BACKGROUND: After five years of conflict in Syria, a fragile cessation of hostilities, brokered by the United States and Russia, came into effect on 27 February. While the cessation drastically reduced violence, fighting has increased around Aleppo since mid-April, when the government launched an offensive to retake the city. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that 170 civilians were killed during the first month of the cessation, while 860 civilians were killed during April. In Idlib, a 19 April market bombing killed at least 44 people. On 27 April government planes bombed Al Quds hospital in Aleppo, killing at least 50 people. On 5 May at least 30 people were killed in government air strikes on a displacement camp near Sarmada, Idlib.
The cessation was also enabling a UN-backed humanitarian task force to deliver desperately-needed aid to besieged areas throughout the country, but as the cessation neared collapse the Syrian government began blocking humanitarian access. The government has routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid throughout the conflict, contravening UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 2165 and 2191.
A third round of indirect talks between Syrian government and opposition factions began in Geneva on 13 April, mediated by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. Amidst escalating violations of the cessation, the opposition's High Negotiation Committee suspended its role in the talks on 18 April, while the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups announced they would resume joint operations.
Syria faces a potential return to widespread hostilities in which all sides have committed mass atrocities. Five years of conflict in Syria has resulted in over 270,000 people killed. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that as of 25 April 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. Over 13.5 million Syrians are in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. All parties to the conflict have impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians, with 4.5 million Syrians in inaccessible areas, some 400,000 of whom are living under siege. The UN Secretary-General has accused all sides of using starvation as a weapon of war.
The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) asserted in its 22 February report that crimes against humanity have been committed by government forces 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 barrel bombs were dropped in Syria during 2015, killing 2,032 people.
Syrian government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres and perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (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. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (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 March 2016 ISIL executed 4,064 people, including 2,200 civilians. An international coalition is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 4,700 ISIL fighters and 380 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and March 2016.
Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria on 30 September, claiming it would target ISIL. However, most airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces. The SOHR reported on 31 March that Russian airstrikes had killed 1,869 civilians, including over 440 children. On 14 March President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
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. The CoI reported on 22 February that the "overwhelming yet consistent intensification of external military involvement in Syria" was having "devastating consequences for civilians."
The CoI and UN Secretary-General have called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC. On 29 April the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued that, "the persistent failure of the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the [ICC] is an example of the most shameful form of realpolitik."
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 cessation of hostilities is vital to the protection of civilians and the stalled peace talks. The reescalation of armed hostilities will severely compromise the dim possibility of productive negotiations to end the conflict.
The government, with support from its allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate 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 rebel forces.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL, which is 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 compliance, with significant divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members.
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. Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Syria and to meet its obligations under the UN Charter. [For responses prior to November 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
Since 14 November the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries – has met four times, agreeing on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices.
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 and accelerating the delivery of humanitarian aid. 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.
On 26 February the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2268, endorsing the 22 February cessation of hostilities agreement and calling upon all sides to allow humanitarian agencies unrestricted access to populations.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 16 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 18 March, stressed that the primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population lies with the Syrian authorities.
On 5 May the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O'Brien, condemned the airstrike on a displacement camp in Idlib, saying it may amount to a war crime and calling for an immediate investigation. On 12 May the UNSC issued a Press Statement expressing outrage at attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as indiscriminate attacks, stressing that these actions may amount to war crimes. The UNSC also reaffirmed the "primary responsibility of the Syrian government to protect the population in Syria."
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. The UNSC must take expeditious action to end the use of chemical weapons and other 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. States participating in airstrikes in Syria must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Russia and the United States need to press their respective allies to consolidate the cessation of hostilities and agree to a permanent ceasefire in conjunction with meaningful negotiations over how to fundamentally resolve Syria's conflict.
Last Updated: 15 May 2016