Are Syria's rebels guilty of war crimes?

A leading international human rights champion charges that Bashar al-Assad's regime isn't the only organized Syrian group committing crimes against humanity

Free Syrian Army soldiers shoot their weapons toward Syrian Army opposition in Aleppo on Sept. 8.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Human Rights Watch this week released a stinging report accusing the Free Syrian Army of war crimes, from torture to executing captured government soldiers and other supporters of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. This isn't the first time the international human rights organization has warned that Syrian rebels were committing such abuses, although when the group sounded the alarm in March, it said the alleged culprits didn't appear to be under the control of any of the main opposition groups. Now Human Rights Watch is pointing fingers at the main armed opposition group. Does this mean Syria's pro-democracy "good guys" are as bad as Assad's pariah regime? Here, a brief guide:

What have the rebels allegedly done?

Human Rights Watch sent researchers to the main Free Syrian Army base in Aleppo, a city that has faced a brutal siege by government forces. The activists interviewed 12 detainees there, and six reported being subjected to mistreatment — mostly severe beatings, sometimes using cables — that amounted to torture. The group also documented at least 12 cases of summary executions, allegedly by FSA fighters. In one of the cases, four members of the al-Barri family in Aleppo were lined up against a wall and shot dead for allegedly killing 15 FSA soldiers. A video of the killings was posted on YouTube.

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How do rebel leaders respond to the charges?

Human Rights Watch says that three opposition leaders said they only killed prisoners who had committed such horrible crimes that they deserved to die. Most prisoners were treated humanely, they said. Three FSA fighters said they had received direct instructions only to beat detainees on the soles of the feet, because, unlike blows to the head, hitting their feet "did not cause injuries." Other opposition leaders promised Human Rights Watch that they would respect human rights, and that they were actively trying to impose new rules and spread the word that all abuses must stop.

Does this mean the rebels are as bad as Assad?

Well, a war crime is a war crime, and "even rebels that don't boast membership in al Qaeda are committing serious crimes," says John Glaser at Antiwar. That means that U.S. policy, which supports the rebels, "is both immoral and strategically bankrupt." But Assad's forces have been blamed for thousands of civilian deaths, often in airstrikes with no legitimate military target around. Human Rights Watch understandably wants rebels to uphold the very rights they're supposed to be fighting for, says Aryn Baker at TIME. But there's a mountain of evidence that the rebels' alleged crimes "pale in comparison" to what a United Nations report called the well-documented "gross violations of human rights" committed by the Syrian regime.

Sources: Antiwar, Guardian, Human Rights Watch, TIME

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