BACKGROUND: After more than four years of conflict in Syria over 240,000 people have been killed. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that as of 6 September there were over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, with at least 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 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." On 17 March the CoI reiterated the need for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer the Syria situation to the ICC. All parties to the conflict have impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians, with an estimated 422,000 Syrians living under siege.
The government continues to conduct airstrikes in densely populated residential areas, contravening UNSC Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria reported to the UNSC on 26 June that 3,831 people had been killed by barrel bombs since Resolution 2139 was passed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on 25 August that Syrian government airstrikes on several areas near Damascus killed 247 people during the previous ten days. The government also continues to obstruct the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening UNSC Resolutions 2165 and 2191.
On 7 May the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) informed the UNSC that its inspectors had found traces of sarin and ricin at three military locations, despite the government's agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile following an August 2013 sarin attack on areas of Ghouta, Damascus, that killed an estimated 1,400 people. In addition, an OPCW Fact-Finding Mission created in April 2014 has presented three reports establishing that chlorine continues to be used as a chemical weapon in Syria. The mission's mandate, however, prevented it from attributing responsibility to any party.
Syrian government forces and 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."
Several armed opposition groups have also committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. On 16 June a rebel bombardment of Aleppo killed 34 people, including 12 children, according to the SOHR. OCHA also reported that indiscriminate attacks on government-controlled areas of Aleppo killed at least 116 people during April and May, nearly half of whom were women and children.
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 fighters have carried out mass executions and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. The CoI has reported that ISIL has committed crimes against humanity. According to the SOHR, between June 2014 and August 2015 ISIL executed 3,156 people, including 1,841 civilians. Between January and July this year ISIL also recruited an estimated 1,100 children as combatants.
On 20 May ISIL began an assault on the historic city of Palmyra, overrunning government forces and causing an estimated 11,000 people to flee. By 25 May ISIL had reportedly summarily executed more than 217 soldiers and residents. On 23 and 30 August ISIL demolished two of Palmyra's ancient structures, including the Temple of Bel, which the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called "one of the most important 1st century CE religious monuments in the Middle East." UNESCO declared these acts to be war crimes.
Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and United States are currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 1,920 ISIL fighters and 66 civilians were killed during the coalition's military operations between September 2014 and April. Following a 20 July suicide attack that killed at least 30 people in Suruc, Turkey, on 24 July the Turkish government launched attacks on ISIL targets in Syria for the first time.
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 crucial economic, military and political support to the Syrian government. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting against Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border and is now essential to the government's military survival. Lebanon, which hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, has also seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government.
On 5 May the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, began bilateral meetings in Geneva with the Syrian government, several opposition groups and regional powers to assess whether there is potential for a new round of diplomatic negotiations. On 29 July he outlined a plan to invite all warring parties to participate in working groups that address key aspects of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué.
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 crimes against humanity and war crimes. Under increasing military strain, the government has suffered serious territorial losses, and increasingly relies upon Iran and Hezbollah to fight the civil war. The Syrian government continues to wage war on armed rebels and populations presumed to be supporting them, regardless of the consequences to civilians trapped or displaced by the fighting.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has 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. Despite adopting several resolutions concerning humanitarian access and chemical weapons, the UNSC has been unable to enforce their compliance, while 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.
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 May 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
Since March 2011 the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Syria, with four draft resolutions vetoed by Russia and China. On 7 August, in response to continued allegations of chemical weapons use, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2235, establishing an OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) "to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons" in Syria. On 27 August the UN Secretary-General submitted to the UNSC the Terms of Reference on the JIM, which were approved by the UNSC President on 10 September.
On 17 August the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement expressing support for the efforts of de Mistura to work towards implementation of the Geneva Communiqué. The UNSC demanded an end to attacks on civilians and reaffirmed the primary responsibility of the Syrian authorities to protect its population. In a 28 August Press Statement the UNSC condemned the use of sexual violence in Syria and Iraq, recalling that such acts constitute war crimes.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 15 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, passed on 29 June, emphasized the need for accountability for ongoing crimes, noting an important potential role for the ICC.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139 and 2165. The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a potential political solution to the conflict and increasing humanitarian assistance to populations affected by the civil war.
The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the ICC. In keeping with Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2235, the UNSC must take expeditious action to end the use of chemical weapons and other indiscriminate and illegal weapons in Syria and hold all perpetrators accountable, regardless of position or affiliation.
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 support to armed groups who commit war crimes or target minority communities for reprisals.
States participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
In keeping with the UN Convention on Refugees, the international community should provide assistance to Syrian asylum seekers.
Last Updated:15 September 2015