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Justifying abuse kills hope for a human rights revolution in Syria

It is true that one can say they want a new Syria where all people's human rights are respected AND cheer the brutal extrajudicial execution of members of the notorious Berri clan in Aleppo. This is possible but let’s be clear; it would also be gross hypocrisy and is the sort of logic which contributes to killing hope for a genuine human rights revolution in Syria.

This may sound like unnecessarily harsh words which are insensitive to the suffering the Berri clan inflicted on so many people in Syria and of course the sickening disregard for human dignity and life displayed by the Assad government - but just as we condemn gross violations by the pro Syrian government forces we must also be consistent and do the same when the armed opposition commit abuses and furthermore when they or their supporters try to justify these abuses.

This is not about equivalence or saying the scale of abuses is anywhere near the violations by government forces – it is about taking a consistent approach whenever abuses and violations occur and by whomever. The armed opposition do not get a free pass because their opponent is terrorising, punishing and humiliating civilians across Syria.

So while Syrian government forces continue to perpetrate human rights violations on a mass scale, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, a growing number of abuses by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed opposition groups have been reported in recent weeks, including deliberate and unlawful killings as well as torture of captured security forces members.  Such killings and the torture and ill-treatment of captives are serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and constitute war crimes.

This issue is of course fraught with sensitivities and difficulties as well as a clear lack of awareness from some on what IHL even is or means. Today a leading Syrian activist based in the UK told me one of his close relatives was killed yesterday (31 July) by the Berri clan – he told me this in response to comments I had made essentially saying the executions were not the right way to have dealt with these people. This activist is a sincere and wise man and understands the necessity to ensure “what comes next” in Syria is not the same or worse than that which is on its way out…context is necessary, that is right to say as is saying something’s should be unacceptable, especially to those demanding their freedom and rights – extrajudicial executions are one of those acts which should not be acceptable along with torture and other inhumane treatment of detainees.

Indeed the issue of how these individuals were killed is being debated between Syrian activists online and offline with many saying they can totally understand the need to rid Syria of these thugs but this is not what should have happened – this is not what they are fighting for – this is what they are fighting against…indeed many of the comments echo what Abdul-Razzak Tlass, Commander of the Farouk Brigades said in a recent video where he commits to abide by the Geneva Conventions or in a statement from several FSA battalions who commit to upholding the rights and proper treatment of prisoners of war.

One could say that given the grim and trying circumstances this is actually a very positive and timely set of initiatives – certainly the Syrian authorities and their many supporters and apologists do not give any time or credence to the need to respect and protect international human rights law or IHL, certainly not so publicly.

So yes there are many in the opposition rightly condemning abuses by the armed opposition and they should be credited for it. There is much hope generated within many parts of the Syrian opposition that what comes next will indeed be better but the extrajudicial executions we saw in the Berri video and abuses we have seen in other videos over the weeks only undermine the good efforts by opposition activists and will certainly not bring about a human rights revolution in Syria.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, many Syrian opposition activists have also said in relation to evidence of abuses that “It’s war..these things happen” or “it’s gloves off time – Assad is killing our children” to which I say yes it is war but there are laws of war..laws which regulate the methods and means employed..laws designed to spare civilians and others not directly participating in the fighting and minimizing human suffering…laws which say we are and will be humane in our conduct.. these should not be disregarded or disrespected if one is genuinely fighting for a better Syria which respects all peoples human rights.

Others have said it is impractical to think the FSA or the armed opposition in general could take on and understand IHL let alone implement it through their ranks which are still in the process of being better organised.

I say alternatives to public executions consistent with international law should always be found. In the Berri case, how difficult would it have been to contact the ICRC in Damascus and ask them what they should do with the detainees? Should they be removed to a secret location where the Syrian forces could not attempt a rescue operation for instance? This may sound fanciful and the ICRCs movement is limited and their numbers are low but they are also contactable and there to provide advice to parties to what is now a non-international armed conflict. This advice would include proper treatment of detainees

On 20 July we issued a public statement on these issues as it was clear evidence of abuses by armed opposition groups were increasing - within it we said

While government forces continue to perpetrate human rights violations on a mass scale, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, a growing number of abuses by the FSA and other armed opposition groups have been reported in recent weeks, including deliberate and unlawful killings as well as torture of captured security forces members.  Such killings and the torture and ill-treatment of captives are serious violations of IHL and constitute war crimes. 

It should be clear that our primary concern is protection of civilians and what practical and effective steps the opposition leadership can take to ensure this as well as the wider requirements of IHL. Those States assisting the armed opposition also have such a responsibility as I said in a previous post but right now it is essential the leadership of the armed opposition do all they can to actively promote the key elements IHL  - clearly this has more credibility coming from the recognised leadership as opposed to any State, civilian opposition or NGO.

How are these field commanders and other leaders within the military councils really expected to communicate such messages though? Well, short videos condemning abuses such as torture, ill treatment of detainees and extrajudicial executions as well as stating the minimum obligations the armed opposition should abide by is a very practical way forward as Abdul-Razzak Tlass has already shown.

In fact the opposition have shown themselves to be using this communication mechanism in a very effective way especially when distributed via private email lists and social networks. It also gives the message more credibility if opposition combatants see who is delivering the message as opposed to words in a leaflet. If we want the armed opposition leadership to commit publicly to Human Rights and IHL standards and condemn abuses in messages to those under their command then we should also offer practical suggestions for how that could come about.

From my perspective I see no point in us just pointing out abuses by the armed opposition such as the executions of the Berri clan members and giving basic recommendations to stop and prevent such abuses when we could also be offering practical measures to reduce and eliminate abuses. 

I also think there is no time like now to start showing adherence to IHL. When there is a new Syria, a large proportion of the armed opposition may well take on a key role in the countries future security sector – I see no reason why security sector reform (SSR) cannot start now. A key element of that should be understanding and adhering to International law.

The risks of not engaging with such a process as suggested is that there will be more abuses and more bloodshed as massacres breed more massacres in revenge attacks and the situation for ordinary Syrians becomes even more unstable than it is now. From a strictly self-interested perspective for armed group members  there is a possibility of members of the armed opposition being held to account for not taking sufficient action to prevent abuses. There is also a risk that the new Syria will have a security sector which has a similar approach to international law and human rights as the current Syrian government’s security sector. That would be a crushing blow to those that have given so much for a better Syria.

There are of course other risks such as to the image of the armed opposition or the wider opposition in general. It is notable how so many apologists for the current regime have been circulating the “Berri execution” video trying to tarnish the whole of the Syrian opposition – that is to be expected – they will use international law and issues of dignity when it suits them and always turn a blind eye to the gross violations of the Syrian government. Avoiding this does not mean not filming and posting these abuses in the future though it means not carrying out these abuses at all.

Hopefully enough people are aware of what Amnesty has been doing to bring about a new Syria where human rights are respected and protected. Some may be cynical of such proposals and say “go tell this to the Syrian Government” or “We are not as bad as the Syrian Government” – sure that is to be expected but that does not mean the armed opposition do not have their own obligations under IHL as stated in our recent public statement.

It is also the case, as we have said in our new report released on 1 August that the Syrian government show no intention or desire to try to stamp out their grave human rights violations, to investigate them or to hold those responsible to account. On the contrary, crimes under international law and other human rights violations continue to be committed, evidently with the blessing of government authorities at the highest level.

So for the armed opposition, preparation for transition also entails preparing to be the change you say you want to see in Syria. However if that change is one which deliberately and publicly ignores international law (like the current regime) then say so but please do not get offended when human rights organisations criticise and challenge such behaviour.

That is why we have said publicly and privately that the leadership (pro & anti government) must make clear to the forces under their command or which act under their leadership, that violations of IHL will not be tolerated. Superiors and commanders have a duty to prevent and, where necessary, to suppress war crimes by those under their command or who they otherwise control; and as said but is worth repeating, they may be held criminally responsible if they fail to do so.

Accordingly, parties to the Syria conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects and to refrain from attacks that would disproportionately harm civilians or fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  

The FSA and other armed opposition commanders must be aware that with control of territory come responsibilities, notably to ensure the protection of the civilian population.

Clearly I am making a much wider point than just the incident with the Berri clan before anybody says these were not civilians these were Shabiha thugs. To them I would point to applicable international law in relation to treatment of detainees in this case here and here.  

I like so many people around the world and inside Syria want to see a new Syria which genuinely respects and protects everybody’s human rights – and that means everybody, even those who have inflicted great suffering on ordinary people in Aleppo and other places in Syria. 

It is absolutely right to condemn abuses like extrajudicial executions and it has been good to see so many opposition activists and groups doing just that with the Berri killings – this gives us hope even in the midst of such dark times.

Amnesty will not give up on Syria and we continue to dedicate our work to peaceful protesters, to those that lost their lives, the disappeared, the detained and the defiant ones – bravely standing on the frontline in pursuit of a human rights revolution.



Some Examples of ICRC literature here

What is IHL? 

IHL & HRL similarities and differences  

IHL Basic overview  or here 

Here is a very good video giving an overview:

IHL – A Universal Code


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I deplore Amnesty's use of the SAC presser. The FSA in Aleppo went on a murder binge because a clan of Sunni Muslims tried to prevent another FSA massacre of prisoners. The SAC release directly reflects on the atrocity prevention activity of the al-Berri quite unfavorably. The FSA and the clan hitherto operated a mutual pact. Will Amnesty call for a comprehensive arms embargo on the FSA faction or unit responsible for targeting the Al Berri family?

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Kristyan, do you mind if I point out that the culprits of the al-Berri massacre are a signatory to the pious platitudes in the PDF FSA reference you link in your blog post?

What kind of game is this? The FSA Aleppo promise to be nice, then they flay prisoners alive, and massacre captives. Why can't Assad's security services present Amnesty with a PDF and carry on as ruthlessly as before?

If the aleppo high command of the FSA is not behind the massacre, and I am pretty sure they are, but assuming I am wrong, why have they not arrested the out of control subordinates?

The actions against the al-Berri clan were sanctioned at the highest level, it was a strategic local initiative. The al-Berri intervened to stop the FSA executing captured police officers!

Am I therefore right in saying, that Amnesty is NOT calling for an arms embargo on the FSA culprits who were torturing and murdering helpless prisoners @ Aleppo?

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Headline from Amnesty web page :

"Syria: FSA killings probe findings ‘must go to UN inquiry"

Although I'm not anti to this aren't we going round the houses here ? Possibly these atrocities may not of occurred if the UN Security Council had acted sometime in the past. Today the UN General Assembly took a rare vote against the Security Council due to this issue and Kofi Annan jumped ship.

Presently the UN/international community have no credibility in Syria due to their lack of consensus within the Security Council and continued impotence on the ground. The UN seem to be as shambolic as the command structure of the FSA.

Daveyboy 11 years ago

There is not a shred of evidence of compliance re: Geneva convention on the part of the Free Syrian Army.

The video evidence would indicate the FSA killings of captives may often be the work of al Qaeda style groups, sometimes named to reflect a connection to Iraq, or Lebanon. In other cases, the 'authentic' FSA would appear to work hand in glove with extremist Islamic groups, some of which also claim to be FSA units.

The kidnapping or killing of Shia, Iranians, seems to be something of a generic exercise by many FSA styled groups.

There are lots of YouTube videos of prisoners being tortured by FSA style groups, and lots of YouTube videos of massacres of police, soldiers etc. There are no videos to suggest compliance by any FSA branded groups. On the contrary, prisoners murdered by the FSA, have been portrayed as defectors trying to change sides and executed by the regime.

The FSA generally, whatever gthe stripe, view a pile of dead bodies as YouTube tokens. So, I would ask Kristyan, if he has evidence of a single Alawi, Shia or Christian soldier, loyal to the regime, and staying loyal, surviving capture by the FSA. If the answer is no,

One of Goebbels' greatest wartime propaganda achievements was the exploitation of the Katyn massacre. In the eyes of the world, Nazi Germany was campaigning for the Geneva convention and the USA and United Kingdom were not.

If the answer is no, I would slow-up on the FSA propaganda. Amnesty need to find the single example of a loyal Alawi, Shia, or Christian soldier surviving capture.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

'This image made from a video released by the Baraa Brigades and accessed Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, purports to show Free Syrian Army soldiers guarding a group of Iranians abducted a day earlier and promising more attacks on Iranian targets in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Baraa Brigades via AP video)'

My advice to Kristyan is to wish him good luck with the Geneva convention stuff in relation to anything with the FSA logo. The idea of the FSA being a non-sectarian group of jolly decent freedom fighters, was always something of a stretch.

How one can possibly certify the supply of arms to such a rag tag pseudo coalition of violent groups, is beyond my comprehension. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's not really so very different to that bad stuff the FARC or al Qeada do.

Supplying the FSA with weapons, is to be an accomplice to sectarian murder. Kristyan's FSA assurances in this blog post are worthless, because the FSA do not do the Geneva convention. The very best the FSA do, is cave captivity until the ransom doesn't show up, at that point they waste the captives.

Nice FSA leaflet, a pity it is a lie.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

"All 40 were from rural areas outside Aleppo, and none could find their way through the city streets.",0,5229045.story

In that Reuters report they are all rural people from out of town. Those FSA dudes don't even know where they are, let alone the provisions of the Geneva convention. By the way, POWs are not supposed to be kept in close confinement, caves, cellars, dug-outs, it is illegal

'"I'm from Idlib and just came here on Saturday," he said. "I
don't know why the men from Aleppo haven't come to join us and they're all depending on outsiders.'

Join the FSA, and get to destroy other peoples cities.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Syria Rebels Defends 'Law of Jungle' as Executions Mount ‎
Journal of Turkish Weekly - 18 hours ago
The Free Syrian Army in northern Syria has defended the execution of figures loyal to Damascus while chiding the militant group's leaders in ...
Syria: Rebels torture and execute, Turkish reports‎ ANSAmed
all 67 news articles »

The above is the reality, Amnesty should not be disingenuously circulating propaganda for a very loose coalition of insurgents who are bereft of a functioning political executive and who operate according to the laws of the jungle. The Free Syrian Army is the nom de guerre for a host of paramilitaries who know no restraint but their own will.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Sixteen Syrians, mostly Alawite and Christian, die in attack, says NGO
August 7, 2012

Of course for a year or more, these killings were blamed on the regime, of course it was the Free Syrian Army (whatever that is), the anti-regime insurgents who were behind it.

Sectarian killers, do not do the Geneva convention.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Syrian rebels sign battlefield 'code of conduct'

'The leader of one of the brigades confirmed to Reuters he had signed the accord, but said he did not consider the commitments in the code to be binding.'

Not binding means they murder the Alawites and Christians and give the Sunni a chance to switch sides.

Amnesty has been and is hopelessly out of whack in relation to standard human rights imperatives. With the Geneva convention it is fairly simple stuff, name, rank, number nothing so nasty as close confinement, packages, postcards etc.

So the cut-outs delivering the weapons and the cash work for regimes who are either persecuting majority Shia on the home turf (Bahrain) or otherwise measure results in a similar proxy war context. The people in charge of who gets what weapons and who mark the performance score charts are sectarian bigots who supply by results.

Would amnesty settle for a sheet of A4 paper from the regime stating that its prisoners were all alive and well? So, how long has Amnesty been ignoring the murder of POWs by the FSA, it is well over a years worth of busy killing!

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

HE SAYS he is 24 but he doesn't look a day over 18 - a terrified young man with two swollen black eyes, cuts to his forehead and ears and the quivering mouth of one who is close to tears.
A Free Syrian Army soldier is barking questions at him, and the young man, whose clothes are covered in dirt and stains, struggles to respond.

As well as the battalion, the school's small, hot classrooms are also home to about 115 prisoners.
The burly deputy manager of the prison, Abu Haj - a former truck driver - is determined not to allow anyone to see the prisoners on his watch. He says a recent bad experience with the media has made him wary of giving up too much information.
But after heated debate we are allowed a quick glimpse of the prisoners - no notes recorded, no photographs taken.

Geneva convention? Only in Amnesty's dreams, note they always seem to use schools as execution and torture grounds, they're a militia of savages.

"He says a recent bad experience with the media has made him wary of giving up too much information."

Well, his gang of al Qaeda clones are only having good PR experiences with Amnesty!

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

The Geneva convention promises apparently don't apply to capture pilots, it is illegal to parade POWs for propaganda purposes, Amnesty may want to look at the weapons the rebels are holding, some of that stuff is high end purchasing. They are not being treated to old Qatari FN 7.62s, it looks like very generous assistance.

'Horrifying footage of rebels hurling bodies off a building in Aleppo also emerge - raising concerns the conflict is becoming increasingly violent'

When they pulled out of Homs, the rebels indulged in an orgy of rapid killing, all of which was blamed on the regime. The Free Syrian Army were encouraged to massacre POWs and civilians because the western media could be relied upon to portray the dead bodies as victims of the regime.

Commonsense, given the track record of the FSA for atrocity in relation to prisoners, should have alerted Amnesty to the fact the FSA would be disposing of large numbers of unwanted captives in Aleppo.

The FSA are at least as bad as the BSA in Bosnia, and if they win, they could turn into the Khmer Rouge, they are savages.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

FSA spokesman Kassem Saadeddine said he knew the pilot, and identified him as Colonel Mufid Mohammed Suleiman, a member of the Alawite minority community of president Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle.

"He is a member of a squadron I used to fly with ... before I defected," Mr Saadeddine said.

"I served with him for 15 years, and he is a staunch enemy of the revolution."

Is that a request from FSA HQ to deal with him more brutally than is the horrific norm? There is a reference to his religion! That's all very illegal.

The FSA are a criminal gang of sectarian killers, depraved thugs without the slightest inclination to adhere to the customs of war. Not once did Amnesty remark upon the extreme provocations that has established a 'no quarter' war. The FSA _wanted_ the regime to do atrocities, that was the purpose of the FSA torture videos.

The FSA have the kind of 'no rules' war they wanted.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Don't worry, the FSA have now signed a pledge to not rape, torture or mutilate. Mr Benedict has assured us. Anyway, he's too busy rubbing shoulders with important people to give a care what you think. You're just some pleb. Do you have celebs on your Twitter followers list like Kristyan does? No.

doon25 11 years ago

Even by the standards of other atrocity blighted conflicts such as Bosnia, the opposition forces are loathsome.

Syria refugees battle heat, dust, sexual harassment
By Musa Hattar (AFP) – 8 hours ago
ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — Sweltering heat, dust, lack of electricity and at times sexual harassment are some of the hardships faced by refugees in this UN-run desert tent camp in northern Jordan.

The refugees are being held prisoner as hostages under the threat of tear gas and beatings to serve as anti-Assad 'tokens' for the petro-Monarchies.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

'Western intelligence agencies report that the al-Qaida network, founded by Osama bin Laden, has "up to 1,500 combatants" participating in the Syrian civil war. In response to an inquiry from the German parliament, the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, stated that, in the first half of 2012, it had counted about 90 attacks "that can be attributed to organizations or jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida." United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is apparently referring to similar analyses when he says that the presence of the terrorist organization in the region has created "very serious problems."'

The FSA to begin with were completely useless, they were frightened of tanks, AFVs, APCs etc. Then al Qaeda arrived, blocks of houses full of people, the Syrian regime armour only on the lookout for the odd grenade, or rocket, then bang, that part of town is in ruins, the street is gone and the Syrian regime armour is under rubble.

There is no PR downside, because by the time the bodies are lined up, they are victims of that horrid Syrian President. Much of the devastation in the videos, is caused by truck, sewer and boiler, IEDs, it is like Somalia and Beirut.

Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

Anger, tears, and forgiveness as Syrian rebel and his prisoner share their fears
As evidence mounts of abuse and summary execution of prisoners , The Observer witnesses an extraordinary meeting between a Sunni rebel leader and his Alawite captive in al-Bab, near Aleppo


You are a specialist on Syria? I respectfully advise Amnesty open an folder on the school in the Guardian article.

As recently as 10 August, Alawites were being beaten to with iron bars at that school. The metal bars are stacked together, covered in hair, blood & etc.

This war is unique, never before, has the western media been taken for suckers like this. This civil war will be the object of study for decades.

I think if Amnesty looks into it, they will also find a metal bed frame was used to torture prisoners, it is kept in the corridor.

The Guardian article, staged propaganda.

Best wishes


Gregory Carlin 11 years ago

"The FSA and other armed opposition commanders must be aware that with control of territory come responsibilities, notably to ensure the protection of the civilian population."

How diverse are these dudes? If they are very diverse, then they are not going to be complying with the Geneva convention are they? That requires camps, visits from Red Cross officials, postcards, toothpaste, name, rank serial number.

So, why post FSA propaganda to an Amnesty blog? The best a POW captured by the very diverse FSA can possibly hope for is a torture session at a school until the Syrian air force puts him out of his misery by performing the kindness of bombing it.

This is a civil war with schools as legitimate targets, that is the fault of the FSA, because as diverse as they are, they all seem to zero in on schools as useful bases, torture centres, execution sites, or weapons warehouses etc.

The customs of war, the FSA don't do, they're primitives.

I think it is not very helpful for Amnesty to lend credence to opposition propaganda re: the Geneva convention.

'FSA spokesman Kassem Saadeddine said the plane was a MiG-23BN and that the pilot was from Zahraa, an Alawite district of the city of Homs. “He is a member of a squadron I used to fly with... before I defected,” he told AFP via Skype. “I served with him for 15 years, and he is a staunch enemy of the revolution.”'

I bet that pilot was murdered, mostly because they promised not to, and so the smart money has to be on a murder.

Has Amnesty any news on the pilot?


Gregory Carlin 11 years ago