Syrian war crimes don’t end with sarin attacks

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 13, 2013 

A Syrian man mourns a victim of an alleged poisonous gas attack in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus.


The United Nations Human Rights Council treads cautiously, even timidly in its new report on Syria’s civil war. Its commission clearly attempted to avoid bias and sensationalism as it documented the escalation of violence there in recent months.

The report, released Wednesday, is all the more damning for its understatement and even-handedness.

The recent poison gas attacks carried out by President Bashar Assad’s forces were the war’s most dramatic atrocities; there’s something uniquely horrifying about exterminating hundreds of noncombatants with what amounts to human insecticide.

But even without the chemical weapons, this conflict has been shockingly cruel to civilians and captured soldiers. There’s no moral equivalence here. While some rebel factions have sporadically murdered helpless people, the U.N. commission leaves no doubt that the Assad’s government has been the most enthusiastic perpetrator of war crimes.

Rebel groups, for example, have taken hostages, carried out summary executions and massacred Shiites; they were found to have killed a Catholic priest and executed a 15-year-old boy for “blasphemy.”

Some factions tortured or mistreated people in their custody “in isolated instances.”

The government does the same, but more systematically and on a much larger scale. Unlike the fractured, undisciplined rebel movement, it acts out of policy, with decisions made at the top. Syrian military units – not freelancing thugs – have deliberately targeted large numbers of civilians, as with the sarin missile attacks.

The Syrian military has subjected prisoners to the most excruciating tortures. The commission, for example, cited one detainee who was held by military intelligence for 10 months in a “squatting cell” – unable to either stand or lie down – and was “beaten daily, suspended by his wrists for 17 days, burned with cigarettes and subjected to electric shocks.”

Syrian forces frequently shelled or bombed civilian neighborhoods. The commission found that they had often shelled hospitals, including a children’s hospital.

In May, the commission found, the Syrian army surrounded the village of Al-Bayda, shelled it and then killed 150 to 250 civilians, executing many of them in the village square. Streets were strewn with corpses, and the bodies of 30 women were found in a nearby house.

Russia – now praised for offering to impound Syria’s chemical weapons – has been supporting Assad and his murderous armed forces all along as they’ve moved from one atrocity to the next. Iran has been doing likewise.

Yet the report also shows that the rebel ranks are increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadists who might turn out to be as depraved as Assad, given the chance.

The diplomatic efforts to deprive Syria of its poison gas stockpiles are fine, as far as they go. But what’s really needed is a diplomatic effort to free Syria of the war itself.

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