Video said to show Syrian rebel executing unarmed prisoners

November 30, 2012

This video, posted to YouTube on Thursday after the Syrian Internet blackout went into effect, has been viewed thousands of times and drawn wide attention from Syria-watchers. Reuters says the video "appears to have been filmed by a Syrian rebel who points the camera along the barrel of his gun as he shoots 10 unarmed prisoners."

Here's Reuters' description, although I should note that I have watched the video several times and cannot say for sure that I can see the gunman shooting the men. He shoots at them at least twice; in the first incident, a few minutes into the video, he appears to be deliberately shooting between the men, and later camera pans do not appear to show anyone newly shot. But he does shoot again later, and I can't tell whether or not he's hit any of the unarmed men.

"I swear to God that we are peaceful," begs one of the men to the camera, which is being held by the gunman. Cowering, the man gets up to plead with rebels. As he approaches a rebel off-screen, a shot is heard and he returns holding his bloodied arm.

The cameraman then points the camera along the barrel of his Kalashnikov assault rifle as he shoots the men.

"God is great. Jabhat al-Nusra," he says, referring to the secretive al-Nusra Front, an Islamist rebel unit linked to al Qaeda that has claimed responsibility for several suicide bomb attacks around the country.

What I can say for sure is that the unarmed men, camouflage-wearing prisoners who may be Syrian military, appear absolutely terrified. "Wallah Sunni," they plead, which means, "I swear I am Sunni." Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, although President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle are part of the distinct Alawite sect.

After the shooting, the gunman declares, "You need to know who you are messing with, the al-Qaeda organization, you dogs."

Some Syria-watchers have responded to the video as an indication of the extremist groups within the rebel movement committing atrocities. Jabhat al-Nusra is in fact affiliated with al-Qaeda, and could now constitute up to 8 or 9 percent of the fighters there, David Ignatius reports. Some observers, meanwhile, have raised suspicion that the video might have been faked by the regime in an attempt to disgrace the rebels.

I can't say whether or not the video is authentic. I can't say how it made its way online in the middle of an Internet blackout. I can't tell who the gunman is, whom he shoots during the video, who is already shot when filming starts (two men are conspicuously motionless throughout, and one is clearly bleeding from his wrist), or what might be happening off screen as the camera shakes and spins. But this is, in some ways, symbolic of how the outside world watches the Syrian war: by scrutinizing shaky, bloody YouTube videos in a fruitless effort to deduce who is committing which atrocities and for what cause.

It's hard to tell what we're looking at in this video, but whatever it is, it's bloody, disturbing and cruel. That might be said of the 18-month war itself.

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Olga Khazan · November 30, 2012