These past few weeks have been grim not only in terms of the carnage in Syria but the brazen bragging and video recordings of atrocities by those carrying them out. Combatants on both sides of the horrific two-year-long civil war have acted with bestial cruelty.
Government bombing and strafing of civilians and of targets that had no obvious military value has been recording by human rights workers and numerous journalists, including myself. Back in December as I crossed the border into Syria from Turkey a refugee camp was strafed by a Syrian air force warplane: the cannon shot ripped 50 meters from me and my translator and then went right through refugee tents. It was sheer chance that no one was killed that day.
Rape as a weapon of terror has also been used by government forces: how systematic remains to be seen. I interviewed a woman back in August who witnessed the aftermath of a gang rape of a neighbor in Homs. In March, bodies of men shot apparently by gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were floating down a river in Aleppo.
Government forces are no doubt responsible for more deaths than the rebels with many of those casualties killed in indiscriminate air strikes and artillery barrages. But rebel brigades, jihadist and otherwise, have engaged in atrocious acts as well — and they are not hiding them.
This week a particularly chilling Internet clip surfaced of the filming of a rebel brigade commander ripping open the torso of a dead pro-government fighter and removing from the corpse the man’s heart. It appears it may have been more lung than heart but that is neither here nor there. He then proceeded to chew on it.
A link to the clip is here for those who have strong stomachs. I strongly advise any kids reading this post not to watch.
The gratuitous act is not only disturbing in itself. The man you see doing this unashamedly is Abu Sakkar, commander of the independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade, an offshoot of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Al-Farouq Brigades. He’s a significant commander and last month was pictured on videos firing rockets at Shia villages in Lebanon. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog,” he says after mutilating the body. He issues also blood-curdling threats against Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime.
The act – a war crime – will add to sectarian hatred. You can see the cycle in an interview Abu Sakkar gave Time magazine this week.
His real name is Khalid al Hamad and in the interview he justifies his actions by arguing that he found evidence on the man’s cell phone of rape. “We opened his cell phone and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there.”
Then today Internet clips posted by jihadists surfaced showing the summary execution in the city of Raqqa of three captured pro-government fighters – they are described as “Assad officers.” Summary executions are technically also war crimes. The justification given for the executions is retaliation for massacres carried out by government forces. Here is a link to the clip. Again children are advised strongly not to watch.
The executions were carried out in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq – in other words Al Qaeda in Iraq. Last month, the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra formally merged with the Islamic State of Iraq, and this is one of the first instances that al-Nusra has used its new merged name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Some background on this merger can be found here in a Daily Beast article I wrote examining the merger and its implications.
All of this bodes badly for the future course of the fighting and for eventually what will happen in Syria when and if the Assad regime falls. Such barbarity on the rebel side will not help Western policymakers as they try to work out what they should be doing. How can they make the case to their publics that the West has to get more involved when the side they will be boosting are exulting about the atrocities they commit?