Syria's top military commanders and government officials have committed widespread and systematic human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity, according to the findings of a U.N. human rights commission that documented abuses carried out during the Syrian government's brutal crackdown on protesters.
The three-member U.N. Commission of Inquiry presented the U.N. Human Rights Council with a secret list of the names of individuals and military units suspected of bearing greatest responsibility for orchestrating or carrying out these abuses.
The report, which was released this morning in Geneva, represents a devastating account of the Syrian government's role in using excessive force -- including the indiscriminate shelling of restive towns -- to crush an uprising that began in March 2011, as a peaceful protest movement. The commission also documented rights violations by members of the armed opposition movement formed by military defectors, which has drawn increasingly from members of the general population.
But it said the overwhelming majority of abuses were carried out by government security forces and pro-government militias.
"The government has manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the populations; its forces have committed widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, with the apparent knowledge and consent of the highest levels of the State" reads the commission report. It added: "anti-government armed groups have also committed abuses, although not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the state."
The violence in Syria began more than 11 months ago, when Syrian protesters, inspired by pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. The government responded with a brutal armed crackdown that has led to the death of more than 6,000 people, according to estimates cited by the United States and Britain.
"The response of the security apparatus to what started as a peaceful dissent soon led to armed clashes," the report states. "One year later, the Syrian Arab Republic is on the brink of an internal armed conflict. Diverging agendas within a deeply divided international community complicate the prospects for ending the violence."
The commission expressed reservations about the Arab and Western push to strangle Syria's economy with ever stiffer sanctions, saying that it "does not support the imposition of economic sanctions that would have a negative impact on the human rights of the population, in particular of vulnerable armed groups."
The commission instead called for an "urgent, inclusive political dialogue, bringing together the government, opposition and anti government actors to negotiate and end to the violence.... The continuation of the crisis carries the risk of radicalizing the population, deepening inter-communal tension and eroding the fabric of society."
The report notes that the standoff has become "increasingly violent and militarized" in recent months, particularly in the town of Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Rif Dimashq -- where armed opposition have clashed with government forces. Syrian authorities initially withdrew their forces from the area and then surrounded the key towns, posting snipers at strategic locations and "terrorized the population, targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians."
In recent months, the Syrian authorities have also intensified the shelling of opposition strongholds. Following the withdrawal of Arab League monitors late last month, the army intensified its bombardment of key towns with heavy weapons.
"It gave no warning to the population and unarmed civilians were given no chance to evacuate," notes the report. "As a result, large numbers of people, including many children, were killed. Several areas were bombarded and then stormed by State forces, which arrested, tortured and summarily executed suspected defectors and opposition activists."
On Dec. 20, 2011, the report states, local residents in the Idlib region discovered the bodies of 74 defectors in a deserted stretch between the villages of Kafar Awid and Kasanfra. "Their hands had been tied behind their back and they appeared to have been summarily executed."
The commission report also notes that while the entire Syrian security apparatus has been engaged in rights violations, elite units close to the regime -- including the Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the Fourth Division -- and the pro-government Shabbiha militia have played an increasingly central role in operations that have resulted in civilian abuses and deaths.
The commission said the Syrian government, while denying U.N. observers entry into the country and access to key government officials, supplied it with a list of alleged attacks by armed opposition forces and "terrorists." The commission said that government's refusal to provide on-the-ground access made it more difficult to verify anti-government attacks, since the victims remain inside the country.
But the team also documented some instances of "gross human rights abuses" by representatives of the armed opposition, known loosely as the Free Syria Army (FSA). For instance, in Homs, armed opposition elements "were found to have tortured and executed" suspected members of the pro-government Shabbiha militia. And, in late January, members of the Free Syria Army "lynched a man suspected of working for the state security forces, and paraded his body on a pick-up [truck] through the streets."
"Some armed civilians in Homs, including armed civilians belonging to the FSA, sought to exact blood revenge for abuses by killing family members of security personnel or Shabbiha," the report found. "The commission highlights the fact that FSA members, including local commanders that have command responsibility, may incur criminal responsibility under international law."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.