Syria’s newest insurgent groups increasingly operate independently of the rebel military command and some are affiliated with al-Qaeda, a United Nations panel said.
Many of the foreign fighters are linked to extremist groups and “are Sunnis hailing from countries in the Middle East and North Africa,” the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report published today on its website. While the new groups sometimes coordinate attacks with the Free Syrian Army, they’re not under its control, it said.
The presence of anti-government outsiders “provides one motivation for other actors to enter into the conflict,” it said, citing the presence of pro-regime foreign forces, including the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Foreign rebel groups are present in three northern provinces bordering Turkey, the commission said. These are among the northern and central areas where rebel groups control “large swathes of territory,” while President Bashar al- Assad’s forces largely dominate the south, according to the report, which is based on about 100 interviews with rebel fighters and other Syrians between Sept. 28 and Dec. 16.
The U.S. recognized the Syrian opposition umbrella group, the National Coalition last week, as the legitimate representative of its people. It added the al-Nusra Front -- one of the most successful rebel military groups -- to its terrorist list the same week, citing ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Russia, accused by Western countries of shielding the Syrian government, isn’t wedded to Assad and its main goal is to end the civil war in the country, President Vladimir Putin told journalists at a Moscow news conference today. The warring sides will fall short of outright military victory, underlining the need for an accord, Putin said.
The country’s increasingly intensive civil conflict means “entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or of being killed,” said the commission, which was established by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate war crimes in Syria.
Syria’s sectarian dividing lines fall most sharply between its Alawite community, the recruiting ground for most of the senior political and military figures in Assad’s regime, and the Sunni majority, which broadly supports the rebels.
The conflict has forced other minorities increasingly to align “themselves with parties to the conflict,” with Christians, Druze and Armenians largely siding with the government while Turkmen are mostly anti-government, the commission said. Palestinians have split, while Kurds have fought against both rebels and government forces.
Some Christian communities have formed militias to protect their neighborhoods from rebel fighters by setting up checkpoints around those areas, it said.
Negotiations are the only way to halt the fighting that has grown increasingly fierce particularly around major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, the commercial hub, it said.
The commission said it had found numerous incidents of torture, summary executions and attacks on cultural property.
“As the conflict drags on, the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their conduct increasingly being in breach of international law,” it said.
Almost 44,000 people have died since the uprising against began in March 2011, according to the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In certain areas of Syria, the humanitarian situation has been “aggravated by widespread destruction and razing of residential areas,” according to the report.
“Towns and villages across Latakia, Idlib, Hama and Dara’a governorates have been effectively emptied of their populations,” the panel said. “Entire neighborhoods in southern and eastern Damascus, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo have been razed. The downtown of Homs city has been devastated.”
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