Violence in Syria has increased following the Syrian government's renewed offensive to retake opposition-held east Aleppo on 22 September. The assault on Aleppo follows the collapse of a cessation of hostilities negotiated by Russia and the United States, one week after it came into effect on 9 September. As of 10 October, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported 517 civilians have been killed since the start of the offensive. Both Russian and Syrian government aircraft have conducted sustained and indiscriminate airstrikes on east Aleppo, including with illegal barrel bombs, cluster munitions and the first documented use of "bunker-buster" bombs in Syria. On 29 September the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that east Aleppo was officially besieged, raising the total number of people in Syria living under siege to 861,200.
This recent escalation follows the collapse of a previous cessation of hostilities brokered by the United States and Russia, which came into effect on 27 February. Indirect talks between the Syrian government and opposition factions, mediated by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, were suspended on 18 April amidst an earlier offensive on east Aleppo which continued throughout July and August. There were credible reports of a deadly chlorine gas attack on the rebel-held area of Zubdiya on 10 August, and another on 6 September on the Al-Sukari neighborhood of east Aleppo. The latest alleged attack occurred after the Leadership Panel of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) issued a report on 24 August attributing responsibility for two chlorine gas attacks during 2014 and 2015 to the Syrian Airforce and a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UNSC Resolution 2118.
Attacks against health facilities also continue. Hospitals have been repeatedly targeted in air strikes, and only one hospital within east Aleppo remains fully functional. Ninety-five percent of medical personnel who were in the opposition-held part of the city before the war are reported to have fled, been detained or killed. Attacks on medical workers and hospitals continue despite the 3 May adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2286 on the protection of medical facilities in armed conflict. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented 373 attacks on health facilities in Syria between March 2011 and May 2016, the vast majority committed by the Syrian government and its allies.
The government has routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UNSC resolutions. No aid convoys were able to reach east Aleppo throughout the recent cessation of hostilities and, immediately following the cessation's collapse, a UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy, as well as a SARC warehouse and health clinic, were systematically attacked in Urum al-Kubra, northwest of Aleppo. Approximately 20 civilians and one SARC staff member were killed and vital food and medical assistance was destroyed in this unprecedented violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).
On 25 September joint UN-Red Crescent relief convoys reached up to 60,000 people under siege in the four Syrian towns of Madaya, Zabadani, Foaa and Kefraya in Rural Idlib, the first supplies to reach these areas since April. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in need of protection and humanitarian assistance, with 5.5 million people in inaccessible areas. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has accused all sides in Syria of using starvation as a weapon of war.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 280,000 people have been killed. OCHA reported that as of September 2016 there were over 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world.
The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has asserted that government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. The government has conducted airstrikes in residential areas, contravening UNSC Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons.
Government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres and perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of IHL. The CoI has reported that pro-government forces have conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including "extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts."
Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. ISIL poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity, including mass killings and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. According to the SOHR, between June 2014 and September 2016 ISIL executed about 4,500 people, including 2,421 civilians.
An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 5,357 ISIL fighters and 611 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and September 2016. Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria during September 2015, claiming it would help defeat ISIL. However, most airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, including in Aleppo. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,758 ISIL fighters and 3,800 civilians, including over 700 children, between 30 September 2015 and 30 September 2016.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some armed opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide crucial economic, military and political support to the Syrian government.
The collapse of the cessation of hostilities coupled with the intensification of fighting in Aleppo demonstrates that all sides in Syria remain committed to an outright military victory and that the lives of countless civilians are still imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, including the use of chemical weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL). Reestablishing the cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving the stalled peace talks.
The government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and has perpetrated crimes against humanity and war crimes against armed rebels and populations presumed to be supporting them. Combined Syrian government and Russian airstrikes have enabled government forces to besiege east Aleppo and regain significant territory previously lost to opposition forces. The direct participation of the Russian airforce in the indiscriminate bombardment of east Aleppo makes them complicit in the perpetration of alleged mass atrocity crimes.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL, which was not part of 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. The UNSC has been unable to enforce the full compliance of its resolutions, with bitter divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. The extent of these divisions was demonstrated on 8 October, when the UNSC failed to pass two separate draft resolutions addressing the situation in Aleppo. Despite the current political impasse, Russia, United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain essential to any 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. Despite this, the UNSC failed to adequately respond to the conflict. Since 2011 China and Russia have vetoed four resolutions on Syria. Russia subsequently vetoed an additional resolution on Syria on 8 October while China abstained. During the same period, the UNSC has passed several resolutions on humanitarian access, the political process and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these resolutions refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations and none of them have been fully implemented.
The CoI, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC. [For responses prior to November 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 19 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 27 September, stressed that the primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population lies with the Syrian authorities.
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) - including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries - met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on 20 and 22 September, agreeing on the need to re-establish a cessation of hostilities.
On 30 September the UN Secretary-General established an internal Board of Inquiry to investigate the attack on a UN-SARC aid convoy.
Russia and the United States need to press their respective Syrian allies to reestablish the cessation of hostilities and engage in meaningful negotiations over how to end the civil war.
In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, their international allies, and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations in Aleppo and elsewhere.
In keeping with Resolution 2118, the alleged use of chemical weapons in east Aleppo should be thoroughly investigated by the OPCW and the findings reported to the UNSC. The UNSC must take action to end the use of indiscriminate and illegal weapons and hold all perpetrators accountable.
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 who commit war crimes or target minority communities. All foreign states participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
After five years of civil war and five vetoes at the UNSC, UN member states should investigate the possibility of the General Assembly now taking up the Syria issue under the "Uniting for Peace" mechanism. All parties to the conflict who have breached UNSC resolutions and perpetrated mass atrocity crimes must be held accountable under international law, regardless of their position or affiliation.
Last Updated: 14 October 2016