Aaron Schacter: Human Rights Watch has documented several instances where pro-Assad forces have committed atrocities in Syria. Now the group says that Jihadist rebels are also guilty of war crimes there. It conducted an investigation into killings that took place during the early morning hours of August 4th in villages in northern Syria, and the findings are pretty grim. Peter Bouckaert is the Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch. He spoke with me earlier from Geneva.
Peter Bouckaert: What we found is that a group of mostly hard core Islamist fighting groups went into this Alawite area, where most of the people are with the Assad regime, and as they captured the villages they killed as many as 190 people, including many women and children. Many of these killings were pure executions, and they also took 200 people hostages. Those people are still missing. Since the beginning of August they have not been released and we're very concerned about their fate.
Schacter: What do the Syrian rebels there say took place? Do they deny this completely or is there a dialogue going on about what really happened?
Bouckaert: I think there's very little doubt about what happened. Following the release of our report the Syrian National Council as well as the Free Syrian Army acknowledged that very serious abuses took place. They distanced themselves from the groups who were responsible, but that's exactly what we're concerned about, that there is a breakdown of control over many of these groups. They're fighting each other as well as against Assad, and some of the more extremist groups are starting to carry out these brutal massacres against perceived Government supporters, basically on a sectarian basis. From the videos they posted themselves it was very clear that they were killing these civilians simply because they were Alawites.
Schacter: Tell us a bit more about this part of northern Syria where these attacks in August took place. I'm trying to get at who's responsible for the killings and who the victims are in terms of, we hear a lot about different rebel groups, who are these people and who are the victims?
Bouckaert: The coastal area of Latakia is inhabited mostly by Alawites. Actually at the beginning of the century it, briefly, was made an Alawite statelet by the French Government, the colonial powers, and many of these Alawites identify very closely with the Assad regime. They also have very legitimate fears that if the Assad regime falls they will be massacred. The people who were responsible for these killings belong to Jihadi groups, mostly Sunni Jihadi groups, who consider the Alawites to be non-Muslim. They also consider Shia to be non-Muslim, and they killed these people mostly on sectarian basis because of their hatred of non-Sunni Muslims.
Schacter: Are these rebels that you're describing from the same area?
Bouckaert: No, most of the members of the ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Shams, as well as of the group Al-Muhajireen, many of their fighter are foreigners. The Muhajireen is actually led by a Chechen, Abu Omar al-Shishani, and many of his fighters are from the Caucasus, as well as from North Africa. ISIS is the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, and also includes many Arab foreign fighters.
Schacter: So what does this mean for the US and other western nations? They really want to support the Syrian rebels. They don't like Assad but then the people they want to support are committing atrocities.
Bouckaert: Well this obviously is an horrific nightmare for the Syrian people, They're now stuck between a regime which has brutally bombed their towns and villages across the country and has been implicated in so many massacres and chemical weapons attacks, and extremist groups which are imposing a different kind of brutal rule on them. It's important that the West tries to do what they can as well as the backers of these groups.
Schacter: Peter Bouckaert is the Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch in Geneva. Thanks so much Peter.
Bouckaert: Thank you.