Syria mutilation footage sparks doubts over wisdom of backing rebels

Anti-Assad fighter appears to eat internal organ of dead government soldier in horrific footage

Horrific video footage of a Syrian rebel commander eating the heart or lung of a dead government fighter has aroused furious international controversy, fuelling an already heated debate over western support for the armed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The grisly film had been circulating for several days, attracting extensive comment on social media networks such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. But in the face of an often vicious propaganda war between the government and rebels, early doubts about the film's authenticity faded when the perpetrator, named as Khaled al-Hamad, admitted that he had mutilated the corpse of an unnamed soldier as an act of revenge.

"We opened his cell phone and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he [the dead soldier] was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there," Hamad told the Time news website.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an independent monitor, said: "The figure in the video cuts the heart and liver out of the body and uses sectarian language to insult Alawites [Assad's minority sect]. At the end of the video [the man] is filmed putting the corpse's heart into his mouth, as if he is taking a bite out of it."

Hamad, also known as Abu Sakkar, said he also had video footage of himself using a saw to cut a Shabiha government militiaman into "small and large pieces".

Yasser Taha, a fellow fighter, told the Guardian an unnamed female relative of Abu Sakkar had been raped and killed by government soldiers. Time said he had in fact eaten the dead man's lung, not his liver or heart.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the main western and Arab-backed anti-Assad political grouping, quickly condemned the incident as a crime and pledged to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Atrocities have been reported since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, but few images have been as repulsive as this one. Film of prisoners apparently being buried alive turned out to have been faked, but other shocking footage proved genuine.

"It is not enough for Syria's opposition to condemn such behaviour or blame it on violence by the government," said Nadim Houry of HRW. "The opposition forces need to act firmly to stop such abuses."

The SOC said: "Such an act contradicts the morals of the Syrian people as well as the values and principles of the Free Syrian Army. The FSA has been [fighting] and continues to fight for the dignity of every Syrian striving for freedom.

"The FSA is a national army above all, formed to defend civilians and deliver the Syrian people from the mentality of revenge and crime. It completely rejects the ill-treatment of the wounded and the disfigurement of the dead."

The video is a blow to faltering western efforts to raise and mentor a credible opposition force to fight for democracy, in the event that the Assad regime falls.

International revulsion seems likely to affect discussions in western capitals about supporting the FSA. Britain and France have been seeking to amend or drop the EU arms embargo on Syria. The Obama administration has signalled that it may start openly supplying the rebels but has not done so yet. The CIA has reportedly been co-ordinating arms deliveries by anti-Assad Gulf states.

Opposition supporters complained that one savage act was getting massive global media coverage while the death of an estimated 80,000 people was being tolerated by the international community.

"This distressing incident is one example of warfare gone completely askew, but it clearly doesn't represent the Syrian opposition at large," said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council for Foreign Relations in London. "It doesn't compare in scale with massacres and atrocities committed by the Syrian regime. But it does play into fears about where the conflict is going and whether arming the rebels is the right approach."

Sakkar was a well-known member of the Farouq Brigades, a unit that rose from the ruins of the Baba Amr suburb of Homs and became one of the rebels' best resourced fighting forces.

During the first 18 months of the war, the Farouq Brigades were seen as a cohesive militia with mainstream leanings, which could credibly fight under the banner of the FSA. Then and now, the FSA has struggled to assemble a command-and-control structure to control the large numbers of rebel-aligned groups, which mostly answer to local leaders.

"It highlights the fact that we are not talking about a centrally controlled and well-organised rebel force," Barnes-Dacey said. "These are rebels fighting in distinct areas according to their own needs and ambitions. Some are driven by a thirst for revenge, criminalisation, sectarianism … These are the array of forces that have been unleashed in Syria today."

Farouq became established in Idlib, where it was backed by Qatar and at times Saudi Arabia. Late last year, Sakkar formed a splinter group, which he called the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade.

For the last six months this small unit has joined the fray in Qusayr, which borders Lebanon and is seen as a strategic crossroads by regime and rebels.

Sakkar's sectarian rhetoric has hardened considerably lately, and he has often been recorded denouncing Alawites and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that is heavily involved in battles near Homs.

Hamad told Time that Syria's revolution started peacefully. "They [the Alawites] were the ones who killed our children in Baba Amr and raped our women," he said. Then, referring to the recent massacre of Sunni villagers in Bayda, near Baniyas – attributed by rebels to the regime – he added: "They were the ones who slaughtered the children and women in Bayda. We didn't start it; they started it."

Swearing to avenge every death, he said: "Our slogan is, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Additional reporting by Mona Mahmood

Video horrors

Shocking videos have emerged regularly from Syria over the last two years, but these are some that have attracted wide public attention. In several cases the government and rebels blamed each other for committing atrocities.

• In Aleppo 68 bodies were discovered in a river in January 2013. All the victims had been killed by a single gunshot to the head. Investigations showed that many of the victims were residents of the Bustan al-Qasr district or other areas under opposition control who disappeared when they went into government-controlled areas.

• Syrian forces allegedly buried alive a civilian from al Qusair, Homs in April 2012. Storyful analysed it and found serious doubts about its authenticity. BBC experts noted dubious factors including the Alawite accents of those who appeared in the film.

Footage from Aleppo showed Free Syrian Army rebels executing four Assad loyalists in August 2012. Under pressure from its western supporters the FSA condemned the incident and promised to investigate and punish the perpetrators.

Bodies were shown being thrown off a bridge in Hama in August 2011. CNN said the footage could not be independently authenticated.

Ian Black


Ian Black and Martin Chulov

The GuardianTramp

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