Syrian rebels reportedly commit war crimes; U.N. Security Council should refer crimes in Syria to the ICC—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #71 (August 1)

Some units of the Free Syrian Army are reported today to have summarily executed opponents under their control, in Aleppo. This is a wrong turn for the opposition, a sad and erroneous step on the path leading to the more widespread commission of war crimes by the rebels, and to certain ruin.


(1) “Regime loyalists ‘executed’ in Syria’s Aleppo; Video of apparent execution emerges as fierce fighting continues over control of the country’s largest city,” Al Jazeera, August 2, 2012 (04:01 h). This article also includes a report on the massacre of some 50 men in a suburb of Damascus by al-Assad’s military forces.

(2) J. David Goodman, “Video Said to Show Execution by Syrian Rebels Stirs Debate,” New York Times, August 1, 2012.

(3) Ian Black (Middle East editor) and Martin Chulov (in Antaky), “Syrian army pounds Aleppo as video appears to show rebels’ revenge killings; Regime forces use artillery and aircraft to attack parts of Syria’s second city as Assad praises army for facing ‘terrorist gangs’, The Guardian, August 1, 2012 (14.05 EDT). Black and Chulov quote Bashir al-Haji, spokesman for the FSA’s Tawhid (“Unity”) Brigade, who told the Guardian in a telephone interview:

“We were able to kill 20 of them and arrest another 50,” he said. “We held a field trial for them. We have judges and lawyers who are in the opposition. They found that seven of the Berri clan were involved in killing and they decided to execute them. Others are being kept for trial after the collapse of the regime.”

The statement shows the FSA is aware of the laws of war. Whether field trials were actually held or not unknown. It sounds dubious.

(4) BBC, “Syria conflict: Aleppo shootings by rebels condemned; Human rights activists have condemned the public shooting in Syria of four apparent Assad loyalists by rebels in the battleground city of Aleppo,” BBC News, August 1, 2012.

(5) Erike Solomon, “Casualties of Aleppo’s grizzly war mount,” The Daily Star, August 2, 2012. Solomon quotes rebels approving of the killing of a government troop in detention, but also reports on the rebles field hospital treating governmnet soldiers as well as rebels.

(6) See also Amnesty International, “Syria: From all-out repression to armed conflict in Aleppo,” August 1, 2012. The news release contains a link to the full Amnesty International Report, “All Out Repression: Purging Dissent in Aleppo, Syria,” August 1, 2012.

By committing war crimes themselves, the rebels undercut the moral justification of their cause. Those who are supporting them now, with weapons, money, intelligence, and logistics and coordination, will come under enormous pressures to diminish or end their support of the insurgents if they continue to commit or tolerate the commission of war crimes.

Part of the problem is that foreign countries have not intervened enough, and soon enough, to help train the rebels in the laws of war (humanitarian law) and to establish processes for holding rebels accountable for the commission of war crimes when they occur. The Free Syrian Army obviously needs to expand its capacity for handling prisoners without abusing them, at the earliest possible date.

What many in Syria are fighting for is the opposite of al-Assad, involving respect for the fundamental rights of individual human beings, and the establishment of the rule of law.

The reports today of summary executions by the rebels constitutes a decisive turning point. If the rebels allow the commission of war crimes to pass without condemnation, they risk losing the moral legitimacy which has enabled their cause to elicit support from abroad.

At a second level, the reported summary executions carried out by insurgents in Syria makes it all the more imperative that the U.N. Security Council refer the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria to the International Criminal Court, at the earliest opportunity.

Both the government forces and militias of Bashar al-Assad and the forces which oppose him, including the Free Syrian Army, must be held accountable for the commission of war crimes, and other international crimes including crimes against humanity.

The Security Council should take up a resolution conferring jurisdiction on the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other international crimes committed in Syria, whether by the government or by rebel forces, forthwith.

The Trenchant Observer

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About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.