1 December 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
13 million people displaced after 11 years of conflict

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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated 306,887 civilian deaths from 1 March 2011 to 31 March 2021. While various parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate serious violations and abuses of international law, over the last two years the conflict has shifted away from large-scale military hostilities along major frontlines to regional clashes between armed groups and Syrian government forces.

The UN Human Rights Council-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. In central, western and southern Syria, government authorities, including intelligence authorities, perpetrate arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment in incommunicado detention on a systematic basis in areas under their control. Government forces also continue to commit murder, torture and sexual violence as a matter of state policy. Various groups also perpetrate violations in areas under their control.

In Dara’a governorate, armed opposition groups and government forces have clashed since July 2021. Though a ceasefire was reached on 1 September 2021, Syrian government forces have launched several raids, airstrikes and missile attacks, often indiscriminately. The government has also besieged areas in and around Dara’a city and imposed heavy restrictions on civilians attempting to flee and on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In northwest Syria, deadly violence remains ongoing in Idlib governorate. Ground fighting, shelling and airstrikes – perpetrated by forces loyal to the Syrian government – have damaged medical facilities, markets, schools and displacement camps. According to the CoI, the attacks regularly cause dozens of civilian deaths and have 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.

Elsewhere in northern Syria, the Syrian National Army (SNA) and other Turkish-backed armed groups have perpetrated torture, sexual violence, systematic looting and arbitrary detention. Improvised explosive devices, as well as indiscriminate shelling and government airstrikes, have killed and wounded hundreds of civilians over the past year. Ongoing hostilities between the SNA and the Kurdish-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) continue to adversely impact civilians. In northeast Syria, along the border with Türkiye, there is a risk of a potential new Turkish ground operation, similar to Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, which were characterized by likely atrocities and heightened atrocity risks in the broader region.

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 SDF. Meanwhile, the government is 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 to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture.

Nearly 13 million people have been displaced, including 6.7 million Syrian refugees. An estimated 14.6 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance and 12 million people are food insecure. The lack of cross-border aid has exacerbated humanitarian needs in northwest Syria.



For over 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. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has documented the illegal use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and some armed groups since 2013.

All parties to the conflict continue to commit 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 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. Ongoing violations of various ceasefire agreements and a potential Turkish incursion in the northeast greatly increase the risk of 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. Russia has also systematically shielded Syria from international accountability measures. The UN Secretary-General and others have repeatedly called for the UNSC to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but vetoes from Russia and China have blocked such action.

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.


Since 2013 the UNSC 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. Despite this, Russia and China have jointly vetoed ten draft resolutions on Syria and Russia has independently vetoed an additional seven. On 12 July 2022 the UNSC extended authorization for cross-border humanitarian aid through one crossing for six months.

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 against suspected Syrian perpetrators under universal jurisdiction. German courts have convicted two members of Syria’s intelligence services, Eyad A. and Anwar R., for complicity in and perpetrating crimes against humanity, respectively, and a third trial involving allegations of torture and murder by a Syrian state agent is currently underway.

On 18 September 2020 the government of the Netherlands formally requested negotiations with the Syrian government as a first step toward holding Syria accountable for violations of the UN Convention against Torture. The government of Canada issued a similar request on 4 March 2021.

On 21 April 2021 a majority of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty.

A study released in August 2022 by the UN Secretary-General recommended that the UNGA establish an independent international mechanism dedicated to clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in Syria, as well as supporting victims, survivors and their families.


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.

A timetable for the release of all detainees and abductees should be established. UN member states must also work toward the establishment of an independent international mechanism to clarify the fate and whereabouts of those missing and disappeared in Syria as recommended by the Secretary-General.

UN member states should continue to pursue accountability for alleged atrocities under universal jurisdiction. The UNSC should also refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

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