Thursday, May 16, 2013

Escalating atrocities and counter-atrocities in an increasingly ugly Syrian civil war

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tried to do careful and systematic estimates of the mounting death toll in Syria based on authenticated reports, just revised its total body count to "at least 94,000", including both combatants and civilians.   But according to Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Observatory, "We believe the real figure of those killed from both sides is above 120,000 because both sides are being discreet on their casualties."

Meanwhile, the ongoing dynamic of this non-stop violence continues to intensify inter-group hatreds and generate increasingly brutal and sadistic atrocities, in a manner familiar from other civil wars. A key consequence, and sometimes even a deliberate goal, of atrocities in such conflicts is to polarize different communities and solidify their mutual fears and antagonisms.  It works, as the bloodbaths in Bosnia and Iraq (among others) demonstrated quite vividly.  The longer this goes on, the harder it will be be to put Syrian society back together—to the extent that remains possible.

Two snapshots:

=>  A massacre of Sunni villagers in Baniyas.  From the New York Times:
This graphic video posted online shows 20 members of one family, including nine children, said to have been killed by government forces in al-Bayda, a village in the Baniyas district. Rebels said the government killed at least 322 Sunnis in Baniyas last week, and hundreds are missing. This video shows dead women and children in a darkened room. One woman's body is surrounded by five children, while another woman's head slumps back, a baby on her shoulder. The cameraman repeats, "Oh God, oh God."

What We Know

Witnesses and activists said that government forces swept through Sunni areas in the Baniyas district last week and killed hundreds of people, in what appeared to be a sectarian attack. Baniyas is on the coast, the traditional home of the minority Alawite sect, to which President Assad belongs.

What We Don't Know

Hundreds of people remain missing in Baniyas, and we do not know what happened to them. We do not know the total number of people killed in the violence there last week. We do not know the explicit motivation for the attack or the number of people from each sect who may have been killed.
=> An atrocity video of a Syrian rebel commander mutilating the body of a dead government soldier, brandishing his heart and other entrails, and taking a bite out of them.

From Time, May 12:
[....]  In the video a man who is believed to be a rebel commander named Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, bends over the government soldier, knife in hand.  [....]  According to two of Abu Sakkar’s fellow rebels, who said they were present at the scene, Abu Sakkar had cut the organs out of the man’s body.  [....]  “I swear we will eat from your hearts and livers, you dogs of Bashar,” he says, referring to supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Off camera, a small crowd can be heard calling out “Allahu akbar” — God is great. Then the man raises one of the bloodied organs to his lips and starts to tear off a chunk with his teeth.

Two TIME reporters first saw the video in April in the presence of several of Abu Sakkar’s fighters and supporters, including his brother. They all said the video was authentic. We later obtained a copy. Since then TIME has been trying to ensure that the footage is not digitally manipulated in any way — a faked film like this would be powerful propaganda for the regime, which portrays the rebels as terrorists — and, as yet, TIME has not been able to confirm its integrity.  [....]  The video became public on May 12 when it was posted online by a proregime group and is indeed now being used as propaganda by regime supporters (and has already been shared 1,115 times on Facebook and has over 46,000 views on YouTube). These 27 seconds of footage provide a glimpse at how brutal the Syrian war has become — and a startling example of how technology appears to be fueling that brutality.
Time, May 14:
News sites around the world have shown Khalid al-Hamad sink his teeth into what appears to be the lung of a dead Syrian government soldier. His fellow rebels have called for him to be arrested or killed for the act. Human-rights groups have condemned him. But al-Hamad has no regrets.

In an interview conducted via Skype in the early hours of May 14, al-Hamad explained to TIME what caused him to cut out the soldier’s organs: “We opened his cell phone, and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there.”

The video, a 27-second clip in which al-Hamad brandishes organs that appear to be the lungs and heart of the Syrian soldier who lies dead at al-Hamad’s feet, was first seen by two TIME reporters in April.  [....]  Al-Hamad has now confirmed that the video is real, and that he did indeed take a bite of the soldier’s lung. (At the time of filming, al-Hamad believed he was biting into the liver. A surgeon who has seen the video confirms that the organ in question was a lung, which somewhat resembles the liver).
Al-Hamad, who is Sunni and harbors a sectarian hatred for Alawite Muslims, said he has another gruesome video of his killing a government soldier from the Alawite faith. (Syrian President Bashar Assad is Alawite; the conflict in Syria is increasingly sectarian.) “Hopefully we will slaughter all of them [Alawites]. I have another video clip that I will send to them. In the clip, I am sawing another shabiha [progovernment militiaman] with a saw. The saw we use to cut trees. I sawed him into small pieces and large ones.”
Al-Hamad also explained that even though both sides of the conflict in Syria are using video clips of their own brutal actions to intimidate the other, he believes his clip would have particular impact on the regime’s troops. “They film as well, but after what I did hopefully they will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is,” he said, using his nom de guerre and referring to the part of Syria he currently controls.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which validated the video, released a report on May 13 identifying al-Hamad as a well-known commander responsible for the recent cross-border shelling of a Shi‘ite Lebanese village that killed two. The organization called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court to ensure accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity. “It is not enough for Syria’s opposition to condemn such behavior or blame it on violence by the government,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy director for the Middle East. “The opposition forces need to act firmly to stop such abuses.”

Al-Hamad lashed out at HRW and the U.N. for focusing on opposition abuses when the regime is responsible for similar atrocities. During the interview, he sent links to YouTube videos purporting to show regime abuses. “Why doesn’t the U.N. make an appeal for the shabiha not to do that? The shabiha themselves posted a million clips of them stabbing and raping."

Al-Hamad [....] indicated that the brutality of the regime had driven him to extremes. “You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living. Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighborhood who were raped? May God bless them all.”

The Supreme Military Council, which according to the leadership oversees about 90% of the fighting groups in Syria, has issued a poster — circulated on Facebook — calling for al-Hamad’s arrest, saying it wants him “dead or alive.” In response, supporters have posted stylized portraits of al-Hamad cradling a rifle. “We Love You,” reads the inscription.

Al-Hamad pointed out in the interview that the revolution started as a peaceful uprising more than two years ago. “[The Alawites] were the ones who killed our children in Baba Amr and raped our women,” he said, referring to the site of a ferocious battle in the city of Homs that took place in February 2012. Then, referring to the recent massacre of Sunni villagers near the coastal village of Baniyas that has been attributed by rebel groups to the regime, he adds, “They were the ones who slaughtered the children and women in Bayda [near Baniyas]. We didn’t start it, they started it.” He swore to avenge every death. “Our slogan is: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
—Jeff Weintraub