Anne Barnard / New York Times – 2013-10-17 01:38:14
Syrian Civilians Bore Brunt
Of Rebels’ Fury, Report Says
Anne Barnard / New York Times
LATAKIA, Syria (October 11, 2013) — Before dawn on August 4, Raed Shakouhi, an olive and walnut farmer in a government-held hilltop village near the Syrian coast, just across a valley from rebel territory, was woken by gunshots and cries of “God is great.”
Mr. Shakouhi, 42, hid among nearby trees with his wife and four young children. The next day, he emerged to find his uncle shot dead, his family’s possessions stolen or destroyed, and the streets littered with bloodstains and the carcasses of farm animals, he recalled last month in an interview in the state-run shelter where he now lives. Many of his neighbors here in Latakia and in the surrounding villages, mostly members of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, fared even worse.
In a coordinated attack, numerous rebel groups fought off a small garrison of government troops and swept into the villages, killing 190 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Friday. At least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children, the report said. More than 200 civilians are still being held hostage.
“This is the first time that we have documented opposition forces actually systematically targeting civilians,” said Lama Fakih, the group’s deputy director in Beirut, Lebanon, who last month visited five of the villages, which the government had recaptured by Aug. 19. She also reviewed medical records and interviewed 19 witnesses as well as doctors, military officials and opposition members for the 113-page report. […]
The disclosures in the latest report cast further doubt on the effectiveness of Western efforts to isolate foreign fighters and other extremists within the rebellion and foster a command-and-control structure for the fractured opposition forces. And they seem bound to bolster the government’s strategy of convincing Syrians and world leaders that the alternative to its rule is chaos and extremism.
The groups accused of leading the Latakia operation and committing the bulk of the atrocities include the extremist, foreign-led Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — which is also engaged in armed conflict with rival rebel groups — along with the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and two other Islamist groups that include foreign fighters.
None of those cited as primary participants appear to be under the control of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, which has struggled to show it can retake the initiative on the ground from extremists. But at least 20 groups took part in the fighting, the report says, including some affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit collection of mainly Syrian rebel forces the council is trying to organize.
And in a video filmed nearby during the operation, Gen. Salim Idris, who leads the military council, is seen insisting that his forces played a leading role, in statements responding to criticism from Islamist groups that his fighters were hanging back.
The report said it was unclear whether forces linked to General Idris took part in the initial Aug. 4 attack, when forensic evidence suggests most of the civilians were killed. But it also said that anyone continuing to coordinate with such groups could be complicit in war crimes.
The Human Rights Watch report accuses the five leading fighting groups of crimes against humanity; names several private donors in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf countries as financiers of the operation; blames Turkey for allowing the fighters to use its territory; and calls for an arms embargo against the five groups, adding to its previous calls for such an embargo against the Syrian government.
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