BACKGROUND: Violence has increased in Syria since mid-April, when the government launched an offensive to retake rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo. On 7 July government forces and their allies captured the Castello Road, a key artery for the residents of eastern Aleppo. According to the UN, approximately 250,000 people are at risk of injury, starvation or death due to the resulting siege of eastern Aleppo. Fighting for control of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, escalated further on 31 July as various armed opposition groups launched a coordinated offensive to break the siege from the south.
Russia and Syria jointly proposed the establishment of "exit corridors" for eastern Aleppo on 27 July. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, cautioned against the proposal, stating on 28 July that, "no one can be forced to flee, by any specific route or to any particular location." The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, also called for Russia and Syria to allow the UN to establish neutral humanitarian corridors and initiate 48-hour humanitarian pauses to allow aid to reach civilians.
On 7 August a coalition of armed opposition groups claimed to have broken the government siege of eastern Aleppo. The government has since intensified military operations around Aleppo and is increasing airstrikes, including the use of barrel bombs. There were credible reports of a deadly chlorine gas attack on the rebel-held area of Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on 10 August. On 11 August Russia announced a three-hour "humanitarian pause" in Aleppo, but clashes continued throughout the proposed ceasefire.
Attacks against health facilities have also escalated, with the Syrian American Medical Society reporting 43 attacks on medical facilities during July. Human Rights Watch has also documented six airstrikes by Syrian and Russian aircraft on health facilities in Idlib and Aleppo since the end of July. These attacks occurred despite the UN Security Council (UNSC) passing Resolution 2286 on 3 May, strongly condemning attacks on medical facilities. Physicians for Human Rights has documented 373 attacks on health facilities in Syria between March 2011 and May 2016, the vast majority committed by the Syrian government and its allies.
The violence in Aleppo followed a fragile cessation of hostilities, brokered by the United States and Russia, which came into effect on 27 February. Indirect talks between Syrian government and opposition factions, mediated by Special Envoy de Mistura, were suspended on 18 April amidst the collapsing cessation of hostilities. The cessation had enabled a UN-backed humanitarian task force to deliver desperately-needed aid to besieged areas throughout the country, but as the cessation unraveled the Syrian government returned to blocking access. The government has previously obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UNSC resolutions. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in need of protection and humanitarian assistance, with 5.5 million people in inaccessible areas. The UN Secretary-General has accused all sides in Syria of using starvation as a weapon of war.
Since the conflict began in 2011, all sides of the civil war have committed mass atrocity crimes and over 280,000 people have been killed. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that as of July 2016 there were over 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.
The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has asserted that government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. The government has conducted airstrikes in residential areas, contravening UNSC Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 17,318 indiscriminate barrel bombs were dropped in Syria during 2015, killing 2,032 people.
Government-allied militias have committed large-scale massacres and perpetrated war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). The CoI has reported that pro-government forces have conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including "extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts."
Several armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, violated 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 the SOHR, between June 2014 and March 2016 ISIL executed 4,064 people, including 2,200 civilians.
An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 4,195 ISIL fighters and 391 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and April 2016. On 13 August a coalition of Syrian and Kurdish armed opposition groups called the Syrian Democratic Forces, operating with air support from the international coalition, liberated the key northern city of Manbij from ISIL after a battle that lasted more than seventy days.
Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria on 30 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 where Russian aircraft have bombed besieged areas in the east of the city. The SOHR reported on 29 May that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,270 ISIL fighters and 2,099 civilians, including over 500 children.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some armed opposition 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. A sustained cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving the stalled peace talks.
The government, with support from its allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs and perpetrate crimes against humanity and war crimes against armed rebels and populations presumed to be supporting them. Russian airstrikes have enabled the government to regain significant territory previously lost to opposition forces, and besiege eastern Aleppo.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL, which were 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 full compliance, with significant divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members.
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 Syria government for its widespread violations of human rights. Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict. The CoI, UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC. [For responses prior to November 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
Since 14 November the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) - including the UN, European Union (EU), League of Arab States and other countries - has met five times, agreeing on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices. On 18 December the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, endorsing an ISSG Road Map for a peace process, including a nationwide ceasefire and accelerating the delivery of humanitarian aid. On 26 February the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2268, endorsing the 22 February cessation of hostilities agreement and calling upon all sides to allow unrestricted humanitarian access to civilians.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 17 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 1 July, stressed that the primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population lies with the Syrian authorities.
On 12 May the UNSC issued a Press Statement expressing outrage at recent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and reaffirming the "primary responsibility of the Syrian government to protect the population in Syria." The UNSC held an Arria Formula meeting on the situation in Aleppo on 8 August.
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 affected by the civil war.
The UNSC needs to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria. The UNSC must act expeditiously to establish neutral humanitarian corridors and secure desperately needed food and emergency medical supplies for besieged civilian populations in Aleppo and elsewhere. In keeping with Resolution 2118, the alleged use of chemical weapons in Zubdiya should be thoroughly investigated by the OPCW and the findings reported to the UNSC. The UNSC must take action to end the use of indiscriminate and illegal weapons and hold all perpetrators accountable, regardless of their position or affiliation. Parties to the conflict who have breached UNSC Resolutions 2118, 2139, 2165 and 2258 must be held accountable under international law.
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 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 Syrian allies to reestablish the cessation of hostilities and engage in meaningful negotiations over how to fundamentally resolve Syria's conflict.
Last Updated: 15 August 2016