The U.S.-based watchdog group said that as many as 190 civilians were killed by extremist forces and another 200 taken hostage in August, most of them from President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority.
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The group, which has reported extensively on crimes against humanity committed by government forces, said its findings “strongly suggested” that similar crimes have now been carried out by the opposition.
“Eight survivors and witnesses described how [on Aug. 4] opposition forces executed residents and opened fire on civilians, sometimes killing or attempting to kill entire families who were either in their homes unarmed or fleeing from the attack, and at other times killing adult male family members, and holding the female relatives and children hostage,” it said.
HRW said about 20 opposition groups took part in the offensive. Of those, five – Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Izzt – were involved in the attacks on civilians. It was unclear whether to what extent, if any, the moderate Free Syrian Army played a role, though Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army’s Western-backed Supreme Military Council said in August that fighters under his command participated in the assault.
“We have documented some abuses by opposition groups that appear to have a sectarian dynamic, but never something on this scale. These villages were largely unguarded, people were by and large not anticipating this,” said Lama Fakih, HRW’s Syria/Lebanon researcher. “But some did indicate they thought it could happen, given the proximity of the opposition forces, and now they’re worried it will happen again, which is why some of them have not returned to the area.
“I’ve been concerned for quite some time that these front lines where we used to have Sunni and Alawite villages next to one another without issue, could become fault lines where civilians are targeted. The attacks in Latakia are reminiscent of attacks in Baniyas in May, and those attacks also had some sectarian motivation.”
The report stands to further compound civilian and activist frustration with an opposition that has, so far, been the victim of fragmentation, infighting and, recently, the sharp escalation of a battle for power between extremists and the original, moderate opposition led by the Syrian National Coalition.
“It is an unfortunate event,” said Manhal Barish, 33, a civil activist from Saraqeb. “I believe [the testimonies] are true. Human Rights Watch has high credibility.”
Barish said he did not think the FSA was involved in the killing of Alawite civilians. “Some battalions have their own agendas, which have nothing to do with the revolution and its goals.”
Sami, 23, a student in Hama, said that HRW had underestimated the number of civilians killed by extremists, and that it was becoming a trend.
“I think the number [of killed] is way higher,” he said. “The numbers are higher in Latakia, but this has been happening in the Homs countryside and the Deir Ezzor countryside. In one Shia village in Deir Ezzor, 60 civilians got killed. The crazy part is that the Syrian government media didn’t cover it well [which would have hurt the opposition’s image]. I still don’t understand why. From what I hear there are 200 people being held and under threat of murder.”
Others remained skeptical that the killings had taken place, citing hearsay.
“The report says this number is estimated,” said Abu Kinan, 28, from Daraya, Damascus province. “Nothing precise remains. I know that the shabiha [pro-regime militia] were detained in these villages in Latakia. But what we don’t know are the circumstances of the HRW testimonies. We don’t know how villagers responded [peacefully or with resistance] when the [extremist] battalions arrived, and what really transpired between the two groups. We don’t have the details.”
The HRW report is the first time the killings have been widely reported by international media.
Though “the results of the report are not widely known, people from the villages themselves are intimately familiar with what happened there,” Fakih said. “What I saw when I visited, and what residents told me, is that the civilian residents of these villages were not armed at the time. This was clearly a preplanned attempt to try to take more territory in the Latakia countryside, which would have both military and strategic significance.”
Added Sami: “This news is old, but only the pro-Assad media covered it when it happened. The anti-regime media were all showing a video of an Alawite woman being interviewed after giving birth and the doctor reciting the Quran over the newborn girl, and the opposition saying, ‘We don’t kill women and children like Assad does.’”