Despite the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey on 30 December resulting in a marked decrease in civilian casualties, Syrian government forces have conducted a strategic offensives against specific opposition-held areas across the country, most notably in the Barada Valley, near Damascus. Following sustained aerial bombardment the formerly opposition-held region, which is crucial to the water supply of up to 5.5 million people, was captured by government forces on 28 January.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 400,000 people have been killed. According to OCHA, as of January 2017 there were over 4.9 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.9 million in inaccessible areas. According to OCHA, 643,780 people continue to be trapped in 13 besieged locations across the country. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that at least 35,000 civilians and fighters from Eastern Aleppo were evacuated to Idlib. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has highlighted that civilians who have crossed into government-controlled territory have reported reprisals against those who are perceived to have supported opposition groups, as well as reports that hundreds of men were detained and are now missing.
The government has routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. Despite the ceasefire, humanitarian access has not improved in January 2017. Attacks against health facilities have also continued despite the 3 May adoption of UNSC Resolution 2286 on the protection of medical facilities in armed conflict, including reported air strikes on Syrian Arab Red Crescent offices in Idlib city on 1 February and on a distribution centre in Aleppo on 9 February.
For almost five years the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has consistently reported that government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Government airstrikes in residential areas contravene UNSC Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The CoI has reported that government-allied militias and other pro-government forces have also conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including "extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts."
Numerous armed opposition groups have committed war crimes, violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and targeted religious minorities for attack. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity, including mass killings and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. An ISIL offensive on Deir-ez-Zor that started on 15 January has drastically affected the humanitarian situation within the besieged enclave. Additionally, an estimated 1.8 million people in Aleppo city and rural eastern Aleppo have been deliberately cut off from their main source of water, which is under ISIL control. OCHA has received unconfirmed reports that 40 bodies of civilians under 15 years old were discovered in the areas where clashes between ISIL and government forces have taken place.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) has found evidence of Syrian government forces and ISIL using chemical weapons. The JIM has determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas in three separate incidents between 2014 and 2015 and that ISIL was responsible for a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack. On 13 February Human Rights Watch reported that between 17 November and 13 December 2016 Syrian government forces used chlorine as a weapon on at least eight occasions during its offensive to retake Aleppo. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UNSC Resolution 2118 of September 2013.
An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that coalition airstrikes have killed 6,455 people, including 700 civilians, between September 2014 and November 2016. Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria during September 2015, claiming it would help defeat ISIL. However, most airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, including in Aleppo. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 3,094 ISIL fighters and 4,751 civilians, including over 1,160 children, as of 30 January 2017.
On 21 December the UN Board of Inquiry released its findings on a 19 September attack on a UN humanitarian aid convoy in the opposition-held town of Urum al-Kubra. It concluded that warplanes had bombed the convoy, but it did not identify which country was responsible. However, the Board noted that the American-led coalition was highly unlikely to have conducted the attack, leaving only Syrian and/or Russian forces capable of carrying it out.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some armed opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide crucial economic, military and political support to the Syrian government.
Widespread ceasefire violations demonstrate that all sides in Syria remain committed to military victory and that the lives of countless civilians are still imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL). A lasting ceasefire is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving the stalled peace talks.
The government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. Combined Syrian and Russian airstrikes have enabled government forces to regain significant territory previously lost to opposition groups. The direct participation of Russian aircraft in the bombardment of Eastern Aleppo and elsewhere makes them complicit in alleged war crimes.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL and several other armed groups continue to 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. The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. Despite the current political impasse, Russia, United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain essential to any negotiated settlement of the conflict.
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. Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict. Since 2011 China and Russia have vetoed five resolutions on Syria, most recently on 5 December. Russia also independently vetoed another Syria resolution on 8 October. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed several resolutions on humanitarian access, the political process and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these resolutions refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none of them have been fully implemented.
The CoI, former UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 20 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 20 October, called for the CoI to conduct a special inquiry into events in Aleppo.
On 21 December the UN General Assembly voted to establish an impartial, independent, international investigative mechanism to collect and consolidate evidence of atrocities in Syria. The Secretary General submitted the terms of reference for the mechanisms during January and intends to operationalize the mechanism, which is located in Geneva, as soon as possible.
The UNSC passed a resolution on 31 December welcoming efforts by Russia and Turkey to establish a ceasefire in Syria. On 24 and 25 January Russia, Turkey and Iran coordinated negotiations between government and opposition forces in Astana, Kazakhstan. Following the talks they announced their intention to create a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire. The UN intends to host another round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva on 20 February.
Russia and Turkey need to press their respective Syrian allies to uphold the ceasefire and engage in meaningful negotiations over how to end the civil war. The UNSC must take meaningful action to end the use of indiscriminate and illegal weapons and hold all perpetrators accountable. The Secretary-General should present the full report by the Board of Inquiry into the September 2016 attack on a humanitarian convoy to the UNSC, and Council members should immediately take action based on the findings. UNSC members must also support efforts to hold accountable all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, as outlined in the reports by the OPCW JIM.
UN member states must cooperate fully with the impartial, independent, international investigative mechanism established by the General Assembly and facilitate its work through the provision of voluntary funding. Member states should also provide available technical assistance and any specific expertise they might possess.
In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, their international allies, and armed opposition groups must facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations.
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 who commit war crimes and target civilians. All foreign states participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Last Updated: 15 February 2017