BEIRUT — Syrian rebel forces killed at least 190 civilians and kidnapped more than 200 others during a much-publicized offensive in the coastal province of Latakia in August, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today.
The allegations in the 105-page report appear to implicate the rebels in a large-scale, sectarian-fueled massacre. Targeted were residents of predominantly loyalist Latakia, home of President Bashar Assad and many members of his Alawite sect.
“These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in
. “This operation was a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population in these Alawite villages.”
The report is the latest blow for fractious opposition forces already reeling because of deep rifts within their ranks and the expanding influence of hard-line Islamist groups, including several affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The 14-day "operation to liberate the coast," as it was termed by some rebel factions, was lauded by opposition leaders in the summer as a push to seize Qardaha, the Assad clan's ancestral home.
"We will continue the work with great initiative to liberate the entire coast," Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army, said in a YouTube video (link in Arabic) as he inspected the rebel forces in Latakia.
Before a government counter-offensive pushed the rebels back, the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group backed by Washington and its allies, touted the Latakia campaign as a "great battle of liberation" in which the Free Syrian Army would "stand equally before all the components of Syrian society despite their religious or racial origins."
Yet the Human Rights Watch report stresses the sectarian nature of the alleged atrocities, which were mostly committed on Aug. 4, the first day of the offensive, investigators found. (The report cites one opposition activist as saying that the Free Syrian Army did not participate in the offensive until after Aug. 4.)
Sectarian acts by rebels included intentional desecration of Alawite graves and the abduction and execution of a local cleric, the report said.
Of the 190 civilians reported killed, 67 corpses bore signs of multiple gunshot or stab wounds, charring or bound feet. Two hard-line Islamist groups that participated in the operation have also yet to release more than 200 hostages, mostly women and children from pro-government Alawite villages, the Human Rights Watch report said.
According to the report, the killings, hostage-taking and other abuses committed by the opposition forces amount to crimes against humanity. The scale and organization indicate that the abuses were systematic and part of a planned assault on a civilian population, the rights group said.
"The evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates that all those unlawfully killed were civilian noncombatants," the report says. "There is no evidence that they could have posed, or could have been perceived to pose, any threat to the fighters."
The government and the rebels have routinely traded blame for massacres of civilians and extrajudicial killings during the 2 1/2-year Syrian conflict, which has left more than 100,000 dead, according to United Nations estimates.
In September, Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian government of systematic torture and extrajudicial killings in the Baida-Baniyas area of coastal Tartus province, where more than 200 civilians, mostly Sunni Muslims, were allegedly killed by loyalist militiamen.