Syrian villagers described watching rebels advance on their homes, as mortars thudded around them. By the end of the August attack, 190 civilians had been killed, including children, the elderly and the handicapped, a human rights group said Friday in its most detailed account of alleged war crimes committed by those fighting the Damascus regime.
Human Rights Watch said the offensive against 14 pro-regime villages in the province of Latakia was planned and led by five Islamic extremist groups, including two linked to al-Qaeda. Other rebel groups, including those belonging to the Free Syrian Army, a Western-backed alliance, participated in the campaign, but there is no evidence linking them to war crimes, the 105-page report said.
The new allegations are bound to heighten Western unease about those trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad and about who would take over if they were to succeed.
"It creates justifiable alarm that the opposition has been infiltrated and undermined by radicals," said David L. Phillips, a former U.S. State Department adviser on the Middle East.
The Free Syrian Army distanced itself from the five groups identified by HRW as the main perpetrators, saying it is not cooperating with extremists. "Anyone who commits such crimes will not belong to the revolution anymore," said spokesman Louay Mikdad.
Human rights groups have said both sides in the civil war, now in its third year, have violated the rules of war, but U.N. investigators have said the scale and intensity of rebel abuses hasn't reached that of the regime.
The new allegations come at a time when the regime appears to be regaining some international legitimacy because of its seeming cooperation with a program to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014.
Human Rights Watch researcher Lama Fakih said rebel abuses in the Aug. 4-18 Latakia offensive are the "most egregious and widespread" violations by opposition fighters her group has documented in Syria.
"They certainly amount to war crimes" and may even rise to the level of crimes against humanity, said Fakih, who visited the area a month after the attack, with regime permission.
The offensive targeted villages that are home to Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam who form the backbone of Assad's regime. Alawites are considered heretics by Sunni Muslim extremists among the rebels.
The rebels launched their attacks Aug. 4 at dawn, quickly seizing three regime military posts, Human Rights Watch said. Once those posts fell, no pro-government troops were left in the area and the rebels overran the villages, according to the report.
"Witnesses described waking up to the sound of fighters coming into their villages, the sound of mortar and gunfire, and they frantically tried to leave," said Fakih, who interviewed more than three dozen villagers, medical staff and officials from both sides.
Some couldn't run fast enough, witnesses said.
One man from a hamlet near the village of Blouta told Human Rights Watch he escaped with his mother, while black-clad rebels were shooting at them from two directions.
The man said he left his elderly father and 80-year-old blind aunt behind because of their disabilities. After regime forces retook the area, he said he returned home and found his father had been killed in his bed, and his aunt, Nassiba, in her room.
Another man, Hassan Shebli from the village of Barouda, said he fled without his wife, who was unable to walk without crutches, and without their paralyzed 23-year-old son.
When Shebli returned days later, he found his wife and son buried near the house and bullet holes and blood splattered in the bedroom, the New York-based group said.
Signs of intentional killings
Human Rights Watch said it compiled a list of 190 civilians killed in the offensive, and that at least 67 of them were killed at close range or while trying to flee. There are signs that most of the others were also killed intentionally or indiscriminately, but more investigation is needed, the group said.
The rebels also seized more than 200 civilians from the villages, most of them women and children, and demanded to trade the hostages for prisoners held by the regime, the group said.
A rebel from Latakia, who goes by the name Mohammed Haffawi, denied rebels killed civilians in the area but said one of the rebel groups was holding about 100 women and children.
The rebel groups that led the offensive were identified in the report as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, both linked to al-Qaeda; Ahrar al-Sham; Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar; and Suqqor al-Izz, which is believed to have many foreign fighters in its ranks, including from North Africa.
Human Rights Watch urged Turkey, a rear base for many rebel groups and transit point for foreign fighters, to increase border patrols and to prosecute Turkey-based rebels linked to war crimes. The report appealed to Gulf states to crack down on private donations to extremist rebel groups, saying the Latakia campaign appeared to have been funded in part this way.
The rights group said the Western-backed rebel alliance must cut ties with the five extremist groups.
The military commander of that alliance, Gen. Salim Idris, visited Latakia province Aug. 11 and in public statements "indicated that he was coordinating with the other commanders in the operation and that his fighters were participating," Fakih said.
Most of the abuses are believed to have taken place Aug. 4, and Fakih said there was no evidence fighters under Idris' command were involved. Still, future cooperation with extremist groups could make the FSA complicit in war crimes, she said.
Mikdad, the FSA spokesman, said the al-Qaeda-linked groups frequently attack FSA fighters and denied any co-operation between the two. He said Idris went to Latakia to visit the wounded and to assure Christian and Alawite residents of their safety.
The spokesman said the rebel alliance condemns any abuses committed by opposition fighters, but that they cannot be compared to regime atrocities, including attacks on civilians with Scud missiles and chemical weapons.
More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict.
Phillips said the regime is seizing on reports about rebel abuses to delegitimize the opposition. "It's very damaging to them," he said, referring to the Western-backed groups. "It opens another front in the public relations campaign."
Fakih said that even though she visited the Latakia village with the government's permission, there was no attempt to interfere with her investigation.