BACKGROUND: After three years of conflict in Syria at least 130,000 people have been killed. On 3 February the UN released a report on the war's impact on Syria's children, detailing countless killings, maiming and torture, as well as their ill treatment, arbitrary detention, torture and forced recruitment. As of 10 February there were nearly 2.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, with over 6.5 million people internally displaced. Ongoing fighting has left at least 9.3 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 2.5 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas.
The Syrian government continues its aerial bombardment of opposition-held residential areas. At least 517 people, including 151 children, were killed between 15 and 29 December 2013 in government "barrel bomb" attacks on Aleppo. Similar attacks resumed on 1 February, killing at least 150 people, mostly civilians, by 5 February. Recent government ground offensives and the ongoing use of siege tactics, including the denial of humanitarian assistance to starving communities, also threaten civilians trapped by intense fighting.
On 6 February the UN announced that the government and opposition agreed to a three-day ceasefire in order to allow aid into the old city area of Homs and the evacuation of civilians. Despite the agreement being broken by attacks on the humanitarian convoys, the UN and Syrian Red Crescent were able to evacuate over 1,350 civilians by 12 February.
A UN investigation team confirmed that on 21 August 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 team began the process of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons on 6 October, however the ongoing civil war is hampering efforts to remove and destroy the weapons according to the agreed timeline.
Government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres in several towns over the last two years and have perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as a matter of state policy. The CoI reported on 11 September 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."
On 2 December the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) had evidence of "responsibility at the highest level of government" in Syria for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Some armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killing. In a conflict that the CoI has described as "overtly sectarian in nature," some armed groups continue to target religious minorities for violent reprisals.
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 1,400 people were killed during January as a result of fighting between rebel groups and the al-Qaeda-affiliated "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).
While Syria's political opposition, 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. On 25 September eleven Syrian armed groups repudiated the National Coalition. On 22 November seven rebel groups merged into the Islamic Front with the goal of "toppling the regime."
International actors continue to vie for influence in shaping the outcome of the conflict, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described as a "proxy war, with regional and international players arming one side or the other." 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.
The conflict has had a particularly severe impact upon Lebanon, which hosts over 915,000 Syrian refugees. Sporadic clashes continue to occur between Lebanese supporters and opponents of the Assad government. Suicide bombings have increased, killing dozens of people already during 2014, including former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting with Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border and on 9 February vowed to remain active inside Syria, according to the group's Deputy Secretary-General.
Against this backdrop, 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 the conference. At the conclusion of the talks, the UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, reported no progress towards any agreement between both sides, saying that "the key positions are still very wide apart." The conferenced resumed on 10 February, without any outcome at the time of publication.
ANALYSIS: The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The 21 August chemical weapons attack came after more than two years of the Syrian government perpetrating ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes. The majority of deaths continue to be caused by conventional weapons used illegally against civilians.
With superior capabilities and outside assistance, the Assad government has been able to make military gains, but alarm over the shift in the balance of power on the battlefield has influenced several governments to provide military assistance 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.
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.
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 the UNSC's timely response to the government's use of chemical weapons, ongoing UNSC divisions over Syria have allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point where few options for a peaceful political solution exist. Despite this, it is 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 in March 2011, the international community responded by censuring the regime for its widespread violations of human rights. [For responses prior to September 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. On 27 September 2013 the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2118, enabling the expeditious destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. On 2 October the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement calling upon the Syrian authorities to facilitate cross-border humanitarian access, urging all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and stressing the need to end impunity for violations of IHL and grave human rights abuses. This has not been implemented.
On 19 November the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning ongoing violence in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. The resolution called upon the UNSC to take measures to end all serious violations of IHL in Syria.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted eleven resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria.
A second 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 the "worst humanitarian crisis" in decades.
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.
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. Donor countries should allocate funds for additional UN-sanctioned human rights monitors on the Syrian border in order to collect evidence for prosecutions.
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 to work towards a political solution to the conflict and increase efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to populations trapped or displaced by civil war.
Last Updated: 14 February 2014