The Syrian civil war is becoming increasingly sectarian, as Sunni-majority rebel forces fight government troops supported by country’s religious and ethnic minorities, a new UN human rights report has revealed.
The report – which is based on interviews with Syrians who fled the country and covers the period between September 28 and December 16 – said that foreign fighters with links to extremist Sunni groups are infiltrating Syria to fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The foreign fighters, described as “militant, radical Islamists, or Jihadists,” are reportedly operating independently but coordinate with the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group supported by Western nations.
“The commission is extremely worried by the presence of foreign fighters… who are not fighting for human rights and democracy,” said Sergio Pinheiro, the head of the independent UN commission that produced the report. While they are fighting against government forces, they are not doing so “with the same agenda as the Free Syrian Army,” continued Pinheiro. “By their own admission, they are very proud of their breaches of humanitarian law.”
More than 20,000 people have been killed on both sides of the Syrian conflict since the fighting began, according to UN estimates.
Most of the casualties in the nearly two-year war were civilians, and both sides are responsible for human rights abuses such as torture and executions, Pinheiro said.
The rebels have hidden in Syrian cities among the civilian population, resulting in deadly government artillery and air strikes, the report said.
Evidence suggests that government forces do not take sufficient precautions to avoid civilian casualties, and that the resulting attacks are “disproportionate to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated,” the report continued.
The conflict has also continuously drawn in other minority groups – especially Christians, Armenians, Druze and others – who mostly support President Assad. The main divisions in Syria are between the Sunni and Alawite communities; most of Syria’s senior government and military leaders belong to the latter.
As the fighting between government and rebel groups approaches the end of its second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature, the report said. The commission has received credible reports of anti-Assad groups attacking Alawites and other minority communities.
In response, some of them have formed armed self-defense groups known as “Popular Committees” to defend their neighborhoods.
“We think this is a war where no military victory is possible,” Pinheiro said. “It is a great illusion that providing arms to one side or the other will help end it.”
As the conflict drags on, the belligerents have become “ever more violent and unpredictable,” leading to conduct that is increasingly in breach of international law, the report concluded.