September 13, 2013

Summary

In the morning of May 2, 2013, Syrian government forces and pro-government militias clashed with a group of opposition fighters in the town of al-Bayda, a village of about 7,000 residents ten kilometers from the coastal city of Baniyas. The clashes erupted when security forces, most likely acting on information obtained from a recently detained local activist, attempted to raid a house where some army defectors were hiding.

Around 1 p.m., the local opposition fighters retreated and government and pro-government forces entered the village and proceeded to search the houses. Over the next three hours, a familiar pattern repeated itself in most parts of al-Bayda: government and pro-government forces entered homes, separated men from women, rounded up the men of each neighborhood in one spot, and executed them by shooting them at close range.

Some executions took place inside people’s homes, others outside a building or at the village main square. Many women and children were spared, but others were not; Human Rights Watch documented the execution of at least 23 women and 14 children, including some infants. In many cases, pro-government forces burnt the bodies of those they had shot. In one particularly gruesome case, security forces piled up at least 25 bodies in a cell phone store on the village square and set them on fire, according to witness statements and video evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Working with survivors and local activists, Human Rights Watch compiled a list of 167 names of people who were killed on that day (see Annex 1). Based on the witness statements and the video evidence reviewed, the overwhelming majority were summarily executed after the end of the military confrontations in the village, making the killings in al-Bayda one of the deadliest instances of mass executions in Syria’s increasingly bloody conflict. The evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates that all those executed were civilian non-combatants who posed no threat to the security forces. According to two opposition fighters who took part in the confrontations in al-Bayda, the opposition fighters either escaped to neighboring agricultural areas or were killed in the confrontations.

In documenting the killings in al-Bayda, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person four survivors who witnessed how their relatives had been separated from them by government and pro-government forces and later found them shot. All four had fled to neighboring countries. Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven residents and four first responders who discovered the corpses after pro-government forces withdrew from the town at around 5 p.m. in the afternoon of May 2. Much of the information gathered from witnesses was corroborated by video footage filmed by the witnesses, as well as footage of government forces operating inside the village on May 2, likely filmed by some government or pro-government fighters, that was later published on YouTube.

According to multiple witnesses and footage from media outlets close to the Syrian government who were present near al-Bayda during the fighting and in the immediate aftermath, those who stormed al-Bayda were members of the regular army as well as the National Defense Forces, a paramilitary group organized by the Syrian government earlier in 2013. Three local residents also accused armed residents from neighboring pro-government villages of having participated in the killings.

Government and pro-government forces did not just kill residents: they burnt and looted a number of homes and intentionally destroyed property, according to multiple witnesses and video footage filmed by government or pro-government forces and by local residents showing burning homes and cars. According to the evidence Human Rights Watch gathered, much of the looting and burning happened on May 3, the day after the killings, when pro-government forces returned to al-Bayda.

On the same day as the clashes in al-Bayda, on May 2, fighting erupted in nearby Ras al-Nabe`, a Baniyas neighborhood approximately ten kilometers from al-Bayda. According to five local residents, government troops shelled the neighborhood on May 2 and entered the neighborhood the next day. In a pattern closely resembling events in al-Bayda, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that government forces executed a number of residents after storming the neighborhood and set certain homes on fire.

Human Rights Watch has identified 30 men, 22 women, and 29 children who were killed in Ras al-Nabe` on May 3 and in the early hours of May 4. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a Syrian monitoring group has identified 188 civilians, including 54 children and 43 women whom government forces or pro-government militias allegedly summarily executed in Ras al-Nabe` during this period. All five local witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw, or saw evidence of, government forces burning homes and in some cases saw burnt corpses in Ras al-Nabe`.

The killings, lootings, and burnings in al-Bayda and Baniyas further escalated sectarian tensions in Syria. Al-Bayda is predominantly inhabited by Sunni Muslims with a small Christian minority. Together with certain neighborhoods in Baniyas, notably Ras al-Nabe`, the area is considered a Sunni antigovernment enclave within the largely Alawite and pro-government Tartous governorate. According to local witnesses, government and pro-government forces only killed Sunnis and burned Sunni homes. Two Christian residents of al-Bayda told Human Rights Watch that pro-government forces did not commit any killings or looting in their part of town. The attacks drove most of the Sunni population of al-Bayda and of Ras al-Nabe` in Baniyas to flee after the attack. Some are currently displaced in opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria while others sought shelter in neighboring countries. One survivor currently in Turkey told Human Rights Watch that she could not imagine ever going back to al-Bayda: “I lost everything. My husband, two of my children. My house. There is no one left.”

The scale of the killings and torching of homes and property a day after the fighting ended suggests that the government attacks may have been intended to displace a civilian population that was perceived as supportive of the opposition from an area that a government minister characterized as “very sensitive.” Many consider it to be in the heartland of the Alawite region.

Syria's government acknowledged that it conducted military operations in al-Bayda and Baniyas, but said that its forces had responded to rebel ambushes and killed only “terrorists.” Commenting on the killings in al-Bayda and Baniyas, Ali Haidar, minister of state for national reconciliation affairs, told the Wall Street Journal that "mistakes" may have been made and that a government committee is investigating.

International human rights law unequivocally prohibits summary and extrajudicial executions. In situations of armed conflict in which international humanitarian law applies, deliberately killing civilians and injured, surrendered, or captured soldiers (those hors de combat) would constitute a war crime.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented and condemned summary and extrajudicial executions by government and pro-government forces following ground operations in many parts of Syria, including in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, and Homs and Idlib governorates. Human Rights Watch has also documented and condemned executions carried out by opposition fighters in areas under their control in Homs and Aleppo governorates.

Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and by demanding that Syria cooperate fully with the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry, by giving it unrestricted access to al-Bayda and Baniyas. Human Rights Watch also urged the Syrian government to make public any findings by the government committee that Minister Ali Haidar said was formed to investigate the killings in al-Bayda and Baniyas and to grant full access to the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry as well as human rights groups.