Executions of Syrian troops 'a potential war crime'


HUMANITARIAN ORGANISATIONS yesterday condemned video images of rebels executing captured Syrian soldiers after insurgents overran army checkpoints near the town of Saraqeb on the strategic highway linking Damascus and the port city of Latakia to Aleppo.

“This shocking footage depicts a potential war crime in progress, and demonstrates an utter disregard for international humanitarian law by the armed group in question,” Amnesty International said.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, agreed that this could amount to a “war crime” and that the video footage, showing soldiers pushed to the ground and kicked before being shot, could be submitted as evidence.

Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth tweeted, “This awful rebel atrocity is not the new Syria that so many are fighting . . . to build.”

The army has reportedly pulled out of Saraqeb, enabling rebels to interdict military reinforcement and resupply lines to Aleppo where the sides have been locked in battle since July.

Syrian warplanes later bombed the rebel-held town of Harem, two kilometres from the Turkish border, killing at least 20.

The cold-blooded killings of a dozen soldiers has been blamed on Suqur al-Sham (Falcons of Syria), one of the ultra-orthodox Salafi factions fighting the regime.

The most well known of these groups is Jabhat al-Nusra which claimed bombings in Damascus and Aleppo early this year, subsequent blasts at civilian and military targets, and the murder of 13 soldiers in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor in May.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which recruits fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq, al-Qaeda’s offshoot across the border, is among half a dozen jihadi groups operating in Syria, including Suqur al-Sham, Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria Battalions), Liwa Islam (Islam Brigade), and Katibat Ansar (Supporters’ Battalions). Suicide bombings against military and civilian targets are usually the work of these groups which seek to overthrow the secular Syrian regime and, ultimately, create a caliphate to rule the Muslim world.

Last week, al-Nusra opened an unwelcome new front in Aleppo by attacking the Kurdish Ashrafiyeh quarter which had remained quiet throughout the crisis. A fragile ceasefire between Arab rebels and Kurdish militia was imposed after the rebels withdrew from the area.

While most jihadis involved in the Syrian conflict are Syrians, inspired by local Salafi preachers, some jihadi groups are composed of or have recruited foreign fighters. Better armed and strongly motivated jihadis often fight alongside or in co-operation with independent local militias or militias associated with the Free Syrian Army. Some of its units have adopted jihadi-Salafi beards, religiosity and rhetoric, giving the insurgency a jihadi colouration and creating confusion and consternation in the West.

On the political front, a US-backed plan put forward by veteran activist Riad Seif to unify the opposition in a body called the Syrian National Initiative is set to be presented at a meeting in Qatar on November 8th.

The plan calls for the establishment of a political body consisting of representatives of political groups, local councils, and revolutionary bodies; a supreme military council; a judicial committee and a transitional government. A cabinet could be formed by Mr Seif with 15 per cent representation from the expatriate Syrian National Council, 40 per cent from the internal opposition, and 35 per cent liberals plus senior figures. Washington’s aim is to unite politicians and fighters while marginalising jihadis.

This proposal has come under fire from the fractured and ineffective National Council, once regarded by the West as a potential successor to the regime.

“Any discussions aimed at passing over the [council] or at creating new bodies to replace it are an attempt to undermine the Syrian revolution by sowing the seeds of division,” the council stated. Reflecting the view of many Syrians, Zuhair Salem, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the council’s dominant faction, said, “This [US] direct tutelage and . . . dictates are not acceptable to the Syrian people.”

Several council members have criticised the choice of Mr Seif – a former member of parliament and political prisoner who has no domestic constituency – to lead the effort. A Russian foreign ministry spokesman said the US plan to create a government-in-exile amounted to an attempt to resolve the crisis on Washington’s terms.

The Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that 36,000 people have been killed during the 19-month rebellion.