Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war where over 500,000 people have been killed. As of September there were over 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 13.1 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Despite UN-led political negotiations aimed at ending the civil war, as well as separate talks between the governments of Turkey, Russia and Iran, fighting between Syrian government forces, their allies and armed opposition groups has continued, most notably in Idlib governorate and in the southwest governorates of Quneitrah, As-Suweida and Dera'a.
Although Dera'a was formally designated a "de-escalation zone" during 2017, on 22 June Syrian government forces launched an offensive in the southwest, shelling opposition-held territory for the first time in nearly a year and successfully taking control of the region. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 10,000 people were evacuated to Idlib governorate.
Hostilities have also escalated in Idlib, another so-called "de-escalation zone," in what appears to be the start of a government offensive to retake the governorate. Between 10-12 August alone at least 116 civilians were killed due to airstrikes, shelling and the explosion of a weapons and ammunition depot in a residential building. At least 1.5 million of the 3 million people within the governorate are internally displaced and the recent escalation of hostilities has led to the displacement of 36,000 people as of 13 September.
For over six years 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. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) has also determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas between 2014 and 2015. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, and the OPCW-JIM has found evidence of ISIL using sulfur-mustard in attacks during 2015 and 2016.
Although the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) no longer controls any cities within Syria, it continues to pose a threat to civilians, and its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity in remote areas still under their control. ISIL has also increased its terrorist attacks across the country, including coordinated suicide bombings in As-Suweida city on 25 July that killed 245 people. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), ISIL has killed over 5,000 civilians in Syria since June 2014.
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 that some airstrikes by the Russian air force may amount to war crimes.
The SOHR has reported that Russian airstrikes have killed 5,225 ISIL fighters and over 7,965 civilians, including 1,885 children, as of 31 August. According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have also killed 3,100 civilians since September 2014, including 735 children.
The government of Syria, its allies and opposition groups have 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. As a final military offensive on Idlib becomes increasingly likely, the lives of millions of civilians remain imperiled by the ongoing civil war.
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 numerous attacks on civilian-populated areas makes them complicit in alleged war crimes.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to provide crucial assistance to some armed opposition groups. The United States also has several thousand troops working with armed opposition groups in former ISIL-occupied territories. However, the fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement.
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. 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, 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 23 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 UNSC draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions.
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 26 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which reiterate the demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population.
On 6 September the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide expressed grave concern regarding the potential impact of a military offensive on Idlib governorate.
On 7 September the Astana guarantors – Russia, Turkey and Iran - held a summit in Tehran to discuss the situation in Idlib. They failed to reach an agreement on a proposed ceasefire.
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 immediately allow for the establishment of a field presence in Idlib governorate by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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 September 2018
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.