Populations at Risk Current Crisis


The ongoing civil war in Syria leaves populations facing mass atrocity crimes committed by state security forces and affiliated militias. Some armed opposition groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are also committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
BACKGROUND: After three and a half years of conflict in Syria over 191,000 people have been killed. There are over 3 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of the conflict. On 30 September the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, reported that the crisis has left 11 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 4.7 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas. A further 241,000 people are being deliberately besieged, mostly by government forces. The conflict also continues to pose a threat to peace and stability throughout the entire Middle East.

The government continues its bombardment of opposition-held residential areas. Nearly 50 people were killed in Talbiseh, Homs province, after two days of government air strikes between 16 and 17 September. These attacks directly contravene UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2139 of 22 February, which demanded a halt to the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.

The armed opposition in Syria has become increasingly fractured, causing friction between groups competing for support and resources, with widespread fighting between extremists and more moderate rebel militias. In particular, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), an extremist armed group operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, has made significant advances. The rise of ISIL poses a imminent risk to civilians as its forces have previously carried out beheadings, mass executions, and the sexual enslavement of women and girls in areas under their control. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) reported on 13 August that ISIL has committed crimes against humanity. ISIL now reportedly controls one-third of Syria's territory and its rapid military advance in Iraq has strengthened its overall position.

On 23 September, after six weeks of airstrikes on ISIL positions in Iraq, the governments of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined the United States in launching airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. As ISIL advanced on the Turkish border, Turkey's parliament voted on 2 October to allow its military to enter Syria and Iraq if necessary.

After a three-week battle, on 6 October ISIL fighters entered the Kurdish town of Kobane near the Turkish border and continue to engage in fighting with Kurdish forces for control of the area. While the United-States-led coalition increased airstrikes, ISIL has now seized more than one-third of Kobane. The UN Secretary-General and the new UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for the international community to take immediate action to protect Kurdish civilians trapped in the area.

Other 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 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." ISIL and other opposition groups have also committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack.

The UN has reported that all parties to the conflict have laid sieges and impeded humanitarian access. While on 14 July the UNSC adopted Resolution 2165, authorizing cross-border humanitarian aid, the first UN convoy crossed into Syria from Turkey on 24 July, delivering assistance to 26,000 people in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. On 28 August the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, reported that despite improved access, the overall plight of the Syrian people has worsened.

A UN investigation confirmed that on 21 August 2013 a large-scale sarin attack, delivered by rockets, hit several areas of Ghouta, Damascus, killing an estimated 1,400 people. Between 6 October 2013 and 23 June 2014 a joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission undertook the process of dismantling and destroying Syria's chemical weapons. On 10 September an OPCW fact-finding mission concluded that chlorine gas was used on 17 April in attacks on Kfar Zeita, a village in Hama Province.

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.

Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, has seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's government. Suicide bombings have killed dozens of people during 2014. 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.

Attempts at international diplomatic negotiations have stalled. The "Geneva II" peace conference, aimed at ending the violence in Syria, finished on 15 February with no tangible political progress.

ANALYSIS With each side 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 has been 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 July 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. On 22 May 2014 Russia and China vetoed a fourth resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC for investigation. However, since September 2013 the UNSC has also passed three resolutions on Syria - Resolution 2118, regarding the destruction of chemical weapons, and Resolutions 2139 and 2165, demanding increased humanitarian access. Resolutions 2139 and 2165 reaffirmed the urgent need for the Syrian government to uphold its primary responsibility to protect the population.

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 affiliated with the groups on its al-Qaeda 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 committed against civilians and demanded that the government meets its responsibility to protect the population.

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 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.

Last Updated:15 October 2014