Sunday, May 26, 2013

Who has been committing war crimes and other atrocities in Syria?

The short answer, unfortunately, is that forces on all sides of this complex and chaotic civil war, which increasingly includes foreign fighters as well as Syrians, have been committing war crimes and other atrocities.  And those are obviously difficult to monitor very precisely from the outside.  But according to Human Rights Watch, it would be misleading to simply assume that the Assad regime and the opposition are equally guilty.

At a recent conference in Doha,
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said the regime was responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses since the fighting broke out.
That would presumably include executions, massacres, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, all of which have been in the news lately.  There is also the widespread use of torture, an old specialty of the Assad regime that has escalated recently:
She said HRW had recently found torture devices used by the regime — included devices used “to stretch people to death.” HRW had not found a basis for allegations of widespread rape, she said.
It seems that the rack never goes out of style.  Then there's another factor:
The Syrian regime has carried out indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians that have killed at least 4,300 people since last summer and that amount to war crimes, an international human rights group said Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said Syrian fighter jets have deliberately targeted bakeries, bread lines and hospitals in the country's northern region.

Parts of northern Syria — especially areas along the border with Turkey — have in the past months fallen under the control of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, including several neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, the country's largest urban center.

"The aim of the airstrikes appears to be to terrorize civilians from the air, particularly in the opposition-controlled areas where they would otherwise be fairly safe from any effects of fighting," Ole Solvang of the New York-based group told The Associated Press.

These attacks are "serious violations of international humanitarian law," and people who commit such breaches are "responsible for war crimes," the group said.

Solvang led the HRW team that inspected 52 sites in northern Syria and documented 59 unlawful attacks by the Syrian Air Force. At least 152 people were killed in these attacks, according to an HRW report released Thursday.

In most of the strikes, the regime planes appear to have had no military target in sight, such as armed opposition supporters or rebel headquarters, when they dropped their weapons on civilian areas, the group said.

The 80-page HRW report said that across Syria, more than 4,300 civilians have been killed in attacks by Assad's jets since last July.  [....]
Of course, it's hypothetically possible that the rebels might be doing the same thing if they had an air force.  But they don't.  And so far, according to all indications, massacres of civilians by the rebels have not matched those by government forces, including the sectarian Shabiha militia.  But if this bloodbath goes on long enough, generating increasing inter-sectarian hatreds in the process, the key phrase might turn out to be "so far".

=>  And at the moment there is no end in sight for this conflict, so things are likely to get even worse.  At the same conference in Doha, Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Center of the Brookings Institution, issued the following warnings:
The killing of civilians in Syria “is going to on for a very long time,” he said. “Many more are going to die in the months and possibly years ahead.”  [....]

 He said that not only was Syria “on the abyss,” but that after two years of civil war, there was growing danger that the fighting could draw in “the entire region."  [....]
That sounds right, I'm afraid.

—Jeff Weintraub