WASHINGTON — As the city of Homs shuddered Thursday from another day of Syrian army bombardments, U.N. investigators held regime officials and military commanders "at the highest levels" responsible for "crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations" against civilians and opposition groups.
Although it didn't name individuals, the U.N. Human Rights Council report effectively accused Syrian President Bashar Assad and his top aides of directing as a matter of state policy a "widespread and systematic" campaign of murder, torture and illegal detention aimed at smothering the 11-month-old uprising against more than four decades of Assad family rule.
Evidence gathered by the investigators shows that "orders to commit such violations originated from the policies and directives issued at the highest levels of the armed forces and the government," the report said. A sealed envelope containing the names of responsible individuals was delivered to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, it added.
Rebel groups of military deserters and civilians known collectively as the Free Syrian Army also have committed abuses, but those violations are "not comparable in scale or organization to those carried out by the state," the report said.
The report could be referred to the International Criminal Court for war crimes prosecutions, but it was unlikely to dampen Assad's crackdown. The regime insists that it is fighting Islamic extremists and not a pro-democracy movement.
The three-member panel of U.N. investigators — which was barred from entering Syria and relied on interviews with witnesses and defectors, as well as examinations of videos, photographs and satellite pictures — was unable to identify a "functioning chain of command" linking local insurgents and Free Syrian Army leaders outside of Syria. That finding raises serious questions about how the rebels could be supplied with arms and ammunition, an option that the United States and its European and Arab allies haven't ruled out.
The report was released on the eve of a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunisia at which senior U.S., European and Arab officials are to consider new proposals for a diplomatic resolution to the violence. The Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of opposition leaders, also is to attend.
Speaking after talks in London with key European and Arab counterparts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Syrian National Council is seen as "a credible representative" of the Syrian people. The U.N. report, however, said, "Serious rifts apparently remain within the council itself, and between the council, whose leadership largely resides abroad, and other parts of the opposition."
Assad, Clinton said, must allow deliveries of desperately needed food and medicines into rebellious cities and towns besieged by his forces.
"Our immediate focus is on increasing the pressure" on Assad, Clinton said. "We have got to find ways of getting food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance into affected areas. This takes time and it takes a lot of diplomacy."
It was unclear, however, what the United States — which has imposed sanctions on the regime and its top officials — and other countries can do to compel Assad to call a ceasefire and permit aid deliveries.
Assad is receiving diplomatic support and military supplies from Iran and Russia, which joined China earlier this month in killing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have embraced an Arab League peace plan calling for the Syrian ruler to relinquish power.
The United States, the European Union and other Arab governments, meanwhile, have ruled out military intervention, although the White House appears to being keeping open the option of arming the rebels — an approach advocated by several top Republican lawmakers.
"Obviously we'll have to evaluate this as time goes on," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Homs, a city of some 800,000 people that has been at the center of the anti-Assad uprising, endured another day of shelling by encircling army tanks and artillery, while regime forces attacked other pro-opposition cities and towns across the country, opposition groups reported.
The violence has been growing since March 2011, when Assad sent troops, snipers and thugs controlled by family members to crush peaceful protests calling for his ouster. Assad's tactics triggered an armed insurrection by the Free Syrian Army, and an estimated 80 percent of the army's troops are now engaged in trying to crush the rebellion using scorched-earth tactics.
It's been impossible to verify an accurate casualty toll. The regime told the U.N. Human Rights Council investigators that 2,493 civilians and 1,345 soldiers and police had died between March 15, 2011, and Jan. 18, 2012. But committees run by opposition activists reported that 6,399 civilians and 1,680 military defectors had died over an 11-month period beginning on March 15, 2011. The dead included 244 adult women and 640 children.
The U.N. investigators quoted unidentified people "with inside knowledge of the planning process" as saying that directives for crushing the opposition issued by top regime officials were translated into strategic plans by the National Security Bureau, a top body of the ruling Baath Party, comprising the main intelligence and security agencies and the Interior Ministry. The plans were sent to local security agency offices and down the army's command chain.
"Most crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations were carried out in complex operations that involved the entire security apparatus," the report said. "The four major intelligence and security agencies with direct reporting lines to the presidency ... were at the heart of almost all operations."
During the last four months, the army conducted similar large-scale operations in at least four governorates in which troops "surrounded entire neighborhoods where anti-government armed groups were present, then shelled these residential areas with heavy weapons, with complete disregard for potential civilian casualties," the U.N. report said.
The U.N. investigators, the report said, "received credible and consistent evidence identifying high- and mid-level ranking members of the armed forces who ordered their subordinates to shoot at unarmed protesters, kill soldiers who refused to obey such orders, arrest persons without cause, mistreat detained persons and attack civilian neighborhoods with indiscriminate tank and machine-gun fire."
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