Syrian opposition’s human rights abuses undermine cause
That the Assad regime bears primary responsibility for the conflicts and crises in Syria should be beyond doubt. Its human rights record of targeting civilians, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, mass detentions and disappearances and torture, ranks it among the worst offenders anywhere on the planet.
Never forgetting the above, it is also vital to hold its opponents of all types to account. What is the point of struggling to see the end of one barbaric regime merely to see another take its place? Human rights and governance standards matter. The standards adopted by the Syrian opposition, civil society groups and others matter.
This is why, from the outset of the conflict back in 2011, the Syrian regime has sought to weaken the opposition groups. The regime released hard-line Al-Qaeda extremists from Sednaya Prison fully aware that its forces would be fighting these same people in the months to come.
This is why the latest report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN Human Rights Council should give considerable pause for thought. The investigations were conducted from Jan. 11 to July 1.
Most of the commission’s reports since it was established in August 2011 focused on the ills of the regime. This one contains what should make for uncomfortable reading for the Syrian opposition and its backers. In the polarized world of Syrian politics, shining a light on opposition abuses often casts the accuser as some sort of regime stooge. But for those who truly wish to see a different, more humane and effective government in Syria, turning a blind eye to such abuses hurts the cause. That the regime is far worse offers little excuse.
Much of the report covers the actions of the Syrian National Army (SNA), an armed force that Turkey helped set up in 2017 and used in three invasions of Syria — in Afrin, the area around Jarablus, and the Kurdish-dominated areas in the north.
The SNA is accused of a multitude of wrongs, particularly in Afrin, including holding civilians in undisclosed locations, murder, rape, kidnap, and the looting of Kurdish homes. “The Commission remains concerned by the prevalent and recurrent use of hostage-taking by Syrian National Army forces,” the report stated.
The Syrian regime also does not have a monopoly on torture. “One of the victims described how, during interrogation, she had been threatened with rape and beaten on the head by Syrian National Army members, in the presence of Turkish officials,” it was reported. In another case, a boy was handcuffed and hung from a ceiling. Two detainees were forced to watch the gang rape of a minor. Yazidis were abused as well as Kurds. Most of the above constitute war crimes, as the commission asserts. Such abuses are also going on in the areas of the northeast that Turkish-backed forces seized in October 2019, as highlighted in a recent US government report.
Turkey cannot ignore what is going on in areas that are under its effective control. “Turkey carries a responsibility to, as far as possible, ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children,” the independent commission stated. Reports indicate Turkish forces were aware of and even present at many of these abuses. Transferring Syrians into Turkey, as has been happening, is also a war crime. Further down the line, Ankara may even face legal consequences.
At the start of this civil war, many of the young Syrian fighters who are now in the SNA were just children. Many had grown up in Ghouta, east of Damascus, where there were no Syrian Kurdish communities. Forcibly transferred to the north, they are now sucked into Turkey’s wars to fulfill Ankara’s objectives. It is not so dissimilar to the way many of them have been dispatched to Libya to fight Turkey’s war there, often against Syrian mercenaries recruited by Russia. More recently, Turkey has been sending Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan to help fight Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Other parties in Syria are likewise guilty on the human rights front. Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham in Idlib, which is effectively an Al-Qaeda offshoot, treats human rights as an alien concept. More embarrassingly for those in the anti-Daesh coalition that backs it, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish force, is also accused of a similar litany of war crimes. The SDF is US-backed and controls much of the east of Syria.
But it is the focus on the Turkish-backed forces that stands out in this latest report. Turkey is playing an ever dirtier game in Syria, re-engineering the demography to create an Arab-dominated buffer zone along its border at the expense of Kurdish populations it accuses of abetting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group Turkey views as terrorist. Setting Arab against Kurd in Syria is sowing the seeds of generational conflict.
The public Turkish response was outright denial. Ankara did, however, summon commanders of the SNA to a meeting in Gaziantep. They were reportedly lectured on the issue of human rights abuses as a consequence of the UN report. Time will tell if this leads to any long-term change in behavior.
Turkey cannot ignore what is going on in areas that are under its effective control.
The international community has so far paid scant attention to these abuses. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on Turkey to investigate, but few other international figures echoed her request. That should change. The reaction of the international media has likewise been disappointing, with at best passing reference to all of this. Then again, events in Syria are increasingly just ignored or glossed over.
The future of Syria depends on developing alternatives to authoritarian dictatorship. Those who replicate the brutality of the Syrian regime have no answers to the challenge of any transition. Worst of all, they betray the brave and principled protesters who gave their lives in peaceful resistance to this regime — a movement dedicated to a united Syria with one people. Sadly, from the regime to the SNA and others, those with guns on the ground in Syria are more dedicated to fracturing and fragmenting this great country and its people.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech