WASHINGTON -- Syrian insurgents fighting to unseat President Bashar Assad face a growing list of accusations that they’ve carried out executions and torture, muddying the Western narrative of a heroic resistance force struggling against a vicious regime.
The issue of rebel conduct has come to the forefront this month largely because of a video posted online showing the aftermath of apparent executions of pro-Assad militiamen during the rebels’ capture of an intelligence center in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
A reporter for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet witnessed the incident Tuesday and confirmed in a first-person account the circumstances of the killings: More than a dozen men were captured alive and then summarily executed in what advocacy group Human Rights Watch called an apparent “war crime.”
The men “were forced into a building, then brought before a court of the Free Syrian Army on the back of a pickup truck, after which they were lined up and shot at lightning speed,” the Milliyet reporter wrote.
The incident doesn’t appear to be isolated, either. A McClatchy reporter traveling with a unit of the Free Syrian Army was told that rebels had captured about 45 Assad loyalists in fighting in Al Tal, north of Damascus. Asked later what had become of the prisoners, a rebel said eight had been executed, 25 had been released and the rest were being held in hopes of a future prisoner exchange.
This week, a rebel commander in Damascus said that over the months his unit had executed perhaps 150 people it had detained on suspicion of being pro-Assad informants.
The Agence France-Presse news service, meanwhile, cited a top Iraqi security official in a report July 19 describing the rebels’ takeover of a border outpost. According to the official in the report, “they executed 22 soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.”
Meanwhile, the so-called Daoud Battalion, a rebel force that operates in Jebel al Zawiyah in northern Syria, used its captives and suspected spies in an “ingenious” form of vehicle bombings against regime targets, according to a July 25 report on rebel groups by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think-tank that has made a specialty of studying the Syrian rebel movement.
The rebels put the prisoners in cars rigged with explosives and then remotely detonated the bombs when the vehicles approached government checkpoints.
"In videos of these attacks, the group has been careful to note that despite their appearance, they are not ’martyrdom operations,’" the report said, a reference to suicide attacks by its own members.
Taken as a whole, such incidents show the depth of the uprising’s evolution in 17 months from a protest movement against dictatorship to an all-out civil war, with both sides committing what ultimately may be viewed as war crimes.
“We’re going to face retaliation and revenge at the end because the numbers of those being killed is huge,” said Mohammad Abdallah, head of the new Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a partly U.S.-funded center for documenting atrocities. “The rebels, the protesters, maintained remarkable self-control at the beginning, but after that, the (regime’s) killing approached a level you cannot really tolerate, and everyone has the right to defend themselves in the end.”