The two-year anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war recently passed on March 15th, 2013. These past two years have shown us the incredible resilience of the Alawite government led by Bashar al-Assad and the lengths he has been willing to go to preserve his government with the support from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Much attention and criticism from the media has been directed toward the Syrian government’s use of the army to quell protests through violent force. However, far less has been written about how the rebels themselves have violated international humanitarian law and committed war crimes. In spite of these facts there is a growing call, especially from the United States, for military aid to be provided to the rebels and for them to be recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Human Right Watch have reported that the Syrian government has employed the use of ballistic missiles as well as cluster bombs to target civilian areas. The cluster bombs drop “bomblets” but they don’t always explode when they hit the ground so they post a long-term grave threat to children who may pick them up out of curiosity. Cluster bombs have been banned under an international treaty that Syria has not ratified, while the use of ballistic missiles for anything other than military purposes is considered reprehensible by most nations. The targeting of hospitals and medical centers is another practice that the UN has been especially concerned about as the lives of innocent civilians have been needlessly endangered.
Amnesty International recently released a briefing on the human rights atrocities committed by the armed opposition groups in Syria. The briefing noted that there was “an escalation in abuses” over the last few months. These abuses have been horrendous in nature as rebels have summarily executed any pro-government fighters that they encounter as well as even people they suspect to be pro-government. Disturbingly, many of the victims have been civilians that work for the government or even those of an ethnic origin that rebels have merely identified as being affiliated with the Alawites. In addition, AI reports that rebels have been guilty of “indiscriminate attacks which have led to civilian casualties; use of children in a military capacity; torture or other ill-treatment of captives; sectarian threats and attacks against minority communities perceived as pro-government; abductions and the holding of hostages.” What is important to understand is that although the Syrian war continues to be protracted due to the military’s air and artillery superiority, the rebels are slowly gaining ground and have started attacking the nation’s capital, Damascus.
Interestingly, the Syrian opposition leader (who recently took the seat of the Syrian representative at the Arab League) openly asked other leaders in the Arab League to respect human rights by letting political prisoners go and for not suppressing protests and demonstrations. The detainment of political prisoners has been a widespread and notorious practice in the region, but one wonders how much credibility the Syrian opposition has when they themselves have disregarded the rights of the pro-government fighters.
In Aleppo, an incident involving the suspected use of chemical weapons caused both sides of the conflict to place blame. Chemical weapons such as nerve agents are internationally banned and the United States has publically stated the use of them would be crossing a “red line” that may force it to intercede in the conflict. The UN is planning to begin a probe to verify the use of these weapons as well as the identity of those who used them. There have also been alleged attacks in Damascus and Homs, and countries such as France and Britain have called for the probe to be expanded to include those two incidents as well. If the results indicate that the rebels have been responsible for any or all of the incidents, there will likely be severe judicial repercussions in the future.
However, these facts by no means suggest that the actions of either group are justified by the other. The military, under the command of the government, has been behind the majority of human rights atrocities, yet it is important for more research to be done on the actions of opposition groups. Countries that are currently supporting, or plan to support, these groups must ask for transparency and a commitment to human rights principles from the opposition rebels and certain countries, namely Russia (a notable provider of arms to the Syrian government) and China, must reconsider their stance on the issue and play a more cooperative role in the Security Council to ensure the safety of all citizens in Syria and preclude the spillover of the conflict into neighboring areas.
-Kevin Wu, ’16