BACKGROUND: More than four and a half years of conflict in Syria has resulted in over 240,000 people killed. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that as of 6 September there were over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, with at least 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 27 October that over 13.5 million Syrians are in need of "some form of protection and humanitarian assistance" – an increase of 1.2 million people in ten months. All parties to the conflict have impeded humanitarian access to vulnerable civilians, with 4.5 million Syrians in inaccessible areas, an estimated 393,000 of whom are living in areas under siege.
The conflict has been increasingly influenced by the intervention of foreign powers. On 30 September Russia commenced major airstrikes in Syria, claiming it would target the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, it has been reported that most munitions have been dropped on non-ISIL-held positions, including civilian-populated areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that at least 23 civilians were killed in a 7 November airstrike in Douma. As of 5 November Russia's military presence in Syria has reportedly grown to 4,000 personnel.
In its tenth report, the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) said that Syrians of all backgrounds "have been the subject of crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as other serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations of their human rights" that are "massive in extent and scope." On 28 September UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC.
The government continues to conduct airstrikes in densely populated 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 Violations Documentation Center in Syria reported to the UNSC on 26 June that 3,831 people had been killed by barrel bombs since Resolution 2139 was passed. The Syria Civil Defense reported that government air raids on 31 October struck a busy market in Douma, killing at least 61 civilians. The government also continues to obstruct the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening UNSC Resolutions 2165 and 2191.
On 7 May the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) informed the UNSC that its inspectors had found traces of sarin and ricin at three military locations, despite the government's agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. In addition, an OPCW Fact-Finding Mission created in April 2014 has presented three reports establishing that chlorine continues to be used as a chemical weapon in Syria. The mission's mandate, however, prevented it from attributing responsibility to any party.
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 civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances as crimes against humanity."
Several armed opposition groups have also committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. On 16 June a rebel bombardment of Aleppo killed 34 people, including 12 children, according to the SOHR.
ISIL, an extremist armed group operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out mass executions and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. The CoI has reported that ISIL has committed crimes against humanity. According to the SOHR, between June 2014 and August 2015 ISIL executed 3,156 people, including 1,841 civilians. Between January and July this year ISIL also recruited an estimated 1,100 children as combatants.
Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and United States are currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that at least 1,920 ISIL fighters and 66 civilians were killed during the coalition's military operations between September 2014 and April. Following a suicide attack that killed at least 30 people in Suruc, Turkey, on 24 July the Turkish government launched airstrikes on ISIL targets in Syria for the first time.
Other 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, 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. Lebanon, which hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, has also seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government.
On 5 May the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, began bilateral meetings in Geneva with the Syrian government, several opposition groups and regional powers to assess whether there is potential for a new round of peace negotiations. On 29 July he outlined a plan to invite all warring parties to participate in working groups that address key aspects of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. However, several western-backed opposition groups released a statement on 3 October saying they did not support the plan.
On 30 October foreign ministers of several major powers, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, met in Vienna, Austria, to discuss the conflict. A joint statement emphasized the importance of accelerating diplomatic efforts and ensuring humanitarian access throughout the country. Participants agreed to engage with the UN and explore the possibility of a ceasefire. A second meeting will take place in late November.
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. Under increasing military strain, the government has suffered serious territorial losses and increasingly relies upon Iran, Hezbollah and now Russia to fight the civil war. The Syrian government directs the war against armed rebels and populations presumed to be supporting them, regardless of the consequences to civilians trapped or displaced by the fighting.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition has 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. Despite adopting several resolutions concerning humanitarian access and chemical weapons, the UNSC has been unable to enforce their compliance, while 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.
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 August 2015 see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in Syria.]
Since March 2011 the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in Syria. Four draft resolutions have been vetoed by Russia and China. On 7 August, in response to continued allegations of chemical weapons use, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2235, establishing an OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) "to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons" in Syria. On 10 September the Terms of Reference on the JIM were approved by the UNSC President. The UNSC has also passed Resolutions 2139 and 2165 on humanitarian access and indiscriminate weapons, but these have not been fully implemented.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 16 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 30 September, 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.
On 13 October the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P released a statement expressing concern over the escalation of incitement to violence on religious grounds in Syria.
NECESSARY ACTION: Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilian populations trapped or displaced by fighting, in keeping with UNSC Resolutions 2139 and 2165. The international community must intensify efforts towards finding a potential political solution to the conflict and increasing assistance to populations 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 in Syria 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 Bashar Al-Assad must withhold support to 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.
Last Updated:15 November 2015