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January 10, 2013, Thursday

Atrocities in Syria committed by all sides

Many years ago I had meetings with some Chechens right around the time their cases were going to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Those were the years when Russia was doing some terrible things in Chechnya. The Russians were destroying everything, making no distinction between civilian and soldier while doing so. Those captured by the Russians were being tortured in ways that defied the imagination. Just one of the despicable forms of torture to which the Chechens were being subjected to was to give male prisoners female names, and then rape them.

But after a while, it also emerged that while the Chechens were busy resisting this Russian aggression, they too had gotten mixed up in some inhumane business. In fact, around the time I was involved in my meetings with the Chechens, a video clip of Chechens beheading a captured Russian soldier began to circulate on the Internet. I asked one of the Chechen representatives what he thought about this beheading business. While I expected him to respond with something like, “Of course we condemn it,” he answered instead, “Cutting his head off with a knife caused less pain than a bullet would have.” I recall a wall of silence rising between us, almost as though it was made of ice. Suddenly, it seemed to me that I had turned from being a lawyer for some “innocents” into someone simply taking sides in a dirty war. Later, there was the whole crisis surrounding a plane that was taken hostage, and when the priorities of the Chechens changed, this legal project was pushed aside, and I took a deep breath.

Despite the awful, inhumane acts that the Chechens were exposed to, they were never really able to explain their own side to the rest of the world. We cannot know how many Russian soldiers' hearts were filled with fear as a result of the beheadings by Chechens, but it is true that with these acts the Chechens managed to pull a heavy curtain over all the stories of the tens of thousands of their countrymen whose homes were burned, or who were tortured and raped.

Looking at a terrible execution

When I saw images of the terrible execution that took place in the city of Aleppo published a few months ago in The Sunday Times, I couldn't help thinking that what I had observed with Chechnya was now being repeated in Syria. Someone from the Syrian opposition forces had taken a gun in hand and shot bullets into the back of the neck of a bound and blindfolded Syrian soldier who had been captured. The first soldier who was shot had stretched out his neck, and it was clear from the image that the photograph had been taken just as the second soldier was being shot and falling to the ground in the image. The others pictured in the image are all simply waiting, like rams waiting to be sacrificed, for the bullets to hit their necks. With a fringed scarf around his head and summer sandals on his feet, the executioner walks along, putting bullets into the heads of the rest of the prisoners. He had a while to go before this business is finished. It should be noted that before we saw these images, there were also the photographs in the world press of members of the “Free Syria Army” throwing soldiers they had captured out of tall buildings.

In fact, these photographs hit the media just a few days after reports from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization told the world about how President Bashar al-Assad's military planes were raining down cluster bombs on the people of Syria. Just as the Chechens did, the Syrian opposition is also leaving a black mark on its own legitimate case. They are making the very real pain of the tens of thousands in Syria whose homes and towns have been destroyed, who have been subjected to unbelievable torture and murder, completely and suddenly invisible.

These images, and the prominent emergence of radical Islamist elements from the ranks of the opposition, are all working to impede support that could be coming from the West. And the reduction in this support will occur despite the advantages for the West inherent in Assad's departure. What's more, if radical Islamists turn this business from one of overturning a dictator into jihad, it will wind up distancing other groups that would normally be lending support to the effort. As the clashes in Syria continue, they are pulling other regional countries into the mess, transforming the entire conflict into a large Sunni-Shiite war.

In this war -- which has seen crimes against humanity by both sides that deserve trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- Turkey has unfortunately presented the image of being a country that provides unquestioning support for one of these sides. It may well be that Assad's immediate fall from power would be to Turkey's strategic advantage, but while adopting this position, Ankara must not lose sight of its moral compass.

We already know about the terrible crimes committed by Assad in Syria. But in ignoring the crimes against humanity committed by the opposition forces, we are not contributing to the arrival one day of democracy and peace in this region.

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