Human rights violations by Syrian government forces and rebels are on the rise as fighting spreads across the country, the chief UN rights investigator for Syria has said.
“Gross violations of human rights are occurring regularly, in the context of increasingly militarized fighting which – in some areas – bears the characteristics of a non-international armed conflict,” Paulo Pinheiro said on Wednesday, using the legal term for civil war.
Since Pinheiro’s panel of investigators issued its last report in February, heavy fighting has spread to new regions, he told the UN Human Rights Council.
The panel found that the government and its allied militias were responsible for killing civilians, illegal detention and various forms of torture, while opposition forces have been torturing or executing government soldiers and those suspected of supporting them.
Growing sectarian killings
The investigators said that growing numbers of Syrians are being targeted in the country’s conflict on account of their religion.
“Where previously victims were targeted on the basis of their being pro- or anti-government, the Commission of Inquiry has recorded a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation,” said their report delivered to the UN Human Rights Council.
Earlier in the day, gunmen broke through the gates of a pro-government Syrian TV channel headquarters, bombing buildings and shooting dead three employees, state media said, in one of the boldest attacks yet on a symbol of the state.
President Bashar al-Assad had declared late on Tuesday that his country was at war and Wednesday’s attack on Ikhbariya’s offices – located 20 km south of the capital – as well as overnight fighting on the outskirts of Damascus show that 16 months of violence is now rapidly encroaching on the capital.
Footage aired on Ikhbariya, which resumed broadcasting shortly after the attack, showed bullet holes pockmarked a two-storey concrete building and pools of blood on the floor. One building made of corrugated iron had been almost completely destroyed and flames licked at the metal frame.
Opposition forces and Syrian army units, meanwhile, have engaged in deadly combat around elite Republican Guard posts in the suburbs of Damascus on Tuesday, as 116 people were killed across the country, a monitoring group said.
Amid mounting tensions in the anti-government uprising now in its 16th month, Assad admitted that Syria is in a “real situation of war”.
“When one is in a state of war, all our policies and capabilities must be used to secure victory,” he told the new cabinet, the official SANA news agency reported.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition group, said Tuesday’s death toll comprised 68 civilians, 41 soldiers and seven opposition fighters.
“Violent clashes are taking place around positions of the Republican Guard in Qudsaya and Al-Hama,” just kilometres away from central Damascus, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told the AFP news agency in Beirut.
He said it was the first time that artillery was used “so close to the capital”.
‘Losing grip on power’
The United States said a “desperate” Assad was slowly losing his grip on power, citing defections and fighting raging increasingly close to Damascus, and offered new support to NATO ally Turkey after Syrian forces shot down one of its fighter planes last week.
“Clearly, Bashar al-Assad has been slowly – too slowly – losing his grip over his country,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to a campaign event in Atlanta.
“I would note that recent high-level military defections to Jordan and Turkey are another testament to the regime’s loss of control over the situation in Syria.”
“It is clear, however, that Assad is desperate to hang on to power at all cost, as evidenced by his continued use of air power and Shabiha gangs,” Carney said, referring to the pro-government fighters in Syria.
Washington also pushed back on Russia’s insistence that Iran should take part in a planned international conference on Syria in Geneva on Saturday.
“It is better to involve Iran in the settlement [of the Syrian crisis],” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference in Jordan on Tuesday, adding that ignoring Iran would “complicate the process”.
The shooting of the Phantom F-4 fighter jet has split Moscow and the West, with NATO condemning Syria and voicing its solidarity with member state Turkey while Russia said the incident should not be seen as intentional.
“We believe it is important that the incident is not viewed as a provocation or an intentional action, and that it does not lead to destabilising the situation,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Erdogan raised the heat on the Assad government by accusing it of shooting down the jet while it was in international airspace, without warning.
“This is a hostile act… a heinous attack,” Erdogan said.
“Turkey will exercise its rights, born out of international law, with determination, and take the necessary steps by determining the time, place and method by itself.”
Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad, has become one of the Syrian leader’s biggest critics and his reaction to the downing of the jet is his fiercest outburst to date.
The Turkish PM admitted that the fighter plane had violated Syrian airspace, but said it was only for a short time and “by mistake,” insisting that it was not in Syrian airspace when it was shot down.
Damascus has defended the downing of the jet, saying it was a response to “a gross violation” of its sovereignty.