31 August 2023
Risk Level: Current Crisis

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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Since 2021, the conflict has shifted away from large-scale military hostilities along major frontlines to regional clashes between armed groups and Syrian government forces. Various parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate serious violations and abuses of international law. Government forces have committed murder, torture and sexual violence as a matter of state policy. 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, have perpetrated torture, sexual violence, systematic looting and arbitrary detention.

Despite the ceasefire reached between armed opposition groups and government forces in Dara’a governorate on 1 September 2021, insecurity continues across the south as Syrian government forces clash with opposition armed groups. 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. Throughout areas under its control, the government systematically perpetrates arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention.

Violence remains ongoing in Idlib governorate where ground fighting, shelling and airstrikes – perpetrated by forces loyal to the Syrian government – have damaged medical facilities, markets, schools and displacement camps, causing dozens of civilian deaths and greatly reducing access to food, water, medical care 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, including the northeast, escalating hostilities and strikes between the SNA and Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) continue to adversely impact civilians. Improvised explosive devices, as well as indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes, have killed and wounded hundreds of civilians over the past year.

In 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 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. The CoI concluded in 2016 that ISIL perpetrated likely genocide against Yazidis and other minorities. At least 23,000 children of alleged ISIL fighters from 60 countries 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.

Nearly 13 million people have been displaced, including 6.7 million Syrian refugees. An estimated 15.3 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance and over 12 million people are food insecure.

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. The UN Secretary-General and others have repeatedly called for the UNSC to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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.


On 8 June 2023 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. Canada and the Netherlands also filed a request for indication of provisional measures from the Court, for which public hearings will commence on 10 October 2023.

The CoI has reported more than 130,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances since 2011, with the majority attributable to the Syrian government. Syrian victim, survivor and family associations, coordinating under the Truth and Justice Charter, articulated their collective needs and identified the necessity for a single contact point to assist them in clarifying the fate of those missing and to support those directly affected. Following their intensive advocacy, 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, as well as to provide support to victims, survivors and their families.

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 need in northwest Syria.


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. 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.


    • Ongoing likely war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by all parties to the conflict, particularly the government.
    • Impunity enjoyed by all perpetrators for atrocity crimes.
    • Inadequate state structures to protect the most vulnerable, including internally displaced persons, returning refugees and minorities.
    • Inability or refusal to address the situation of those missing and disappeared, as well as the continued commission of enforced disappearances and associated violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict.
    • Limited government cooperation with any international mechanisms.


All parties to the conflict must uphold their obligations under IHL and IHRL, 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. Public hearings at the ICJ related to provisional measures must be as inclusive and representative of all Syrian victims and survivors as possible, centering their rights and needs in the hearings. The UNSC should also refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.


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