BACKGROUND: Five years of conflict in Syria has resulted in over 270,000 people killed. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that as of 11 April there were 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13.5 million Syrians are in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. All parties to the conflict have impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians, with 4.5 million Syrians in inaccessible areas, an estimated 400,000 of whom are living under siege.
On 14 November the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries – agreed on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices. After meeting in Munich on 11 and 12 February, the ISSG agreed to "the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254," including accelerating the delivery of humanitarian aid and implementing a nationwide cessation of hostilities, excluding attacks against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
To support these efforts, on 22 February the United States and Russia finally brokered a cessation of hostilities that began on 27 February. President Bashar Al-Assad's government and the opposition High Negotiation Committee both agreed to the cessation. A third round of indirect talks between Syrian government and opposition factions began in Geneva on 13 April, mediated by UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
While the cessation of hostilities has seen the general level of violence decreased, over the last several days the Syrian government, backed by support from the Russian military, launched an offensive to retake Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported on 15 April that 20 Syrian airstrikes targeted areas around Homs. Over 170 civilians were among the nearly 650 people killed during the first month of the cessation.
The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) asserted in its eleventh report, released on 22 February, that crimes against humanity continued to be committed by government forces and ISIL, while the commission of war crimes by all sides remained rampant. Meanwhile, an "overwhelming yet consistent intensification of external military involvement in Syria" was having "devastating consequences for civilians and various communities."
Syrian government forces and 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 CoI has reported that pro-government forces have conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity. Several armed opposition groups have also committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack.
In its 3 February report on deaths in detention in Syria, the CoI said that the government "has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts." The CoI and UN Secretary-General have called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC.
The government has conducted airstrikes in residential areas, contravening UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported on 10 January that 17,318 barrel bombs were dropped in Syria during 2015, killing 2,032 people.
The government has also obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening UNSC Resolutions 2165 and 2191. On 11 January an aid convoy was finally granted access to Madaya, near the Lebanese border, after a six-month blockade by pro-government forces. On 14 January the UN Secretary-General described the use of starvation as a weapon as a "war crime."
The use of chemical weapons in Syria was confirmed during 2013 by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), leading to the government agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2014. Despite this, an OPCW Fact-Finding Mission has presented three reports establishing that chlorine continues to be used as a chemical weapon in Syria. On 22 February the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism reported that seven incidents of chemical weapons use will be further investigated to determine the identity of the perpetrators.
ISIL poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out mass executions and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. According to the SOHR, between June 2014 and March 2016 ISIL executed 4,064 people, including 2,200 civilians. An international coalition of nine states is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 4,700 ISIL fighters and 380 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and March 2016.
Russia commenced its airstrikes in Syria on 30 September, claiming it would target ISIL. However, it has been reported that most airstrikes have been on other opposition forces, including in civilian-populated urban areas. The SOHR reported on 31 March that Russian airstrikes had killed 1,869 civilians, including over 440 children. On 14 March President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria as part of the peace process.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some rebel groups. Meanwhile, Iran continues to provide crucial economic, military and political support to the Syrian government. Hezbollah has directly engaged in fighting against Syrian rebels on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border.
ANALYSIS: With all sides in Syria committed to an outright military victory, the lives of countless civilians are imperiled by the ongoing civil war.
The government continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate crimes against humanity and war crimes. The government increasingly relies upon Iran, Hezbollah and Russia to fight the civil war, and directs operations against armed rebels and populations presumed to be supporting them, regardless of the consequences to civilians. Russian airstrikes have enabled the government to regain significant areas previously lost to rebel forces.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has compounded the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL, which is not part of the peace talks, and several other armed groups continue to 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. Despite adopting several resolutions concerning humanitarian access and chemical weapons, the UNSC has been unable to enforce their compliance, with significant divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. The unstable nature of the current cessation of hostilities and political intransigence on all sides further complicates the possibilities for substantive peace talks.
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 December 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
The UNSC has utterly failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Syria and to meet its obligations under the UN Charter. Four draft resolutions were vetoed by Russia and China between 2011 and 2014. During 2014 the UNSC finally passed Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191 on ending the use of indiscriminate weapons and increasing humanitarian access, but these have not been fully implemented.
On 18 December 2015, following the third meeting of the ISSG, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, endorsing a road map for a peace process, including a nationwide ceasefire. On 22 December 2015 the UNSC passed Resolution 2258, demanding that all parties comply with their obligations under IHL and renewing for 12 months the decisions of Resolution 2165, authorizing cross-border humanitarian access. Resolutions 2254 and 2258 both reiterate the primary responsibility of the Syrian government to protect populations.
On 23 December the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing grave concern at the disproportionate use of force by the Syrian authorities against its civilians, which caused immense human suffering and "demonstrates the failure of the Syrian authorities to protect its population."
On 26 February the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2268, endorsing the 22 February cessation of hostilities agreement, demanding the compliance of all parties to whom it applies, and calling upon all sides to allow humanitarian agencies unrestricted access to people in need.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 16 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 18 March, demanded that all parties take all appropriate steps to protect civilians and stressed that the primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population lies with the Syrian authorities.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2258. The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a potential political solution to the conflict while increasing assistance to populations already affected by the civil war.
The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the ICC. In keeping with Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2235, the UNSC must take expeditious action to end the use of chemical weapons and other indiscriminate and illegal weapons and hold all perpetrators accountable, regardless of position or affiliation.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Assad must withhold all support from armed groups who commit war crimes or target minority communities. All foreign states participating in airstrikes in Syria must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.
Russia and the United States need to press their respective allies to consolidate the cessation of hostilities and agree to a permanent ceasefire in conjunction with meaningful negotiations over how to fundamentally resolve Syria's conflict.
Last Updated: 15 April 2016