31 May 2021
Risk Level: Current Crisis
16 UNSC vetoes blocking action and accountability

Populations 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.

Various parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate serious violations and abuses of international law, but over the past year the conflict has shifted away from large-scale military hostilities along major front lines to localized clashes between armed groups and government forces.

In northern Syria the Syrian National Army (SNA) and other Turkish-backed armed groups have perpetrated torture, sexual violence, systematic looting and arbitrary detention. Clashes in Ain Issa between the SNA and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) escalated during December, causing 10,000 civilians to flee. A further 20,000 were forced to flee in April 2021 when clashes between armed groups erupted in Qamishli.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes in Aleppo and across northern Syria have hit civilian objects, including densely populated neighborhoods, hospitals and displacement camps, resulting in dozens of civilian casualties. Clashes between non-state armed groups and Syrian government and Russian forces also continue in Idlib, where civilians and humanitarian workers still face arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other armed groups. Northern Syria has also seen an increase in the use of improvised explosive devices, resulting in over 600 civilians killed or injured during 2020.

Clashes also continue in southern Syria between government forces and armed opposition groups. Government forces have regained control over much of the south and continue to commit murder, torture and sexual violence as a matter of state policy. The government is also imposing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement and depriving individuals of their property in areas previously held by the opposition. The CoI argues this may amount to the war crime of collective punishment.

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 57 countries also remain trapped in squalid detention camps run by the SDF in northeast Syria.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has documented the illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria for over seven years. Its Investigation and Identification Team released reports in April 2020 and April 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 and continue to perpetrate violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL).

As various armed groups attempt to consolidate their control over territory in a fragmented Syria, civilians continue to face indiscriminate attacks 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. The fragility of current ceasefire agreements, particularly in the northwest, increases 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 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 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 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 HRC has also adopted 35 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the Syrian population.

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 the principle of universal jurisdiction. The first conviction of a member of President Bashar al-Assad’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 must uphold their obligations under IHL and IHRL, including ending attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and establish a timetable for the release of all detainees and abductees. All parties to the conflict must facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. 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. Ten years since the conflict first began, the UNSC should refer the situation in Syria to the ICC and ensure that atrocity crimes do not continue with impunity.


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