Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 the conflict between the government and opposition groups has escalated into a civil war where over 500,000 people have been killed. As of April there were over 5.7 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.6 million internally displaced persons - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. Over 13.1 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
For over six years the Human Rights Council (HRC)-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.
Despite UN-led political negotiations aimed at ending the civil war, as well as separate talks between the governments of Turkey, Russia and Iran, fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups has continued, most notably in Idlib governorate and in eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus.
Both Idlib and eastern Ghouta were formally designated "de-escalation zones" in May 2017. However, shelling and airstrikes resulted in the deaths of over 1,700 civilians across eastern Ghouta following the intensification of a government military offensive on 19 February and despite the UNSC's 24 February demand for a 30-day cessation of hostilities. The government's destruction of the enclave resulted in the displacement of at least 92,000.
Clashes also continued in the Afrin district, in northern Syria, where Turkish forces have militarily intervened to seize territory from the Kurdish-led militia, the People's Protection Units. On 18 March Turkish-backed forces captured Afrin city, resulting in the displacement of over 137,000 people. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported at least 230 civilians killed since the invasion of Afrin began on 20 January.
Although the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) no longer controls any cities within Syria, it continues to pose a threat to civilians, and its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity in areas under their control. According to the SOHR, ISIL has killed over 3,700 civilians in Syria since June 2014.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-Joint Investigative Mechanism determined that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas between 2014 and 2015 and that ISIL was responsible for two sulfur-mustard attacks during 2015 and 2016. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime. A suspected chemical weapons attack took place in Douma on 8 April in which at least 70 people were killed. On 14 April the United States, United Kingdom and France carried out airstrikes on a number of targets inside Syria linked to the production, storage and use of chemical weapons.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah militias continue to provide essential 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 only targeting "terrorist groups." The CoI reported on 6 March that some airstrikes by the Russian air force may amount to war crimes.
The SOHR has reported that Russian airstrikes have killed 4,893 ISIL fighters and over 7,710 civilians, including 1,842 children, as of 30 April. According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition have also killed approximately 3,000 civilians since September 2014.
All parties to the conflict in Syria have committed indiscriminate attacks, and the lives of countless civilians remain imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Ongoing attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, as well as the use of illegal weapons, demonstrate a complete disregard for international law and directly contravene UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 2286 and 2139.
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 numerous attacks on civilian-populated areas, including eastern Ghouta, makes them complicit in alleged war crimes.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to provide crucial assistance to some armed opposition groups. The United States also has several thousand troops working with armed opposition groups in former ISIL-occupied territories. However, the fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement.
The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions evident amongst the permanent members. Russia has systematically shielded Syria from accountability measures. 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 23 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 six resolutions. On 10 April Russia vetoed a resolution that would have enabled an independent investigation of the chemical weapons attack in Douma.
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. The HRC has adopted 25 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 19 March, demands that 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 should mandate the deployment of UN monitors to oversee voluntary civilian evacuations and aid deliveries. The UN should investigate and attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria via the existing "Secretary-General's mechanism for investigation of alleged use of chemical and biological weapons."
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 that commit war crimes and target civilians.
UN member states should fully cooperate with the IIIM and facilitate its work. The IIIM should be incorporated into the UN's regular budget.
Last Updated: 15 May 2018
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Syria has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the January 2012 issue.