by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
Armed opposition groups operating inside Syria may have violated international humanitarian law by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Arguably, some members of the Syrian troops may also have committed similar violations. However, the self-incriminating evidence released by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups is simply overwhelming. The evidence used in this research note is gathered from documents, images, and videos released by both parties (the FSA and the Syrian government) and not independently collected from the field.
The materials examined show deliberate acts that contravene the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and other treaties and customary laws (including classical Islamic law). The evidence is based on 12 months of monitoring websites and social media used by the Syrian warring parties. Thousands of video clips and hundreds of articles and images were examined leading to these disturbing and alarming conclusions.
Some groups affiliated with the FSA have conducted frequent raids on security forces check points and military outposts and captured soldiers and then executed them. In a number of videos, unarmed soldiers are shown with their hands tied behind their backs, gagged, and blindfolded, then shot dead execution style. Other videos show corpses of soldiers piled in trash dumps. A video released on October 3rd by the FSA group called Jabhat al-nusrah (communiqué 95) shows the bodies of 20 soldiers on the side of the road. The group identified them as “20 infidels from the troops of Assad captured and killed in Aleppo.”
Other videos depict armed opposition groups interrogating civilians (who bear signs of torture on their faces and bodies), accusing them of being members of the shabbihah (government supporters), and then executing them in public. These are serious violations, and are war crimes (under the Geneva Conventions, and the ICC Treaty) since they endanger protected persons (prisoners of war and the wounded and sick).
While Article 17 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that the “parties to the conflict shall endeavor to conclude local agreements for the removal [of noncombatants] from besieged or encircled areas,” overwhelming evidence emerged showing that armed groups placed civilians in harm’s way. Numerous documents show that armed groups, many of whom are from outside the city (and from other countries), have occupied residential neighborhoods in Aleppo and are endangering the lives of civilians. Some of the FSA groups laid siege to towns and bombarded them simply because in the majority of residents belonged to Shiite sects or were of Kurdish ethnicity. Armed groups occupied residential homes, and snipers used them to attack security forces. All these acts are known to cause harm to civilians and their property and can be classified as “deliberately endangering noncombatants,” which is also an egregious violation of the laws of war.
Some of the armed groups affiliated with the FSA use language that express contempt for other religious and ethnic groups, and express intent to “cleanse” Syria of non-Sunni Muslims. This basis for war violates international norms for the protection of minorities and the prohibitions on genocide.
It may be the case that the FSA leadership does not support such acts, but there was no evidence whatsoever that the FSA leadership or their foreign supporters intervened to stop these practices. In fact, as the New York Times reported, most of the financial and military support provided by foreign countries ends up making its way to the kind of groups that are suspected of committing these violations.
Given recent developments in the body of humanitarian laws, countries involved in support of groups involved in such activities could be liable for these crimes. The ICC Treaty for instance, holds the perpetrators as well as the enablers responsible for the same crime. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have provided financial and military aid to the FSA. If these reports are true, these states are complicit in the crimes committed by the FSA.
It is in the interest of peace and in the interest of the Syrian civilians that these unconscionable and abhorrent criminal acts stop and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. It cannot be the Syrian people’s wish or aspiration to replace a brutal authoritarian regime with a criminal, genocidal one.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.