Populations at Risk Current Crisis


The ongoing civil war in Syria leaves populations facing mass atrocity crimes committed by state security forces and affiliated militias. Some armed opposition groups are also committing war crimes.
BACKGROUND: After more than three years of conflict in Syria at least 150,000 people have been killed. On 3 February the UN Secretary-General released a report on the war's impact on Syrian children, detailing killings, maiming and torture, as well as their arbitrary detention and forced recruitment into armed groups. As of 1 April there were over 2.6 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 6.5 million internally displaced people. Ongoing fighting has left at least 9.3 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 3.3 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas. On 24 March the UN Secretary-General said both government and rebel forces were hindering access to aid, violating the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution of 22 February, which demanded a halt to attacks on civilians and immediate humanitarian access to all areas of the country. On 7 April he called upon both sides to "do everything to avoid and prevent violence against civilians."

The Syrian government continues its aerial bombardment of opposition-held residential areas. It was reported that government air attacks on Aleppo killed 2,321 civilians between 1 November 2013 and 21 March 2014. The ongoing use of siege tactics, including the denial of humanitarian assistance to starving communities, also threatens civilians trapped by intense fighting. On 20 February the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that all parties to the conflict "have laid sieges across the country," trapping at least 240,000 people and impeding access to humanitarian relief.

A UN investigation confirmed that on 21 August 2013 a large-scale attack of sarin gas, delivered by rockets, hit several areas of Ghouta, Damascus, killing an estimated 1,400 people. A joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) team began the process of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons on 6 October. The OPCW-UN mission has so far transported nearly half of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, although the war is hampering efforts to remove and destroy the weapons according to the agreed timeline. The OPCW's Director-General called upon the Syrian government to "accelerate its efforts to transfer the remaining chemicals" by the 30 June deadline.

Government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres in several towns and have perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as a matter of state policy. The Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has reported that pro-government forces "have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances as crimes against humanity."

Some armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killing. Several armed groups also continue to target religious minorities for violent reprisals. However, after briefing the UNSC on 8 April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the Syrian government is "mostly responsible" for the human rights violations that "far outweigh" those by rebels.

While Syria's main political opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (National Coalition), is widely recognized outside Syria as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, it has not gained extensive support inside the country. The rising salafist presence amongst the armed opposition has caused friction between groups competing for support and resources, with widespread fighting between extremists and more moderate rebel militias in Aleppo and Idlib. At least 3,300 people were killed during January and February as a result of fighting between various rebel groups and the al-Qaeda-affiliated "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

International actors continue to vie for influence in shaping the outcome of the conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some rebel groups. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have criticized international efforts to undermine President Bashar al-Assad's government and continue to provide it with critical economic, military and political support.

The conflict poses a growing threat to peace and stability throughout the Middle East. Sectarian violence in Iraq has been exacerbated by the Syrian civil war, while friction between Syria and Turkey also remains high following a number of deadly cross-border incidents.

Lebanon, which hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, has been most severely impacted. Sporadic clashes continue between Lebanese supporters and opponents of the Assad government. Suicide bombings have already killed dozens of people during 2014. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting with Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border and on 9 February the group's Deputy Secretary-General vowed it would remain militarily active inside Syria.

Despite the ongoing civil war, the first round of the "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the violence and establishing a transitional governing body in Syria, took place from 22 to 31 January. Representatives from the Syrian government and opposition, as well as approximately 40 other countries and regional organizations, attended. At the conclusion of the talks, the UN-League of Arab States Joint Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, reported no progress towards an agreement. The conference resumed during the week of 10 February. On 15 February Brahimi publicly apologized to the Syrian people for the lack of any substantive progress.

ANALYSIS:With each side in Syria still committed to an outright military victory, the conflict imperils the lives of countless civilians who continue to be directly threatened by the ongoing civil war.

The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes. With superior capabilities and external assistance, the Syrian government has been able to make recent military gains in the provinces of Rif Dimashq and Latakia, while several outside governments continue to provide military supplies to some rebel groups.

The fracturing and radicalization of the Syrian opposition has also strengthened the position of the government and compounded the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. ISIL and several other extremist armed groups pose a direct threat to Syrian civilians, especially those from minority religious communities.

External political influence upon the Syrian government via the UN and regional actors remains weak. Sanctions have had limited success as Syria's few remaining allies continue to provide crucial economic insulation. Despite a 22 February resolution demanding humanitarian access to displaced and besieged civilians, long-standing UNSC divisions over Syria have allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point where few options for a peaceful political solution exist. Nevertheless, it remains imperative that diplomatic efforts continue.

The government of Syria has not only failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect, it bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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. [For responses prior to November 2013, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]

Between October 2011 and July 2012 Russia and China vetoed three UNSC resolutions aimed at holding the Syrian government accountable for mass atrocity crimes. However, on 27 September 2013 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2118, enabling the expeditious destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

On 22 February 2014 the UNSC adopted another unanimous resolution demanding that all parties, but especially the Syrian government, immediately allow unhindered humanitarian access, including across borders, to civilians in need. The resolution demanded a halt to violence, called upon all parties to protect civilians and noted the government's "primary responsibility to protect."

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted twelve resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The most recent, passed on 21 March, extended the mandate of the CoI for one year, condemned continued violations of IHL and international human rights law that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, and demanded that the government uphold its responsibility to protect.

An international humanitarian conference for Syria took place in Kuwait on 15 January, during which donors pledged over $2.4 billion, less than half of the $6.5 billion the UN considers necessary to address the "worst humanitarian crisis" in decades.

On 25 March the League of Arab States began a two-day annual summit in Kuwait, where special envoy Brahimi, speaking on behalf of the UN Secretary-General, appealed for an end the flow of weapons to armed groups in Syria. Saudi Arabia called for the League of Arab States to grant Syria's suspended seat to the National Coalition.

NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must halt the commission of mass atrocity crimes and adhere to IHL. Both sides must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolution 2139.

The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. Those deemed responsible for mass atrocity crimes in Syria should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators, regardless of affiliation, brought to justice. Donor countries should allocate funds for additional UN-sanctioned human rights monitors on Syria's borders.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease arming and enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Assad should deny support to armed groups who commit war crimes or target Alawites and other minorities for reprisals.

The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a political solution to the conflict and increase efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to populations trapped or displaced by the civil war.

Last Updated: 9 April 2014