REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Syria's armed rebels have committed "serious human rights abuses," including kidnappings, torture and alleged executions of security personnel and civilians, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday in an open letter to the Syrian opposition.
The correspondence paints a dark picture that is in stark contrast to the "freedom fighter" image that the rebels and their political allies outside Syria have sought to project to the world.
Instead, the Human Rights Watch letter depicts a decentralized, disparate guerrilla structure in which armed groups seem to operate with complete autonomy, sometimes acting on sectarian motives against security force members and civilians considered pro-government.
The allegations come as the United States and other nations that have voiced support for the Syrian opposition contemplate additional actions to support the resistance, including the possibility of arming the rebels.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented "widespread violations" by Syrian security forces, including disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions and "indiscriminate" shelling of neighborhoods.
The government of President Bashar Assad has depicted the opposition as militant "terrorists" who seize neighborhoods and towns, sabotage national infrastructure and seed improvised bombs in Syria's streets and roadways, and kill and kidnap civilians and security force members.
The Human Rights Watch letter would seem to buttress fears of many in Syria that the uprising is becoming increasingly militarized and brutal on both sides, a trend that has left many pro-reform Syrians wary of supporting the rebellion.
The human rights group also suggests a troubling sectarian motive from some parts of an insurgent force recruited mainly from the nation's Sunni Muslim majority.
Statements from witnesses suggest that some insurgent atrocities may stem from animosity against minority sects, notably Shiites and Alawites, the latter an offshoot of Shiite Islam that includes Assad and many high-ranking members of the security services.
The Assad family, whose more than 40-year reign has featured ruthless repression of dissent, has overseen a decidedly secular government long hostile to Islamist trends. Hafez Assad, Syria's former leader and the current president's father, crushed an Islamic rebellion in the 1980s, leaving thousands dead, human rights groups say.
Among Syria's 23 million people, there is a mix of faiths and ethnic groups, including many Christians, ethnic Kurds and others.
One Syrian activist, identified only as Mazen, told Human Rights Watch that members of one armed faction, known as the Abu Issa group, had kidnapped pro-government residents in northern Idlib province and tortured three of them to death.
In another incident from the strife-torn Idlib region, a witness identified as Samih described a kidnapping-for-ransom scheme run by another group, the Al-Nur battalion. The witness identified the group as Salafi, a conservative Sunni Muslim current that has in some cases been associated with militancy.
In one especially grisly episode, an Alawite resident of the embattled central city of Homs told Human Rights Watch that armed gangs entered his neighborhood on Jan. 23 and kidnapped his elderly parents from the family home. The gang's leader first demanded money, but the man's parents later turned up dead, their bodies displayed in a YouTube video, the report said.
"Myself, I am a supporter of the government, but this is a sectarian crime, and it has to do with money," the son, identified only as Marwan, told Human Rights Watch. "My father has nothing to do with the government."
Each side has accused the other of committing massacres in Homs, an insurgent stronghold that has seen more casualties than any other region of Syria.
Human Rights Watch said it had reviewed at least 25 videos on YouTube in which Syrian security forces or their alleged supporters confess to crimes "under duress." In at least 18 cases, "these videos show detainees who are bruised, bleeding or show other signs of physical abuse."
The opposition has used social media and videos posted on the Internet to draw worldwide support for its efforts to topple Assad.
Human Rights Watch called on Syrian opposition groups to condemn atrocities by anti-government forces.
"The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at New York-based organization. "Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap, or execute under any circumstances."
In its letter, Human Rights Watch said the protest movement in Syria was "overwhelmingly peaceful" from its beginnings in March 2011 until September 2011, when armed resistance became more prominent in reports from Syria. The Assad government has said "terrorist" elements were part of the uprising from the outset.
More than 8,000 civilians and anti-government combatants have been killed during the yearlong uprising, according to the United Nations. The Syrian government says more than 2,000 security personnel have lost their lives.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Syrian rebels man a checkpoint in the Idlib region on Sunday. Credit: Frederic Lafargue / AFP/Getty Images