*Update: In response to Human Rights Watch’s report "You Can Still See Their Blood", the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces sent this letter on October 11. The Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army sent this letter on the same day. On October 14 Ahrar Al Sham sent this response. *
(New York) – Armed opposition groups in Syria killed at least 190 civilians and seized over 200 as hostages during a military offensive that began in rural Latakia governorate on August 4, 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. At least 67 of the victims were executed or unlawfully killed in the operation around pro-government Alawite villages.
The 105-page report, “‘You Can Still See Their Blood’: Executions, Indiscriminate Shootings, and Hostage Taking by Opposition Forces in Latakia Countryside,” presents evidence that the civilians were killed on August 4, the first day of the operation. Two opposition groups that took part in the offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, are still holding the hostages, the vast majority women and children. The findings strongly suggest that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.
“These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This operation was a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population in these Alawite villages.”
To provide victims a measure of justice, the UN Security Council should immediately refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has also documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by Syrian government forces.
For the report Human Rights Watch conducted an on-site investigation and interviewed more than 35 people, including residents who survived the offensive, emergency response staff, and fighters and activists on both government and opposition sides.
Human Rights Watch found that at least 20 distinct armed opposition groups participated in the operation they alternately termed the “campaign of the descendants of Aisha, the mother of believers,” the “Barouda offensive,” or the “operation to liberate the coast,” which lasted until August 18. It is not clear whether all or most of these groups were in the villages on August 4 when the vast majority of abuses apparently took place.
However, five groups that were the key fund-raisers, organizers, and executors of the attacks were clearly present from the outset of the operation on August 4: Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suquor al-Izz. Human Rights Watch concluded through multiple interviews, the on-site investigation, and a review of opposition statements and videos that these five armed groups are responsible for specific incidents that amount to war crimes.
Through the on-site investigation, witness statements, videos and photographs, and a review of hospital records, Human Rights Watch determined that opposition forces unlawfully killed at least 67 of the 190 dead civilians who were identified. For the rest of those killed, further investigation is required to determine the circumstances of their deaths and whether the victims died as a result of unlawful killings.
The high civilian death toll, the nature of the recorded wounds – for example, multiple gunshot or stabbing wounds – and the presence of 43 women, children, and elderly among the dead together indicate that opposition forces either intentionally or indiscriminately killed most of the remaining victims.
The scale and pattern of the serious abuses carried out by opposition groups during the operation indicate that they were systematic and planned as part of an attack on a civilian population. The evidence strongly suggests that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses committed by opposition forces on and after August 4 rise to the level of crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.
The local and senior commanders of Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suquor al-Izz who led the operation may bear criminal responsibility for the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses. For both war crimes and crimes against humanity the principle of “command responsibility” applies to military commanders and others in position of authority who can be held criminally liable for crimes committed by forces under their effective command and control.
This covers situations in which the commanders knew or should have known of crimes being committed by their subordinates and failed to prevent the crimes or hand over those responsible for prosecution. Fighters from these and other groups who directly ordered or carried out abuses should also be held criminally accountable.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by Syrian government and pro-government forces. These include systematic torture and summary and extrajudicial executions after ground operations, such as in Daraya (a suburb of Damascus) and in Tartous, Homs, and Idlib governorates. Abuses by opposition forces under no circumstances justify violations by the Syrian government.
The UN Security Council should impose an arms embargo on groups on all sides against whom there is credible evidence of widespread or systematic abuses or crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch also urged the UN Security Council to promote justice for victims of abuse by all sides by referring the situation in Syria to the ICC.
“Syrian victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity have waited too long for the Security Council to send a clear message that those responsible for horrible abuses will be held to account,” Stork said. “The ICC referral is long overdue.”
Attacks and Killings
The opposition fighters attacked between 4:30 and 5 a.m. on August 4, the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan. The fighters overran government army positions guarding the area and entered more than 10 Alawite villages. The government began an offensive to retake the area on August 5, regaining full control on August 18.
In separate interviews local residents and a government military intelligence officer serving in the area told Human Rights Watch that opposition fighters first entered the Sheikh Nabhan area of Barouda, where government soldiers were positioned. Once the opposition overtook that and other neighboring military positions, they attacked the villages of Barouda, Nbeiteh, al-Hamboushieh, Blouta, Abu Makkeh, Beyt Shakouhi, Aramo, Bremseh, Esterbeh, Obeen, and Kharata. In the following days, opposition fighters also gained control of Qal’ah, Talla, and Kafraya.
Fourteen residents from eight of these villages told Human Rights Watch that they awoke to the sounds of gun and mortar fire and the voices of incoming opposition fighters. They described frantically attempting to flee as opposition fighters stormed the area, opening fire apparently indiscriminately, and in some cases deliberately shooting at residents.
In some cases, opposition fighters executed or gunned down entire families. In other cases, surviving family members had to leave loved ones behind. One resident of the hamlet between Blouta and al-Hamboushieh described fleeing his home with his mother as opposition fighters entered his neighborhood, and having to leave his elderly father and blind aunt behind because of their physical infirmities. He said that when he returned to the neighborhood after the government retook the area, he found that his father and aunt had been killed:
My mom was here in the house with me. She came out of the house first, and I was behind her. We saw the three fighters just in front of us, and then we fled on foot down behind the house and into the valley. The three fighters that I saw were all dressed in black. They were shooting at us from two different directions. They had machine guns and were using snipers. My older brother came down and hid with us as well. We hid, but my dad stayed in the house. He was killed in his bed. My aunt, she is an 80-year-old blind woman, was also killed in her room. Her name is Nassiba.
Fourteen residents and first responders, interviewed separately, told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed executions or saw bodies that bore signs of execution, including some corpses that were bound and others that had been decapitated. A doctor working in the National Hospital in Latakia, which received the casualties from the countryside, told Human Rights Watch that the hospital received 205 corpses of civilians killed during the August 4-18 operation.
The doctor showed Human Rights Watch a medical report the hospital prepared on August 26 stating that the “[c]ause of death in several of [the bodies] was multiple gunshot wounds all over the bodies, in addition to stab wounds made with a sharp instrument, given the decapitation observed in most bodies … Some corpses were found in a state of complete charring, and others had their feet tied …” The medical report reflected that the degree of decomposition of the corpses was consistent with the victims having been killed around August 4.
According to opposition sources, including an opposition military officerfrom Latakia involved in negotiations, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, are holding over 200 civilians from the Alawite villages as hostages, the vast majority women and children. Nine residents from the Latakia countryside separately told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had been taken hostage. Three of these residents said they saw their relatives in the background of a video published on YouTube on September 7. The video showed civilians from the area held hostage by Abu Suhaib, the Libyan local leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar.
A Barouda resident told Human Rights Watch that 23 of her relatives were missing. She said she saw several of them on the YouTube video: “The oldest son of my brother… [who was executed] would have just been starting school … He has two sons, [one] who is six, and [another] who is four-and-a-half.”
Other residents told Human Rights Watch about cases in which opposition fighters executed adult male family members, and then captured women and children from the family as hostages.
Groups that hold hostages should ensure they are treated humanely and immediately released, Human Rights Watch said. Countries with influence over these groups should urge them to release the hostages.
Some of the opposition atrocities during the operation had clear sectarian motivation. For example, in Barouda, opposition fighters intentionally damaged an Alawite maqam (a site where a religious figure is buried) and appear to have intentionally damaged and dug up the grave of the religious figure buried there. On August 4, opposition fighters abducted and later executed Sheikh Bader Ghazzal, the local Alawite religious authority in Barouda who presided over the maqam. The opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra released a statement on what is believed to be their website acknowledging that its members executed the sheikh, who was a relative of Fadl Ghazzal, an adviser to former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, because the sheikh supported the Syrian government.
Recommendations for Neighboring and Other Concerned Governments
All concerned governments with influence over these armed opposition groups should press them to end deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, all governments, companies, and individuals should immediately stop selling or supplying weapons, ammunition, materiel, and funds to these groups, given the compelling evidence that they have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Support for these five groups should continue to be withheld until the groups stop committing these crimes and those responsible are fully and appropriately held to account. Anyone providing or selling arms and military assistance to the groups may be complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Governments should also not permit the use of their national territory for shipment of arms, ammunition, and other materiel to these groups, Human Rights Watch said. According to Syrian security officials, media reports, Western diplomats, and observations by journalists and humanitarian workers, foreign fighters in these groups enter Syria from Turkey, from which they also smuggle their weapons and obtain money and other supplies, and to which they retreat for medical treatment.
Turkey should increase border patrols and prevent the entry of fighters and arms for groups credibly implicated in systematic human rights violations. Turkey should also investigate and prosecute, under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws, anyone in Turkey suspected of committing, being complicit in, or having command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The UN Security Council and Turkey’s allies should call on Turkey in particular to do more to verify that no arms are passing through Turkey to abusive groups, Human Rights Watch said.
Public statements by fundraisers and financiers, opposition activists, and opposition fighters reveal that at least some of the funding for the Latakia operation came from individuals residing in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. Governments should restrict money transfers from Gulf residents to groups credibly implicated in systematic human rights abuses.
Universal jurisdiction laws also are a key backstop against impunity for heinous abuses, especially when no other viable justice options exist, Human Rights Watch said. Countries, such as Turkey should investigate people credibly linked to atrocities in Syria and avoid being a safe haven for human rights abusers.