This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
United Nations human rights investigators Monday laid out a grim picture of a rapidly deteriorating Syria, saying atrocities were growing more frequent and numerous as the bloody conflict continued to rage, with foreign "jihadist militants" increasingly joining the fray.
An independent commission laid out its continuing concerns to the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, one month after issuing a report accusing Syrian government forces and rebels of abuses that amounted to war crimes. Commission Chairman Paulo Pinheiro said "gross violations of human rights" had only escalated.
Investigators also confirmed "the increasing presence of foreign elements, including jihadist militants, in Syria," a U.N. summary of the meeting noted. News of foreign fighters joining in the long-running conflict has complicated the situation in the country and alarmed outside observers.
Pinheiro was unable to explain where the foreigners were coming from, the Associated Press reported, but warned that "such elements tend to push anti-government fighters toward more radical positions."
The Syrian government has barred investigators from entering the country, hindering them from reaching victims of the conflict, Pinheiro said. No government agents could be interviewed. Instead, investigators have used Skype, phone interviews and meetings outside the country to probe the conflict.
Syrian officials objected to the findings, saying they weren't accurate or objective, and argued that the government had cooperated with efforts to resolve the crisis but was stymied by armed "terrorist groups." The government often refers to the rebels as terrorists.
While concerns grow about outside fighters helping opposition forces, an Iranian commander said this past weekend that members of that country's Revolutionary Guard Corps were training and consulting Syrian troops, though he denied transferring any weapons. The statement Sunday by Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari was the first public admission that Iran is assisting the Syrian government in the conflict.
[Updated 12:50 p.m. Sept. 17: Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the Iranian television station Al Alam on Monday that Jafari had been incorrectly cited, saying, "Iran does not have any military presence in the region, especially in Syria."]In their August report, the U.N. investigators said Syrian government forces were committing atrocities on a greater scale and frequency than the rebels, a finding shared by other human rights groups. Syrian government forces have upped their attacks on population centers, harming women and children, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday. "The bombing and shelling is relentless,” Amnesty International senior crisis advisor Donatella Rovera wrote in the Telegraph, describing her travel to the Idlib and northern Hama regions. "During the 11 days I've been in the area not a single day passed without shelling and I did not find a single town or village which had not been hit.
"Having been forced out of the area, government forces are now bombing from the air and shelling from afar, knowing that the victims of such indiscriminate attacks are almost always civilians," she added.
However, as talk turns to what might replace the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad, human rights abuses by opposition fighters have sparked particular concern abroad. Human Rights Watch said Monday that three opposition leaders, confronted with evidence of extrajudicial executions, had insisted that "those who killed deserved to be killed."
"Time and again Syria's opposition has told us that it is fighting against the government because of its abhorrent human rights violations," Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said Monday. "Now is the time for the opposition to show us that they really mean what they say."
The U.N. commission also lamented the soaring numbers of Syrian refugees and others in need. Aid is now needed for 2.5 million people, according to the U.N. humanitarian agency. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have been registered in neighboring countries as refugees since the conflict began about a year and a half ago; an estimated 1.2 million more are displaced inside the country.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Council's independent commission of inquiry on Syria, and commission member Karen Koning abu Zayd arrive Monday for a council session at the European headquarters of the U.N. in Geneva. Credit: Laurent Gillieron / Keystone / Associated Press