Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between government and armed opposition forces has escalated into a civil war in which over 465,000 people have been killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of April 2017 there were 5 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with 4.53 million people in inaccessible areas, including 540,000 people trapped in 11 besieged communities.
For over five years the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has reported that 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 and violated international humanitarian law (IHL). On 6 September 2017 the CoI reported that a number of local ceasefire deals negotiated by parties to the conflict has resulted in the forced displacement of civilians, which constitutes a war crime.
Despite political negotiations in both Geneva and Astana aimed at ending the civil war, intense fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups continues. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the deaths of 790 civilians, including 203 children, during August.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also poses a direct threat to civilians, and its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity, including mass killings and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. According to the SOHR, ISIL has killed at least 3,700 civilians in Syria since June 2014.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of armed opposition groups, launched an offensive against ISIL's self-proclaimed capital of Ar-Raqqa city on 6 June, with air support from a United States-led international coalition. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) an estimated 15,000 civilians are still trapped within the city, and at least 151 civilians died during August due to air strikes and ongoing fighting.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-Joint Investigation Mechanism (OPCW-JIM) has previously determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas in three separate incidents between 2014 and 2015 and that ISIL was responsible for a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2118. On 6 September the CoI determined the Syrian air force was responsible for a 4 April sarin attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun, in which more than 80 people, including children, were killed.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah militias continue to provide essential economic and military support to the Syrian government. Since September 2015 Russian airstrikes have largely targeted opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, despite the Russian government claiming their operations are focused on ISIL. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes have killed 3,646 ISIL fighters and 5,322 civilians, including 1,308 children, as of 30 July. According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led coalition have also killed at least 1,961 civilians since September 2014.
All sides in Syria remain committed to military victory and the lives of countless civilians are imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of illegal weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL), and directly contravene UNSC Resolutions 2286 and 2139. Any local ceasefire agreements reached by the Syrian government and opposition groups that result in the involuntary transfer of civilian populations constitute a violation of IHL.
The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. The direct participation of Russian and Iranian forces in attacks on civilian populated areas makes them complicit in alleged war crimes. The recent alarming increase in civilian casualties during United States-led coalition airstrikes on ISIL also raises serious concerns regarding potential violations of IHL.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar continue to provide crucial assistance to some armed opposition groups. However, the fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. Meanwhile, ISIL and several other armed groups pose a direct threat to civilians, especially those from minority religious communities.
The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. Despite the current political impasse, Russia, United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain essential to any potential negotiated settlement of the conflict.
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 CoI, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none have been fully implemented. Meanwhile, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six UNSC draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further two resolutions. On 12 April Russia vetoed a resolution that would have condemned the Khan Shaykhun attack and obligated the Syrian government to comply with the OPCW-JIM's recommendations.
On 21 December 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. The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 22 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 23 June, called upon all member states to actively support the IIIM. The resolution also demands the Syrian authorities uphold their responsibility to protect the population.
In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, armed opposition groups and all international parties to the conflict must facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. The UNSC must take proximate steps to halt atrocities and end the civil war. The UNSC should demand UN access to monitor any voluntary evacuations, as well as de-escalation zones and local ceasefires, in order to ensure the wellbeing of civilians.
UN member states should fully cooperate with the IIIM and facilitate its work through the provision of voluntary funding. The IIIM should be incorporated into the UN's regular budget.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah must cease enabling the crimes of the Syrian government. Countries opposed to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad must withhold all support from armed groups who commit war crimes and target civilians.
Foreign states participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and that all military operations are fully consistent with international law. All potential violations, including possible war crimes, must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators held accountable.
Last Updated: 15 September 2017