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In a new report, Human Rights Watch says that opposition groups in Syria “systematically” targeted civilians in an August 4 attack on villages on the Syrian coast, killing at least 190 civilians, including 48 women and 11 children.
The report says that two of the rebel groups are still holding over 200 civilians as hostages, most of them women and children, and Human Rights Watch is asking the U.N. and the world community to prosecute the groups and to make sure that they receive no more arms or aid.
While there have been other reports of human rights abuses by Syrian rebels, those have been relatively small scale. Human Rights Watch says this was a “coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population in these Alawite villages” which rises to the level of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Alawites are a sect with Shia Islam. They make up a minority of Syria’s population, but the country’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad and key parts of the Syrian government and military are Alawite.
In all, over 20 rebel groups took part in the attack, but the report charges the five leading groups of the abuses. Those five groups include extremist and foreign-led Islamist militias, none of which are part of the Western-backed umbrella opposition organization, the Syrian Military Council.
The report recommends that the human rights abuses be referred to the International Criminal Court and taken up by the U.N.
“It is really incumbent on the int’l comm to act in a unified way , and the UN sec council to ensure that a strong message is sent to perpetrators of violations like this on both sides of the conflict,” Lama Fakih, a co-author of the report, told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “They cannot perpetrate these types of abuses with impunity, but rather that they will be held to account if they execute civilians.”
Fakih says that although reports of the violence in Syria can become routine, the situation there is dire.
“When you are there, and when you are seeing someone explain to you how his father, or his wife or his son was executed, was helpless to defend himself, it doesn’t allow you to feel that complacency,” Fakih said.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
A new report out today documenting human rights abuses by opposition groups in Syria includes some very disturbing details such as blood-stained streets littered with animal carcasses, burned homes and mass graves. The report says Syrian rebels killed at least 190 civilians, including 48 women and 11 children, in a systematic planned attack this past August. Two of the rebel groups are still holding over 200 civilians as hostages, and Human Rights Watch says that hostage-taking and the coordinated attacks on the mostly Alawite civilians rises to the level of war crimes.
The group has previously documented brutal government attacks as well. And we should reiterate that the following conversation contains some very graphic descriptions and may not be appropriate for all listeners.
Lama Fakih is deputy director of Human Rights Watch. She is the lead researcher on the new report titled "You Can Still See Their Blood." She joins us from Beirut. But Lama, first of all, you visited several of the Syrian villages that were attacked by rebel forces. What did you see?
LAMA FAKIH: We documented that on the first day of the offensive, at least 10 different villages were occupied by the opposition fighters. I was able to visit five of these villages. What I saw when I entered the villages were really the remnants of communities. For the most part, villagers had fled and have not returned. Homes were destroyed from fighting and what appeared to be intentional burning.
And residents showed me the sites of mass graves that they found, two different mass graves that I visited, as well as the locations of where their family members and their neighbors had been executed or killed while fleeing.
CHAKRABARTI: And just to reiterate what you found in your report, at least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children. There's one eyewitness in your report who said that while they were able to hide, their father stayed in the house. He was killed in his bed. And an aunt who was an 80-year-old blind woman was also killed in her room. It sounds like a rather horrific scene.
Now, when you say that it's opposition forces, do we know for certain whether or not they are - were all Syrian rebels? Or could there possibly have been a mix of outside fighters as well?
FAKIH: We know that there was significant presence of foreign fighters that participated in this operation. A number of the groups that we believe were responsible for planning and for commanding the operation are actually led by foreign fighters. These groups identified fighters amongst them that were killed from many different nationalities, including Libyan nationals, Morocco nationals, Tunisians, various countries, including Europeans.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, the report outlines that there may have even been some corpses that were found in a state of - completely charred. Others had their feet tied, decapitations. Lama, put this in a larger context for us because this happened in an August 4 attack on government-held villages that were mostly inhabited by Alawites who make up a minority of Syria's population.
But, of course, President Bashar al-Assad is of the Alawite minority, as are key parts of the Syrian government and the military. So what impact do you think your report has on the broader picture of what's happening in Syria?
FAKIH: I mean this operation, clearly in the minds of the opposition fighters, had both strategic and symbolic significance. This operation would both allow them to attack a military position at Baruda which they identified as a position from which the government had been shelling them. It would also strike at the center of President Assad's heartland, near his hometown of Qerdaha, edging closer to that, as well as to Latakia City, which continues to be an area of strong support for the government.
But what we have seen in this attack, unfortunately, is not unique. We have also seen that government forces have perpetrated attacks that also appear to be sectarian in nature. In May of this year we've documented that government and pro-government forces in the course of two days killed many civilians by execution. Over, you know, nearly 250 individuals were killed in the course of those two days.
Again, you know, in the town of Bayda, one of the villages that was affected, only Sunni residents were affected. In areas of the country where you have Alawite and Sunni villages abutting one another, and forces - opposition and government forces in those villages, there is a potential for these types of abuses to take place.
CHAKRABARTI: Now we should note that there are also civilians still being held hostage as a result of this attack.
FAKIH: That's right. And the holding of civilians as hostages is itself a war crime. And we are urging that the groups that are holding them to release them immediately, to ensure that they are treated humanely while they are in their custody, and for any individuals or states that have influence with these groups, to urge them to release these hostages.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you mentioned the words war crimes. Is Human Rights Watch recommending that the International Criminal Court or another international body take this up as an issue and further investigate?
FAKIH: We have long urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. It is really incumbent upon the international community to act in a unified way in the U.N. Security Council to ensure that a strong message is sent to perpetrators of violations like this on both sides of the conflict; that they cannot perpetrate these types of abuses with impunity, but rather that they will be held to account if they execute civilians, if they unlawfully kill civilians.
CHAKRABARTI: Lama, I'm curious. You were talking about how Human Rights Watch has documented atrocities now on both or the many sides of the Syrian conflict. And I hear you, and I respect your incredible professionalism in all of this. But as a human being, having witnessed these villages with your own eyes and spoken to the people who have been suffering, how has this settled on you? How has this made you feel?
FAKIH: I mean, I think every day we hear about the brutality that is unfolding in Syria, that there is a certain amount of numbness that sets in. People get used to hearing about killings. But when you are there and when you are seeing someone explain to you, you know, how his father or his wife or his son was executed, was helpless to defend himself, it clearly - it doesn't allow you to feel that complacency.
And I think we really bring that urgency forward in our discussion with various government actors that we feel really do have a role to play in ensuring that these abuses against the civilian population, be they by the government or opposition forces, are stopped.
CHAKRABARTI: Lama Fakih is with Human Rights Watch. She is the lead researcher on a report Human Rights Watch is releasing today entitled "You Can Still See Their Blood." She spoke with us from Beirut. Lama, thank you so much for your time.
FAKIH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Back in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.