United Nations human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria’s civil war and medical workers indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said Sunday.
The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces using chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said Carla Del Ponte, a commission member.
“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals,” Ms. Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television. “According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.”
“This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.
New YouTube video from the Syrian battlefield shows rebels firing the same high-powered sniper rifle favored by U.S. Navy SEALs, leaving some experts wondering who the ragtag army of insurgents might train the guns on in the future.
The British-made AS-50, accurate from a distance of 20 football fields, is made for British Special Forces and Navy SEALs. Video showing Syrian rebels, who are aligned with Al Qaeda, firing the guns and shouting “Alahu akbar,” has also raised questions about who is supplying such devastating hardware.
“The video, showing jihadist rebels of the ‘Descendents of the Prophet Brigade’ firing one of the world’s most effective sniper rifles, should be cause for alarm,” said David Reaboi, of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy. “We don’t know who has been supplying this group (or the myriad others) with these weapons but, given the jihadist ideology of these groups, it’s only a matter of time until they’re turned on Americans or our allies and interests.”
The gun set a world record when a member of the British Household Cavalry in Afghanistan’s Helmand province killed two members of the Taliban with successive bullets over a recorded distance of more than 1.5 miles.
The Free Syrian Army has been receiving weapons from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey - all close allies of the U.S. But the U.S. has repeatedly stated that it has sent no weapons to the opposition forces.
The United Nations welcomed the release on Saturday of 21 Filipino peacekeepers, who had been seized by Syrian rebels on the Golan Heights, as they crossed to freedom in Jordan after a three-day ordeal.
Philippine authorities also expressed relief at the release of the 21 members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
A Jordanian military official said the peacekeepers were greeted by border guards as they crossed from Syria in the afternoon and “underwent medical examinations.”
They then boarded an army bus and were given a military escort to the east Amman headquarters of the armed forces where they were “handed over to the UN representative in Jordan Costanza Farina in the presence of the Philippines ambassador,” the official added in a statement.
The UN has confirmed that 20 peacekeepers have been captured near the Golan heights by armed Syrian rebel fighters who call themselves the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” brigade.
“The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity, at Al Jamlah,” the United Nations said in a statement. The UN has since sent a team in to assist with the resolving the situation.
The brigade seized the soldiers who were stationed in the buffer zone between Israel and Syria on Wednesday evening and warned that if they was no response to their demands within 24 hours, they would treat the peacekeepers as hostages.
The “Yarmouk” rebels are demanding that Syrian president Bashar Assad’s forces retreat from a strategic area near the village of Jamlah in return for the release of the convoy. In a video that was posted online, a member of the brigade accuses the UN forces of collaborating with Assad’s forces to push the rebels out of Jamlah.
In a policy shift, the United States on Thursday announced plans to channel non-lethal assistance directly to Syrian rebels in the battlefield rather than through non-governmental agencies.
“The simple fact is (Syrian President Bashar) Assad cannot shoot his way out of this,” Secretary of State John Kerry said when the aid package was announced at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Rome. “For more than a year the U.S. and our partners who have gathered here in Rome have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and halt his war machine. Instead what we have seen is his brutality increase.”
The aid will include $60 million to assist the Syrian Opposition Coalition communities in liberated areas of Syria expand the delivery of basic goods and services, including security, sanitation and educational services.
The U.S. will also send “technical advisers” to support opposition staff in Egypt and work with the movement’s military arm to provide non-lethal support to the Free Syrian Army, including things like military rations and medical supplies to tend the sick and the wounded.
Horrifying to think of what can happen if al-Qaeda gets their hands on the chemical weapon supplies Assad has when Assad falls out of power.
About halfway down a New York Times’ story on Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the paper reports a disturbing new detail about the Syrian opposition. According to Clinton, rebels in Syria have been receiving ‘messages’ from a part of Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s core leaders are believed to be hiding out:
She added: “Having said all that, [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad is still killing. The opposition is increasingly being represented by Al Qaeda extremist elements.” She also said that the opposition was getting messages from the ungoverned areas in Pakistan where some of the Qaeda leadership was believed to be hiding — a development she called “deeply distressing.”
In recent weeks, the argument that a decisive Syrian rebel victory would not necessarily be a good thing has gained ground in U.S. foreign policy circles. A negotiated settlement between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, the argument goes, would be preferable. Such an ending would have a better chance of stanching the violence and preventing outright sectarian war between the mostly Sunni rebels — hungry for revenge against the Alawites — and the rest of the country.
Yet after almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government, there is little chance that splitting the difference between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad’s favorite strategy — honed over decades — of using the threat of sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of the Assad regime should be decisive and complete.
Of course, there are those who disagree. For one, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that the Syrian rebels, if they win, will seek revenge and embrace neither democracy nor liberalism. Arguing along the same lines, Madhav Joshi, a senior researcher at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and David Mason, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that a decisive military victory in a civil war is dangerous. The victorious side, they say, is likely to try to exclude the other from government (and enforce that exclusion through its military dominance) rather than to try to co-opt the former rival’s supporters by including them
Syria Rebels ‘Beheaded a Christian and Fed Him to the Dogs’ as Fears Grow Over Islamist Atrocities
Christian Andrei Arbashe, 38, was kidnapped and beheaded by rebel fighters in northern town of Ras Al-Ayn on the Turkish border
News came as pro-government forces celebrated their victory against rebels near Aleppo Airport
Syrian rebels beheaded a Christian man and fed his body to dogs, according to a nun who says the West is ignoring atrocities committed by Islamic extremists.
The nun said taxi driver Andrei Arbashe, 38, was kidnapped after his brother was heard complaining that fighters against the ruling regime behaved like bandits.
She said his headless corpse was found by the side of the road, surrounded by hungry dogs. He had recently married and was soon to be a father.
Sister Agnes-Mariam de la Croix said: ‘His only crime was his brother criticised the rebels, accused them of acting like bandits, which is what they are.’
There have been a growing number of accounts of atrocities carried out by rogue elements of the Syrian Free Army, which opposes dictator Bashar al-Assad and is recognised by Britain and the West as the legitimate leadership.
Syrian rebels are starting to choke off the government’s access to its own country, bringing hope that the war may be slipping away from Bashar al-Assad. But the gains have also come with disturbing new signs — video decapitations, al Qaeda links, and more — that the rebels may end up nearly as brutal in victory as the regime they’re hoping to replace.
NBC News reports that ever larger patches of the country have fallen under the control of the rebels, with only the military strongholds like bases and presidential compounds in Damascus still belonging to the regime. In the Northern part of the country, near the city of Aleppo, “the rebels control the countryside and open roads, and the Syrian army only controls the bases and the skies.” Of course, controlling the skies is an incredibly powerful advantage in any war, so the government is still able to inflict heavy damage on the rebels, even if moral among the troops is lower than ever.
Meanwhile in Damascus, fighting has come with one mile of Assad’s office. One Mideast professor tells Reuters that Assad “is no longer the president of Syria, he is the governor of Damascus.” No matter strong his ability to fight back remains, there seems to be no question that his influence over the nation is shrinking and there’s no telling how long he can successfully hold out.
In plain view of the patrons at an outdoor cafe here in this border town, the convoy of gun trucks waving the flag of the Syrian rebels whizzed through the Syrian village of Ras al-Ain. They had not come to fight their primary enemy, the soldiers of Bashar al-Assad’s government. They had rushed in to battle the ethnic Kurds.
Connect With Us on Twitter
Follow @nytimesworld for international breaking news and headlines.
Twitter List: Reporters and Editors
The confrontation spoke not only to the violence that has enveloped Syria, but also to what awaits if the government falls. The fear — already materializing in these hills — is that Syria’s ethnic groups will take up arms against one another in a bloody, post-Assad contest for power.
The Kurdish militias in northern Syria had hoped to stay out of the civil war raging in Syria. They were focused on preparing to secure an autonomous enclave for themselves within Syria should the rebels succeed in toppling the government. But slowly, inexorably, they have been dragged into the fighting and now have one goal in mind, their autonomy, which also means the balkanization of the state.
“We want to have a Kurdish nation,” said Divly Fadal Ali, 18, who fled the fighting and was recently staying in a local community center here for Kurdish refugees. “We want our own schools, our own hospitals. We want the government to admit our existence. We want recognition of our Kurdish identity.”
These skirmishes between Kurds and Arabs take on a darker meaning for Syria as the rebels appear each day to gain momentum, and the government appears less and less able to restore control. The rebels have taken over military bases, laid siege to Damascus and forced the shutdown of the airport.