Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war where at least 560,000 people have been killed. There are 6.7 million Syrian refugees and nearly 6.2 million people are internally displaced – the largest number of people forcibly displaced by any conflict in the world. An estimated 12 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
On 1 January fighting erupted within Idlib Governorate between two major armed groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Nour el-Din el-Zinki, during which HTS consolidated control over the region. Since 29 April Syrian government and Russian forces have increased their bombardment of Idlib Governorate. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has confirmed 1,089 civilian deaths, including over 300 children, since the launch of the offensive – 1,081 of which are allegedly attributable to Syrian government and Russian forces. Over 400,000 people have been displaced and parties to the conflict have attacked civilian infrastructure, including at least 42 attacks on healthcare facilities.
Since the collapse of a brief ceasefire in August, government forces have captured several strategically important towns and areas. Russia and Syrian government forces declared a unilateral ceasefire in Idlib on 30 August, although they reserved their "right to respond to any violation by the terrorists."
Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last remaining major opposition stronghold within Syria. Idlib was designated a "de-escalation zone" in 2017 and of the 3 million civilians within the governorate, at least 1.5 million are internally displaced. During September 2018 Turkey and Russia agreed to a 15 kilometer-wide "demilitarized zone" within Idlib. Although opposition fighters removed all heavy weaponry from the area, they did not entirely withdraw their forces.
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. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes. According to a report by the UN Secretary-General on children in Syria, between November 2013 and June 2018 at least 3,891 children were killed and over 350 schools and 340 hospitals were attacked by parties to the conflict. The CoI also reported on 37 instances of chemical weapons use since March 2013, including 32 attacks perpetrated by Syrian government forces. More than 100,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances have been confirmed by the CoI in Syria, with the majority attributable to the government.
On 23 March 2019 the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by United States airstrikes, seized the last remaining territory from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. In recently liberated areas, the SDF have found numerous mass graves and have called for an international tribunal to deal with hundreds of captured ISIL fighters.
The government of Syria, its allies and armed opposition groups have all committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations and infrastructure, demonstrating a complete disregard for international law. The direct participation of Russian and Iranian forces in numerous attacks on civilian-populated areas makes them complicit in alleged war crimes.
Ongoing fighting between rival armed opposition groups and airstrikes on Idlib imperils the lives of millions of civilians. While the governments of Syria and Russia maintain that they are targeting HTS in Idlib, the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian-populated areas and the systematic bombing of medical facilities constitute potential war crimes.
Despite claims that the war is largely over and that the international community should restore diplomatic and economic ties with the government, armed conflict continues. The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. There are ongoing concerns regarding government-run detention facilities, where the CoI has documented summary executions and other abuses and violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Recent fissures between the United States and Turkey, over the presence of SDF forces in the northwest and Turkey's determination to minimize Kurdish influence in Syria, threaten to open yet another front in the protracted crisis.
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. Various high-level UN officials, including the Secretary-General, have called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Despite this, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has failed to respond effectively. Since 2013 the UNSC has passed 24 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. The Syrian government and its partners often directly violate various resolutions, and Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures. Russia and China have jointly vetoed six draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is currently facilitating a political process under the auspices of UNSC Resolution 2254 of December 2015.
The HRC has adopted 28 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population. During March 2019 the HRC extended the mandate of the CoI for an additional year. 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.
Following a 30 July demarche by 10 members of the UNSC, UN Secretary-General António Guterres created a Board of Inquiry to investigate all attacks on hospitals and health facilities on the deconfliction list and other UN-supported facilities in northwest Syria. The inquiry will investigate whether the coordinates of civilian infrastructure on the deconfliction list – intended to ensure their protection – were actually used to target them.
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 adhere to the Idlib "demilitarized zone" and de-escalation agreements. All parties must uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law, including ending attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as establishing a timetable for identifying and releasing all detainees and abductees.
The governments of Syria, Turkey and Russia should allow the establishment of a field presence in Idlib for OHCHR. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al Assad must also withhold all support from armed groups that commit war crimes and target civilians.
Returns of refugees and other displaced persons must be in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement with guarantees that returnees will not face persecution, discrimination or arbitrary detention. The government should repeal or amend all laws that restrict the access of returning refugees to their homes and other property.
UN member states should ensure the IIIM is incorporated into the UN's regular budget. States should also continue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Executive Office of the Secretary-General should make the findings of the Board of Inquiry public. The UNSC should immediately refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.
Last Updated: 15 September 2019
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.