BEIRUT — A radical offshoot of al Qaida executed members of rival Syrian rebel groups that it had captured during brutal intra-rebel infighting in January that left more than 3,000 dead, according to United Nations investigators who are preparing potential war crimes charges related to the 3-year-old Syrian civil war.
In a report issued Tuesday by the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry for the Syrian Arab Republic, investigators said war crimes should be considered against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a rogue group recently disowned by al Qaida’s core leadership. The investigators said ISIS fighters executed not only members of rival rebel groups, but also people who belonged to secular civil society movements that have been pushing for a democratic replacement for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Both other rebel groups and the regime have long accused ISIS of not only brutally enforcing a foreign version of Islamic law on Syrians in the areas of eastern and northern Syria it controls, but of kidnapping, torturing and even murdering activists, government-linked prisoners, fellow rebels and foreign aid workers and journalists.
Investigators said that after infighting began in January, ISIS moved quickly to execute a number of hostages from rival factions as well as other prisoners in significant numbers.
“In January 2014, hostilities between non-State armed groups escalated throughout northern and northeastern governorates,” the report says. “Clashes threatened ISIS strongholds and in several incidents, armed group coalitions took over ISIS bases. In the days and hours prior to attack, ISIS fighters conducted mass executions of detainees, thereby perpetrating war crimes. The number killed as well as allegations of mass graves connected to these executions remain under investigation.”
Investigators cited the inability of international organizations to access ISIS-held areas as the reason that they were unable to determine either the number or identity of those killed. But they detailed several specific cases where ISIS commanders gave orders that led to clear violations of international law.
In an interview, a Syrian activist recently released from an ISIS prison in the provincial capital of Raqaa described his captivity as a macabre hell in which prisoners were randomly tortured with whips, electrical shocks and often executed after “confessions” extracted by such means. Although his account cannot be completely verified, details he provided tracked with accounts by other released prisoners and from tapes of interrogations conducted by ISIS that were later recovered from captured bases.
“We were held in a small room in a (school) ISIS was using as a base after being arrested for spying for Western powers,” said the detainee, who was in hiding in Turkey after his tribe in eastern Syrian secured his release. “All day they would beat us on our feet or backs to get us to admit our links to America, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. They used electricity on some prisoners. Others were taken for questioning and never returned.”
In a similar case study, investigators described the use of a children’s hospital in Aleppo that ISIS had converted into a prison.
“Detainees held in this makeshift prison stated that on 6 January 2014, a prison guard began summoning certain prisoners out of their cells,” the report said. “Subsequently, armed groups from Salah Ad Din discovered an ‘execution field’ between the Children’s Hospital and Mashfa al Oyoun, the Ophthalmology Hospital. Those who escaped in the course of hostilities were able to identify co-detainees among the dead.”
Investigators also cited ISIS’ refusal to make areas under its control accessible to international humanitarian groups trying to get aid to the millions of Syrians displaced by the civil war and suggested that denial of such aid should also be investigated as a crime against humanity.
The U.N. report also criticized the government’s increased use of so-called barrel bombs on rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, saying the expanded campaign appeared to aimed at maximizing civilian casualties and clear areas of noncombatants, a tactic generally considered a war crime.
“Barrel bombs, particularly when dropped from high altitudes, cannot be precisely targeted. Their use, in this manner, is indiscriminate,” the report said. “In areas where armed group fighters were present, government forces treated clearly separate and distinct military objectives located in densely populated areas with high concentrations of civilians as a single military objective. The use of barrel bombs in this context amounts to ‘area bombardment,’ prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-rebel monitoring group, counted at least 600 civilian deaths in Aleppo from barrel bombs in January.
“Since 20 January 2014, the Government has ramped up its campaign of dropping barrel bombs into residential neighborhoods of Aleppo city, with devastating consequences for civilians. Local hospitals detailed the
surging number of patients wounded in such bombardments. This surge in
bombardments has led to large-scale displacement from targeted areas.
Refugees detailed how they fled after their houses were destroyed and to
escape the unceasing bombardments.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero