Religion – not IHL – a source of rules in the conflict in Syria?

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

There was an interesting article by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in the Guardian yesterday about the role of Islam within the ranks of rebel fighters in Syria.

The article tells how many young fighters in Syria have been motivated to join brigades associated with Al-Qaida by the disorganisation and lack of order and rules within the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

One young fighter, Abu Khuder explained his decision to leave the FSA and join Al-Qaida as follows:-

The Free Syrian Army has no rules and no military or religious order. Everything happens chaotically,” he said. “Al-Qaida has a law that no one, not even the emir, can break”.

The article makes clear that religion in the Syrian conflict is being referred to as a source of rules not only within Al-Qaida but also within the FSA. One FSA commander cited in the article explained the role of religion in the uprising, by stating:-

“Religion is the best way to impose discipline. Even if the fighter is not religious he can’t disobey a religious order in battle.”

Yet it is clear that while some rebel fighters welcome the discipline of the Islamist fighters, others are more cautious. Saleem Abu Yassir, a village elder and the commander of the local FSA brigade, admitted that the Al-Qaida were good fighters but told the author of the article that he had difficulties working alongside them and feared for the future of Syria:

“”Are they good fighters?” he threw the question rhetorically into the room. “Yes, they are, but they have a problem with executions. They capture a soldier and they put a pistol to his head and shoot him. We have religious courts and we have to try people before executing them. This abundance of killing is what we fear”.

Such a practice is a clear breach of Common Article 3 which prohibits the passing of sentences and the carrying out of excutions without fair trial and which applies to the conflict. Yet, despite the article’s focus on discipline, there is no mention of international humanitarian law and its clear application to the conflict in Syria. More worrying still, none of the fighters show any awareness in these interviews that they – or the various brigades they mention – are bound by its provisions.

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