Populations in Syria continue to face war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by various state forces and non-state armed groups.
Since March 2011 the government and opposition groups in Syria have engaged in an armed conflict. The protracted crisis has its roots in President Bashar al-Assad government’s brutal suppression of protests in 2011, which quickly devolved into an internationalized country-wide conflict characterized by rampant atrocity crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons. During the conflict, Syrian government forces have been bolstered by Russian airstrikes, which commenced in September 2015. Since the start of the conflict at least 580,000 people have been killed, including an estimated 306,887 civilians who died from 1 March 2011 to 31 March 2021, according to the most recent civilian casualty figures from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Resource, access and logistical challenges in casualty recording impede updated data collection. Nearly 13 million people have been displaced, including 6.7 million Syrian refugees.
Throughout areas under its control, the government systematically perpetrates arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention. In areas previously held by the opposition, the government is imposing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement and depriving individuals of their property, which the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria alleges may amount to the war crime of collective punishment. Government forces have also reportedly subjected civilians returning to Syria to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture. Meanwhile, armed groups, like the Syrian National Army (SNA) and other Turkish-backed groups, perpetrate torture, ill-treatment, systematic looting and arbitrary detention.
Syrians continuously suffer from escalating hostilities and unrest along multiple regional frontlines, including across southern, northwest and northeast Syria. In northwest Syria, including in Idlib governorate, ground fighting, shelling and airstrikes have continued despite a ceasefire that has been in place since March 2020. Elsewhere in northern Syria, escalating hostilities and strikes between the SNA and Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) continue while improvised explosive devices, as well as indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes, have killed and wounded hundreds of civilians over the past year. The government has also imposed a blockade in northern Aleppo since August 2022, inflicting severe shortages of fuel, aid and medical supplies on tens of thousands of civilians, including those internally displaced. The armed extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham also continues to perpetrate abuses, including arbitrarily detaining activists and journalists and torture and ill-treatment in detention.
In 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared a caliphate across Iraq and Syria and perpetrated widespread abuses against civilians until the group was militarily defeated in their last territorial stronghold in 2019. At least 52,000 people, mainly women and children, remain trapped in squalid detention camps run by the Kurdish-backed SDF. The CoI has reported that the conditions may amount to cruel or inhuman treatment and may constitute the war crime of outrage upon personal dignity, while the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism has reported that the indefinite detention of children with no legal process likely amounts to fundamental breaches of the rights of the child under international law.
The grave situation across Syria is partly a consequence of the inability of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to hold perpetrators accountable. Since 2013 the UNSC has passed 29 resolutions on the situation in Syria; however, none have been fully implemented and the Syrian government has directly violated many of them. Russia and China have jointly vetoed ten draft resolutions on Syria and Russia has independently vetoed an additional eight, systematically shielding Syria from international accountability measures. On 11 July, due to a veto by Russia, the UNSC failed to renew the mandate for cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries at the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Türkiye – the only remaining crossing within the cross-border mandate – jeopardizing aid to over four million people in northwest Syria.
To close the accountability gap, on 21 December 2016 the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. Several countries have also initiated domestic legal proceedings or convicted suspected Syrian perpetrators under universal jurisdiction.
Since September 2023 hostilities have intensified in northwest Syria, with continuous shelling and airstrikes hitting civilian objects and critical infrastructure, including the main power station in Idlib city, schools, health facilities, displacement camps, markets and mosques. According to Human Rights Watch, Syrian forces have used incendiary weapons and widely banned cluster munitions during their attacks. At least 70 civilians have been killed and 303 injured, while approximately 120,000 people have been newly displaced. Attacks, including airstrikes and artillery shelling, have continued on a near-daily basis.
On 8 June Canada and the Netherlands jointly initiated proceedings against Syria before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concerning alleged violations of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. On 16 November the ICJ issued provisional measures calling on the government of Syria to take all measures within its power to prevent acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, ensure its officials do not commit any acts of torture and to guarantee the preservation of any relevant evidence.
The CoI has reported more than 130,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances since 2011, with the majority attributable to the Syrian government. Following intensive advocacy by Syrian victim, survivor and family associations, coordinating under the Truth and Justice Charter, on 29 June the UNGA established the Independent Institution on Missing Persons in Syria, mandated to clarify the fate and whereabouts of all missing persons in Syria and to provide support to victims, survivors and their families.
On 19 September humanitarian aid deliveries resumed at Bab al-Hawa crossing after an agreement was reached between the UN and the Syrian government.
For over a decade the government of Syria, its allies and armed opposition groups have all perpetrated countless attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, blatantly disregarding international law. Government forces have committed murder, torture and sexual violence as a matter of state policy. All parties to the conflict continue to commit acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongoing violations of various ceasefire agreements greatly increase the risk of recurrence of large-scale conflict.
As various armed groups attempt to consolidate their control over territory in a fragmented Syria, civilians are facing indiscriminate hostilities, as well as widespread and 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, confirming ongoing patterns of crimes against humanity and war crimes. It remains unsafe for Syrians to return to their country.
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. All parties should also uphold the ceasefire agreements in the northwest, northeast and south.
The return 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 must ensure the Independent Institution on Missing Persons in Syria receives sufficient resources to be able to fully carry out its mandate. UN member states should also continue to pursue accountability for alleged atrocities under universal jurisdiction. The UNSC should also refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.