Pro-government forces aligned with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria are accused of committing widespread atrocities against Syrian civilians. But a Human Rights Watch report released this week investigates what could be the single-worst incident of civilian killings — by opposition forces.
On Aug. 4, Islamist fighting groups occupied 10 villages, according to the report. As many as 190 people, including women and children, were killed in the attacks and 200 people, who are still missing, were taken hostage.
One witness quoted in the investigation recalls having to leave family members behind during the attacks:
"We hid, but my dad stayed in the house. He was killed in his bed. My aunt, she is an 80-year-old blind woman, was also killed in her room."
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, says the attacks were carried out for sectarian reasons. The rebel groups involved consider their Alawite targets to be non-Muslims. The attacks were led, Bouckaert says, by the groups Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Many of the fighters were foreigners; ISIS is an affiliate of al-Qaeda.
The opposition group Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army have acknowledged that the abuses occurred, but distance themselves from the groups responsible. Bouckaert says that's a source of concern for Human Rights Watch.
“There is a breakdown of control over many of these groups,” he says. “They’re fighting each other as well as Assad, and some of the more extremist groups are starting to carry out brutal massacres against perceived government supporters.”
Human Rights Watch created a video about its investigation.