Populations at Risk Current Crisis


Populations continue to face the threat of mass atrocity crimes committed by government forces and their allies in Syria's ongoing civil war. Various armed opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are also committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Despite the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey on 30 December and the resumption of the UN-led intra-Syrian peace talks on 23 February, fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups intensified throughout February and early March. Nearly 66,000 people have been displaced by recent fighting and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the deaths of 769 civilians, including 180 children, during February.

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 February 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 3.9 million in inaccessible areas. According to OCHA, 643,780 people continue to be trapped in 13 besieged locations across the country.

For almost 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, claiming hundreds of lives and destroying hospitals, schools and markets. The CoI labeled the evacuation of civilians from formerly opposition-held eastern Aleppo "a policy of forced displacement" and named the Syrian Air Force responsible for the 19 September attack on a humanitarian aid convoy in the town of Urum al-Kubra. Government airstrikes in residential areas contravene UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons.

The government has also routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UNSC resolutions. Despite the ceasefire, humanitarian access has deteriorated since the start of 2017. In February only two inter-agency aid convoys were able to reach their intended destination. Attacks against health facilities have also 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. On 22 February OCHA reported that at least 300 civilians had been killed in anti-ISIL operations taking place in Ar-Raqqa and Al-Bab. According to the SOHR, ISIL killed at least 3,700 civilians in Syria between June 2014 and March 2017.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) has found evidence of Syrian government forces and ISIL using chemical weapons. The JIM has 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. On 13 February Human Rights Watch reported that between 17 November and 13 December 2016 Syrian government forces used chlorine as a weapon on at least eight occasions during its offensive to retake Aleppo. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UNSC Resolution 2118 of September 2013.

An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that coalition airstrikes killed at least 920 civilians between September 2014 and November 2016. 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 3,209 ISIL fighters and 4,925 civilians, including 1,190 children, as of 28 February 2017.

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.

Widespread ceasefire violations demonstrate that all sides in Syria remain committed to 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). A lasting 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. 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.

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.

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 has failed to adequately respond to the conflict. 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.

On 28 February Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution that would have imposed sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter on Syrian government officials and entities linked to chemical weapons attacks and placed an embargo on arms sales and chemicals intended to be used as weapons. This was the sixth joint veto of a UNSC resolution by China and Russia since 2011. Russia also independently vetoed another Syria resolution on 8 October 2016.

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.

On 21 December the UN General Assembly voted to establish an impartial, independent, international investigative mechanism to collect evidence of atrocities in Syria. UN Secretary-General António Guterres submitted the terms of reference during January and intends to operationalize the mechanism, which is located in Geneva, as soon as possible.

On 24 and 25 January Russia, Turkey and Iran coordinated negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan between government and opposition forces. Following the talks they announced their intention to create a trilateral mechanism to monitor compliance with the ceasefire. The UN hosted another round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva from 23 February to 3 March. The talks are scheduled to resume on 23 March.

Russia and Turkey need to press their respective Syrian allies to uphold the ceasefire 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. The Secretary-General should present the full report of the Board of Inquiry into the September 2016 humanitarian convoy attack to the UNSC, and Council members should immediately take action based upon the findings. UNSC members must also support efforts to hold accountable all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, as outlined in reports by the JIM.

UN member states should cooperate fully with the impartial, independent, international investigative mechanism established by the General Assembly and facilitate its work through the provision of voluntary funding. Member states should also provide crucial technical assistance.

In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, their international allies, and armed opposition groups must facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations.

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.

Last Updated: 15 March 2017