The Middle East Channel

New report accuses Syrian rebel groups of war crimes

A new report accuses Syrian rebel forces of systematically killing at least 190 unarmed civilians and abducting over 200 in a series of attacks along the western coastal province of Latakia on August 4. The 105-page report, authored by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and based on an earlier visit to the area, labels the coordinated attacks against civilians in over twelve cities "war crimes" and possibly crimes against humanity. Extremist and al-Qaeda linked factions -- namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and two other Islamist factions -- were the main entities charged with perpetrating the atrocities. The report reinforces the West's concern that Syria's rebel forces are composed heavily of extremist elements and jihadist fighters, often from abroad. While some groups were affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, none belonged to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council led by General Salim Idris. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces, assisted by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, recaptured the two Damascus suburbs of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya on Friday. Syrian opposition activists said the military operation killed at least 70 people. In Syria's northern Kurdish region, rebels killed five members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard and injured two others during an armed confrontation, according to Iran's official Fars News Agency.

Headlines

  • A former Israeli army officer was assaulted and killed outside of his home in the West Bank settlement of Brosh Habika late Thursday night.
  • The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N.-backed group tasked with overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
  • The Iraqi Justice Ministry announced that Iraq has executed 42 prisoners this week found guilty of terrorism-related charges, including "crimes aimed at destabilizing the country, causing chaos and spreading horror."
  • Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused "a political party" that "wants to overthrow the government by any means" of his abduction on Thursday.
  • A car bomb detonated outside the Swedish consulate in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, causing structural damage but no casualties.

Arguments and Analysis

'The Narrative Plot Against Syria' (Barak Barfi, Project Syndicate)

"Indoctrination in Syria begins at a young age. From the first day of school, Syrians are taught that America and its ally, Israel, are mortal enemies seeking to keep Syria weak. According to the ruling Ba'ath Party's dogma, Syria is being targeted because it will not capitulate, remaining steadfast to the Arab and Palestinian cause. It is the last line of defense holding back a US-Israeli stampede over Arab rights.

When Assad declared in a recent speech that, ‘Western powers sent Al Qaeda terrorists to turn Syria into a land of jihad...to weaken Syria,' Westerners chuckled incredulously. But such talk resonates with Syrians, who have been taught to see a foreign plot behind every move.

It is a game that the regime plays when its back is against the wall. When the government's mea culpa and promise of reform failed to quell an Islamist rebellion in 1980, it shifted tack, portraying its opponents as the fruit of an Iraqi-Jordanian conspiracy. After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 led the international community to finger Syria as the culprit, Assad stonewalled a United Nations tribunal investigating the matter and silenced domestic critics by once again conjuring foreign bogeymen scheming to weaken the country. The US, which had hoped to use the episode to pressure Assad, was forced to relent, eventually offering him an olive branch."

'Iranian Aftershocks: Washington And Tehran Face An Uncertain Diplomatic Landscape' (Suzanne Maloney, Brookings Institution)

"By the standards of Iranian politics, the blowback from the president's ground-breaking U.S. visit has been so mild as to suggest that it almost seems pro forma: a few agitators around his arrival motorcade, various sharp-elbowed commentaries in the country's famously rabble-rousing press, muted public criticism from military and clerical hardliners emphasizing the perfidious nature of the American adversary. All the while Rouhani and his senior lieutenants, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have stayed on message and have continued their careful abatement of the polarization and repression that dominated Iran for most of the past eight years (including the release of a prominent imprisoned journalist and an agreement to upgrade diplomatic ties with Britain).

The clearest signal, of course, is the wary backing for Rouhani's overtures that was offered publicly a few days ago by Khamenei. The Supreme Leader doubled down on his curious endorsement of ‘heroic flexibility' prior to the New York trip with a speech declaring his support for the new government's diplomacy. His approval was hardly unconditional -- he described some of what was undertaken in New York as ‘not proper' and reiterated his longstanding antipathy toward and suspicion of Washington. But contrast all this with the furor and rapid backtracking that has accompanied far less grandiose Iranian overtures in the past, and it's not difficult to appreciate why most scholars of Iran are convinced that we are witnessing a real and significant effort by Tehran to dial back its confrontation with the world over the nuclear issue."

-- Joshua Haber

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

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