Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war where at least 560,000 people have been killed. There are 5.7 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.2 million people are internally displaced - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. An estimated 12 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last remaining major opposition strongholds within Syria. Idlib was designated a "de-escalation zone" in 2017 and of the 3 million civilians living within the governorate, at least 1.5 million are internally displaced. During September 2018 the governments of Turkey and Russia agreed to the establishment of a 15 kilometer-wide "demilitarized zone" within Idlib Governorate. Although opposition fighters removed all heavy weaponry from the designated area, they did not entirely withdraw their forces.
On 1 January hostilities erupted between two major armed groups within Idlib governorate - Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Nour el-Din el-Zinki. During the clashes HTS consolidated control over the Idlib area. With the support of Russia, the Syrian government increased its airstrikes and artillery attacks on densely populated areas of Idlib during March and April.
Since 30 April Syrian and Russian government forces have increased their bombardment of Idlib Governorate, damaging schools, residential areas and hospitals. These are the heaviest clashes since the September 2018 agreement and have renewed concerns of a possible major Syrian government offensive. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), at least 69 civilians were killed between 30 April and 6 May.
On 23 March 2019 the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by United States airstrikes, seized the last remaining territory from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. More than 73,000 people, mainly children and women, fled from the village of Baghouz to Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. In recently liberated areas, the SDF have reportedly found numerous mass graves and have called for an international tribunal to deal with hundreds of captured ISIL fighters. The SOHR reported that ISIL has killed approximately 5,500 civilians in Syria since June 2014 while airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have killed 3,640 civilians, including 922 children.
Since 2012 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has reported that government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes. The UN Secretary-General's report on "children and armed conflict in Syria" documented the killing of at least 3,891 children and attacks on over 350 schools and 340 hospitals by all parties to the conflict between November 2013 and June 2018.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-Joint Investigative Mechanism has also determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas between 2014-2015 while ISIL used sulfur-mustard gas in attacks during 2015-2016. On 15 October the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an investigation alleging that at least 106 chemical weapons attacks have taken place in Syria since the government acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013. The CoI has publicly reported 37 instances of chemical weapons use between March 2013 and March 2019, including 32 attacks perpetrated by Syrian government forces.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide essential military support to the Syrian government. Since September 2015 Russian airstrikes have largely targeted opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, despite the Russian government claiming their operations are only targeting terrorist groups. According to the SOHR, Russian airstrikes have killed 5,233 ISIL fighters and over 7,990 civilians, including 1,937 children, as of 30 January 2019. The CoI has reported that some Russian airstrikes may amount to war crimes.
The government of Syria, its allies and armed opposition groups have all committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of chemical weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for international law.
Ongoing fighting between rival armed opposition groups and a potential military offensive on Idlib could imperil the lives of millions of civilians. The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has also compounded the difficulty of negotiating an end to the civil war.
The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The direct participation of Russian and Iranian forces in numerous attacks on civilian-populated areas makes them complicit in alleged war crimes.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with the Syrian government and its partners often directly violating various resolutions. With bitter divisions evident amongst the permanent members of the Council, Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures.
Despite claims by the government of Syria and its allies that the war is largely over and that the international community should restore diplomatic and economic ties, the conflict remains unresolved. Domestic legislation such as Laws No. 10 and 42 (2018) and Law No. 19 (2012) raise concerns for potential returning refugees with regards to land and property rights, as well as the potential persecution of political dissidents. There are also ongoing concerns regarding the treatment of individuals in government-run detention facilities, where the CoI has documented summary executions, sexual violence and other abuses and violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
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, UN Secretary-General and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond. Since 2013 the UNSC has passed 24 resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none have been fully implemented. Meanwhile, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions. On 13 December the UNSC adopted Resolution 2449, renewing authorization of the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and lines of conflict until 10 January 2020.
The HRC has adopted 27 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population.
On 21 December 2016 the UN General Assembly voted to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. On 12 February three former Syrian secret service officers were arrested in Germany and France on allegations of torture and crimes against humanity, marking the first major arrests in Europe of members of the Syrian government under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is currently facilitating a political process under the auspices of UNSC Resolution 2254 of December 2015.
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 civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. All parties to the conflict should respect the Idlib "demilitarized zone." The governments of Syria, Turkey and Russia should immediately allow for the establishment of a field presence in Idlib for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar Al Assad must also withhold all support from armed groups that commit war crimes and target civilians.
Returns of refugees and other displaced persons must be in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement and all parties must guarantee that returnees will not face persecution, discrimination, arbitrary detention or torture. The government should repeal or amend all laws that restrict the access of returning refugees to their homes and other property.
UN member states should ensure the IIIM is incorporated into the UN's regular budget. States should also contin-ue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Last Updated: 15 May 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Syria has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the January 2012 issue.