Executions, indiscriminate shootings, and hostage taking by Islamist factions outside Latakia, Syria

The New York Times reports: Before dawn on Aug. 4, Raed Shakouhi, an olive and walnut farmer in a government-held hilltop village near the Syrian coast, just across a valley from rebel territory, was woken by gunshots and cries of “God is great.”

Mr. Shakouhi, 42, hid among nearby trees with his wife and four young children. The next day, he emerged to find his uncle shot dead, his family’s possessions stolen or destroyed, and the streets littered with bloodstains and the carcasses of farm animals, he recalled last month in an interview in the state-run shelter where he now lives. Many of his neighbors here in Latakia and in the surrounding villages, mostly members of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, fared even worse.

In a coordinated attack, numerous rebel groups fought off a small garrison of government troops and swept into the villages, killing 190 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Friday. At least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children, the report said. More than 200 civilians are still being held hostage.

“This is the first time that we have documented opposition forces actually systematically targeting civilians,” said Lama Fakih, the group’s deputy director in Beirut, Lebanon, who last month visited five of the villages, which the government had recaptured by Aug. 19. She also reviewed medical records and interviewed 19 witnesses as well as doctors, military officials and opposition members for the 113-page report.

“We have up to now not documented anything approaching this scale of abuse” by opposition fighters, Ms. Fakih said, adding that the number and methodical nature of the killings constituted a “crime against humanity.”

There have been reports of smaller-scale atrocities by rebel forces, including the videotaped execution of seven Syrian Army soldiers last year. Human Rights Watch has documented some of those attacks, as well as what it calls “egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity” by government forces, including the killing of nearly 250 people in the mostly Sunni towns of Banias and Bayda in May, and a widespread policy of detaining and torturing opposition activists. [Continue reading…]

Joanna Paraszczuk writes: While HRW document in detail the killings and hostage-takings that took place, the report fails to determine definitively which particular groups or factions within these groups were responsible for killing civilians.

Specifically, the report fails to distinguish between attacks carried out by ISIS/ Jaish and the offensive carried out by Free Syrian Army brigades, instead using the blanket term “armed opposition groups” to refer to those responsible for the killings. The report conflates the FSA’s “Operation to Liberate the Coast” with the offensives by Islamist factions — even though the Islamist factions operated independently rather than in conjunction with the FSA.

The HRW report takes information and eyewitness testimony from local residents in the villages to document the circumstances of civilian deaths. However, the report is problematic because it relies heavily on information from a regime Military Intelligence officer, as well as regime military personnel, the police, National Defense Force members, and regime media outlets.

In contrast, HRW do not appear to have obtained responses or information from the Supreme Military Council to ascertain the movement of FSA brigades in relation to the Islamist groups accused of perpetrating the mass killings of civilians. [Continue reading…]

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