BACKGROUND: After more than four years of conflict in Syria over 220,000 people have been killed. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 14 April there were over 3.9 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 28 January that 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.
On 28 January the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, said that the government has "ignored" UNSC Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014 as it continues to conduct airstrikes, including with barrel bombs, in densely populated residential areas.
A UN investigation confirmed that on 21 August 2013 a large-scale sarin attack on several areas of Ghouta, Damascus, killed an estimated 1,400 people. A joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission undertook the process of dismantling and destroying Syria's chemical weapons between October 2013 and June 2014. Despite this, an OPCW fact-finding mission, dispatched in April 2014, concluded that chlorine gas had been used in attacks on villages in Hama province between April and August. On 7 May the OPCW informed the UNSC that inspectors had also found traces of sarin and ricin at three military locations in Syria, despite the government's agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.
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.
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. On 28 April the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that ISIL had killed at least 1,362 civilians in Syria since June 2014. The SOHR also reported that ISIL has recruited approximately 400 children since January 2015. On 23 February ISIL abducted at least 150 Assyrian Christians from several villages in Al-Hassakah province.
On 1 April ISIL began an assault on Yarmouk, a large Palestinian refugee district in Damascus, where an estimated 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children, had been trapped by intense fighting and besieged by government forces. Despite assurances that it would not attack Yarmouk while civilians remained there, the Syrian government continued its bombardment, which the UN Secretary-General condemned on 27 April.
All parties to the Syrian conflict, especially government forces, have laid sieges and impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians. On 26 March OCHA reported that the 228,000 people besieged by ISIL in neighborhoods of Deir ez-Zor brings the total number of Syrians living under siege to an estimated 440,000.
Since 23 September Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and United States have conducted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. On 24 March Canada joined this military coalition. The SOHR reported on 23 April that at least 1,920 ISIL fighters and 66 civilians had been killed during the coalition's military operations.
The Syrian conflict also poses a threat to peace and stability throughout the entire Middle East. Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, has seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government.
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, which have made significant military and territorial gains during the last several months, including capturing the major northern city of Idlib and parts of Daraa in southern Syria.
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 surival.
On 5 May the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Steffan 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. The "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the violence in Syria, finished on 15 February 2014 without any tangible political progress.
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 has 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 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 civilian populations presumed to be supporting them, regardless of the consequences to those trapped or displaced by the fighting. The government also continues to use improvised chemical weapons in direct contravention of two UNSC resolutions and the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria acceded in September 2013.
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. 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 March 2015, 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 22 May 2014 Russia and China vetoed a fourth resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC for investigation. However, since September 2013 the UNSC has also passed Resolution 2118, regarding the destruction of chemical weapons, and Resolutions 2139 and 2165, demanding increased humanitarian access. Resolutions 2139 and 2165 also reaffirmed the need for the government to uphold its primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population.
On 6 March the UNSC passed Resolution 2209, condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria and recalling the decision in Resolution 2118 to impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the event of future non-compliance.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 14 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The most recent, passed on 27 March, condemned the killing of civilians and extended the mandate of the CoI for one year.
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 UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the ICC. Those deemed responsible for mass atrocity crimes in Syria should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators, regardless of affiliation, brought to justice.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease arming and enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad should deny 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.
The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a potential political solution to the conflict and increasing humanitarian assistance to populations trapped or displaced by the civil war.
Last Updated:15 May 2015