Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war in which over 500,000 people have been killed. As of October there were 5.6 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.6 million internally displaced persons - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13.1 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 4 September the government of Syria escalated hostilities within the territory, targeting four health care facilities with airstrikes and leading to the displacement of over 36,000 people.
On 17 September the governments of Turkey and Russia agreed to the establishment of a 15 kilometer-wide "demilitarized zone" within Idlib Governorate. In accordance with the deal, by 10 October opposition fighters had removed all heavy weaponry from the designated area; however, fighters did not meet the 14 October deadline to withdraw their forces from the zone entirely. Although fighting in Idlib has ebbed since the agreement, the population faces an ongoing risk of attack.
Violence has continued in Deir-Ezzour Governorate, where the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remains active. As of 31 October increased violence in the Hajin area had displaced at least 27,000 people and dozens of civilians have been killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that 57 civilians have also recently been killed in airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition. According to the SOHR, 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. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) has also determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas between 2014 and 2015. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, and the OPCW-JIM has found evidence of ISIL using sulfur-mustard in attacks during 2015 and 2016. On 15 October the British Broadcasting Corporation released an investigative report 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.
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. The SOHR has reported that Russian airstrikes have killed 5,233 ISIL fighters and over 7,988 civilians, including 1,885 children, as of 30 October. The CoI reported on 6 March that some airstrikes by the Russian air force may amount to war crimes.
According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have also killed 3,222 civilians since September 2014, including 768 children.
The government of Syria, its allies and opposition groups have committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure demonstrate a complete disregard for international law and directly contravene UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 2286 and 2139. Civilians across the country remain at risk of atrocities, and a potential military offensive on Idlib would directly imperil the lives of millions of civilians.
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.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to provide assistance to some armed opposition groups. The United States also has several thousand troops working with armed opposition groups in former ISIL-occupied territories. However, the fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement.
The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions evident amongst the permanent members. Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures. Despite the current political impasse, Russia, United States, Iran and Turkey remain essential to any potential 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. 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 23 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 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 6 September the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide expressed grave concern regarding the potential impact of a military offensive on Idlib governorate.
On 31 October the UN Secretary-General announced the appointment of Geir Pedersen as the next Special Envoy for Syria following Staffan de Mistura's announcement that he would resign from his post during November.
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 a field presence in Idlib governorate by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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 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.
Last Updated: 15 November 2018
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.