Human Rights Watch said Friday that Syrian opposition fighters committed “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” in an Aug. 4 assault, killing at least 190 civilians as the rebels began a large-scale offensive to take back government-controlled areas in Latakia province, where many members of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect live in rural villages.
The report said it is not clear what role, if any, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — the armed wing of the main opposition coalition that is openly supported by the United States, Britain, France and Sunni Muslim Gulf states — played in the offensive.
“We woke up around 5 a.m. to the sound of gunfire coming closer to us. We started to run away, but as we were running we saw some people getting killed in front of us,” New York–based Human Rights Watch (HRW) quoted a resident of the village Abu Makkeh as saying. “I was fleeing with my mother, father — there were about eight of us, including my brother’s newborn daughter. Three neighbors died right in front of me. We walked into the fields nearly three kilometers (1.5 miles) to get to safety.”
The high civilian death toll and the nature of the wounds — gunshots and stabbings — as well as the presence of 43 women, children and elderly among the dead, suggest that armed rebel groups intentionally or indiscriminately killed residents, HRW said. More than 200 hostages were taken during the offensive, according to the rights group.
Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have been battling for two and a half years in an attempt to overthrow Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam and makes up about 12 percent of Syria’s 23 million people. The conflict erupted in 2011 with a violent crackdown on peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule.
HRW said many of the dead in the recent assault had been executed by groups, some linked to Al-Qaeda, that overran army positions at dawn on Aug. 4 and then moved into 10 nearby Alawite villages. The report, released Friday, was titled “You Can Still See Their Blood.”
“These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at HRW. “This operation was a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population of these Alawite villages.”
More than 20 distinct armed opposition groups took part in the operation, which lasted through Aug. 18, the report said, adding that it was not clear if all the groups were present on Aug. 4, when evidence suggests most of the civilian deaths occurred.
The five key groups that raised funds for, organized and took part in the operation included Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and Suquor al-Izz, HRW said. It said the operation appeared to have been largely financed by private Gulf-based donors.
In a video posted on Aug. 11 and apparently filmed in Latakia, FSA chief Salim Idriss said his group was participating in the offensive “to a great extent,” but HRW researchers could not confirm if the FSA was present on Aug. 4, when the alleged atrocities took place.
It was not possible to get comments on HRW’s report from all 20 rebel groups it mentioned. Abu Muhammed al-Husseini, head of the Sunni Ahrar al-Sham’s political office in Raqqa, said its fighters had not killed any civilians.
“If someone uses a weapon against you, you have to fight them. If they do not, you must not kill them,” al-Husseini said.
Based on interviews, on-site investigations, reviews of opposition statements and videos, HRW said the five armed groups that it believes took part in the Aug. 4 offensive are responsible for actions that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A resident of al-Hamboushieh who was not there on Aug. 4, told HRW that he called his sister, Fatima, in the village during the attack.
She answered, “‘Help me, rescue me, I’m injured!’ She was on the roof of the house and told me that fighters were killing and were slaughtering,” he said. “That was the last I heard any news of them until the army took back the area and I was able to enter the village.”
He said that when he returned to the village, he found his sister’s body, along with those of of three relatives, “I saw Yazen, my brother, Fatima, my niece Reem. Their bodies had been shot. There were many shots in them, over the whole body,” HRW quoted him as saying.
Residents who returned to the villages said they found bodies lying in the streets and in homes as well as in mass graves and burned in piles, according to Lama Fakih, the Syria and Lebanon researcher in HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
Fakih met Hassam Shebli, an Alawite from Barouda, who said he fled his village at 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 4 as rebels approached. He left his wife, who was in her 60s and needed canes to walk, and his son, 23, who was paralyzed. Shebli said they were both killed and buried behind his house.
Fakih visited the house and saw bullet holes in the son’s bed frame. “I was able to see blood splattered on the wall,” she said.
Northern Latakia had been held by the opposition since late December 2012, and most of the Alawites, Shia and Christians had fled ahead of the rebel groups.
Rebels were able to take three government bases in the area — which, HRW said, weakened government forces to the point they were not able to protect civilians in nearby villages. The operation ended on Aug. 18, when the government regained control of the area.
Al Jazeera and Reuters