Populations at Risk Current Crisis


Populations continue to face the threat of mass atrocity crimes committed by state security forces and affiliated militias in Syria's ongoing civil war. Various armed opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are also committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Following several weeks of negotiations, on 10 September Russia and the United States reached agreement on a new plan to reduce violence in Syria, while also potentially increasing joint military targeting of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At the time of publication the new cessation of hostilities appeared to be holding. There were no civilian casualties reported on 13 September, the first day of the ceasefire.

This 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 a resumption of heavy fighting.

Violence had increased since mid-April when the government launched an offensive to retake rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo. On 7 July government forces and their allies captured the Castello Road, a key artery for the residents of eastern Aleppo. According to the UN, approximately 250,000 people are at risk of injury, starvation or death due to the resulting siege. Heavy fighting for control of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, continued throughout July and August.

On 7 August a coalition of armed opposition groups claimed to have broken the siege of eastern Aleppo. The government responded by intensifying airstrikes, including the use of incendiary weapons. There were credible reports of a deadly chlorine gas attack on the rebel-held area of Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on 10 August. On 4 September the Syrian government claimed it had reestablished the siege after taking control of a strategic military complex in Ramosa.

Attacks against health facilities have also escalated, with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reporting 6 airstrikes on medical facilities in Aleppo between 24 and 31 July in the worst week for attacks on hospitals since the conflict began. These attacks occurred despite the UN Security Council (UNSC) passing Resolution 2286 on 3 May, strongly condemning attacks on medical facilities. PHR has 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 also routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UNSC resolutions. 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.

On 26 August, following an agreement between the government and opposition forces, the Damascus suburb of Darayya was surrendered after a four-year government siege. The surrender resulted in a mass evacuation of civilians, with UN officials raising concern regarding potential violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law (IHRL).

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 280,000 people have been killed. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that as of July 2016 there were over 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.6 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. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 17,318 indiscriminate barrel bombs were dropped in Syria during 2015, killing 2,032 people.

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."

Several 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 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), between June 2014 and August 2016 ISIL executed 4,400 people, including 2,370 civilians.

On 24 August the Leadership Panel of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) issued a report attributing responsibility for two chlorine gas attacks during 2014 and 2015 to the Syrian Airforce and a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack to ISIL. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and directly contravenes UNSC Resolution 2118.

An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 5,250 ISIL fighters and 600 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and August 2016. On 13 August a coalition of Syrian and Kurdish armed opposition groups called the Syrian Democratic Forces, operating with air support from the international coalition, liberated the key northern city of Manbij from ISIL after a battle that lasted more than 70 days.

Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria on 30 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 where Russian aircraft have bombed besieged areas in the east of the city. The SOHR reported on 30 August that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,600 ISIL fighters and 3,200 civilians, including over 700 children.

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.

On 23 August Turkey launched an incursion into Syria, supporting the Free Syrian Army in efforts to fight ISIL and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). After seizing Jarablus and other towns along the Turkish-Syrian border, military officials declared that Turkey had secured a 90 kilometer corridor from ISIL and the YPG.

Despite the current cessation of hostilities, all sides in Syria remain committed to an outright military victory and the lives of countless civilians are still imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Previous attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, including the use of chemical weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and IHRL. Sustaining the cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving the stalled peace talks.

The government, with support from its 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. Russian airstrikes have enabled the government to regain significant territory previously lost to opposition forces and besiege eastern Aleppo.

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. Despite adopting several resolutions concerning humanitarian access and chemical weapons, the UNSC has been unable to enforce their full compliance, with significant divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. Russia, United States, Iran 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 commission of mass atrocity crimes.

Following the outbreak of violence during March 2011, the international community responded by censuring the Syria 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. In total, the UNSC has passed 16 resolutions on Syria, several of which refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations and none of which 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.]

Since November 2015 the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) - including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries - has met five times, agreeing on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices.

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 18 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 1 July, stressed that the primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population lies with the Syrian authorities.

The UNSC held an Arria Formula meeting on the situation in Aleppo on 8 August.

Russia and the United States need to press their respective Syrian allies to sustain the cessation of hostilities and engage in meaningful negotiations over how to fundamentally resolve Syria's conflict.

In keeping with the cessation of hostilities, and various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. The UNSC must act expeditiously to establish neutral humanitarian corridors and secure desperately-needed food and medical supplies for besieged civilian populations in Aleppo
and elsewhere.

In keeping with Resolution 2118, the alleged use of chemical weapons in Zubdiya 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, regardless of their position or affiliation. Parties to the conflict who have breached UNSC Resolutions must be held accountable under international law.

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.

Last Updated: 15 September 2016