Ongoing fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups has continued across Syria, most notably within the city of Aleppo. Both Russian and Syrian government aircraft have conducted sustained airstrikes on east Aleppo, including with illegal barrel bombs, cluster munitions and "bunker-buster" bombs. Two days after a 26 October airstrike on a school in Idlib governorate that killed at least 22 children and 6 teachers, the Syrian opposition launched a renewed offensive to break the siege of east Aleppo. Opposition forces have also conducted indiscriminate attacks on the suburbs of west Aleppo, resulting in the deaths of at least 53 civilians, including 18 children, as of 31 October.
The combined Syrian government and Russian assault on Aleppo followed the collapse of a cessation of hostilities negotiated by Russia and the United States. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the deaths of 740 civilians, including 145 children, in the first month after the cessation collapsed on 19 September. On 1 November the Russian Defence Ministry announced that the resumption of Syrian peace talks, which had previously been mediated by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, would be indefinitely delayed.
The government has routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has accused all sides in Syria of using starvation as a weapon of war. A UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy, as well as a SARC warehouse and health clinic, were systematically bombed in Urum al-Kubra, northwest of Aleppo on 19 September, hours after the ceasefire collapsed. Approximately 20 civilians and a SARC staff member were killed in the airstrikes and vital food and medical supplies were destroyed in the unprecedented violation of international humanitarian law (IHL). On 26 October the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported the number of Syrians cut off from aid had increased to 861,200. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance, with 5.5 million people in inaccessible areas.
Attacks against health facilities also continue despite the 3 May adoption of UNSC Resolution 2286 on the protection of medical facilities in armed conflict. Hospitals have been repeatedly targeted in air strikes, and ninety-five percent of medical personnel who were in east Aleppo before the war are reported to have fled, been detained or killed.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 280,000 people have been killed. OCHA reported that as of October 2016 there were over 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world.
The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has asserted that government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Government airstrikes in residential areas contravene UNSC Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians
and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The CoI has reported that government-allied militias and other pro-government forces have also conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including "extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts."
Numerous armed opposition groups have committed war crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity, including mass killings and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. According to the SOHR, between June 2014 and October 2016 ISIL executed 4,500 people, including nearly 2,450 civilians.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) issued its fourth report on 28 October. The JIM has determined that Syrian Government forces used chemical weapons in three separate incidents between 2014 and 2015 and that ISIL was responsible for a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UNSC Resolution 2118.
An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 5,357 ISIL fighters and 611 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and September 2016. Amnesty International investigated 11 coalition airstrikes and reported on 26 October that an estimated 300 civilians were killed in these attacks. Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria during September 2015, claiming it would help defeat ISIL. However, most airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, including in Aleppo. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,861 ISIL fighters and 4,162 civilians, including over 1,000 children, by 30 October 2016.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some armed opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide crucial economic, military and political support to the Syrian government.
The collapse of the cessation of hostilities and intensification of fighting in Aleppo demonstrates that all sides in Syria remain committed to an outright military victory and that the lives of countless civilians are still imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL). Reestablishing the cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving the stalled peace talks.
The government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. Combined Syrian government and Russian airstrikes have enabled government forces to besiege east Aleppo and regain significant territory previously lost to opposition forces. The direct participation of Russian aircraft in the bombardment of east Aleppo makes them complicit in alleged mass atrocity crimes.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL and several other armed groups continue to 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. The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. Despite the current political impasse, Russia, United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain essential to any 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. Despite this, the UNSC failed to adequately respond to the conflict. Since 2011 China and Russia have vetoed four resolutions on Syria. Russia also vetoed another Syria resolution on 8 October. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed several resolutions on humanitarian access, the political process and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these resolutions refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none of them have been fully implemented.
The CoI, UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 20 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 20 October, called for the CoI to conduct a special inquiry into events in Aleppo.
The International Syria Support Group - including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries - met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on 20 and 22 September. Talks between Russia, United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Special Envoy de Mistura were also held on 15 October. Neither process produced any agreement.
Following the request of 70 member states, on 20 October the UN General Assembly convened a special briefing to discuss the situation in Aleppo.
Russia and the United States need to press their respective Syrian allies to reestablish the cessation of hostilities and engage in meaningful negotiations over how to end the civil war. The UNSC must take meaningful action to end the use of indiscriminate and illegal weapons and hold all perpetrators accountable.
In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, their international allies, and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations in Aleppo and elsewhere.
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 who commit war crimes and target civilians. All foreign states participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
After five years of civil war and five vetoes at the UNSC, the UN General Assembly should take up the issue of Syria. All parties to the conflict who have breached UNSC resolutions and perpetrated mass atrocity crimes must be held accountable under international law, regardless of their position or affiliation.
Last Updated: 15 November 2016