Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war in which at least 560,000 people have been killed. As of October there were 5.6 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.6 million internally displaced persons - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13 million Syrians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last remaining major opposition strongholds within Syria. Idlib was designated a "de-escalation zone" in 2017 and of the 3 million civilians living within the governorate, at least 1.5 million are internally displaced. On 17 September 2018 the governments of Turkey and Russia agreed to the establishment of a 15 kilometer-wide "demilitarized zone" within Idlib Governorate. By 10 October opposition fighters had removed all heavy weaponry from the designated area, but did not withdraw their forces from the zone entirely.
On 24 November an alleged chemical weapons attack took place in Aleppo, leaving 100 people with respiratory problems. It is unclear who was responsible, but in response the Syrian and Russian governments carried out airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib governorates for the first time since September. On 1 January hostilities erupted between two major armed groups within the governorate - Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Nour el-Din el-Zinki. During the clashes HTS gained control of a number of towns in western Aleppo and Idlib, and on 6 January the Turkish government deployed its forces along the front lines in northwestern Syria.
Violence has also continued in Deir-Ezzour Governorate, where the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remains active. On 14 December ISIL forces retreated from their last urban stronghold in Syria, the town of Hajin, following sustained clashes with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by United States airstrikes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that an estimated 6,000 civilians remain trapped in ISIL-controlled territory within the governorate. The SOHR reported that at least 196 civilians were killed during the recent clashes.
Since 2012 the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has reported that government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes. The UN Secretary-General's report on "children and armed conflict in Syria" documented the killing of at least 3,891 children and attacks on over 350 schools and 340 hospitals by all parties to the conflict between November 2013 and June 2018.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-Joint Investigative Mechanism has also determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas between 2014 and 2015 while ISIL used sulfur-mustard in attacks during 2015 and 2016. On 15 October the British Broadcasting Corporation published an investigation alleging that at least 106 chemical weapons attacks have taken place in Syria since the government acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide essential military support to the Syrian government. Since September 2015 Russian airstrikes have largely targeted opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, despite the Russian government claiming their operations are only targeting terrorist groups. The CoI reported on 6 March 2018 that some airstrikes by the Russian air force may amount to war crimes. According to the SOHR, Russian airstrikes have killed 5,233 ISIL fighters and over 7,988 civilians, including 1,936 children, as of 30 November 2018.
The SOHR reported that ISIL has killed approximately 5,500 civilians in Syria since June 2014. The SOHR has also reported that airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have killed 3,538 civilians since September 2014, including 768 children.
The government of Syria, its allies and opposition groups have all committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure demonstrate a complete disregard for international law and directly contravene UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 2286 and 2139. Ongoing fighting between opposition groups and a potential military offensive on Idlib could imperil the lives of millions of civilians.
The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of negotiating a political settlement.
The direct participation of Russian and Iranian forces in numerous attacks on civilian-populated areas makes them complicit in alleged war crimes. The United States also has several thousand troops working with armed opposition groups in former ISIL-occupied territories, while the Turkish military is present in the north of the country.
The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions evident amongst the permanent members. Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures.
The government of Syria has not only manifestly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect, it bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of mass atrocity crimes.
Following the outbreak of violence during March 2011, the international community responded by censuring the Syrian government for its widespread violations of human rights. The CoI, UN Secretary-General and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond. Since 2013 the UNSC has passed 24 resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none have been fully implemented. Meanwhile, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions. On 13 December the UNSC adopted Resolution 2449, renewing authorization of the delivery of humanitarian supplies across borders and lines of conflict until 10 January 2020.
On 21 December 2016 the UN General Assembly voted to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. The HRC has adopted 27 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which reiterate the demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population.
On 8 January Geir Pedersen of Norway started in his role as the new UN Special Envoy for Syria.
In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, armed opposition groups and all international parties to the conflict must facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. All parties to the conflict should respect the Idlib "demilitarized zone." The governments of Syria, Turkey and Russia should immediately allow for the establishment of an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights field presence in Idlib.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al Assad must withhold all support from armed groups that commit war crimes and target civilians.
UN member states should fully cooperate with the IIIM and facilitate its work. The IIIM should be incorporated into the UN's regular budget.
Last Updated: 15 January 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Syria has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the January 2012 issue.