The sword rests briefly on his neck as a blindfolded man kneels under a clear blue sky.
Moments later, the executioner raises his right arm, slashes downwards and the prisoner is dead.
The whole barbaric episode is watched by a crowd of jeering men, many of them armed.
And sitting on a low wall only a few feet from where the wretched captive died so violently is a line of young boys.
They were still there as the dead man’s head was dumped on his body. Another child, even younger, was led by the hand past the corpse.
The public execution was the last of four that took place on August 31 in the town of Keferghan in the north of the country.
The picture forms part of a set taken by a photojournalist – whose identity has not been revealed in order to protect him – who was given unprecedented access to the gruesome proceedings.
Among the other photos are an executioner lining up his sword before delivering the final blow as his victim kneels in the village square – and a victim’s head being held aloft by a jubilant fighter.
Although it is difficult to confirm the political affiliation of those involved, an eyewitness told Time that the executioners belonged to ISIS – an Al-Qaeda faction opposed to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The captives, meanwhile, are understood to belong to the fearsome Shabiha (‘ghosts’) – thugs loyal to Assad who are said to roam the country massacring women and children.
Below is an edited account of the photographer’s harrowing experience:
‘The man was brought in to the square. His eyes were blindfolded. I began shooting pictures, one after the other. It was to be the fourth execution that day I would photograph. I was feeling awful; several times I had been on the verge of throwing up.
But I kept it under control because as a journalist I knew I had to document this, as I had the three previous beheadings I had photographed that day, in three other locations outside Aleppo.
The crowd began cheering. Everyone was happy. I knew that if I tried to intervene I would be taken away, and that the executions would go ahead. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to change what was happening and I might put myself in danger.
I saw a scene of utter cruelty: a human being treated in a way that no human being should ever be treated. But it seems to me that in two and a half years, the war has degraded people’s humanity. On this day the people at the execution had no control over their feelings, their desires, their anger. It was impossible to stop them.
I don’t know how old the victim was but he was young. He was forced to his knees. The rebels around him read out his crimes from a sheet of paper. They stood around him. The young man was on his knees on the ground, his hands tied. He seemed frozen.
Two rebels whispered something into his ear and the young man replied in an innocent and sad manner, but I couldn’t understand what he said because I don’t speak Arabic.
At the moment of execution the rebels grasped his throat. The young man put up a struggle. Three or four rebels pinned him down. The man tried to protect his throat with his hands, which were still tied together.
He tried to resist but they were stronger than he was and they cut his throat. They raised his head into the air. People waved their guns and cheered. Everyone was happy that the execution had gone ahead.
That scene in Syria, that moment, was like a scene from the Middle Ages, the kind of thing you read about in history books. The war in Syria has reached the point where a person can be mercilessly killed in front of hundreds of people who enjoy the spectacle.
As a human being I would never have wished to see what I saw. But as a journalist I have a camera and a responsibility. I have a responsibility to share what I saw that day. That’s why I am making this statement and that’s why I took the photographs. I will close this chapter soon and try never to remember it.’
The dreadful pictures emerged as the organisation Human Rights Watch released a video and report into brutal summary executions carried out by the other side – Syrian government forces.
They massacred at least 248 innocent people in the towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas in May this year, the report said.
The executions – which included at least 37 women and children – came after military clashes had ended and opposition fighters had retreated.
People were rounded up and shot at close range in an apparent attempt to ‘teach a lesson’ to the townsfolk not to side with the rebels.
The United States and Russia undertook a second day of talks in Geneva yesterday to try and achieve a diplomatic solution to the brutal conflict and get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons.
Read more: Daily Mail