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 more than three 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. Ongoing fighting has left at least 10.8 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 4.7 million of whom remain in inaccessible areas.

On 30 July the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, said that attacks on civilians continue "in flagrant violation of the most basic principles of international humanitarian and human rights law." The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) reported on 13 August that as fierce fighting between government forces and non-state armed groups continues, the "risks of the conflict spreading further are palpable."

The UN has reported that all parties to the conflict have laid sieges and impeded humanitarian access. Following the 14 July adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) 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 5 August the World Food Programme reported that improved access to affected civilians had allowed for "significant progress" in food deliveries, reaching over 300,000 people in besieged areas. 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.

The government continues its bombardment of opposition-held residential areas. A 30 July Human Rights Watch report documented over 650 new damage sites "consistent with barrel bomb impacts on neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo held by non-state armed groups." These attacks directly contravene
UNSC Resolution 2139 of 22 February, which demanded a halt to the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.

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.

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." Some opposition groups have also committed mass atrocity crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. On 28 August al-Nusra Front attacked and held hostage more than 100 peacekeepers from the UN Disarmament Observer Force, which operates in the Golan Heights.

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 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIL executed 700 members of the al-Sheitaat tribe in Syria, most of them civilians, during the first two weeks of August. The 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 also strengthened its overall position. On 24 August ISIL forces seized Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province from Syrian government forces following intense fighting. ISIL reportedly executed an estimated 250 Syrian government soldiers after overrunning the airbase.

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. On 10 September United States President Barack Obama vowed to "destroy" ISIL, including through possible air strikes against their forces in Syria.

The conflict poses a growing threat to stability throughout the Middle East. Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, has seen sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Assad 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 both reaffirmed the Syrian government's 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 12 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The most recent, passed on 28 March, condemned violations of IHL and international human rights law and demanded that the government uphold its responsibility to protect.

The UN-League of Arab States Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned on 31 May, citing limited prospects for a political settlement to the conflict. On 11 July the UN Secretary- General announced Staffan de Mistura as the new UN Special Envoy to Syria.

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 September 2014