By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — The unsteady, hand-held video shows several bloodied prisoners, one in boxer shorts, being led into a noisy outdoor crowd and placed against a wall. The prisoners crouch and seem to avert their eyes as men carrying assault rifles shout slogans and take aim. The gunfire lasts for more than 30 seconds.
The international community has accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces of war crimes, but the gunmen in this gruesome video were rebels. Their slogans: "Free Syrian Army Forever!" and "God is Great!"
The video, which surfaced online this week, is fueling concerns that opposition fighters are capable of brutality that matches that of the regime they are seeking to topple — a charge that could badly damage the rebellion's ability to claim the moral high ground in the Syrian civil war.
As rebels gain more territory and a multitude of militias, jihadists and criminals join the fight against Assad, reports of serious human rights abuses committed by armed opposition elements are on the rise.
"As the Free Syrian Army and armed opposition gain more ground control, they are at a crossroad," said Nadim Houry, researcher at the New York based Human Rights Watch.
"They can either go down the route of revenge and killings and replicate the behavior that we have seen by pro-government forces, or take a genuine decision showing that what they're fighting for is not just about revenge but about human rights and justice," he said.
The video sparked international condemnation, including a rare rebuke of rebel tactics from the Obama administration on Thursday.
"This is abhorrent and inconsistent with the type of struggle for freedom and a new Syria that the broad opposition is looking for," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
Ventrell said the U.S. was encouraged that opposition commanders have condemned abuses, but stressed that "summary executions committed by any party are abhorrent and inconsistent with international law, and those responsible must be held to account."
Separately, Ventrell also criticized what he described as another "massacre" by Assad's forces, this time in the Damascus suburb of Yalda. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said civilians were killed execution-style with gunshots to their heads or necks. They said the killings took place in the victims' homes, basements and gardens.
"It is the Assad regime and Assad's forces that have perpetrated the overwhelming amount of violence in Syria, that are responsible for the overwhelming number of civilian casualties," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Assad's regime stands accused of a number of massacres in which hundreds of civilians, including women and children, were killed. The Syrian government blames gunmen driven by a foreign agenda for the killings, but the U.N. and other witnesses have confirmed that at least some were carried out by pro-regime vigilante groups, known as shabiha.
Nevertheless, summary executions committed by rebel forces — albeit on a far smaller scale than the regime's alleged atrocities — put the West in a difficult position as it seeks to persuade Russia and China to stop blocking tough U.N. action against Assad.
"In the areas they control the rebels bear responsibility for preventing acts of revenge and violence against defenseless persons," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday. "We clearly expect them to be aware of this responsibility."
Representatives of the Free Syrian Army, the Turkey-based umbrella group of Syrian rebels, acknowledged that the executions shown in the video were wrong but said the rebels, unlike Assad's forces, do not attack ordinary civilians.
"The Free Syrian Army does not attack civilians," said spokesman Ahmed Kassaem. "We do not support killings and are not Sadists like the regime."
Activists said those shown killed in the video were not ordinary citizens, but rather Assad loyalists who had killed rebel fighters and intimidated peaceful protesters.
Opposition activists filter most information about the rebels sent outside the country, making it hard to get an accurate picture.