Middle East

'Death or exchange' fate of seized Syrian soldiers

Still from a video uploaded to YouTube allegedly showing men confessing to attacking protesters
Image caption These men are shown in a YouTube video apparently confessing to attacking peaceful protesters

The treatment of detainees in Syria's prisons has come under scrutiny after a report from Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian government of widespread torture. But what of those captured by the government's opponents?

Staring half-dazed and terrified into the camera, a young soldier stands with his hands against a wall.

Struggling to compose himself, and with blood streaming from his head, he pleads with his captor to allow him a few minutes to regain his senses.

After some brief questioning by the cameraman, the video cuts. Seconds later, the camera pans along the soldier's lifeless body.

"This is our gift to the regime," says the voice. "This is a gift to President Assad."

The amateur video posted on YouTube is one of the many hundreds on the internet, apparently showing Syrian rebels interviewing captured militia, soldiers and other regime collaborators, in some cases before their execution.

The authenticity of the videos cannot be verified.

Most show the prisoners kneeling or sitting in bare rooms, sometimes with armed rebels standing over them. They give their names, dates of birth and positions in the security services or military.

Image caption This video purports to show captured Syrian soldiers being interrogated by rebels before one is executed

In some videos they are asked their religion. They then recount their involvement in the repression of protests and detail the orders they were given by their superiors.

Amidst all the doubt and speculation that surrounds the violence in Syria, these "confessions" are part of opposition groups' efforts at proving to the outside world that the government is behind the bloodshed.

But when the camera has stopped rolling, and the point is made, the captured are no longer of use. So what becomes of these men?

UK-based Syrian journalist Malik al-Abdeh told the BBC: "What do you think they do with them? They kill them. What else can they do?"

'Prisoner' swaps

For all the gains made so far, most territory in which opposition groups operate in Syria is still strongly contested, which means keeping prisoners for any length of time is virtually impossible for the rebels.

These groups are therefore faced with a stark choice: execute the detainee, or exchange him for prisoners held by the government.

"Exchanging captured militia or soldiers for prisoners is an option, but this depends on the group in question," says Mr Abdeh.

Image caption Some say the massacres at Houla and Qubair may have hardened rebel attitudes to captured soldiers

"If they have links with a local community leader or cleric, and if the rebel commander feels it's safe, they may be able to ensure a handover is made."

It is claimed that thousands of men, women and children sit in detention centres around the country, and this is one of the only ways in which rebels can get their friends and families freed.

One activist told the BBC: "Exchange is happening regularly for the captured Free Syrian Army (FSA), civilians and even corpses to be returned, in deals often brokered by the government."

Activists claim rebel groups only kill the detainee if he "has been heavily involved in killing civilians."

But since the FSA holds the government responsible for massacres like those in Houla and Qubair, along with frequent brutal attacks around the country that may have left nearly 16,000 people dead, how many of the detained could have committed crimes that, in the eyes of the rebels, do not merit death?

Estimates of soldiers killed in the conflict range from 1,500 to nearly 5,000, but it is unclear whether these numbers include those facing rebel firing squads.

This local brand of rebel justice points to a new trend in insurgent operations, with an opposition instituting its own makeshift tribunals as it prepares for what could be a long, drawn-out war.

Propaganda confessions

In a conflict that is being fought just as hard on the internet and on television as it is in the streets, rebel groups are not the only ones gathering confessions from their detainees.

The government has long sought the power of these sorts of testimonies to convince the population at large that a foreign-backed conspiracy has engulfed the nation.

In a special documentary for Syrian television, the former head of the opposition media office in Baba Amr, Ali Mahmoud Othman, recounted his experiences as a "terrorist" who had aided foreign combatants in Syria.

This was perhaps the most bizarre example of the frequently broadcast detainee confession videos put out by the government.

Whatever the truth of these confessions, both Mr Othman's testimony and the rebel videos offer a small window into a far murkier picture that both sides are keen the world does not see.