Why the Syrian Rebels May Be Guilty of War Crimes

A new Human Rights Watch report details abuses by the Free Syrian Army

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MARCO LONGARI / AFP / Getty Images

A man carries his wounded daughter outside a hospital in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sept. 18, 2012

For weeks, politicians in European capitals and in the U.S. have debated how, and if, they should assist Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad. The mounting civilian toll — more than 23,000 dead and more than a million displaced, according to the U.N. — has led many to argue that inaction is tantamount to genocide. But the Assad regime, despite the grotesque atrocities it has committed in the past year, isn’t responsible for all the brutality. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report sheds new light.

The report, released Monday, details incidents of torture, illegal detention and extrajudicial killings committed by the antigovernment militias loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Some could be potentially considered war crimes. “Torture and extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread and systematic,” asserts the report’s summary.

(MORE: Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming?)

Of course, the reports’ findings — a dozen cases of extrajudicial killings and summary executions along with six confirmed cases of torture and scores of illegal detentions — pale in comparison to the well-documented “gross violations of human rights” committed by the Syrian regime, according to a recently released U.N. report. Still, the rebels have a greater responsibility to uphold the very rights they claim to be fighting for, says Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director. “Time and again Syria’s opposition has told us that it is fighting against the government because of its abhorrent human-rights violations. Now is the time for the opposition to show that they really mean what they say.”

When confronted with evidence of extrajudicial executions, three opposition leaders told HRW that those who were killed deserved to be killed, and that only the worst criminals were being executed. Furthermore, other opposition leaders said they did not consider the practice of falaqa, beating the soles of the feet, to be torture “because it did not cause injuries.” According to the report:

Two FSA fighters from the Ansar Mohammed battalion in Latakia told Human Rights Watch that they had detained about 40 people after storming a police station in Haffa in June … ”[We were instructed that we] should not severely torture the detainees. We are only allowed to use falaqa. We can’t hit detainees in the face, on their back, or any other places. Just on the soles of their feet, and only for a total of one hour per day. We use it to make them confess. It usually works.”

The report was not designed to discredit the rebels or take sides in the argument over whether or not they should be helped. Quite high up in fact, the report states, “opposition leaders told Human Rights Watch that they will respect human rights and that they have taken measures to curb the abuses.” If anything, the report’s authors say, the cases of human-rights abuses demonstrate a need for strict accountability measures as foreign powers increasingly throw their weight behind the rebels. “Declarations by opposition groups that they want to respect human rights are important, but the real test is how opposition forces behave,” states Houry.

(MORE: The Making of a Syrian Rebel: The Saga of Abboud Barri)

“Any state that gets involved in the Syrian conflict by arming the rebels has a responsibility to ensure that the end users of those weapons will not jeopardize civilian life,” says Michael Shaikh, director of country operations for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an NGO focusing on civilian-protection issues. “That means not only securing some sort of public statement from the armed opposition that they will keep to the laws of armed conflict, but also their commitment to, and demonstration of their ability to keep even Syria’s minorities safe.” Shaikh, who has just returned from a trip to Syria’s north where he spent time with rebel commanders, was alarmed to see several instances in which fighters under the FSA umbrella treated unarmed Alawite civilians, who are members of the same religious sect as Assad, as potential spies and thus worthy of detention or attack.

But that kind of commitment to international laws requires a command structure that has yet to be developed in the FSA, says Wissam Tarif, the Lebanon-based director of Avaaz, an international activist group that has been instrumental in getting medical supplies and communication equipment to activists in Syria. “The Free Syrian Army connotes a lot more unity and structure than currently exists,” he says. “You need a military chain of command that is respected. A lot of these guys are just kids in the neighborhoods who took up weapons.” The FSA, he explains, comprises largely of antiregime smugglers with a grudge and access to weapons, organized Islamist groups and legitimate defectors from the Syrian army — conscripts who were trained by the “Assad violence machine.” Hardly the basis for a disciplined army corps well versed in protecting human rights, he points out. Breaches of international humanitarian law should hardly come unexpected, especially considering that many members of the FSA were once victims of torture under the Syrian army and paramilitary thugs.

Louay al-Mokdad, an FSA logistics coordinator and de facto spokesman based in Turkey, complains that the FSA’s disarray is due to the fact that they have had so little outside assistance. “We are dodging air strikes and trying to protect our people at the same time,” he says by telephone. “How can you expect us to maintain control of all these different groups when we don’t even have a way to communicate?” The FSA doesn’t need weapons as much as communications equipment and training, he says. “We want to train our fighters to be a better army, we want to be able to talk to all the different units to tell them these rules, and we want to know how to make better political groups. How can we do this if you don’t help us?” Helping the rebels, he seems to be saying, will have to start with a leap of faith.

Baker is TIME’s Middle East bureau chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.