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 between two major armed groups within Idlib governorate - Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Nour el-Din el-Zinki. During the clashes HTS consolidated control over Idlib. Since 29 April Syrian government and Russian forces have increased their bombardment of Idlib Governorate. According to the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy on Syria, as of 29 June at least 300 civilians, including many children, have been killed since April, with 330,000 people displaced. The World Health Organization has reported 25 attacks on health facilities, some of which had shared their coordinates to ensure protection. There have also been widespread fires across farmlands in the governorate, which could potentially undermine food security.
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.
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 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that ISIL has killed approximately 5,500 civilians in Syria since declaring their so-called caliphate in June 2014.
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 all parties to the conflict. The CoI has also reported on 37 instances of chemical weapons use between March 2013 and March 2019, including 32 attacks perpetrated by Syrian government forces.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide military support to the Syrian government. Since September 2015 Russian airstrikes have largely targeted opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, despite the Russian government claiming their operations are only targeting terrorist groups. According to the SOHR, Russian airstrikes have killed 5,233 ISIL fighters and over 7,990 civilians, including 1,937 children, as of 30 January 2019. The CoI has reported that some Russian airstrikes may amount to war crimes. Airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have killed 3,640 civilians, including 922 children.
The government of Syria, its allies and armed opposition groups have all committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of chemical weapons, demonstrate 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 imperil the lives of millions of civilians. While the governments of Syria and Russia claim 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 by the government of Syria and its allies that the war is largely over and that the international community should restore diplomatic and economic ties, the conflict continues. The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has also compounded the difficulty of negotiating an end to the civil war.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with the Syrian government and its partners often directly violating various resolutions. With bitter divisions evident amongst the permanent members of the Council, Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures.
Domestic legislation such as Laws No. 10 and 42 (2018) and Law No. 19 (2012) raise concerns for returning refugees with regards to property rights and persecution. There are also 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.
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.
Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond. 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. Meanwhile, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions.
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. On 12 February three former Syrian secret service officers were arrested in Germany and France on allegations of torture and crimes against humanity, marking the first major arrests in Europe of members of the Syrian government under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is currently facilitating a political process under the auspices of UNSC Resolution 2254 of December 2015.
In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, 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 also end attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools.
The governments of Syria, Turkey and Russia should allow the establishment of a field presence in Idlib for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 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, arbitrary detention or torture. 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 contin-ue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Last Updated: 15 July 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.