Syrian Civilians Bore Brunt of Rebels’ Fury, Report Says

11.10.2013 17:03

LATAKIA, Syria — Before dawn on
Aug. 4, Raed Shakouhi, an olive and
walnut farmer in a government-held
hilltop village near the Syrian coast,
just across a valley from rebel
territory, was woken by gunshots and
cries of “God is great.”
Mr. Shakouhi, 42, hid among nearby
trees with his wife and four young
children. The next day, he emerged to
find his uncle shot dead, his family’s
possessions stolen or destroyed, and the
streets littered with bloodstains and the
carcasses of farm animals, he recalled
last month in an interview in the state-
run shelter where he now lives. Many
of his neighbors here in Latakia and in
the surrounding villages, mostly
members of Syria’s minority Alawite
sect, fared even worse.
In a coordinated attack, numerous
rebel groups fought off a small
garrison of government troops and
swept into the villages, killing 190
people, according to a Human Rights
Watch report to be released on Friday.
At least 67 of the dead appeared to have
been shot or stabbed while unarmed or
fleeing, including 48 women and 11
children, the report said. More than
200 civilians are still being held
“This is the first time that we have
documented opposition forces actually
systematically targeting civilians,” said
Lama Fakih, the group’s deputy
director in Beirut, Lebanon, who last
month visited five of the villages, which
the government had recaptured by Aug.
19. She also reviewed medical records
and interviewed 19 witnesses as well as
doctors, military officials and
opposition members for the 113-page
“We have up to now not documented
anything approaching this scale of
abuse” by opposition fighters, Ms.
Fakih said, adding that the number and
methodical nature of the killings
constituted a “crime against humanity.”
There have been reports of smaller-
scale atrocities by rebel forces,
including the videotaped execution of
seven Syrian Army soldiers last year.
Human Rights Watch has documented
some of those attacks, as well as what it
calls “egregious war crimes and crimes
against humanity” by government
forces, including the killing of nearly
250 people in the mostly Sunni towns
of Banias and Bayda in May, and a
widespread policy of detaining and
torturing opposition activists.
The disclosures in the latest report cast
further doubt on the effectiveness of
Western efforts to isolate foreign
fighters and other extremists within the
rebellion and foster a command-and-
control structure for the fractured
opposition forces. And they seem bound
to bolster the government’s strategy of
convincing Syrians and world leaders
that the alternative to its rule is chaos
and extremism.
The groups accused of leading the
Latakia operation and committing the
bulk of the atrocities include the
extremist, foreign-led Islamic State of
Iraq and Syria — which is also engaged
in armed conflict with rival rebel
groups — along with the Nusra Front,
Ahrar al-Sham and two other Islamist
groups that include foreign fighters.
None of those cited as primary
participants appear to be under the
control of the Western-backed Supreme
Military Council, which has struggled to
show it can retake the initiative on the
ground from extremists. But at least 20
groups took part in the fighting, the
report says, including some affiliated
with the Free Syrian Army, the loose-
knit collection of mainly Syrian rebel
forces the council is trying to organize.
And in a video filmed nearby during
the operation, Gen. Salim Idris, who
leads the military council, is seen
insisting that his forces played a
leading role, in statements responding
to criticism from Islamist groups that
his fighters were hanging back. The
report said it was unclear whether
forces linked to General Idris took part
in the initial Aug. 4 attack, when
forensic evidence suggests most of the
civilians were killed. But it also said
that anyone continuing to coordinate
with such groups could be complicit in
war crimes.
The Human Rights Watch report
accuses the five leading fighting groups
of crimes against humanity; names
several private donors in Kuwait and
other Persian Gulf countries as
financiers of the operation; blames
Turkey for allowing the fighters to use
its territory; and calls for an arms
embargo against the five groups,
adding to its previous calls for such an
embargo against the Syrian
“Unified action by the international
community is really long overdue
when it comes to trying to deter these
abuses and violations,” Ms. Fakih said,
recommending that war crimes in
Syria be referred to the International
Criminal Court, which could investigate
all parties.
The killings increased fear among the
Alawite population, Syria’s largest
religious minority. Alawites in the
province of Latakia said in interviews
that they were being indiscriminately
targeted because President Bashar al-
Assad and many government leaders
are Alawites. During the attacks, an
Alawite shrine was damaged and its
sheik killed.
The report did not find evidence that
children had been cooked in pots,
fetuses ripped from mothers’ bodies or
women sexually mutilated, as some
government supporters had contended.
But it documented several witness
accounts of women, children and
elderly people being gunned down as
they tried to flee and of the infirm
being killed in their homes, as well as
forensic evidence that victims had been
bound, decapitated or shot at close
In a school in Latakia converted into a
shelter for people who had fled the
villages, people indicated a willingness
to speak of their experiences, but
government officials prevented
reporters from talking to anyone
except Mr. Shakouhi, saying a
psychiatrist had ruled that survivors
were too traumatized to discuss the
A doctor in Latakia, who asked not to
be identified for safety reasons, said the
government appeared to have kept the
episode relatively quiet, a surprise
given its eagerness to highlight what it
identifies as opposition atrocities and
its cooperation with Human Rights
Watch, which said officials did not
impede access or sit in on interviews.
The doctor said she and other Alawites
in Latakia suspected that the
government wanted to avoid news
reports that could provoke panic or
revenge attacks against Sunnis, which
could further destabilize the area, and
to conceal anger among Alawites that
the villages were not better defended.
The attackers used cannons, mortars,
rocket launchers, armored vehicles and
tanks captured from the army, routing
an army post and killing 30 soldiers
after two soldiers had switched sides
and shot at their comrades from
behind, the report said.
Fighters dressed in black or in
Pakistani-style tunics then strode
through villages, attacking people with
seeming abandon, witnesses said.
A villager in Blouta, Basheer Shebli,
told Human Rights Watch that during
the attack, he heard a man outside his
house say, in classical Arabic,
indicating he was probably a foreigner,
“Let’s kill whoever is in the house.” As
Mr. Shebli fled with his wife and four
children, gunfire erupted. He was shot
several times, and his wife was killed,
dropping their 4-year-old son, who was
taken hostage.
Ghazi Ibrahim Badour of Barouda said
fighters opened fire as he and his wife
fled with their 10 children.
“My daughter Sefah Badour, who has a
master’s in Arabic literature, and my
daughter Sara, who has a degree in
philosophy, were killed,” he said.
Morgue photos confirmed his account
of Sefah being shot in the head and
Sara in the chest.
Another woman, Saada Mansour,
appeared to have had her hands cut off
to make it easier to steal the bracelets
she often wore, one relative speculated.
“They were just tin,” he said, according
to the report.
In the shelter, Mr. Shakouhi said the
attackers had destroyed his olive
orchard, emptied barrels of olive oil
from his storeroom, scattered his
family pictures and smashed the lute he
loved to play.
Still, he said he wanted a settlement to
end the war. “If we get a compromise,
it’s victory for the sake of the nation,”
he said.
Asked if he could again live side by side
with nearby villagers who supported
the rebels, Mr. Shakouhi said he could,
adding that if any of them took part in
the attack, they must have been forced
or brainwashed.
“Anyone who knows what Syria means,
he is my brother,” he said.