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 over 160,000 people have been killed. There are over 2.9 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of the conflict. Ongoing fighting has left at least 10.8 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 4.7 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) reported on 25 July that impunity continues on both sides, with the ongoing bombardment, shelling and torture of civilians.

The UN has reported that all parties to the conflict have laid sieges, trapping 241,000 people and further impeding access to humanitarian relief. On 30 July the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, said that attacks on civilians and human rights abuses continue by all parties to the conflict "in flagrant violation of the most basic principles of international humanitarian and human rights law." Following the 14 July adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2165, authorizing cross-border humanitarian aid, the first UN convoy crossed into Syria from Turkey on 24 July, delivering assistance to 26,000 people in Aleppo and Idlib Governorates.

The government continues its bombardment of opposition-held residential areas. A 30 July Human Rights Watch report documented over 650 major new damage sites "consistent with barrel bomb impacts on neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo held by non-state armed groups," directly contravening UNSC Resolution 2139 of 22 February, which demanded a halt to the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.

A UN investigation confirmed that on 21 August 2013 a large-scale sarin attack, delivered by rockets, hit several areas of Ghouta, Damascus, killing an estimated 1,400 people. Between 6 October 2013 and 23 June 2014 a joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission undertook
the process of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons. The OPCW announced on 29 April that it would investigate accusations that the Syrian government used chlorine gas on 17 April in attacks on Kfar Zeita, a village in Hama province.

Government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres and perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as a matter of state policy. The CoI has reported that pro-government forces have conducted "widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances as crimes against humanity." Some opposition groups have also committed war crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack.

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. Significant advances in Iraq by the extremist "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), now calling itself the Islamic State (IS), have strengthened its influence and military position in Syria. IS now controls a large territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border.

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 continue to provide the Syrian government with critical economic, military and political support. On 26 June President Barack Obama requested $500 million from the United States Congress to train and equip members of the Syrian opposition.

The conflict poses a growing threat to stability throughout the Middle East. Sectarian violence and armed conflict in Iraq has been exacerbated by the Syrian civil war, while friction between Syria and Turkey also remains high. Lebanon, which hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, has seen sporadic clashes between Lebanese supporters and opponents of the Assad government. Suicide bombings have killed dozens of people during 2014. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting against Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border and has vowed to remain militarily active inside Syria.

The first two rounds of the "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the violence in Syria, took place from 22 to 31 January and 10 to 15 February, respectively. Representatives from the Syrian government and opposition, as well as approximately 40 other countries and regional organizations, attended. No progress towards a political solution was made.

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 significant military gains in several provinces.

The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has strengthened the position of the government and compounded the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. IS and several other armed extremist groups 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. Sanctions have had limited success as Syria's few remaining allies continue to provide crucial economic insulation. Long-standing divisions within the UNSC 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 CoI appealed to all states to halt their weapons and arms support to both sides, underscoring that there is no military solution to 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.

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 February 2014, 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, since September 2013 the UNSC has passed three resolutions on Syria, the first regarding the destruction of chemical weapons (Resolution 2118), and the follow two regarding humanitarian assistance, both of which reaffirmed the Syrian government's primary responsibility to protect the population in Syria. Resolution 2165 of 14 July authorized the UN to deliver cross-border humanitarian aid through Jordan, Turkey and Iraq without the consent of the Syrian government.

On 15 April the UNSC held an informal meeting during which the "Caesar Report" was presented. The report, written by three former war crimes prosecutors, analyzes photos of 11,000 detainees who were allegedly tortured and killed between 2011 and 2013 in Syrian government detention centers. On 22 May Russia and China vetoed a UNSC resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC for investigation.

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 12 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The most recent, passed on 28 March, condemned violations of IHL and international human rights law and demanded that the government uphold its responsibility to protect.

The UN-League of Arab States Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned on 31 May, citing limited prospects for a political settlement to the conflict. On 11 July the UN Secretary-General announced Staffan de Mistura as the new UN Special Envoy to Syria.

NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must halt the commission of mass atrocity crimes and adhere to IHL. All sides must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139 and 2165.

The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the ICC. Those deemed responsible for mass atrocity crimes in Syria should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators, regardless of affiliation, brought to justice.

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 increasing humanitarian assistance to populations trapped or displaced by the civil war.

Last Updated:15 August 2014