Inside Syria's civil war

It’s only getting worse. That’s the message of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which presented an update of its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council today. The report, which includes information gathered through June 15, describes conditions on the ground as "dangerous and quickly deteriorating." If its findings are to be believed, that claim is, if anything, an understatement. Here are some of the most important takeaways from the report.

The government is increasingly using heavy weaponry to repress the opposition. The report describes how President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used helicopter gunships and artillery "in the shelling of entire neighbourhoods believed to be anti-government, even during the presence of observers."

The commission sees such indiscriminate tactics as a sign of regime weakness, not its strength. The use of such weapons, it reports, reveals the Syrian military’s "inability to hold territory," and marks a new strategy of assaulting rebel strongholds and then withdrawing, instead of trying to permanently occupy hostile areas.

Syrian rebel groups are becoming increasingly deadly and radical. While the commission was not able to confirm reports of more sophisticated weaponry reaching the rebels, it did note they were "improving in efficiency and organization" -- in particular using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to great effect against the Syrian military. As a result, the report says, the rebels have effectively challenged the Assad regime in the governorates of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo and undermined government control of the border areas, allowing the free flow of people and arms from neighboring countries.

Some rebel groups have been guilty of the same abuses that they decry in the Assad regime. The commission reported that anti-government forces had extra-judicially executed Syrian military forces, government supporters, and suspected informers. Meanwhile, some rebel groups were "involved in criminal/opportunist activities such as kidnappings and abductions for ransom."

In one instance, the commission related a discussion with a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter about how captured government soldiers were treated. "Lower level soldiers were reportedly tried by a court applying Sharia law, according to the fighter. Multiple FSA soldiers interviewed told the [commission] they had never heard of international humanitarian or human rights law," the report stated. "One soldier stated that he believed the creed 'an eye for an eye,' which he described as being part of Sharia law, supersedes international standards. Another FSA soldier told the [commission] that Alawite soldiers are normally killed immediately upon capture, while soldiers from other sects are offered the chance to join the FSA, and if they refuse to join, they are released to their relatives."

The evidence of rebel groups’ abuses pales in comparisons to violations commmitted by regime forces. The report details instances of torture, sexual abuse, and executions committed by Assad’s security forces. Methods of torture described by former detainees includes "mock executions; electric shocks applied to sensitive parts of the body, including genitals; cigarettes burns; and beating with electric cables, whips, metal and wooden sticks and rifle butts." In other cases, detainees were "forcibly shaved, made to imitate dogs and to declare that ‘there is no God but Bashar’ while in a position of supplication."

There is also evidence that pro-Assad forces are using sexual abuse as a weapon. After Syrian military forces recaptured the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs from rebel fighters in February, for instance, the commission received multiple reports of rape and sexual assault against the area’s residents. One man "described being forced to watch as his wife and two of his daughters were raped by three of the men involved," the report said. "Afterwards, he stated, he, too, was raped while his family was made to watch."

The commission doesn’t establish guilt for the Houla massacre, but its evidence points toward Syrian military forces. On May 25, over 100 people – including many women and children -- were killed in the village of al-Houla, many of whom were summarily executed at close range. A large section of the report is devoted to reconstructing the events there, in an attempt to determine who was responsible for the massacre.

The commission’s efforts fell short of conclusively identifying the culprit, but nevertheless provided valuable information on the political loyalty of the town and the placement of Syrian forces. It describes the government checkpoints present in the town, including on Main St., one of the two primary locations where the massacre was committed. "[T]he checkpoints were sufficiently close to the crime scenes that the noises emanating therefrom (gunbursts and screams) would likely have alerted those manning the checkpoint," the report states. "Thus, the [commission] determined that the location of the checkpoints…made it likely that those manning the pro-Government checkpoints were aware."

The report was unable to identify the political loyalties of the two families that suffered the massacres, but did note that the neighborhoods where the killings took place "appeared aligned to the opposition more than the Government." Meanwhile, it noted, "it was opposition groups who first arrived to the scene, cared for the wounded, prepared the deceased for burial, and were present in large numbers during the funeral."

Even if the commission was unwilling to blame pro-Assad forces on the basis of this evidence, there was no denying the brutality of the killings. "Interviewees…described the scene inside the houses as horrific, with groups of women, boys and girls huddled together in the corner of living rooms," the report says. "Blood was visible on the walls, indicating many were standing when shot…Multiple interviewees described stab wounds and the apparent use of axes."

As the revolt stretches on without effective international action, accounts like this look to become an increasingly common aspect of Syria’s civil war.



Putin's whirlwind Middle East tour

Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran's nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader's first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:

"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."

Putin's agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues -- namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran ‘presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.'"

Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:

"Let's not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, "Do not expect any major breakthrough."

According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:

"President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he ‘raise his voice' against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a ‘national interest' to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further."

Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel's vast natural gas fields.

On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart's position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."

Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."

Unfortunately, Putin's trip did not include arm-wrestling or kissing sturgeon fish, but he may have joined in some singing.

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