How all sides are committing war crimes in Syria


Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on Tuesday. (Zein Rifaizein Al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)

A report published Wednesday by a United Nations-appointed commission on Syria indicates that both the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel factions seeking its overthrow, including the extremist Islamic State, are guilty of war crimes amid the country's ongoing, brutal civil war. Last week, the U.N. said at least 191,000 Syrians have died since hostilities broke out in 2011.

The U.N.'s findings, based on 480 interviews and months of compiled documentary material, "establish that the conduct of the warring parties in the Syrian Arab Republic has caused civilians immeasurable suffering," according to the report's executive summary.

It documents how the Assad regime has targeted civilian populations, reportedly used chemical weapons and conducted torture and extrajudicial killings. Beyond the hideous slaughters carried out by the Islamic State, many rebel factions have a record of recruiting child soldiers, shelling civilian-populated areas, taking hostages and murdering members of religious minorities.

The panel behind the report recommends referring the situation to the International Criminal Court -- an earlier team of investigators placed Assad at the top of a list of war criminals in the conflict who ought to be prosecuted someday. But given the paralysis in the U.N. Security Council surrounding action on the conflict, as well as the complex geopolitics that have led to Western ambivalence about the Assad regime, it's unlikely this latest inquiry will affect much change on the ground.

Below are excerpts from the compiled findings.

First, a snapshot of the Assad regime's reported crimes, which include the disappearance and torture of thousands of Syrian civilians:

In mid-2013, a 12-year-old boy was arrested in Damascus after speaking with his cousin, a member of an armed group. The family hired a lawyer, who determined that the boy had been held in Military Security Branch 235. On their taking the matter to court, the judge informed them that the boy was at a private hospital. When they arrived there, they were told their son was dead. His body bore marks of severe torture, including electrocution.

The report offered this damning indictment of Damascus's behavior:

Government forces perpetrated unlawful killings as part of a widespread attack directed against the civilian population. The attacks included widespread shelling and bombardment of civilian-inhabited localities and the targeting of civilians for arrest, detention and disappearance on the basis of their association or perceived opposition to the Government. The coordination and active participation of Government institutions indicated that the attacks were conducted as a matter of institutional policy. The unlawful killings formed part of those attacks and constitute crimes against humanity. Government forces also committed the war crime of murder and arbitrarily deprived people of life.

Assad's forces have carried out collective punishment:

Where frontlines have stalled, the Government has employed a strategy of controlling the population, combining long-lasting sieges with continuous air and ground bombardment. In neighbourhoods around Damascus, including Yarmouk, Darayya, Babbila and Barzah, civilians were targeted on the basis of their perceived opposition to the Government. Merely living in or originating from those neighbourhoods led to targeting. The Government has carried out a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Aleppo to punish and terrorize civilians for supporting or hosting armed groups, in an apparent strategy to erode popular support for those groups.

And reportedly used chemical weapons in areas teeming with civilians:

Reasonable grounds exist to believe that chemical agents, likely chlorine, were used on Kafr Zeita, Al-Tamana’a and Tal Minnis in eight incidents within a 10-day period in April 2014]. There are also reasonable grounds to believe that those agents were dropped in barrel bombs from government helicopters flying overhead

But the rebels, which include the Islamic State as well as a host of other Islamist, Kurdish and more secular factions, are also guilty of hideous misdeeds. The Islamic State, of course, comes under most direct attack for its slaughter of prisoners, mistreatment of women, and brutal imposition of shariah law in territories it controls. From the commission's press release:

In areas of Syria under [Islamic State] control, particularly in the north and northeast of the country, Fridays are regularly marked by executions, amputations and lashings in public squares. Civilians, including children, are urged to watch. Bodies of those killed are placed on display for several days, terrorizing the local population. Women have been lashed for not abiding by [Islamic State]’s dress code. In [Raqqa, a city fully under Islamic State control], children as young as 10 are being recruited and trained at [Islamic State] camps. [Islamic State] has forcibly displaced Kurdish communities in northern Syria. Journalists and other media workers are systematically targeted.

A host of rebel factions have taken to kidnapping, partly as a tactic to extort money as well as a means of gaining leverage amid a constellation of fighting units vying for influence. From the report:

Armed groups continue to hold hostages for extended periods. On 4 August 2013, groups, including Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra [an al-Qaeda-linked organization, supported in part by the government of Qatar], abducted over 200 civilians during an operation on villages in eastern Latakia. On 23 September 2013, the Islamic Front kidnapped over 56 civilians from Zahra (Aleppo). In both instances, most hostages were women and children. While a small number of hostages in both cases have been released, the whereabouts of the majority remain unknown.

Civilians from Nubl and Zahra (Aleppo), taken hostage by armed groups — including the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra — on 23 September 2013, suffered beatings while being held. Hostages were divided into different groups, with at least one group held in cold, damp conditions and provided with inadequate food.

Groups like the Islamic State have systematically targeted ethnic and religious minorities that don't subscribe to its puritanical dogma. An example from the report:

On 18 March, ISIS fighters entered Tal Akhder village (Ar Raqqah). Fighters used the mosque’s minarets to deliver an ultimatum to Kurdish residents to leave the village within two days or be killed. On 20 March, several hundred ISIS fighters returned and repeated the threat. Civilians fled in fear, carrying few possessions with them.

Their recruitment of child soldiers is a war crime:

[Islamic State] has established training camps to recruit children into armed roles under the guise of education. According to an account about an [Islamic State] training camp in Al-Bab (Aleppo), ISIS actively recruited children from the ages of 14 or 15 to undergo the same training as adults, offering financial rewards. At the camps, the children recruited received weapons training and religious education. The existence of such camps seems to indicate that ISIS systematically provides weapons training for children. Subsequently, they were deployed in active combat during military operations, including suicide-bombing missions. In Ar Raqqah, children from the age of 10 are recruited and trained at [Islamic State] camps. In the recruitment and use of children under 18, ISIS has violated international humanitarian and human rights law. In using children below the age of 15, the group has committed a war crime.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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