x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrian rebels condemned for alleged war crimes

United Nations says video, which appears to show Syrian rebels executing regime soldiers, could be a document of a war crime

ISTANBUL // The Syrian opposition plunged deeper into crisis yesterday as a video showing possible war crimes by rebels drew UN condemnation and activists resigned from the main dissident group, echoing scathing criticism expressed by the United States.

The video on YouTube, appearing to show Syrian rebels beating about 10 government soldiers and then executing them with automatic weapons, could be a document of a war crime, Rupert Colville, spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, told reporters in Geneva.

Amnesty International also condemned the killings, which were reported to have taken place Thursday during an assault by rebels on the northern town of Saraqeb, the scene of heavy fighting in past weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In the video, a group of unarmed men can be seen lying on the dusty floor of an unfinished or damaged building, surrounded by armed fighters. Shortly afterwards, the armed men spray the soldiers on the floor with bullets.

Syrian rebel forces have been accused of killing captured soldiers before, but it was the first time they faced war crime accusations.

"It is very likely that this was a war crime, another one," Mr Colville said. The perpetrators would not get away with the crime, he added. "Accountability will follow."

There was no comment from the rebels, and it was not immediately clear which of the many rebel groups operating in Syria may have been involved.

The video was a blow to the credibility of the Syrian rebels, who say they are fighting a brutal regime responsible for massacres and other serious human rights violations. More than 36,000 people have died in the 19-month conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

News of the video came as opposition activists in Turkey said they had resigned from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main dissident body long criticised for its chronic infighting and for its inability to bring all foes of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad under its wings.

"I resigned from the SNC yesterday," Omar Shawaf, a Syrian-Turkish businessman involved in organising local administration councils in parts of Syria no longer under control of the Assad government, told The National.

He said he knew of about half a dozen other SNC members who had also resigned in protest in recent days.

The SNC said yesterday that it the Free Syrian Army should hold its fighters accountable for their actions.

"Though the rebel armed groups' violations are not as serious or numerous as those committed by the regime (of President Bashar al-Assad), we cannot be silent over such violations because that would only help them to increase," Radif Mustafa, the SNC human rights committee chief, told Agence France-Presse. Mustafa said. "The FSA and other armed groups need to respect human rights."

The SNC was founded in Turkey last year and has been recognised as a representative of the Syrian people by much of the international community.

But the SNC has often been criticised for not representing the full diversity of Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze and other ethnic and religious groups in Syria. In an organisation beset by infighting since its launch, some prominent dissidents, among them Haitham Al Maleh, a former judge, left the SNC in protest. Mr Shawaf said he expected an opposition meeting starting in Qatar tomorrow would be "the last meeting of the SNC". He said the SNC leadership, made up by exiles, had been occupied with making plans for a future government in Syria without taking the voices of activists inside Syria into account.

"I believe handling the revolution from outside is not right," Mr Shawaf said.

He said he agreed with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who this week voiced frustration with the SNC, saying it was not representative of on-the-ground opposition forces and that it "can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition".

Reports have emerged that Washington will be pushing for an overhaul of the opposition at the Qatar meeting, with longtime Syrian dissident Riad Seif touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.

Mr Seif, 65, is a businessman and former Syrian lawmaker who has been arrested by the Al Assad government and is reported to have left Damascus several months ago.

The US hopes a revamped opposition leadership that could be forged at the four-day conference starting tomorrow in Doha, the capital of Qatar, could rally wider international support and help buffer against attempts by extremists among the rebels to hijack the uprising.

But the SNC leadership yesterday accused Washington of undermining the country's revolution by seeking the opposition overhaul.

"Any discussions aimed at passing over the Syrian National Council or at creating new bodies to replace it are an attempt to undermine the Syrian revolution by sowing the seeds of division," the SNC said in a statement.

Meanwhile, rebel forces inside Syria were making progress on the ground, with their fighters reported to have taken full control of a strategic crossroads yesterday in a move that will further limit the regime's ability to reinforce its troops in the northern commercial hub Aleppo.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press