Syrian rebels on IHL: In their own words

Like Syrian regime forces, Syria’s multitude of rebel fighters have faced growing criticism in recent months over violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), including war crimes, with groups from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the UN Commission of Inquiry accusing them of killing opponents execution-style, torturing detainees, taking hostages, and possibly using chemical weapons. The capture and detention of 21 UN peacekeepers in March and another four last week also constituted a violation of IHL.

So how do the rebels view IHL principles? What guides their action? Who do they consider a civilian? And what do they think of aid workers?

IRIN interviewed rebel fighters of various leanings and levels of authority to better understand their mindset.

(See our analysis on this issue here)

Faris al Bayoush, former Colonel in the army, now commanding a unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Idlib Governorate:

“I’ve read all about IHL during the training courses that were organized for the officers in the Syrian army, so I know all the rules. The majority of Syrians are civilians, good people. We naturally wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt them. Of course we respect IHL because violating human rights is what the regime stands for. The FSA has been formed to protect people from their crimes... We’re also guided by Islamic law. There is no contradiction between both because their content is similar: Both sources tell us not to harm civilians, particularly not weaker elements, but the Koran gives us more precise instructions... Before each battle, I give a speech to everybody to make sure everybody has the same idea of what is permissible and what isn’t. Then we talk and discuss the issue…

“Any foreign aid worker would be treated like our guest because the civilians here are really in need of assistance… A civilian is someone who doesn’t carry a gun, no matter what sect he belongs to... Do we take precautions so that we don’t harm civilians? Frankly, I find that question weird. Everybody is in God’s hands. But of course we don’t usually launch attacks if there are civilians around…

“We try to take good care of our prisoners. We’ve taken 53 lately, and we let them go home because we had nothing to charge them with.”

Manhal Abu Bakr, FSA member, Hama Governorate:

“We’ve lost faith in international laws and policies. This is why Islamist groups are gaining ground. At first they were weak, but then people realized it doesn’t help them if they adhere to Western standards, so they grew stronger... Some say this is hypocrisy. The international community expects us to comply with IHL, but nobody cares if our rights are being violated. For example, if you catch a Syrian air force pilot who is responsible for killing hundreds of people, of course you’d kill him…

“Foreign aid workers would have to be careful. There are bad groups, thieves and criminals; they might steal their supplies or kidnap them. No one of us would mind them unless they’re coming to spy on us. We’d need to know exactly who they are before we let them near us. Otherwise there would be suspicion. We cannot afford to make mistakes because the [one mistake could be our undoing].

“We try to distribute all aid supplies coming in from Turkey evenly. Usually we give it to people who support the revolution. We wouldn’t give anything to people who support the government because as rebels, we cannot enter their neighbourhoods. But we don’t differentiate between different sects. When you see all the need, you forget about religion... We always try to take measures not to harm civilians during out operations. This is the first thing we look into when planning an attack. We alert them and tell them to vacate the area. If they feel we don’t protect them, we’d lose their support.”

Raed al Aliwi, engineer, FSA commander, Hama Governorate:

“International humanitarian law is our be-all and end-all. It’s natural for us to comply with these standards because the FSA’s main purpose is to defend the people. This is why the FSA only launches attacks on very specific places where there are armed regime supporters. In many cases, we had to stop operations because there were civilians in the vicinity... It’s easy to differentiate between Shabiha [militias who support the government] and civilians because Shabiha always carry weapons, at least a small pistol; and they only show up in places where regime troops are close by. We also know them by their dialect… Alawis in general are not a problem for us. We’re not opposed to any sect as such…

“We wouldn’t object to any aid team coming to our area, no matter where they’re from, even if they’re Israeli…

“As Muslims, we regard Sharia law as our essential source from which we derive our rules. The problem is that there are groups who draw false conclusions from it, and then they turn extremist and do terrible things...

I’m commanding 60 men, and sometimes it’s difficult to make everybody follow the rules. If anyone violates our standards, he’d be punished. The important thing is that the leader behaves well because he is the role model that all the other men follow in their actions.”

Osama Hadba, member of the FSA’s religiously conservative Liwaa al Fateh brigade in Aleppo Governorate:

“We rely on the Koran as the key source of our rules, but we also take all international agreements into account. We know about IHL because everyone can see the violations committed by the regime with their own eyes... We are humans that have been forced to take up weapons. Of course we don’t violate any human rights, unlike the criminal regime we are opposing…

“In our office, we register all human rights breaches that occur. When we arrest somebody who is charged with any of those crimes, he’ll be transferred to one of the military courts that have been established to deal with such cases. A lot of lawyers and judges have defected and started working for the revolutionary courts.

“We stop only aid convoys that supply the regime army, not the ones heading towards civilian areas… We have no objection to any foreign aid workers coming to help, but only in coordination with us. I’d be happy to accompany them…

“We protect the civilian population as much as possible. Before launching an attack, we declare the area in question as a military zone, and civilians are requested to stay away.  It’s difficult to prevent harm from the population in neighbourhoods [that support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] because the regime troops put their tanks inside the residential areas and use the civilians as shields.”

Abu Mousab, a commander of the al-Ansar Brigades (a jihadist group affiliated with US-designated terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra), Deir-ez-Zor Governorate:

“One of our commanders is a religious scholar, and he is responsible for setting our rules and principles. We’re fighting for religious reasons, so following the Koran and the Sunnah [teachings of the Prophet] is paramount for us. We’re not interested in IHL because Islamic law is much fairer than any secular law…

“I have no clue what the Geneva Conventions or any other international laws say because I’m a believer, and I’m sure that the Shariah is the best law in the world. All other laws are no solution…

“We announce our attacks beforehand if it’s possible. We’ve even aborted operations when we realized we might hurt civilians… We also consider regime supporters as civilians as long as they don’t carry weapons - except informers since they are causing huge damage. If we have proof that someone is an informer, we execute them. Sometimes people are stubborn, so sometimes you have to torture them to get the information you need. If we have a prisoner who has killed people, we’ll kill him...

“Everyone responsible for crimes committed against the Syrian people deserves to be killed…

“But we’re not killing randomly, even if people aren’t Sunni. If we arrest someone, it’s forbidden to kill him unless he has committed crimes. If he has, however, he deserves to be executed…

“Any aid group wanting to help people would be welcome here. We’d be prepared to give them protection. If we have supplies to hand out, we give it out to everyone equally, also to Christian families.”

Hamza Abdulrahman, member of Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, Idlib Governorate:

“We don’t care about IHL because the Shariah is our law. For instance, if we arrest a prisoner, we’d take him to a court. We have our own Shariah courts in every area now. We don’t execute anyone unless they are killers, or guilty of theft or kidnapping. Anyone who helps the regime in any way will also be killed, for instance businessmen who support the regime financially. They are considered as fighters, not civilians. We also execute regime soldiers if we catch them, except if they were about to defect…

“Before they are taken to court, we interrogate them, and if they don’t say what they know, we beat or punish them - but we don’t torture like Assad does. According to Shariah law, it’s forbidden to hurt anyone’s head or face. There are laws, and we follow them. We also have our own charities which distribute aid supplies. The only criterion is people’s need; their political opinion or sect is irrelevant…

“If we plant a bomb, we don’t detonate it if there are civilians around. We only launch missiles on areas held by regime forces so that civilians don’t get hurt… We wouldn’t obstruct any foreign aid team, as long as they are unarmed. Other Islamist groups might have a different view on that, for example Jabhat al Nusra. They haven’t commented on this issue, so I’m not sure. But they think like al-Qaeda. They don’t think a European or American could contribute anything good to our revolution.”

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