BACKGROUND: Nearly five years of conflict in Syria has resulted in over 250,000 people killed. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that as of 17 December there were nearly 4.4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, with at least 6.6 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 27 October that over 13.5 million Syrians are in need of "some form of protection and humanitarian assistance" – an increase of 1.2 million people in ten months. All parties to the conflict have impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians, with 4.5 million Syrians in inaccessible areas, an estimated 393,000 of whom are living under siege.
The conflict has been increasingly influenced by the intervention of foreign powers. On 30 September Russia commenced major airstrikes in Syria, claiming it would target the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an extremist armed group operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. However, it has been reported that most airstrikes have been on non-ISIL positions held by opposition forces, including civilian-populated urban areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on 20 November that Russian airstrikes had killed 403 civilians, including 97 children. In a 23 December report, Amnesty International said that Russian air strikes on residential areas have killed at least 200 civilians and may amount to war crimes.
In its tenth report, the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) said that Syrians of all backgrounds "have been the subject of crimes against humanity and war crimes" that are "massive in extent and scope." The UN Secretary-General has called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC.
The government continues to conduct airstrikes in residential areas, contravening UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported on 10 January that 17,318 barrel bombs were dropped in Syria during 2015, killing 2,032 people.
The government also continues to obstruct the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening UNSC Resolutions 2165 and 2191. On 11 January an aid convoy was finally granted access to Madaya, near the Lebanese border, after a six-month blockade by pro-government forces. Madaya's 42,000 residents represent 11 percent of Syria's besieged population. On 14 January the UN Secretary-General described the use of starvation as a weapon as a "war crime." The Secretary-General said all sides are committing this and other "atrocious acts" prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL).
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. 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 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.
ISIL 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 December 2015 ISIL executed 3,700 people, including 2,000 civilians.
An international coalition of nine states is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 3,547 ISIL fighters and 250 civilians were killed during coalition military operations between September 2014 and November 2015.
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, Iran continues 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. Lebanon, which hosts over 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 peace negotiations.
On 30 October the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries – met in Vienna, Austria, to discuss the conflict. The group released a joint statement emphasizing the importance of accelerating diplomatic efforts and ensuring humanitarian access throughout the country. During a second meeting on 14 November, the ISSG agreed on "the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices."
On 9 December, following a local ceasefire agreement, the UN evacuated over 300 rebel fighters and their families – about 700 people – from the last rebel-held neighborhood of Homs. On 26 December de Mistura announced 25 January 2016 as the target date to begin possible peace talks.
ANALYSIS: With all sides in Syria committed to an outright military victory, the lives of countless civilians are imperiled by the ongoing civil war.
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, Hezbollah and Russia to fight the civil war. The Syrian government directs the war against 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, which will not be invited to the peace talks, and several other armed groups continue to 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 currently 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 August 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
Since March 2011 the UNSC has consistently failed to adequately respond to the deteriorating conflict in Syria. Four draft resolutions have been vetoed by Russia and China. During 2014 the UNSC passed Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191 on ending the use of indiscriminate weapons and increasing humanitarian access, but these have not been fully implemented.
On 7 August 2015, in response to continued allegations of chemical weapons use, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2235, establishing an OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism "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 18 December 2015, following the third meeting of the ISSG, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, endorsing a road map for a peace process, including a nationwide ceasefire. On 22 December 2015 the UNSC passed Resolution 2258, demanding that all parties comply with their obligations under IHL and renewing for 12 months the decisions of Resolution 2165, authorizing cross-border humanitarian access. Resolutions 2254 and 2258 both reiterate the primary responsibility of the Syrian government to protect populations.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 16 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 30 September, demanded that all parties take all appropriate steps to protect civilians and stressed that the primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population lies with the Syrian authorities.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2258. The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a potential political solution to the conflict while increasing assistance to populations already 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 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. All foreign states participating in airstrikes in Syria must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Last Updated: 20 January 2016