On Wednesday, January 23, Human Rights Watch published a press release that states an investigation revealed evidence that three religious sites in northern Syria were burned and looted by Sunni Muslim rebel soldiers.
According to Reuters, the rebels have been fighting for the past 22 months against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and a government controlled by Al Assad's minority Alawite sect. The sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam..
According to Human Rights Watch, "Armed opposition groups appeared to have deliberately destroyed religious sites in mixed areas of Northern Syria, in November and December 2012, Human Rights Watch said following investigations in Latakia and Idlib governorates.
"An armed opposition group destroyed a Shia place of worship in Idlib governorate, and two Christian churches in Latakia governorate were looted. In all three cases evidence examined by Human Rights Watch suggests, and witnesses stated, that the attacks took place after the area fell to opposition control and government forces had left the area."
A Reuters report added that the Shia religious site in the village of Zarzour was a hussainiya — a place of worship devoted to the third Imam Hussain ibn Ali who was martyred in southern Iraq in 680 A.D.
According to Hussainiya.com, "Hussain ibn Ali (AS) is revered as the third Imam by most Shia Muslims. Hussain was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 (61AH) by Shimr Ibn Thil-Jawshan for refusing to pledge allegiance to Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph.
"The anniversary of his martyrdom is called Ashura and is a day of mourning and religious observance for Shia Muslims. Revenge for Hussain's death was turned into a rallying cry that helped undermine the Umayyad caliphate and gave impetus to the rise of the Shia movement."
The Imam Hussain was also the second grandson of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, so the site is clearly very important to local Shia Muslims.
The Human Rights Watch report added that some of the Sunni rebel leaders have failed to follow through on promises they made before the incidents.
According to Human Rights Watch, "While some opposition leaders have pledged to protect all Syrians, in practice the opposition has failed to properly address the unjustified attacks against minority places of worship, Human Rights Watch said.
"The opposition also has failed to rein in gunmen engaging in looting and other criminal activities, like kidnappings. Human Rights Watch urged armed opposition groups to protect all religious sites in areas under their control and to discipline members who loot or kidnap."
The Reuters article adds that a video was published online showing rebels celebrating as the hussainiya burned in the background. If the video is genuine, it is evidence of a war crime.
According to Human Rights Watch, "... Under international humanitarian law, parties in an armed conflict have a responsibility not to intentionally attack religious buildings that are not being used for military purposes.
"They are prohibited from seizing, destroying, or doing willful damage to religious buildings or institutions and from theft, pillage, or vandalism directed against important cultural property. Deliberate attacks on religious sites that are not military objectives are war crimes."
Human Rights Watch also investigated the two alleged break-ins at Christian churches in two villages controlled by the rebels.
According to Human Rights Watch, "Local residents told Human Rights Watch that armed gunmen operating 'in the name of the opposition' also broke into and stole from Christian churches in the villages of Ghasaniyeh and Jdeideh, in Latakia governorate, after the villages fell under opposition control.
"A Jdeideh resident told Human Rights Watch that after the armed opposition took control of the village on December 11 and government forces had fled, gunmen broke into and stole from the village church and fired numerous shots inside, causing structural damage.
"Human Rights Watch visited the church on December 18 and observed that the doors bore signs of forced entry, and the windows were shattered. The church doors had been welded shut since the attack to protect against further attack."
Their report added that the break-ins may have been motivated by greed rather than religious reasons, but the rebels still have a responsibility to protect religious sites in their territory from willful damage and theft.
These incidents have the potential to undermine the rebels' cause as the civil war continues. The Reuters report added that some people who might have supported them are leery about joining forces with Sunni extremists.
According to Reuters, "The conflict has killed more than 60,000 people and pushed more than 650,000 to flee the country, the United Nations estimates.
"Indiscipline and looting by rebels in some areas has also undermined civilian support for their cause, especially among minority groups, and hampered their ability to advance against government forces. Foreign backers of the opposition are wary of supporting a revolt in which religious hardliners have grown in prominence."