Since the war in Syria began in 2011 at least 560,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the government and opposition groups. There are 6.7 million Syrian refugees and nearly 13 million people are internally displaced – the largest number displaced by any conflict in the world. An estimated 12 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Since 29 April 2019 Syrian government and Russian forces have conducted an intense bombardment campaign in southern Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo governorates, with the stated goal of eradicating the armed group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has confirmed over 1,300 civilian deaths, including over 300 children, since the launch of the offensive, nearly all of which are attributable to Syrian government and Russian forces. There have been at least 68 documented attacks on healthcare facilities. Attacks by government forces have dramatically increased since the end of December, with entire villages razed and civilian evacuation routes reportedly targeted. The hostilities have resulted in over 300,000 displaced, bringing the total number of people displaced in the northwest since April to over 700,000. On 9 January 2020 Russia and Turkey announced a ceasefire in Idlib to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries.
In northeast Syria, on 9 October Turkish military forces launched “Operation Peace Spring” against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization. Since the start of the invasion there have been widespread civilian casualties as a result of airstrikes, attacks on civilian objects, summary executions and other violations that may amount to war crimes committed by Turkish forces and affiliated non-state armed groups. There has also been an increase in the indiscriminate use of IEDs in the northeast, including 49 attacks that resulted in at least 78 civilian deaths between 22 October and 3 December.
Despite a ceasefire agreement reached on 22 October, clashes continue between Turkish-backed forces and the SDF and YPG, as well as Syrian government forces. Risks associated with a potential resurgence of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are also high as Kurdish forces struggle to detain thousands of ISIL members in prisons across northeast Syria. Prior to the Turkish offensive, the SDF found numerous mass graves in areas liberated from ISIL and called for an international tribunal to deal with captured ISIL fighters.
Since 2012 the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has reported that Syrian government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes. The CoI has also reported on 37 instances of chemical weapons use since March 2013, including 32 attacks perpetrated by Syrian government forces. More than 100,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances have also been confirmed by the CoI, with the majority attributable to the Syrian government.
The government of Syria and numerous armed opposition groups have committed indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations and infrastructure, demonstrating a complete disregard for international law. Some airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition, Russia and other parties to the conflict have also violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and may constitute war crimes. The Syrian government, with support from Russia and Iran, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs.
Turkey intends to establish a “safe zone” in northeast Syria after it has been “cleared” of the YPG and SDF, and to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees there. There are fears of the potential “ethnic cleansing” of the Kurdish population, as the forced resettlement of Syrian Arab refugees may be a deliberate attempt to permanently alter the ethnic composition of northeast Syria.
Ongoing fighting in Idlib Governorate imperils the lives of millions of civilians. While the governments of Syria and Russia maintain that they are targeting HTS, the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian-populated areas and the systematic bombing of medical facilities constitute war crimes.
The government of Syria has not only manifestly failed to uphold its responsibility to protect, it bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of mass atrocity crimes.
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 UN Security Council (UNSC) has failed to respond effectively. Since 2013 the UNSC has passed 25 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. The Syrian government has directly violated various UNSC resolutions, and Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures. Russia and China have jointly vetoed eight draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further six resolutions.
Following a 30 July demarche by 10 members of the UNSC, UN Secretary-General António Guterres created a Board of Inquiry to investigate all attacks on hospitals and health facilities on the deconfliction list and other UN-supported facilities in northwest Syria.
On 21 December 2016 the UN General Assembly voted to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. Germany and a number of other countries have initiated domestic proceedings against suspected Syrian perpetrators under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The HRC has adopted 29 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria, the majority of which demand that the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population. During March 2019 the HRC extended the mandate of the CoI for an additional year.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is currently facilitating a political process under the auspices of UNSC Resolution 2254. On 19 September UN Secretary-General Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee facilitated by the UN in Geneva. It has met twice, but failed to reach an agreement on an agenda.
All parties must uphold their obligations under IHL, including ending attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and establish a timetable for identifying and releasing 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.
All parties to the conflict should adhere to the Idlib “demilitarized zone” and de-escalation agreements. The governments of Syria, Turkey and Russia should also allow the establishment of an OHCHR field presence in Idlib.
All UN member states should immediately halt arms sales to Turkey and impose targeted sanctions on those with command responsibility for possible atrocity crimes in northeast Syria. All refugee returns must be in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement with guarantees that returnees will not face persecution, discrimination or forced repatriation.
UN member states should ensure the IIIM is incorporated into the UN’s regular budget. States should also 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.
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