20 February 2019
Syrian government and opposition forces have blamed each other for a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun earlier this month. Photo: Reuters
Syrian government and opposition forces have blamed each other for a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun earlier this month. Photo: Reuters

Syria war: Armed rebel groups are just as bad as Assad forces

The Syrian civil war took a sudden and nasty turn earlier this month as dozens of civilians were killed in a suspected chemical attack against the rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun in the country’s northwest.

While the US and the Syrian opposition accused the Bashar Al-Assad regime of using chemical weapons against its own people, Damascus denied any responsibility for it, arguing that the tragedy took place because a rebel arsenal full of chemical munitions was hit during an airstrike.

As both sides are blaming each other for the incident, the terrible carnage in Khan Sheikhoun reflects an inconvenient truth about the Syrian civil war: the anti-Assad insurgent groups are in fact just as brutal as the government forces, and have probably committed as many atrocities as President Assad’s troops have.

However, most of the war crimes carried out by the opposition forces have largely gone under the radar in the international community, as the western media have rarely reported them over the years.

There are currently three leading opposition groups in Syria, namely the Syrian National Council (SNC) backed by the West and Turkey that aims to overthrow the Assad regime; the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), a relatively moderate group that calls for dialogue with Damascus; and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a sister organization of the SNC.

However, despite their political influence, these opposition groups have basically no control over the hundreds of warring factions fighting against both the Assad regime and one another. These militant groups, most of which are small and operating on local levels, often act on their own initiative and fight for their own goals without taking orders from anybody.

In other words, they are more like warlords fighting for their own interests rather than rebellious groups fighting for a just cause.

Even though the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loosely organized coalition among the leading anti-government armed groups, was founded in 2011, it has failed to establish a unified command structure. As a result, most militant groups in Syria remain fighting on their own even to this day.

According to reports published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International back in 2012 and 2015 respectively, insurgent groups in Syria have been involved in numerous cases of abduction, detention of pro-government figures, torture and even secret execution of POWs.

Now, the problem is this: since most of these war crimes have been committed by small, elusive and isolated militant groups which have absolutely no respect for human rights or international treaties on the laws of war, it is almost impossible for international organizations to provide oversight of their conduct.

As the Syrian civil war has been underway in full swing and become increasingly bloody, both the rebel groups and government troops no longer observe international rules on the conduct of war, hence the rampant atrocities.

As far as the suspected chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun is concerned, it is very likely to eventually end up being a cold case, as it is almost impossible to prove who was actually behind it. After all, there are no angels in war, only devils.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 20

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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