needs to tell President Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage."
Syria’s uprising is now eight months old. Though government forces agreed to start talks with the opposition, pull out of urban areas, and release political prisoners in early November, the government has shown no signs of honoring the agreement.
There is increasing concern that protesters, who have largely stuck to peaceful methods despite reported tank fire, shelling, and shootings by government loyalists, could now take up weapons en masse.
“[The conflict] is moving into a new phase where we are seeing more armed people on the streets of Syrian cities,” said Al Jazeera's Rula Amin in Beirut. “The opposition attributes these armed groups to defectors from the army ... They say most of the protests are peaceful and the defectors now are carrying their guns in order to protect and defend the civilian population. But definitely the crackdown by the government has instigated more people carrying more arms against the security forces.”
The Arab League is set to discuss Syria’s failure to comply with its agreement to begin talks with the opposition during an emergency session on Saturday. There are already indications that the organization may pursue economic sanctions against Syria, a move that The New York Times says “would be humiliating to a government that has cast itself as the pre-eminent force behind Arab unity.”
Meanwhile, violence continued in Homs on Friday and nine protesters were reportedly killed as demonstrators joined in the call for the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership, reports Reuters. Homs has seen the highest death toll of any region in Syria since protests began in March.