Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war in which at least 560,000 people have been killed. There are 5.7 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.2 million people are internally displaced - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. An estimated 13 million Syrians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last remaining major opposition strongholds within Syria. Idlib was designated a "de-escalation zone" in 2017 and of the 3 million civilians living within the governorate, at least 1.5 million are internally displaced. On 17 September 2018 the governments of Turkey and Russia agreed to the establishment of a 15 kilometer-wide "demilitarized zone" within Idlib Governorate. Although opposition fighters removed all heavy weaponry from the designated area by 10 October, they did not entirely withdraw their forces and fighting has escalated across the territory since the start of 2019.
On 1 January hostilities erupted between two major armed groups within Idlib governorate - Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Nour el-Din el-Zinki. During the clashes HTS gained control of a number of towns. In response, on 6 January the Turkish government deployed its forces along the front lines in northwestern Syria and the Syrian government has intensified shelling and aerial bombardment of the territory. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 48 civilians were killed in Idlib between 29 January and 18 February due to government shelling and continued violence by armed opposition groups. The increase in hostilities has renewed concerns of a possible major Syrian government offensive against Idlib governorate.
Violence has also continued in Deir-Ezzour Governorate, where fighting between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by United States airstrikes, and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have continued. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that over 38,000 civilians have been displaced since December, and at the time of publication at least 200 families remain trapped in Baghouz, the last ISIL-held village in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that ISIL has killed approximately 5,500 civilians in Syria since June 2014.
Since 2012 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. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes. The UN Secretary-General's report on "children and armed conflict in Syria" documented the killing of at least 3,891 children and attacks on over 350 schools and 340 hospitals by all parties to the conflict between November 2013 and June 2018.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-Joint Investigative Mechanism has also determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas between 2014-2015 while ISIL used sulfur-mustard in attacks during 2015-2016. On 15 October the British Broadcasting Corporation published an investigation alleging that at least 106 chemical weapons attacks have taken place in Syria since the government acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013. The CoI has publicly reported 37 instances of chemical weapons use between March 2013 and March 2019, including 32 attacks perpetrated by Syrian government forces.
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. According to the SOHR, Russian airstrikes have killed 5,233 ISIL fighters and over 7,990 civilians, including 1,937 children, as of 30 January 2019. The CoI has reported that some Russian airstrikes may amount to war crimes.
The United States has several thousand troops present in formerly ISIL-occupied territories working with the SDF. According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have killed 3,640 civilians since September 2014, including 922 children.
The government of Syria, its allies and opposition groups have all committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of chemical weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for international law.
Ongoing fighting between opposition groups and a potential military offensive on Idlib could imperil the lives of millions of civilians. The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has also compounded the difficulty of negotiating an end to the 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.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with the Syrian government and its partners often directly violating various resolutions. With bitter divisions evident amongst the permanent members of the Council, Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures.
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 24 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 draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions. On 13 December the UNSC adopted Resolution 2449, renewing authorization of the delivery of humanitarian supplies across borders and lines of conflict until 10 January 2020.
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 27 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which reiterate the demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population.
On 8 January Geir Pedersen of Norway began in his role as the new UN Special Envoy for Syria.
On 12 February three former Syrian secret service officers were arrested in Germany and France on allegations of torture and crimes against humanity, marking the first major arrests in Europe of members of the Syrian government under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
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 respect the Idlib "demilitarized zone." The governments of Syria, Turkey and Russia should immediately allow for the establishment of an OHCHR field presence in Idlib.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al Assad must also 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. States should continue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Last Updated: 15 March 2019
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.