Syrian opposition forces recruited a 14-year-old boy from Homs as a fighter and had a child take part in beheading two government soldiers, according to a United Nations report citing human-rights abuses by both sides in Syria’s civil war.
A conflict that began with anti-government protests amid widespread Arab revolts two years ago has mutated into a life-or-death battle pitting an Alawite-led minority, clinging to power with help from the Shiite Hezbollah militia, against Sunni-led rebels that count al-Qaeda fighters among their ranks.
While abuses by the opposition haven’t reached “the intensity and scale” of those committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and affiliated militias, they are becoming increasingly common and brutal, according to the report presented today in Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council.
Mass executions are publicly carried out in locations such as Daraa and Aleppo, where the rebels have established judicial and administrative authority, the 29-page report said. The number of extra-judicial killings and kidnappings by the opposition has risen, and about 86 child soldiers have been killed during combat, it said.
The UN commission, led by Brazilian diplomat Paulo Pinheiro, said that while there were “reasonable grounds” to believe chemical weapons had been used in Syria, the 20-person team of investigators couldn’t confirm it.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today that tests had detected the presence of sarin in samples sent from Syria and that his country was “certain” the gas had been used in Syria on “several occasions and in a localized manner.”
With Assad barring access to Syria by outsiders, the UN report was based on 430 interviews with victims and firsthand witnesses to atrocities. It offers a glimpse into the country’s descent into chaos. It was produced by a four-member commission investigating war crimes in Syria.
The report drew attention to video footage, submitted by the Russian mission to the UN in Geneva, showing the decapitation of two regime soldiers, with a child responsible for one beheading. “Following investigation, it is believed that the video is authentic and the men were soldiers, killed as depicted,” the UN panel said.
The findings cover a four-month period ending May 15 and say that 17 potential massacres took place during that time. Government-affiliated militia, known as Shabiha, are linked in the report to the mass killing of dozens of women and children in the Sunni coastal village of al-Bayda. In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, the report says, armed anti-Assad groups executed 11 men who were bound and blindfolded.
Pro-Assad forces are guilty of sexual violence during house searches, at checkpoints and in detention centers, and torture of detainees is endemic, the report found. Since late January, more than 200 bodies have been found in Aleppo’s “river of martyrs,” as the Queiq River has become known.
The opposition is comprised of multiple anti-government factions, from exiled dissidents to armed militants, which have struggled to form a united front. As political leaders are negotiating efforts to assemble a broad opposition coalition to gain international support and legitimacy, factions fighting on the front lines are increasingly focusing on battlefield gains at any cost.
The continuing violence has allowed radical groups, particularly the al-Qaeda linked Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, to become more influential in day-to-day combat, the report said.
As reports alleging use of nerve gas multiply -- with at least six possible incidents reported to the UN so far -- the human-rights panel said it “is possible that anti-government armed groups may access and use chemical weapons.” Each side in the conflict has accused the other of chemical attacks and denied its own involvement.
The report played down comments last month by Carla Del Ponte, a member of the independent UN panel, who said there were signs that rebels, and not just government forces, had released nerve agents in combat.
“There is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems,” the report said.
A separate UN team of scientists has been set up to investigate chemical warfare allegations. So far, the inspectors, led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, haven’t been allowed to enter Syria to get a first-hand look at evidence and construct a chain of custody.
President Barack Obama has said Syrian government use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” though the U.S. lacks conclusive evidence that it has happened. Obama hasn’t said what the U.S. will do if chemical weapons use is confirmed.