BACKGROUND: After more than four years of conflict in Syria over 230,000 people have been killed. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on 9 July that there were over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, with at least 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the crisis has left 12.2 million Syrians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 4.8 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas.
On 20 February the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) said the Syrian government has "manifestly failed to protect its citizens from mass atrocities," with war crimes and crimes against humanity being "committed on a massive scale." On 17 March the CoI reiterated the need for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer the Syria situation to the ICC. All parties to the conflict have impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians, with an estimated 422,000 Syrians living under siege.
The government continues to conduct airstrikes in densely populated residential areas, contravening UNSC Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014. On 30 May a government barrel bomb attack on the town of al-Bab, Aleppo, killed at least 70 civilians. On 8 June government airstrikes in the rebel-held village of al-Janudiya, Idlib, killed at least 49 civilians. The government also continues to obstruct the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, directly contravening UNSC Resolutions 2165 and 2191.
On 7 May the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons informed the UNSC that its inspectors had found traces of sarin and ricin at three military locations, despite the government's agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile following an August 2013 sarin attack on areas of Ghouta, Damascus, that killed an estimated 1,400 people.
Syrian government forces and 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."
Several armed opposition groups have also committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. On 28 May a coalition of rebel groups seized Ariha, the last city in Idlib still held by the government. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that on 10 June, in Idlib's Qalb Loze village, fighters from Jabat al-Nusra killed at least 20 Druze, a religious minority group. On 16 June a rebel bombardment of Aleppo killed 34 people, including 12 children, according to the SOHR. OCHA also reported that indiscriminate attacks on government-controlled areas of Aleppo killed at least 116 people during April and May, nearly half of whom were women and children.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), an extremist armed group operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out mass executions and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. The CoI has reported that ISIL has committed crimes against humanity. According to the SOHR, ISIL killed at least 1,362 civilians in Syria between June 2014 and April 2015 and has recruited approximately 400 children since January 2015.
On 20 May ISIL began an assault on the historic city of Palmyra, overrunning government forces and causing an estimated 11,000 people to flee. By 25 May ISIL had reportedly summarily executed more than 217 soldiers and residents in Palmyra.
Since 23 September Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and United States have conducted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. On 24 March Canada joined this military coalition. The SOHR reported on 23 April that at least 1,920 ISIL fighters and 66 civilians had been killed during the coalition's military operations.
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 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 and is now essential to the government's military survival. Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, has also seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government.
On 5 May the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, began bilateral meetings in Geneva with the Syrian government, several opposition groups and regional powers to assess whether there is potential for a new round of diplomatic negotiations. The "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the conflict in Syria, finished in February 2014 without any tangible progress. On 30 June, three years after the adoption of the original Geneva Communiqué, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the international community "cannot afford to waste any further time in ending the cycle of violence."
ANALYSIS: With all sides in Syria committed to an outright military victory, the lives of countless civilians are imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Nearly half of Syria's population has either been displaced or fled to neighboring countries.
The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate crimes against humanity and war crimes. Under increasing military strain, the government has suffered serious territorial losses, and increasingly relies upon Iran and Hezbollah to fight the civil war. The Syrian government continues to use improvised chemical weapons and wage war on armed rebels and populations presumed to be supporting them, regardless of the consequences to civilians trapped or displaced by the fighting.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has compounded the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL 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. Despite adopting several resolutions concerning humanitarian access and chemical weapons, the UNSC has been unable to enforce their compliance, while 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.
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 May 2015, 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 and other perpetrators accountable for mass atrocity crimes. On 22 May 2014 Russia and China vetoed a fourth resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC for investigation. However, since September 2013 the UNSC has also passed Resolutions 2118 and 2209, regarding the destruction of chemical weapons, and Resolutions 2139 and 2165, demanding increased humanitarian access. None of these resolutions have been fully implemented. Resolutions 2139 and 2165 reaffirmed the need for the government to uphold its primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 15 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, passed on 29 June, emphasized the need for accountability for those responsible, noting an important potential role for the ICC.
On 30 May Special Envoy de Mistura condemned the attack on al-Bab, calling for an end to the use of barrel bombs and noting that "the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims in the Syrian conflict have been caused by the use of such indiscriminate aerial weapons."
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139 and 2165. The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a potential political solution to the conflict and increasing humanitarian assistance to populations 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. 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 enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad must withhold support to armed groups who commit war crimes or target minority communities for reprisals. States participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Last Updated:15 July 2015