Inside Syria

Syria: Atrocities on both sides?

We look at whether the abuses allegedly committed by Syrian opposition fighters are merely isolated incidents.

Last Modified: 19 May 2013 11:32
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Fighting on the ground in Syria is as fierce as ever. It has been messy from the start, but now the battle is further complicated in the face of an often vicious propaganda war between the government and the rebels.

The conflict has been unfolding for more than two years now, and much of the focus has been on what the Syrian government, its army, and its supporters are doing to their own people.

Most recently, pro-government militias were accused of killing as many as 200 people in the town of Baniyas.

Our position in this case is very clear, we will name the crime as a crime and we will not give any cover to anyone who commits them. Especially the crimes that violates the very principles of humanity and of our revolution.

Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for FSA

It is one of several such accusations, but the al-Assad government has never acknowledged any of them. They say all operations target what they call "terrorists".

But this is a war, and war has two sides. Therefore, the opposition rebels can be just as guilty of atrocities.

In Syria in April, the head of one opposition group, al-Nusra Front, formally pledged allegiance to the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Now there are reports that a large numbers of fighters from the opposition Free Syria Army (FSA) - even entire units in some cases - are defecting to al-Nusra.

Al-Nusra was established in January 2012 and since then has used car bombs and suicide attacks in its efforts to bring down the al-Assad government. In December, the US state department put the group on its list of terrorist organisations.

And this week, the FSA faced criticism after a video was released that apparently shows a rebel commander cannibalising the body of a government soldier.

When the video became public, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) released a statement, saying: "The Free Syrian Army is a national army above all ... formed to defend civilians and deliver the Syrian people from the mentality of revenge and crime."

The SNC said it "completely rejects the ill-treatment of the wounded and the disfigurement of the dead". It also promised that if the video is confirmed to be genuine, the perpetrator will face justice.

Most serious analysts recognise that this is not in fact an indigenous movement who are protesting the Assad government but an attempt [by] the western powers to dismantle Syria in accordance with a plan designed by the Israelis.

James Fetzer,  professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota

But the FSA has made similar promises before, following reports of summary executions of al-Assad supporters.

Rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) remain unconvinced.

"It is not enough for Syria’s opposition to condemn such behaviour or blame it on violence by the government. The opposition forces need to act firmly to stop such abuses," said Nadim Houry, HRW's Middle East deputy director.

"One important way to stop Syria’s daily horrors, from beheadings to mutilations to executions, is to strip all sides from their sense of impunity.

"These atrocities are shocking but so is the obstruction of some Security Council members that still do not support an ICC referral for all sides," he said.

The United Nations is now calling for a full investigation into reports of atrocities on both sides.

So, is this week's report of abuse merely an isolated incident, or has the opposition committed more such atrocities? And despite its shocking nature, is it any worse than what the government has been doing?

To discuss this, Inside Syria, with presenter Kamahl Santamaria, is joined by guests: Rania Abouzeid, the Middle East correspondent for Time magazine; James Fetzer, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota; and Louay al-Mokdad, the political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army.

"This is a very personal war, being fought often by people who were once neighbours - it's dehumanising .... It also comes against a backdrop of these other very disturbing images that we have seen of Baniyas of what looked like hundreds of people killed ... who were dead and basically tossed in the corner against the wall like last week's trash - so it's a very, very ugly war."

- Rania Abouzeid, Time magazine correspondent



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