Syria: HRW report on Latakia reflects Washington’s shifting policy.

A report from Human Rights Watch, titled “You Can Still See Their Blood”, gives a lengthy and detailed account of what amount to crimes against humanity committed by opposition forces in more than 10 majority Alawite villages in the region of Latakia.

Commencing in the early hours of the 4th of August, up to 20 rebels groups, led by the Salafi/Jihadi extremists that dominate the Syrian insurgency, among them: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suqoor al-Izz, commenced a prolonged and brutal sectarian attack upon the majority Alawite civilian population of Latakia. In another blow to the “moderate rebels” media narrative, it becomes clear that the western-friendly groups under “FSA” branding – ie, groups that receive arms and funding through the western-backed “Supreme Military Council” (SMC) – were also involved in the sectarian assault on Latakia. The report states that it is not clear whether SMC affiliated groups were present during the onset of the assault, but that “the participation of Idriss (leader of “SMC”) & fighters under his command in “Operation to Liberate the Coast” appears clear”. Furthermore, in a video filmed in Latakia countryside from August 11th, Idriss is shown congratulating the rebels for their “successes” in Latakia. And, in another video from August 12th Idriss declares his full support for the assault and appeals for more weapons for the “revolutionaries”:

I am here [in Latakia countryside] today to get a picture on the true achievements and the big successes that our fellow revolutionaries have achieved in the coastal campaign and to respond to the charges that claim incorrectly that we will end our operations here on the coastal frontlines. We are here today to assure everyone that our chief of staff is cooperating fully with the coastal military front command regarding their military activities. We are not going to withdraw as was falsely claimed but on the contrary, we are cooperating to a great extent in this operation.

We wish to remind everyone to provide the Syrian revolutionaries (sic) with bullets and weapons and all it needs so we can end the killing and destruction and build a free country.

The report is a damning account of the rebel groups that planned and took part in the unprovoked assault. Arguably for the first time a western “NGO” has reported on “systematic”, “premeditated”, mass atrocities committed by the rebels in Syria. It provides a stark wake-up call to the morally expedient media organs and western diplomats that have trumpeted the so-called “freedom fighters” for nigh-on two years – but that may be a desired intention, as we will discuss later.

HRW collected the names of 190 civilians that were killed in the attack, including 57 women, at least 18 children, and 14 elderly men, the vast majority of whom HRW claim were killed in the first day alone. Over 200 civilians are still missing. Moreover, 105 civilians – the vast majority women and children – are known to have been taken hostage by the rebels; it is claimed these hostages have been passed from one rebel group to another, with the aim of exchanging them for rebel prisoners, and are now allegedly being held captive by Ahrar al-Sham. A “oppposition activist”, present during the onslaught claimed that after the first day of the attack “160-200 Alawite were dead”.

The well-regarded analyst of jihadist groups in Syria Aymenn J Al-Tamimi, gave a less-than optimistic estimate of the fate of the captives in September, stating that the more extreme rebel groups consider Alawite women and children “spoils of war”, and it was “likely that they had been put to sex and labour trafficking”. A video released on YouTube circulating for some weeks shows some of the women and children from Latakia being held by Abu Suhaib, a Libyan leader of the foreign jihadist group Jaish al-muhijireen wal-Ansar. Ominously, HRW claim that “Given that many residents remain missing, and opposition fighters buried many bodies in mass graves, the total number of dead is likely higher.”

The report goes into graphic detail of how rebels attacked the town in large numbers, quickly overpowering local government troops. Witnesses described “frantically attempting to flee as opposition fighters stormed the area, opening fire apparently indiscriminately, and in some cases deliberately shooting at them while they tried to flee. Many of those who were unable to flee were killed or taken hostage.” Whole families were massacred in their homes. In many cases, male civilians were summarily executed whilst women and children were either killed attempting to flee or taken hostage. Furthermore, the report makes clear that the attack on Latakia was not the work of a “rogue group” and was clearly premeditated and organised in advance. Decapitation, slit-throats, multiple point-blank gunshot wounds, multiple stab wounds, and “complete charring” among the victims. The ruthless barbarity inflicted upon civilians is reminiscent of previous unsolved massacres that received widespread attention earlier on in the conflict.

Although much attention should rightly be focused on the barbaric nature of the attack and identifying its perpetrators, it is also important to consider the timing of the HRW report. The attacks on Latakia were over two months ago; long before the chemical weapons attack on August 21st in Ghouta, which HRW covered extensively – with far less source material at their disposal – only two weeks after the event. Once the Syrian Army (SAA) and National Defense Forces (NDF) had driven out the insurgents and regained control of the villages in Latakia; local Syrian media reported on the mass-graves that were found, and indeed, the many missing people. Moreover, the aforementioned video of captives with the Libyan militant Abu Suhaib also received widespread attention in local and alternative media. Conversely, these events went largely ignored in western media; the focus of western coverage on Syria was immediately flooded by the furore surrounding the attacks in Ghouta on August the 21st, again, in stark contrast to any coverage of the assault on Latakia. It should also be noted that the Syrian government itself had (unsuccessfully) tried to suppress reports of the attack on Latakia in order to preserve morale within its core support-base and avert the possibility of exacerbating sectarian divisions rapidly spreading throughout the country. The rebels had no such intention; the region of Latakia was intentionally targeted for the specific reason that the majority of its civilian inhabitants are Alawite and supporters of the Syrian government.

The question then remains, why have HRW chosen to publish this report now? The fact that the report is being released over two months after the event suggests its release has been suppressed. Working from the “theory” that HRW is in no way “independent” and in reality acts as a propaganda arm to forward the objectives of the United States Government, the answer for the apparent delay may lie in Washington’s shifting policy on Syria. Last week John Kerry was berated by hawks in Congress for coming close to praising the Assad government for its efforts with the OPCW, in their attempts to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpile; a man three weeks earlier Kerry had equated to Hitler. Another indicator lies in the report itself, in which much attention is paid to third parties responsible for funding and providing logistics for the attack. In short, the report points to three principal parties as guilty in this respect: the Turkish government, Gulf states, and private Gulf donors.

From information gleaned from social media accounts, the report names several key private individual donors who contributed sufficient amounts for the Latakia offensive, going as far as linking to their personal twitter accounts. One such donor is Sheikh Hajjej al-Ajami, a Kuwaiti Salafi preacher and long time patron of Ahrar al-Sham who is reported to have donated 400,000 euros for the offensive. One Shafi al-Ajami, another prominent Kuwaiti Salafi preacher and scholar at the Kuwait University – who was recently suspended for his allegedly divisive sermons – is also named as a key sponsor. Sheihk Saqr, the leader of Suqqor al-Izz, and a deputy Abu Tahal from Ahrar al-Sham are named as key interlocutors running funds from an operations center under their command.

The HRW report calls on Gulf states to “Publicly condemn abuses committed by opposition groups and deny any military support to Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar,and Suquor al-Izz”. HRW stress that Gulf states should increase monitoring of transfers from Gulf residents, urging them to use “influence” to pressure individuals and prosecute those found to be supporting war criminals. The report urges Gulf states to “use any influence over armed opposition groups that hold civilian hostages to release those hostages.” Again, if one were to judge this from the perspective that HRW is speaking on behalf of the US government – which it often does – these recommendations seem a far-cry from the usual “moderate” rhetoric and could indicate a marked shift by Washington toward curbing Gulf activity and funding of the opposition in general.

The report repeatedly states that “Arms sales & military assistance to groups [responsible for Latakia] make the individuals supplying them complicit in crimes they commit.” Moreover, in a clear signal to the Turkish government , the report explicitly requests that the “UN Security Council and Turkey’s allies should call on Turkey in particular to do more to verify that no arms are passing through Turkey to these groups”. And that through interviews with “Syrian security officials, media reports, western diplomats, and direct observations by journalists and humanitarian workers who visited the area in the past, many foreign fighters operating in northern Syria gain access to Syria via Turkey, from which they also smuggle their weapons, obtain money and other supplies, and sometimes retreat to for medical treatment.”

It is has become common knowledge among Syria watchers that Turkey have – at the very least – provided safe-haven for the extremist militants. Consistent reports and allegations from official sources have also pointed to the AKP government providing them logistics and medical assistance since the insurgency took hold in 2011. Saleh Muslim, the Kurdish leader from Northern Syria who has been embroiled in battles with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS parallel to the Turkish border, has repeatedly called on Erdogan’s government to end its support of the Salafi/Jihadis attacking the Kurdish population.

Relations between Washington and Ankara have turned sour of late on several fronts in the Middle East, primarily in Egypt, alongside increasingly divergent policies in Syria. Erdogan was vocally critical of the Obama administration during the recent military coup in Egypt, which resulted in the overthrow of Brotherhood ally Mohamed Morsi. In turn, the Erdogan government has recently been the target of several critical articles in US media, highlighting Erdogan’s “Islamist” ideology and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In a further signal to Ankara, the Wall Street Journal ran a critical profile yesterday of the Turkish intelligence chief, and top Erdogan aide, Hakan Fidan. Titled “Turkey’s Spymaster Plots Own Course on Syria”, the article portrays the Turkish establishment as at odds with the “moderate” approach supposedly favoured by the Obama administration. A Turkish opposition MP, and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, claims to have followed 50 buses filled with radical fighters being taken to the Syrian border with the full cooperation of Turkish authorities. In effect, the Erdogan government, since the onset of the crisis, has played a similar role to that of Pakistan during the US-backed Afghan insurgency; acting as a primary forward operating base and logistics hub for the militants waging war upon the Syrian state.

In what appears to be an attempt to publicly pressure its allies in the region, who may be less-than willing to abandon the insurgency, the Obama administration is using its ever-faithful Public Relations apparatus to convey a clear message to Turkey, and other regional Gulf allies, that now is the time to end – or at least drastically restructure – their support to the now dominant radicals that form the backbone of the insurgency.

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