Populations at Risk Current Crisis


Populations continue to face the threat of mass atrocity crimes committed by government forces and their allies in Syria's ongoing civil war. Various armed opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are also committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Despite political negotiations in both Geneva and Astana aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, intense fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups continued throughout May and June. Over 180,000 people were displaced by fighting across the country during May alone, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the deaths of at least 980 civilians, including 181 children. On 4 May, during the latest Astana talks, Russia, Iran and Turkey reached an agreement on the creation of "de-escalation zones" in Idlib, Homs, Deraa, and Al-Quneitra provinces and in eastern Ghouta. Despite the nominal creation of de-escalation zones, fighting has intensified in Deraa.

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 465,000 people have been killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of April 2017 there were 5 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 4.53 million people in inaccessible areas, including 624,500 trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Humanitarian access has deteriorated since the start of 2017 as government forces routinely obstruct the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid while attacks against health facilities have also continued.

For five years the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has consistently reported that government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. The most recent CoI report determined that between July and December 2016, Syrian and Russian forces deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure with air strikes. The CoI also labeled the evacuation of civilians from formerly opposition-held eastern Aleppo as "a policy of forced displacement."

During April an agreement was reached between government forces and armed opposition groups regarding the four besieged towns of Foah, Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani. The residents of the towns of Foah and Kefraya were evacuated in return for safe passage of residents from the opposition-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani. Following a series of evacuations from the Al-Waer neighborhood of Homs, the area came under government control on 24 May. On 14 June the Chair of the CoI that in some cases such evacuation deals amount to war crimes.

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. According to the SOHR, ISIL has killed at least 3,700 civilians in Syria since June 2014.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 400,000 civilians are at risk due to ongoing military operations against ISIL's self-proclaimed capital of Ar-Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces launched their offensive on 6 June, with air support from a United States-led international coalition. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged the air forces of states fighting ISIL to take greater care to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians, and on 14 June the Chair of the CoI reported that the intensification of air strikes has resulted in "staggering loss of civilian life." The US-led coalition has admitted to using multipurpose white phosphorus munitions in both Syria and Iraq. White phosphorus can be used as an incendiary weapon that burns structures and people. The air-delivery of incendiary weapons in civilian populated areas is prohibited under IHL.

According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led coalition have killed at least 1,481 civilians since September 2014. 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. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 3,442 ISIL fighters and 5,194 civilians, including 1,275 children, as of 30 May 2017.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-Joint Investigation Mechanism has previously 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 1 May Human Rights Watch reported evidence that Syrian government forces used nerve agents on at least three other occasions during December 2016 and March 2017. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2118 of September 2013.

On 4 April at least 92 people, including 28 children, were killed in a chemical weapons attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. This was the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the August 2013 attack on Eastern Ghouta that killed more than 1,000 people. On 15 May the OPCW fact-finding mission reported that preliminary results indicate victims in Khan Shaykhun were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance.

Following the Khan Shaykhun attack, the United States carried out a unilateral strike on Al Shayrat airfield in Homs governorate. The declared intention was to reduce the Syrian government's ability to deliver chemical weapons and marked the first time the United States has taken direct military action against Syrian government forces. On 19 May the United States military carried out a second strike on a convoy of Syrian government-allied forces after it neared a coalition base and failed to respond to multiple warnings, according to United States military officials. The Syrian government declared these unilateral strikes to be outside of international law.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are providing assistance to some armed opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide essential economic and military support to the Syrian government.

All sides in Syria remain committed to military victory and the lives of countless civilians are imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of illegal weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL), and directly contravene UNSC Resolutions 2286 and 2139. Any local ceasefire agreements reached by the Syrian government and opposition parties that result in the involuntary transfer of civilian populations constitute a violation of IHL.

The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The direct participation of Russian and Iranian forces in attacks on civilian populations areas 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 pose a direct threat to civilians, especially those from minority religious communities.

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 potential 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. The CoI, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these resolutions refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none have been fully implemented. Meanwhile, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six UNSC draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further two resolutions, most recently on 12 April. The resolution would have condemned the Khan Shaykhun attack and obligated the Syrian government to comply with recommendations of the OPCW-JIM.

On 21 December 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. UN Secretary-General António Guterres submitted the IIIM's terms of reference during January.

The UN hosted a sixth round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva from 16-19 March. The Special Envoy announced talks would reconvene in June. On 4-5 April a high-level donor conference took place in Brussels, with 41 donors pledging US$6 billion for 2017 to support humanitarian assistance in Syria and the region.

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 all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. The UNSC must take proximate steps to halt atrocities and end the civil war. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations. The UNSC should demand UN access to monitor any voluntary evacuations and ensure the wellbeing of civilians. The UNSC previously demanded such access for UN monitors to eastern Aleppo via Resolution 2328.

UN member states should fully cooperate with the IIIM established by the General Assembly and facilitate its work through the provision of voluntary funding. The IIIM should be incorporated into the UN's regular budget.

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.

Foreign states participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and ensure their military operations fully comply with their obligations under international law. All potential violations of international law, including possible war crimes, must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators held accountable.

Last Updated: 15 June 2017