DEIR AL-ZOR, Syria: Stung by mounting allegations of human rights abuses, Syrian rebels are keen to show off their treatment of prisoners from the increasingly brutal conflict.
Rebel commanders acknowledge that in the past there were excesses and that some captured soldiers were summarily executed. But they insist that now all rebel fighters have strict orders about the treatment of prisoners.
“In the past we did do bad things like executing captured soldiers,” rebel commander Abu Salam Tabsah told AFP in the northeastern city of Deir al-Zor that his fighters seized earlier this month, taking dozens of loyalist troops prisoner.
“But things have changed and we don’t do that any more. Anyone who did would be put before a court martial.”
Tabsah said that when a soldier is captured, the rebels try to verify whether he has “done anything” worthy of punishment. If not, he is given three choices: “Go home, leave Syria or join our fight.
“Soldiers who admit to having killed, we exchange for civilian prisoners held by the regime. What do we gain by shooting them?
“If we want this war to finish one day, we can’t allow ourselves to be driven by vengeance and hatred. We are all Syrians and brothers.”
Cpl. Ala Ibrahim is one of the soldiers captured by the rebels in the battle for Deir al-Zor.
He says he was prepared to fight to the death because he was convinced of the worst if the rebels took him.
“I thought they were going to kill me, but no one hit me or tortured me,” said Ibrahim, a 22-year-old from the central city of Hama who signed up in 2010, lured by the 300-euro ($400) monthly salary.
“I was very surprised because I realized then that everything they had told us about the Free Syrian Army was a lie. They aren’t terrorists. They are Syrians who are fighting against [President Bashar] Assad.”
Ibrahim is being held in a school that the rebels have turned into a makeshift detention center. The walls of his cell are incongruously covered with letters of the alphabet, numerals and pictures of brightly colored fish.
Ibrahim said he had been posted on the Golan Heights near the cease-fire line with Israel when his unit was dispatched to Deir al-Zor last July.
“They told us that a lot of terrorists had infiltrated the city, and that our job was to clean them out to protect the civilians. But what we found was a well-organized rebel army that was gaining ground inch by inch.”
As the fighting intensified, soldiers began to desert.
“To keep us from running away, the officers told us the FSA would kill us, but first torture us to get any intelligence we might have. It worked, because many who were thinking of deserting stayed on to save their lives.”
Such fears are by no means idle. Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday that it had documented “the torture and summary killing of soldiers, pro-government militias and civilians” by rebel fighters.
“While the vast majority of war crimes and other gross violations continue to be committed by government forces, our research also points to an escalation in abuses by armed opposition groups,” said the watchdog’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ann Harrison.
Ibrahim had words of praise for the rebel commander that was in charge of his own detention.
“He’s like my father,” Ibrahim said. “When I was captured, the army told my family I had been killed. This man let me use his phone to ring my family and tell them I was all right, that I was safe.”
But he knows that not everyone in FSA ranks is like Tabsah. There are hard-line Islamists who would not forgive him for being a member of Assad’s Alawite minority community.
“I am afraid of a sectarian war,” he said. “Inside the FSA there are jihadists. If they take power, we will have serious problems in the future, and the war might never end.”