On 4 April at least 86 people, including 28 children, were killed in a chemical weapons attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. Eyewitness reports, videos and photographic evidence appear to show victims suffering from symptoms consistent with severe exposure to a nerve agent, such as sarin gas.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigation Mechanism (OPCW-JIM) has previously determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas in three separate incidents between 2014 and 2015 and that ISIL was responsible for a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack. The OPCW-JIM Fact Finding Mission is currently investigating the Khan Shaykhun incident, and if verified, it would be the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the August 2013 attack on Eastern Ghouta, which killed more than 1,000 people. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2118 of September 2013.
Following the Khan Shaykhun attack, the United States carried out a unilateral strike on Al Shayrat airfield in Homs governorate. The strike was intended to reduce the Syrian government's ability to deliver chemical weapons, and marked the first time the United States has taken direct military action against the Syrian government. The strike was followed by a UNSC meeting on 12 April, during which Russia vetoed a draft resolution that would have condemned the Khan Shaykhun attack and obligated the Syrian government to comply with recommendations of the OPCW-JIM. This marked Russia's eighth veto of a draft resolution regarding the situation in Syria.
Additional fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups across the country intensified significantly throughout March and early April. Over 84,000 people were displaced by fighting in March alone, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the deaths of 858 civilians, including 141 children.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 465,000 people have been killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of March 2017 there were 5 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with 4.6 million in inaccessible areas. According to OCHA, 643,780 people continue to be trapped in 13 besieged locations across the country.
For five years the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has consistently reported that government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. The most recent report of the CoI determined that between July and December 2016, Syrian and Russian forces deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure in air strikes. The CoI labeled the evacuation of civilians from formerly opposition-held eastern Aleppo "a policy of forced displacement" and named the Syrian Air Force as being responsible for the 19 September attack on a humanitarian aid convoy in the town of Urum al-Kubra.
The Syrian government and armed opposition groups have continued to agree to localized ceasefire deals. During April, an agreement was reached regarding the four besieged towns of Foah, Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani. The residents of the towns of Foah and Kefraya are being evacuated in return for safe passage for residents of the opposition-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani. It is estimated that more than 30,000 people will be relocated. On 15 April civilians being evacuated from Fouah and Kefraya were attacked with a car bomb, killing at least 126 people, including over 60 children. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Government forces have also routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UNSC resolutions. Humanitarian access has deteriorated since the start of 2017, and attacks against health facilities have continued.
Numerous armed opposition groups have committed war crimes, violated international humanitarian law (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 UNHCR, over 400,000 civilians are at risk due to ongoing military operations against ISIL's self-proclaimed capital of Ar-Raqqa. According to the SOHR, ISIL killed at least 3,700 civilians in Syria between June 2014 and March 2017.
An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that coalition airstrikes killed about 1,100 civilians between September 2014 and March 2017. 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 3,315 ISIL fighters and 5,013 civilians, including 1,201 children, as of 30 March 2017.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some armed opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide essential economic and military support to the Syrian government.
All sides in Syria remain committed to military victory and lives of countless civilians are still imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of illegal weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL), and directly contravene UNSC resolutions 2286 and 2139. Any local ceasefire agreements reached by the Syrian government and opposition parties that result in the involuntary transfer of civilian populations constitutes a violation of IHL. A lasting and comprehensive ceasefire is vital for the protection of civilians and the future of peace talks.
The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. Since late 2015, combined Syrian and Russian airstrikes have enabled government forces to regain significant territory previously lost to opposition groups. The direct participation of Russian aircraft in the bombardment of eastern Aleppo and elsewhere makes them complicit in alleged war crimes.
Additionally, possible targeting changes by the United States-led coalition have led to an increase in civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL and several other armed groups pose a direct threat to civilians, especially those from minority religious communities.
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. The CoI, former 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.
Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed 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 have been fully implemented. Additionally, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six UNSC draft resolutions, and Russia has independently vetoed a further two draft resolutions on 8 October 2016 and 12 April 2017.
On 21 December the UN General Assembly voted to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation of atrocities in Syria. UN Secretary-General António Guterres submitted the IIIM's terms of reference during January and intends to operationalize the mechanism as soon as possible.
On 24 and 25 January Russia, Turkey and Iran coordinated negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan between government and opposition forces. The UN hosted another round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva from 23 to 31 March.
On 4 and 5 April a high-level donor conference, co-chaired by the European Union, UN, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar and the United Kingdom, took place in Brussels. During the conference 41 donors pledged US$6 billion for 2017 to support humanitarian assistance in Syria and the region.
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 all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations. The UNSC must take meaningful and proximate steps to halt atrocities and end the civil war. This should include supporting efforts to investigate and hold accountable all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
UN member states should fully cooperate with the IIIM established by the General Assembly and facilitate its work through the provision of voluntary funding. Member states should also provide crucial technical assistance.
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. The US-led coalition must ensure their military operations fully comply with their obligations under international law. All potential violations, including possible war crimes, must be thoroughly investigated.
Last Updated: 17 April 2017