BACKGROUND: After more than four years of conflict in Syria over 220,000 people have been killed. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 26 March there are over 3.9 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 28 January that the crisis has left 12.2 million Syrians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 4.8 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas. On 20 February the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) said the Syrian government has "manifestly failed to protect its citizens from mass atrocities," with war crimes and crimes against humanity being "committed on a massive scale." Addressing the Human Rights Council on 17 March, the CoI reiterated the need for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer the Syria situation to the ICC.
On 28 January the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, said that the government has "ignored" UNSC Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014 as it continues to conduct airstrikes, including with indiscriminate barrel bombs, in densely populated residential areas. She noted that between 21 and 26 January government airstrikes around Damascus reportedly killed nearly 100 people.
Syrian forces and some government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres and perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as a matter of state policy. The CoI has reported that pro-government forces have conducted "widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances as crimes against humanity."
The armed opposition in Syria has become increasingly fractured, with various armed groups competing for support and resources. Several armed opposition groups have committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), an extremist armed group operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, poses a direct threat to civilians as its forces have carried out mass executions and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. The CoI has reported that ISIL has committed crimes against humanity. On 28 December the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that ISIL killed 1,878 people in Syria during the previous six months, most of whom were civilians. The SOHR also reported on 25 March that ISIL had recruited at least 400 children since January 2015, a crime under international law. On 23 February ISIL abducted at least 150 Assyrian Christians from several villages in Al-Hassakah province.
On 1 April ISIL began an assault on Yarmouk, a large Palestinian refugee district of Damascus, where an estimated 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children, have been trapped by intense fighting. On 6 April, after ISIL's capture of the Yarmouk, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) warned that the situation is "more desperate than ever" and is disrupting the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the besieged civilians there. On 9 April the UN Secretary-General said that Yarmouk was "beginning to resemble a death camp" and called it "the deepest circle of hell."
Since 23 September Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and United States have conducted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported on 23 February that at least 1,465 ISIL fighters and 62 civilians have been killed by the military operations. On 24 March Canada announced it would expand its military mission against ISIL in Iraq and join the coalition in Syria.
OCHA has reported that all parties to the Syrian conflict, especially government forces, have laid sieges and impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians. Assistant Secretary-General Kang reported that during January only 304 of the 212,000 people living under siege were able to be reached with food assistance. On 17 February the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Steffan de Mistura, briefed the UNSC on a proposed plan to implement a local conflict "freeze" in Aleppo. A six-week freeze in fighting to allow for unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid was agreed to by the Syrian government, but so far no opposition groups have committed.
The conflict also poses a threat to peace and stability throughout the entire Middle East. Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, has seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting against Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border and has vowed to remain militarily active inside Syria.
International actors continue to vie for influence in shaping the outcome of the conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some rebel groups. Meanwhile Russia and Iran continue to provide the Syrian government with crucial economic, military and political support.
International diplomatic negotiations have stalled. The "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the violence in Syria, finished on 15 February 2014 with no tangible political progress.
ANALYSIS With all sides in Syria committed to an outright military victory, the lives of countless civilians are imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Nearly half of Syria's population has either been displaced or fled to neighboring countries.
The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes. With superior capabilities and external assistance, the Syrian government continues to wage war on its armed opponents and civilian populations presumed to be supporting them, regardless of the consequences to those trapped or displaced by the fighting.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has strengthened the position of the government and compounded the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL and several other armed extremist groups pose a direct threat to civilians, especially those from minority religious communities.
External political influence upon the Syrian government via the UN and regional actors remains weak. Sanctions have had limited success as Syria's few remaining allies continue to provide crucial economic insulation. Long-standing divisions within the UNSC over Syria have allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point where few options for a peaceful political solution exist. Nevertheless, more than a year since Geneva II ended, it remains imperative that diplomatic efforts be reinvigorated.
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.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: Following the outbreak of violence during March 2011, the international community responded by censuring the regime for its widespread violations of human rights. [For responses prior to August 2014, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
Between October 2011 and July 2012 Russia and China vetoed three UNSC resolutions aimed at holding the Syrian government accountable for mass atrocity crimes. However, since September 2013 the UNSC has also passed Resolution 2118, regarding the destruction of chemical weapons, and Resolutions 2139 and 2165, demanding increased humanitarian access. Resolutions 2139 and 2165 also reaffirmed the need for the government to uphold its primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population. On 22 May 2014 Russia and China vetoed a fourth resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC for investigation.
On 15 August the UNSC adopted Resolution 2170, which condemned "gross, systematic and widespread abuses" of human rights by ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating in Syria and Iraq, placing six individuals on its sanctions list.
On 18 December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning widespread and systematic violations of human rights and IHL by the Syrian authorities and various armed groups, including ISIL. The resolution urged all parties to take appropriate steps to protect civilians, including members of minority ethnic and religious communities.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 14 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The most recent, passed on 27 March, condemned the indiscriminate killing or deliberate targeting of civilians, and extended the mandate of the CoI for one year.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must halt the commission of mass atrocity crimes and adhere to IHL. All sides must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139 and 2165.
The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the ICC. Those deemed responsible for mass atrocity crimes in Syria should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators, regardless of affiliation, brought to justice.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease arming and enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad should deny support to armed groups who commit war crimes or target Alawites and other minorities for reprisals.
The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a political solution to the conflict and increasing humanitarian assistance to populations trapped or displaced by the civil war. States participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Last Updated:15 April 2015