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On July 18, a teenage boy was brutally beheaded in Aleppo, in plain sight, by Nour al-Din Zenki, an armed opposition group that formerly received military support from the United States. A few hours after this horrific incident, the group released a condemning the beheading and absolving itself of any responsibility for the actions committed by the Zenki fighters. This public condemnation appeared to be the result of direct pressure on the group by numerous activists, civil-society groups, and local media. Although the statement cannot undo the horrific war crime committed by the fighters, it is a clear sign that armed groups can still be pressured by civil society and media to rethink—and in this case even publicly regret—their crimes. However, absent real accountability in Syria, the violence will continue to escalate and only worsen with time.
The international community has an important role to play here. With the understanding that armed opposition groups rely on local and international approval to receive support and to remain in existence, both local and international actors must hold these groups accountable for any human-rights violations. In the midst of the chaos that is now Syria, war criminals may feel that they can act beyond the confines of the law, without accountability. But letting them know not only that they will be prosecuted—if not today, then tomorrow—but also that such actions will deprive them of much-needed material and political support, may prevent the armed groups from committing further atrocities.