Populations continue to face war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by various state forces and non-state armed groups in Syria’s decade-long conflict.
After nearly ten years of fighting, every party to the conflict in Syria continues to perpetrate serious violations and abuses of international law, with the Syrian government remaining the primary perpetrator.
The government of Syria continues to commit murder, torture and sexual violence as a matter of state policy, violations that may amount to crimes against humanity. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria has reported more than 130,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances since 2011, with the majority attributable to the Syrian government. The Syrian government is also imposing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement and depriving individuals of their property in areas previously held by the opposition, which the CoI has asserted may amount to the war crime of collective punishment. The CoI also found that the Syrian government and Russian forces perpetrated war crimes during their April 2019–March 2020 offensive in Idlib and that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” they intentionally terrorized civilian populations.
Over the past few months the conflict in Syria has shifted away from large-scale military hostilities, with various parties to the conflict now consolidating their control over civilian populations. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, civilians have been subjected to arrests, torture and enforced disappearances, and at least 1,743 were extrajudicially killed in 2020. Since March there has also been a dramatic increase in civilian casualties from improvised explosive devices, with over 600 civilians killed or injured in attacks in populated areas during 2020.
In northern Syria, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) has perpetrated torture, sexual violence, systematic looting and arbitrary detention of civilians. In Afrin, Turkish-backed armed groups, including the al-Hamzat Division and Jaish al-Islam, have kidnapped, arbitrarily arrested and tortured civilians. Clashes in Ain Issa between the SNA and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) escalated at the end of December, causing 10,000 civilians to flee. Clashes between non-state armed groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and Syrian government and Russian forces, are ongoing in Idlib, where civilians and humanitarian workers face arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings by HTS and other armed groups.
Meanwhile in southern Syria, clashes have intensified between government forces and armed opposition groups. Indiscriminate artillery shelling and rocket attacks in Dara’a and Suwayda governorates have caused civilian deaths and injuries. In Dara’a governorate targeted assassinations and killings have also increased.
Since the armed conflict between the government and opposition groups in Syria began in 2011 at least 580,000 people have been killed. Nearly 13 million people have been displaced – the largest number displaced by any conflict in the world – including 6.7 million Syrian refugees. An estimated 12 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has continued to carry out attacks in Deir Ezzour, Hasakeh, Badiya Al-Sham and Resafa. At least 58,000 children of alleged ISIL fighters from more than 60 countries remain trapped in detention camps run by the SDF in northeastern Syria. The Head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, reported during July 2020 that 700 detainees, including women and children, had recently died due to a lack of medicine, food and water. The humanitarian crisis in the camps has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For almost a decade the government of Syria, its allies and armed opposition groups have all perpetrated attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, blatantly disregarding international law. All parties to the conflict have committed acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. As various armed groups attempt to consolidate their control over territory in Syria, civilians face the ongoing risk of atrocities.
The grave situation across Syria is partly a consequence of the inability of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to hold perpetrators accountable. The Syrian government has directly violated various UNSC resolutions, and Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures.
The government of Syria has not only manifestly failed to uphold its responsibility to protect, it bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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 UN Secretary-General has repeatedly called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Despite this, the UNSC has failed to respond effectively. Since 2013 the Council has passed 26 resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria. Several refer to the government’s responsibility to protect populations, but none have been fully implemented. Russia and China have jointly vetoed 10 draft UNSC resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed an additional 6. The two latest vetoes, on 8 and 10 July 2020, blocked the renewal of a mandate for cross-border aid delivery. The Council finally passed a resolution on 11 July permitting border crossings through only one opening, further restricting life-saving food and medical supplies to millions of people in northern Syria. During December the UN General Assembly (UNGA) passed its annual resolution on Syria, urging the UNSC to reauthorize the border crossings closed in 2020.
On 21 December 2016 the UNGA voted to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. A number of countries have initiated domestic legal proceedings against suspected Syrian perpetrators under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The first trial of members of President Bashar al-Assad’s security services for alleged crimes against humanity, including torture, commenced in Germany on 23 April 2020. On 18 September the government of the Netherlands formally requested negotiations with the government of Syria on allegations of torture as a first step towards holding Syria accountable for violations of the UN Convention against Torture.
The HRC has adopted 35 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the Syrian population.
All parties must uphold their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including ending attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and establish a timetable for the release of all detainees and abductees. 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 and ensure the protection of all civilians. Parties to the conflict should uphold the ceasefire agreements in the northwest and northeast.
All returns of refugees and other displaced Syrians must be in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement.
UN member states should continue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The UNSC should immediately refer the situation in Syria to the ICC and ensure that atrocity crimes do not continue with impunity.