BACKGROUND: After four years of conflict in Syria over 210,000 people have been killed. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 3 February there are over 3.8 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 7.6 million internally displaced persons – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world, and constituting over half of Syria's population. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 28 January that the crisis has left 12.2 million Syrians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 4.8 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas, while 212,000 people are being besieged, mostly by government forces. The conflict poses a threat to peace and stability throughout the entire Middle East.
The government continues its bombardment of opposition-held residential areas, despite UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded a halt to the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas. Briefing the UNSC on 28 January 2015, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, said that the government has "ignored" Resolution 2139 as it continues to conduct airstrikes, including barrel bombs, in densely populated areas. She reported that between 21 and 26 January government airstrikes around Damascus reportedly killed nearly 100 people.
Some government-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 UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (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."
The armed opposition in Syria has become increasingly fractured, with groups competing for support and resources, as well as widespread fighting between extremists and more moderate rebel militias. Several armed opposition groups have committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), an extremist armed group operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, poses an ongoing threat to civilians as its forces have carried out mass executions and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. The CoI has reported that ISIL has committed crimes against humanity. On 28 December the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that ISIL killed 1,878 people in Syria during the previous six months, most of whom were civilians.
After six weeks of United States airstrikes on ISIL positions in Iraq, on 23 September Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the United States commenced airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported on 23 December that at least 1,170 people, most of whom were ISIL fighters, had been killed by the airstrikes, as well as 52 civilians.
ISIL initiated a siege of the Kurdish town of Kobane, near the Turkish border, on 6 October. The UN Secretary-General and the new UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for international action to protect trapped Kurdish civilians. On 20 October Turkey opened its borders for Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross into Syria and provide support to Kurdish forces in Kobane. As of 26 January 2015 Kurdish fighters have reportedly reclaimed control of the town.
OCHA has reported that all parties to the Syrian conflict have laid sieges and impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians. On 30 October Assistant Secretary-General Kang reported that despite improved access following UNSC resolution 2165 of 14 July, the humanitarian situation continues to worsen and the level of violence, death and destruction remains unrelenting.
Lebanon, which hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, has seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government. On 5 January the government imposed new visa restrictions for Syrians attempting to cross into Lebanon. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting against Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border and has vowed to remain militarily active inside Syria.
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 the Syrian government with crucial economic, military and political support.
International diplomatic negotiations have stalled. The "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the violence in Syria, finished on 15 February 2014 with no tangible political progress. A plan proposed by Special Envoy de Mistura to implement a local conflict "freeze" in Aleppo has failed to secure agreement.
ANALYSIS With all sides in Syria 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.
The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes. With superior capabilities and external assistance, the Syrian government was able to make significant military gains in several provinces during 2014.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has strengthened the position of the government and 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. Sanctions have had limited success as Syria's few remaining allies continue to provide crucial economic insulation. 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. Nevertheless, it remains imperative that diplomatic efforts be reinvigorated.
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 August 2014, 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. However, since September 2013 the UNSC has also passed Resolution 2118, regarding the destruction of chemical weapons, and Resolutions 2139 and 2165, demanding increased humanitarian access. Resolutions 2139 and 2165 also reaffirmed the need for the government to uphold its primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population. On 22 May 2014 Russia and China vetoed a fourth resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation.
On 15 August the UNSC adopted Resolution 2170 on threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. The resolution condemned "gross, systematic and widespread abuses" of human rights by ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating in Syria and Iraq, placing six individuals on its sanctions list.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 13 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The most recent, passed on 23 September, condemned violations of IHL and international human rights law and demanded that the government uphold its responsibility to protect the population.
On 18 December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning widespread and systematic violations of human rights and IHL by the Syrian authorities and various armed groups, including ISIL. The resolution urged all parties to take appropriate steps to protect civilians, including members of minority ethnic and religious communities.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must halt the commission of mass atrocity crimes and adhere to IHL. All sides must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139 and 2165.
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 arming and enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al-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 towards finding a political solution to the conflict and increasing humanitarian assistance to populations trapped or displaced by the civil war. States participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Last Updated:13 February 2015