The Sins of the Opposition: Rights Violations by Assad's Enemies

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Frederic Lafargue / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian rebels patrol and set up checkpoints in northern Syria's Idlib region on March 18, 2012

The battle lines in Syria tear through towns, dividing neighborhoods, splitting street from street and turning neighbor against neighbor. So it is hardly surprising that elements of the armed rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime have been accused of engaging in acts just as ruthless as those perpetrated against them. In an open letter to the nominal political and military leaders of the Syrian opposition, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged some of Assad's opponents of "gross human-rights abuses," including kidnappings, torture and executions of security personnel and civilians — the same kind of charges the United Nations and activist groups have leveled against Assad's minions.

The HRW letter details examples and names some of the groups allegedly involved and the geographical regions they operate in. It cites video evidence and says that "some of the attacks targeting Shi'as and Alawites appear to be motivated by sectarianism." In one example, "Marwan," an Alawite from the Karm el-Zeitoun neighborhood of Homs, says armed men entered his neighborhood on Jan. 23 and kidnapped his elderly parents from their home. In a phone call, the gang's leader, "Abees," demanded money and weapons in return for Marwan's parents. The son told HRW he called Abees the next day. "He said to stop calling and that they had killed my parents. After that, we saw a video on YouTube showing their dead bodies," Marwan told the rights group. "Myself, I am a supporter of the government, but this is a sectarian crime, and it has to do with money."

The report appears to support observations by journalists in the field. Despite the insistence otherwise of Internet- and media-savvy opposition members, the Syrian uprising has taken an ugly sectarian turn. In travels across Syria extending to almost all of its borders, TIME has repeatedly heard sectarian slurs against members of Assad's Alawite sect. Although there are Alawite, Christian and Druze members of the opposition, to Syrians these days — just as in Iraq and Lebanon before — a person's religious identity is often the first and sometimes main determinant of his or her assumed politics. And in Syria, as in Iraq and Lebanon, that is the fine line between safety and danger.

HRW said that "the Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups." The group's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, adds that "opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap or execute under any circumstances."

But the opposition leaders, both military and political, cannot even speak in unison. The Syrian National Council, the de facto political representative group, and the leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is sequestered in a refugee camp in Turkey, have bickered and sniped at each other for months, leaving protesters and fighters to fend for themselves. "They're all thinking about their positions after the fall of the regime," one defector in southern Turkey tells TIME, "but none of them are thinking about how we are going to get there or about us, the ones doing the fighting."

Among the activists and fighters on the ground, there is widespread and growing resentment of the so-called leaders of the opposition in exile. FSA units have to rely on themselves to find weapons and funding. The depth of anger was perhaps best expressed in a short video released this week in which a small group of men in civilian garb stand in two neat rows in front of an olive tree, scarves concealing their identities. The clip is not unlike countless others purporting to show members of the FSA, except that none of the nine men in it have any weapons. Some carry lemons instead of grenades; others hold sticks as if they were rifles. One wields a hammer. "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate ... We, the free men of Idlib, announce the formation of the 'We Hope to Be Armed' brigade," the speaker says. "We do not have any weapons. We ask the National Council and the commander of the Free Army to fulfill their lying promises and to stop serenading the revolutionaries on the ground without sending weapons, because your serenades are killing us."

There is much debate within the Syrian opposition, in all its varied forms, about arming. Some fear it may increase the bloodshed (and potentially rights abuses) rather than stem it. But could undersupplied fighters seek funding through the ransoms available by way of kidnapping? Some members of the opposition say the real battle should be to persuade Syrians who are still publicly aligned with the regime, especially minorities, to break away from it — something the HRW document is hardly likely to help facilitate. Predictably, some Syrians took to social media to lambaste the messenger on Tuesday, March 20, claiming that not all human-rights violations are equal. But there was introspection as well. As one commentator on Twitter said, "today's revolutionary is tomorrow's policeman." But at this point, tomorrow still looks like a long way away.