Inside Syria

Blurring the rules of engagement

Amid allegations of wrongdoing and abuse on both sides, we look at issues of ethics as the battle for Syria rages on.

It is easy, in a conflict as long and deadly as the one in Syria, to take a one-sided view – one that pits a spirited but under-armed opposition against a government-backed military machine; and in this 22 month battle, the stories are there to back it up.

The latest pictures just filed by Al Jazeera correspondent Sue Turton in Idlib province show people digging trenches and building bunkers to give their family a chance to survive the bombardments.

And then, chopping down trees; it is illegal to do that in Syria’s forests, but even though transgressors are warned of breaking the law, not a second thought is given about the consequences.

Aleppo university students were locked in their exam rooms before it was bombed by the regime forces – how is that stability? Let’s look at three million internally displaced people – how is that any sense of stability provided by Assad? One million refugees [live] outside the country; I think to say that Assad offers stability is ludicrous.

Rafif Jouejati, Syrian Local Coordination Committee

It is cold, fuel has run out, and people do what they have to do to survive.

Awash Al Doghem, a Syrian grandmother explains: “We are afraid we are breaking the law. It’s a shame. People worked hard to grow those trees and now we’re cutting them down. But how else can we stay warm? The water is freezing cold. How can we cook, or wash, or make bread?”

Now, analysts suggest that that same theory is being applied to the war itself – the idea of ‘doing what you have to do’. And this begs the question: How far can that reasoning be stretched before it moves outside the rules of engagement and turns into illegal profiteering, looting or, at the extreme end, war crimes?

But it is not all about looting and, of course, it is not the first time we have seen Syrian rebels accused of violations.

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in September:

  • There have been more than a dozen executions by rebels in Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia
  • It said the torture and “summary execution of detainees” in the context of armed conflict is a war crime, possibly a ‘crime against humanity’ if it is widespread and systematic
  • HRW has urged Syria’s military and civilian opposition leaders to immediately end the use of torture and executions
  • It called for an investigation, not just to hold people to account according to international law, but to invite recognised international monitors to visit all holding facilities under their control.

They [al-Nusra] are very disciplined, they are not blood thirsty and treating people well … and in the midst of fighting a true terrorist regime, it is very difficult for me to understand why the US chose to out al-Nusra on a terrorist list … We are in the midst of a battle and to try to take one group and describe them as terrorists does not help us and does not match the realities on the ground.

– Khaled Saleh, Syrian National Coalition

On the ground, among the key players starting to emerge is the al-Nusra Front. The group was branded ‘terrorists’ by the US, which effectively excludes it from any future discussions, but it continues to enjoy much respect and popularity on the ground.

It came to prominence a year ago when it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on police buses in Damascus that killed 26 people.

Some have linked the fighters to gunmen who used Syria as a route in and out of Iraq during the war there.

Al-Nusra leaders themselves have admitted to recruiting fighters from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Lebanon, as well as Britain and France.

Western diplomats have been keen to separate al-Nusra from the Free Syrian Army. But on the ground there are reports its fighters have been called in to support the FSA when it gets into trouble.

The issues of ethics and wrongdoing, which are splintering support for opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army, are reminding us that this is still – although often lopsided – a two-sided battle.

To discuss this, Inside Syria with presenter Kamahl Santamaria is joined by guests: Rafif Jouejati, a spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committee; Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation; and Khaled Saleh, the head of the media committee for the Syrian National Coalition.


  • Several reports accuse Syrian rebel fighters of lawlessness 
  • Syrian rebel fighters are also allegedly accused of looting
  • Syrian rebels are also accused of using civilians as human shields 
  • Human Rights Watch report accused rebels of human right abuses
  • The Syrian government accuses rebels of looting around 100 factories 
  • Many Syrians blame the opposition for not subsidising basic items