Rebel video showing atrocities renews questions about post-Assad Syria

Syrian rebels are using YouTube to advertise their atrocities, demonstrating that the Syrian conflict is not a simple case of good vs. evil. Photo: YouTube screen shot

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, May 16, 2013 - The video released today showing Syrian rebel fighters executing soldiers they claim took part in massacres of civilians is the latest proof that the Syrian war is not a cleanly-defined case of good against evil, and suggests the conflict will continue even if the Assad regime falls.

On the video, which the Syrian Observatory for Human rights dates from 2012, a Nusra Front commander wearing a black balaclava walks behind a row of blindfolded prisoners kneeling in a row and shoots them in the head one at a time. 

Other Nusra fighters shouted “God is great” as the commander shot each prisoner.

Yesterday, a group claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda released a video of executions they say were revenge for government killings two weeks ago.  Earlier this week, rebels released footage of a commander eating the heart of a dead Syrian soldier.

Much of the world backs the opposition in its fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a dictator responsible for brutal repression and human rights abuses. Reflecting that view, 107 of the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly condemned Assad’s forces on Wednesday and supported the opposition, but a similar resolution last August passed with 133 supporters, indicating that the anti-Assad bloc is losing support.

Several countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are arming the opposition in their efforts against the regime, and the European Union is actively considering lifting a ban on providing arms. President Obama said today the United States “reserves the right” to use both “diplomatic and military options” in Syria.

Russia remains a close ally of the Syrian regime, partially because Assad allows Russia a military base in Tartus, and is arming the regime, as is Iran. Russia and China have used veto power in the Security Council to prevent harsh sanctions or military action against Assad, and is likely to continue its opposition.

Despite concerns about Assad and about the possibility that the regime has used chemical weapons, there is growing discomfort with the Syrian opposition. Not only have some factions engaged in self-publicized human rights abuses, several are Islamist groups dedicated to implementing Sharia law in the country, and some have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. In December 2012, the United States designated the Nusra front a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq and implemented sanctions on the group.

Moreover, there are multiple factions vying for recognition as the “real” Syrian opposition, and rifts are unlikely to heal if Assad leaves power.  The Syrian National Coalition is an umbrella group that includes representatives from several powerful factions, including the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, the Local Coordination Committee, and the Supreme Military Council, but does not include the National Coordinating Committee or several of the Islamist groups.

Despite the loose coalition, tensions in the Syrian National Coalition remain.  The Free Syrian Army, which is fighting inside Syria, believes it should control a post-Assad government, while the Syrian National Council, which is comprised of intellectuals who left Syria at the start of the uprising, says it should dominate a new government.

These divisions almost certainly would become exacerbated if Assad left power and they lost the united goal to remove him from power.

The increasing presence of Islamists in Syria is also causing concern.  Over the last year, jihadists from around the region have flocked to Syria to fight on behalf of the rebels.  Al Qaeda and its supporters are radical Sunni Muslims who are intolerant of other branches of Islam. Assad and most of his inner circle are Alawite Muslims, which describe themselves as part of the Shi’ite sect.

More than 80,000 people have died in the Syrian war, which started as peaceful demonstrations urging for greater democracy but seeking to retain Assad.  Over the last several months, atrocities have escalated, and publicized by video.

While many believe the Assad regime is destined to fall due to international isolation and dwindling supporters, the after-Assad scenario is increasingly murky.

A fractious opposition with no legitimate leader and increasing influence by Islamists raise disturbing possibilities about Syria disintegrating into a failed state. Different sects will likely control territories, and the central Sunni government will have little authority or oversight. Minority sects, such as the Alawite Muslims, will likely face retribution from the Sunni warlords with Islamist sympathies.

International intervention will likely hasten Assad’s downfall and propel the rebels into positions of authority, but that outcome could create even more instability.

Not only will rebel overthrow of Assad likely bring domestic instability and insecurity to Syria, it could also implicate the region and the world if jihadists take control of chemical weapons.

With Assad on one side and instability and Islamists on the other, there are few good options for the international community in Syria.


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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

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