"War is hell," as the old platitude goes, and there is no war where both sides have not committed atrocities. The Syrian civil war is no exception. A rebel, disenchanted with such atrocities, has smuggled a video out of Syria graphically depicting a brutal execution of captive soldiers. The man responsible is known as "the uncle," or Mr. Issa (Arabic for Jesus), commander of the Jund Al-Sham brigade associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The video serves as a clear illustration as to how all factions of the Syrian rebels have adopted the same grisly, dubious tactics as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Yet many policy makers in Washington continue to romanticize Assad's opposition as paragons of virtue fighting for freedom, conveniently ignoring their war crimes.
Watch the mass execution here (Warning: content is extremely graphic):
As Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the case in Congress for limited retaliatory strikes on al-Assad's military infrastructure in response to the chemical weapons massacre in August, he claimed that the opposition "has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution."
Kerry's assertions blatantly contradict the U.S. intelligence and NGO assessments, which indicate that, while jihadist rebels are fewer in number, they're typically better organized, trained, and armed than their FSA counterparts. Furthermore, Kerry insisted that only 15% to 25% of the opposition is what the U.S. would deem "bad guys," or al-Qaeda linked extremists. However, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) counters that intelligence briefings had informed him that the number is as high as half.
However, Kerry's mischaracterization of most rebels as moderates goes well beyond the stereotypical, simplistic secularist versus jihadist dichotomy. Anyone who engages in war crimes cannot sensibly be labeled a moderate, regardless of their political alignment. When so-called moderate rebels like the FSA and their affiliates are held to the same scrutiny as the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it becomes clear that they are guilty of the same war crimes and thus qualify as extremists themselves.
The uncle Mr. Issa, for instance, has committed his Jund al-Sham brigade to genocide, threatening to exterminate all Alawites (the base of Assad's support). He is thereby propagating sectarian warfare in the same manner as Al-Qaeda. Despite Mr. Issa's extremist sentiments, the U.S.-backed FSA, which will soon receive an influx of American weapons from the CIA, has armed Jund al-Sham in the past and will presumably do so again.
Killing enemy hostages is a war crime and the summary execution of captive soldiers by Mr. Issa and his fighters is far from an isolated incident among the secularist opposition. In July 2012, the Tawaheed Brigade, an FSA affiliate, captured members of the vehemently pro-Assad Barri tribe and proceeded to execute them in front of a cheering mob. FSA-affiliated fighters have also kidnapped and killed journalists while their commanders have not attempted to stop such human rights abuses. In May 2013, UN human rights inspector Carla del Ponte accused the FSA of using chemical weapons on civilians. Although the crimes are underreported in the press, these are not isolated incidents and attributing all rebel atrocities to jihadists is an incredibly disingenuous denial of reality.
Washington and the media would do well to take a more balanced, less black and white, simplistic view of the rebels. Conventional wisdom in the U.S. creates a fictitious, convenient split between extremist jihadists and righteous moderates. However, all factions of rebels are complicit in, and have committed, war crimes. As such, any expansive military intervention in Syria, or arms shipments to the rebels, is incredibly unwise as atrocities from all parties involved will only continue to escalate.