Syrian rebel groups backed by the U.S. and its allies "have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including abductions, torture and summary killings," according to Amnesty International.
A report by the leading human rights organization details how extremist rebel groups have taken over large parts of major Syrian cities, in which they have created repressive theocratic regimes where critics are violently silenced and where religious and ethnic minority groups fear for their lives.
"'Torture Was My Punishment': Abductions, Torture and Summary Killings Under Armed Group Rule in Aleppo and Idleb, Syria" shows how the Syrian people have been caught between a rock and a hard place — with extremist rebels on one side and a brutal regime on the other.
The report focuses primarily on the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib, in the north of the country. Aleppo is Syria's largest city, and the Aleppo governorate is the most populous.
Amnesty documented abuses committed by five armed groups that have controlled parts of Aleppo and Idlib since 2012. These rebels have been supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the U.S.
In Aleppo, Amnesty investigated the actions of the Levant Front, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and Division 16, factions in the Aleppo Conquest rebel coalition.
In Idlib, it looked at the crimes of the rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, both of which are extremist Islamist militias that are party of the Army of Conquest coalition.
Amnesty noted that al-Nusra "has a significant presence" throughout the Idlib governorate. Ahrar al-Sham is present in the major cities Idlib, Aleppo, Damascus and Hama.
Executions and strict Shari’a
Armed groups have repressed many Syrians who were themselves once supportive of the rebels.
"I was happy to be free from the Syrian government’s unjust rule but now the situation is worse," a Syrian lawyer told Amnesty.
Rebel groups have established "courts" (the report uses the term in scare quotes) in Aleppo and Idlib based on strict interpretations of Shari’a (Islamic law).
Extremist Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have harshly punished Syrians who disobey their theocratic laws, the report notes.
It cites numerous cases of summary killings carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Levant Front and rebel "courts." Some have been "execution-style killings in front of crowds."
Jabhat al-Nusra has publicly executed civilian men it accused of homosexuality and civilian women it accused of adultery.
In Aleppo, the "Supreme Judicial Council" run by the Levant Front told Amnesty that the punishment for apostasy is execution. "Death sentences are carried out in the detention center according to Shari’a principles," the deputy director said.
According to the Carnegie Endowment, most of the rebel groups in the Levant Front coalition likely receive support from the Military Operations Center, a Turkey-based rebel facility that the U.S. helps operate with its allies.
Most of the "courts" run by these rebel groups, Amnesty says, are based on the Unified Arab Code, a set of Shari’a-based legal codes that were endorsed by the Arab League between 1988 and 1996 but were never implemented anywhere.
This legal code demands harsh corporal punishments for hudud crimes (violations of Islamic law), including stoning, amputations and flogging.
"I publicly criticized Jabhat al-Nusra on Facebook accusing them of committing worse human rights abuses than those perpetrated by the government. The next morning, Jabhat al-Nusra forces took me from my home," a Syrian lawyer told Amnesty.
An interrogator told him he was not a real lawyer because he did not know Islamic law. The Syrian rebel threatened him, telling him he had to give up his profession or his family wold never see me again. After 10 days of abduction, hearing men screaming from torture, the lawyer agreed.
"I left Syria as soon as I was released," he added.
A female activist who had just been released from detention by the Syrian government told Amnesty she was subsequently arrested and interrogated by Ahrar al-Sham rebels for not wearing a veil.
"They forced me to wear a veil and cover my face. They brought a religious man who made me kneel to confess my wrongdoings. The interrogator repeatedly threatened to conduct a virginity test," she recalled.
Amnesty documented cases of armed factions torturing journalists, activists and other civilians who do not share their ideologies.
“I heard and read about the government security forces’ torture techniques. I thought I would be safe from that now that I am living in an opposition-held area. I was wrong. I was subjected to the same torture techniques but at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra,” explained a Syrian man who was abducted by the extremist rebel group.
Syrian lawyers who have spoken out against rebel groups' use of torture have themselves been abducted and threatened.
In several of the cases of abduction, journalists, political activists and a humanitarian worker told Amnesty that they were tortured by either Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. Some were violently forced to sign a statement of confession.
"The methods of torture described are disturbingly similar to some of the ones used by the Syrian government," Amnesty wrote.
Numerous journalists and activists were kidnapped and tortured by al-Nusra for "promoting secular beliefs," the rights group reported.
One journalist who works for an international media outlet was tortured by al-Nusra rebels for "offending the jihad and mujahidin [rebel fighters] and for working with a media channel that opposes al-Qa’ida."
The release form given to the tortured journalist by his interrogator said that he had been “acquitted of the charges after pledging that he would only report on issues that support the Islamic faith.”
Another activist was told he was being tortured for being secular.
Even groups Syrian activists described as "moderate" have abducted and tortured Syrians. Activists told Amnesty the Levant Front, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and the 16th Division also tortured and mistreated detainees.
A humanitarian worker was abducted and tortured by the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement for complaining about the misuse of funds in a hospital in Aleppo.
The Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement is a CIA-approved rebel group that has received TOW anti-tank missiles.
Amnesty said Syrian lawyers and activists told it of cases of abduction and torture carried out by other rebel groups in Aleppo and Idlib, but it was unable to independently verify these claims.
Targeting of minority groups
The Amnesty report also shows how rebel groups have targeted ethnic and religious minorities.
The rights organization documented cases in which Division 16, a Syrian rebel group that the U.S. government identifies as moderate, abducted Kurdish civilians.
In one case, an Arab man offered to drive his Kurdish neighbor to a dentist appointment in Aleppo. She was kidnapped at a checkpoint by the 16th Division. The Arab man was released, but she wasn't. The woman's son went looking for her, and he disappeared as well.
Other Kurdish civilians told Amnesty their family members were also abducted by Division 16. A Kurdish man who was released said he saw three missing Kurdish women working in the kitchen in a Division 16 detention center, but their families are too afraid to ask the rebel group for more information.
The 16th Division is backed by the U.S., and is part of a coalition that is fighting other U.S.-backed rebels.
Christian residents of the Aleppo and Idlib governorates have also been abducted and abused by Syrian rebels because of their religion, Amnesty said.
The CIA-approved Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement has abducted Christians.
Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra have destroyed churches. They have also confiscated the homes and stolen the belongings of Christian Syrians.
Ahrar al-Sham is supported by close Western allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the latter is also a member of NATO).
Some Syrian Christian families were told they must either convert or leave the Idlib governorate, Amnesty reported.
Abductions and repression of journalists
Amnesty documented dozens of cases of abduction carried out by armed opposition groups in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates between 2012 and 2016.
It even reported cases in which extremist rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped children and placed them for long periods of time in solitary confinement, leading to hallucinations.
An activist who said he "celebrated the Syrian government’s defeat" told Amnesty that the rebel groups he now lives under "are in control of what we can and cannot say. You either agree with their social rules and policies or you disappear."
Syrian "armed groups have carried out abductions and deprived persons of their liberty without any legal basis – even under the quasi-judicial system under which they are operating," Amnesty wrote.
An activist in Idlib told Amnesty that, during a ceasefire, protesters tried to fill the streets, but were violently dispersed and arrested by rebels with the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Abducted victims have included human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.
"Jabhat al-Nusra was pressuring men to join the armed group. Even those who resisted were forced to join. My friends left for Turkey because they were afraid," a Syrian man told Amnesty.
He went into hiding, but al-Nusra kidnapped his son. The man told the extremist group that he would join if it released his son. As soon as his child was free, the man fled with his family to Turkey.
Witnesses told Amnesty that extremist rebel groups have cracked down on behavior they deem "un-Islamic."
In one anecdote, they recall how the extremist group twice attacked Radio Fresh, a radio station in the rebel town Kafranbel, arresting staff members "for playing music which it deemed to be socially unacceptable and offensive to Islam." A witness said they had been playing revolutionary songs and the music of Fairuz, a popular Lebanese singer.
Another media activist was kidnapped by Ahrar al-Sham for criticizing the extremist rebel group on Facebook and accusing it of corruption. Amnesty says he is still detained.
Yet another media activist told Amnesty that he had been kidnapped by the "moderate" groups the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and the Levant Front for criticizing "the unjust rule of some the armed groups [and issues] such as corruption" on Facebook. He said he heard people being tortured in other rooms while he was abducted.
Journalists also told Amnesty that newspapers and other media deemed "insulting to Islam and the mujahidin (jihadists)" have been banned and confiscated.
A journalist working at Enab Baladi recalled that, in 2015 alone, "we had to pull out dozens of our employees from Idleb and Aleppo because they were receiving threats of abductions and killings."
Another journalist at Souriatna said that, after distributors and journalists were threatened by rebel groups, they stopped distributing the newspaper in Idlib and Aleppo for eight months.
Rebel groups have also abducted individuals, including children, accused of sympathizing with or providing information to the Syrian government.
"The cases of abduction, torture and summary killings documented by Amnesty International offer a glimpse into the reality of life under armed opposition groups in Aleppo and Idleb governorates," Amnesty wrote.
It added: "These abuses have taken place in a context in which armed opposition groups across Syria have committed war crimes by killing and injuring civilians through the indiscriminate use of weapons such as mortars, improvised explosive devices and suicide car bombs in attacks on residential areas under government control."
Amnesty conducted this research between December 2015 and May 2016. Many of the witnesses it interviewed were living in exile in Turkey.
The human rights group contacted representatives of Syrian rebel groups, including the Aleppo Conquest coalition and Ahrar al-Sham, asking for responses to its findings. No armed opposition groups answered Amnesty's questions about specific human rights abuses.
It condemned the impunity on all sides of the war in Syria.
"Justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims remains elusive as neither the Syrian government nor armed groups have been held accountable for their crimes," the rights group wrote.
Amnesty accused the Syrian government of carrying out the majority of human rights violations. It also said Russia has committed violations that are likely war crimes in its bombing campaign.
While there has been a lot of attention in the Western media to crimes committed by the Syrian government and its allies, there has been much less attention to the crimes of Western-backed rebels.
Amnesty called on the International Syria Support Group — particularly the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the U.K. and France — to "immediately cease the transfer of arms, munitions and other military equipment, including logistical and financial support, to armed groups implicated in committing war crimes and other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law."
The rights group emphasized that Syrian rebel groups "and the international community, particularly those governments that support them militarily and financially, must address the abuses they are committing without delay."