Even by the standards of Syria's ever-worsening stream of atrocity and massacre videos, the latest footage from the country cannot fail to shock for its sheer savagery. The video, posted on May 12 but filmed on March 26 near the Syrian town of Qusayr, on the border with Lebanon, opens by calmly filming a rebel commander cutting open the chest of what we assume is a deceased pro-Bashar al-Assad fighter, removing his heart and liver with surgical precision and sang-froid.
The cameraman jokes with the commander, telling him, "God Bless you Abu Sakkar, it looks like you are drawing a love heart [on his chest]!" The commander, the man called Abu Sakkar, then picks up the bloody liver and heart and speaks directly into the camera, delivering a chilling threat:
"I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!"
As men in the background shout Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!), Abu Sakkar ends the video by putting the dead man's heart in his mouth and ripping off a chunk of the bleeding organ. Mutilation and cannibalism, punctured by deeply sectarian language, point to the horrifying sectarian violence that is starting to engulf parts of Syria.
Journalists contacted by Human Rights Watch -- as well as the commander's own brother, in a meeting with Time magazine journalists -- have confirmed that the man in the video is indeed Abu Sakkar, a well-known rebel commander. Journalists who have met him report that he was one of the founders of the Farouk brigade, one of Syria's largest and most storied mainstream rebel militias, founded in the city of Homs in 2011.
Abu Sakkar and his fellow fighters hail from the Baba Amr district of Homs, which came under one of the most brutal and intensive sieges mounted by the Syrian army during the two-year-long conflict. During the siege, which lasted from February to May of 2012, forces loyal to Assad pounded the district into rubble and decimated the ranks of local rebel fighters, as well as the civilian population trapped in the fighting. Journalists who met Abu Sakkar have described his militancy and fondness for guns.
Last October, Abu Sakkar broke off from the mainstream Farouk brigade, and formed his own, more militant "independent" Omar al-Farouk brigade. Since then, he has placed himself at the forefront of an increasingly sectarian battle for control of the town of Qusayr, subjected to a massive Syrian government offensive reportedly backed by Hezbollah. The battle of Qusayr, strategically located near the Lebanese border and in a particularly diverse region of the country, is drawing Syria and the region into an even more dangerously sectarian direction.
Controlling Qusayr is of crucial importance to both the armed opposition and to Assad's government. For the rebels, Qusayr is an important transit point for weapons and fighters headed toward Damascus. For Assad's government, the disruption of this weapons pipeline -- and the encirclement of the rebel forces besieging Damascus -- is currently one of its most important military objectives. A government victory in Qusayr may give Assad's forces an edge, strengthening its safe corridor to the coast and to the Alawite heartland that forms the core of its support base.
The battle for Qusayr has also drawn in Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon, some of whom have been killed in fighting around the town and in Shiite villages in the area. Their role was acknowledged in a recent speech by Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and is highlighted by the increasingly common "martyr" funerals for Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria. Sunni Salafi preachers in Lebanon have responded by calling on their followers to go fight in Qusayr to help their "Sunni brothers."
The conflict's increasingly sectarian dynamic has not been limited to the province of Homs. On May 2, rebels in southern Damascus offered their own response to Nasrallah's speech: They dug up the grave of one of the most revered Shiite figures, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed and early follower of his cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali, known as Hujr ibn Adi. Those who claimed to have carried out the desecration said they did it in the name of Islam and that they wanted to stop Shiites from worshiping Adi's bones, a practice considered heterodox among hardline Sunnis.
On the same day as the desecration of the tomb, terrible images of dead and burned bodies, including those of children, emerged from the towns of Bayda and Baniyas in the coastal Alawite hinterland. There, local Sunni residents have accused pro-government fighters of carrying out retributive killings and executions in areas that supported the opposition.