BACKGROUND: After more than two and a half years of conflict in Syria at least 110,000 people have been killed. According to the UN, as of 14 November there were over 2.2 million Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries, with over 5 million people internally displaced. A UN investigation team confirmed that on 21 August a large-scale attack of sarin gas, delivered by rockets, hit several areas of Ghouta, Damascus, killing an estimated 1,400 people. The chemical weapons attack ignited an international debate regarding a possible military intervention in Syria.
In the weeks that followed the United States and Russia led diplomatic efforts to mitigate the future risk of chemical weapons use in Syria. On 14 September Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. A joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons team began the process of dismantling and destroying Syria's chemical weapons on 6 October.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government continues its aerial bombardment of opposition strongholds and residential areas, in some cases with cluster munitions. On 29 September at least 16 people, mostly students, were killed in a government air strike that hit a secondary school in the rebel-held city of Raqqa. Recent government ground offensives against opposition-held areas have also threatened civilians trapped by intense fighting. With Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon providing direct military assistance, the government has been able to make significant territorial gains.
Government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres in several towns over the last two years and continue to commit war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as a matter of state policy. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) reported on 11 September that pro-government forces "have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances as crimes against humanity."
Some armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killing. Human Rights Watch reported that during an offensive launched in Latakia on 4 August armed rebels targeted and killed over 190 civilians. In a conflict that the CoI has described as "overtly sectarian in nature," some armed groups have deliberately desecrated Shia and Christian religious sites.
Rebel groups battling for control of towns outside Aleppo have also threatened reprisals against Shia civilians accused of harboring pro-government forces. While Syria's political opposition formed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (National Coalition) during November 2012, it continues to be plagued by divisions. On 25 September eleven Syrian armed groups repudiated the National Coalition. The rising salafist presence amongst the armed opposition has caused friction between rebel groups competing for support and resources, with violent clashes increasing between moderates and extremists.
International actors continue to vie for influence in shaping the outcome of the conflict, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described as a "proxy war, with regional and international players arming one side or the other." Several states have formally recognized the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some rebel groups. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have criticized international efforts to undermine President Bashar al- Assad's government and continue to provide it with critical economic, military and political support.
The conflict poses a growing threat to peace and stability throughout the Middle East. Sectarian violence in Iraq has been exacerbated by the Syrian civil war, while Israel has launched several airstrikes on military targets inside
Syria. Friction between Syria and Turkey also remains high following a number of deadly cross-border incidents.
The conflict has had a particularly severe impact upon Lebanon, which hosts over 814,000 Syrian refugees and remains divided along sectarian lines between supporters and opponents of the Assad government. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting with Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border.
ANALYSIS: Civilians continue to bear the brunt of violence between the government and armed rebels. The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The 21 August chemical weapons attack on civilians came after more than two years of the Syrian government perpetrating ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Despite the government's recent military victories, its forces remain locked in an ongoing civil war with armed rebels inside Syria's major cities. Hezbollah's involvement in the conflict has bolstered the government, but alarm over the shift in the balance of power on the battlefield has influenced several governments to provide military assistance to some rebel groups. With each side in Syria still committed to an outright military victory, the conflict imperils the lives of countless civilians who are directly threatened by the ongoing civil war.
A growing salafist presence and the increasing fracturing of the armed opposition has compounded the difficulty of convening proposed peace talks ("Geneva II") between all parties to the conflict and the international community.
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. Notwithstanding significant bilateral and multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis, the UN Security Council's (UNSC) division over Syria has allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point where few options for a peaceful political solution exist. Despite this, it is imperative that diplomatic efforts continue. An influx of arms will only enable further atrocities and increase civilian deaths.
The government of Syria has not only failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect, it bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: Following the outbreak of violence in March 2011, the international community responded by censuring the regime for its widespread violations of human rights. [For responses prior to August 2013, 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. On 27 September the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2118, enabling the expeditious destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and agreeing that in the event of non-compliance the UNSC would consider Chapter VII measures. On 2 October the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement calling upon the Syrian authorities to facilitate cross-border humanitarian access, urging all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and stressing the need to end impunity for violations of IHL and grave human rights abuses.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted eleven resolutions on Syria, with the most recent passed on 24 September. Several have reminded the Syrian authorities of their responsibility to protect civilians.
On 21 August the UN Secretary-General expressed his shock at reports of the chemical weapons attack in Damascus. High Commissioner Pillay condemned the attack as a "flagrant contravention of international law." The UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect echoed this condemnation in a 23 August statement and reminded the Syrian government of its responsibility to protect its population.
The Geneva II peace conference, led by the United States and Russia, was scheduled to take place in June but has been postponed until 22 January 2014. On 22 October foreign ministers from the "Friends of Syria" core group met with opposition representatives to encourage their participation at Geneva II.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must halt the commission of mass atrocity crimes and adhere to IHL. Both sides must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting.
The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. Those deemed responsible for chemical weapons use and other mass atrocity crimes in Syria should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators, regardless of affiliation, brought to justice. Donor countries should allocate funds for additional UN-sanctioned human rights monitors on the Syrian border in order to collect evidence for prosecutions.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease arming and enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President 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 to find a political solution to the conflict.
Last Updated: 15 November 2013