Populations in Syria continue to face war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by various state forces and non-state armed groups.
Since the armed conflict between the government and opposition groups in Syria began in 2011 at least 580,000 people have been killed. 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. 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 13.4 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance.
While various parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate serious violations and abuses of international law, over the past year the conflict has shifted away from large-scale military hostilities along major frontlines to localized clashes between armed groups and government forces.
In southern Syria, clashes have escalated between government forces and armed opposition groups, particularly in Dara’a governorate, since July. A fragile ceasefire was reached on 1 September, but quickly unraveled as Syrian government forces continued to launch raids, airstrikes and missile attacks, including with so-called “elephant rockets,” causing civilian deaths. The government has also besieged towns and imposed heavy restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid and on civilians attempting to flee. More than 35,000 civilians have been displaced since late July. Government forces also continue to commit murder, torture and sexual violence as a matter of state policy. The CoI recorded over 130 targeted killings of medical workers, former judges, and “reconciliation leaders” between July 2020 and April 2021.
Despite a ceasefire in northwest Syria brokered in March 2020 between Russia and Turkey, there has been a marked escalation in hostilities since January 2021 in Idlib governorate. Ground fighting, shelling and airstrikes – perpetrated by forces loyal to the Syrian government – have damaged medical facilities, markets and schools, particularly in Jabal al-Zawiya. According to the CoI, the attacks have caused dozens of civilian deaths and greatly reduced access to food, water, healthcare and adequate housing. The armed extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham also continues to perpetrate abuses, including arbitrarily detaining activists and journalists. In northwest Syria, approximately 3.4 million people are in need of humanitarian aid and 2.7 million are internally displaced.
Elsewhere in northern Syria, the Syrian National Army and other Turkish-backed armed groups have perpetrated torture, sexual violence, systematic looting and arbitrary detention. Meanwhile, indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes by government forces in Aleppo and across northern Syria have hit densely populated neighborhoods, hospitals and displacement camps, resulting in dozens of civilian casualties. Improvised explosive devices are frequently detonated in crowded areas and have killed and wounded hundreds of civilians.
The UN Secretary-General’s report on children and armed conflict confirmed more than 4,724 grave violations across Syria in 2020, including killing, maiming and the recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Additionally, at least 40,000 children of alleged so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters from 57 countries remain trapped in squalid detention camps run by the Kurdish- backed Syrian Defense Forces.
The 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 alleges may amount to the war crime of collective punishment. Government forces have reportedly subjected civilians returning to Syria after fleeing abroad to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has documented the illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria. Its Investigation and Identification Team released two reports in 2020 and 2021 that attribute responsibility to government forces for the use of chemical weapons, including chlorine gas and sarin. The CoI has also reported on 37 instances of chemical weapons use in Syria since March 2013, including 32 attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government.
For the past 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 a fragmented Syria, civilians continue to face systematic human rights violations. The Syrian government and other parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate detention and disappearance as a strategy to control and intimidate civilians. Ongoing violations of various ceasefire agreements greatly increase the risk of a recurrence of large-scale conflict.
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 international accountability measures.
The government of Syria has manifestly failed to uphold its responsibility to protect and 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 censured the Syrian government for its widespread violations of human rights. The UN Secretary-General has also 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 27 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 resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed an additional 6. On 9 July the UNSC adopted Resolution 2585, extending authorization for cross-border aid for six months.
On 21 December 2016 the UN General Assembly 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 also initiated domestic legal proceedings against suspected Syrian perpetrators under universal jurisdiction. The first conviction of a member of Syria’s intelligence services for complicity in crimes against humanity was delivered in Germany on 24 February 2021.
On 18 September 2020 the government of the Netherlands formally requested negotiations with the Syrian government on allegations of torture as a first step towards holding Syria accountable for violations of the UN Convention against Torture. The government of Canada issued a similar request on 4 March.
On 21 April a majority of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty.
All parties to the conflict must uphold their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including ending attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. A timetable for the release of all detainees and abductees should be established. All parties should also uphold the ceasefire agreements in the northwest, northeast and south.
All returns of refugees and other displaced Syrians must be in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement. Syrian authorities must ensure the protection of all returnees.
UN member states should continue to pursue accountability for alleged perpetrators of atrocities under universal jurisdiction. The UNSC must work towards the establishment of an independent international mechanism to clarify the fate and whereabouts of those missing and disappeared in Syria. The UNSC should also refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.