Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the civil war between government and armed opposition forces has escalated into a multidimensional crisis in which over 465,000 people have been killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of April 2017 there were 5 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.3 million internally displaced persons - 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 trapped in 11 besieged areas. Humanitarian access has deteriorated since the start of 2017 as government forces routinely obstruct the delivery of cross-border aid.
For over five years the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has consistently reported that government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. The most recent CoI report determined that between July and December 2016, Syrian and Russian forces deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure with airstrikes. The CoI also labeled the evacuation of civilians from formerly opposition-held eastern Aleppo as "a policy of forced displacement." Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and targeted religious minorities for attack.
Despite political negotiations in both Geneva and Astana aimed at ending the civil war, intense fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups continued throughout May and June. On 4 May, during the Astana talks, Russia, Iran and Turkey reached agreement on the creation of "de-escalation zones" in Idlib, Homs, Deraa, and Al-Quneitra provinces and in eastern Ghouta. Despite the nominal creation of these zones, fighting has intensified in both Deraa and eastern Ghouta. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the deaths of at least 1,720 civilians, including 446 children, during May and June.
During April an agreement was reached between government forces and armed opposition groups in which residents of the besieged towns of Foah and Kefraya were evacuated in return for safe passage of residents from the opposition-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani. On 14 June the Chair of the CoI reported that in some cases such evacuation deals involved the forced transfer of civilians and amount to war crimes.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant 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 launched their offensive on ISIL's self-proclaimed capital of Ar-Raqqa city on 6 June, with air support from a United States-led international coalition. On 14 June the Chair of the CoI reported that the airstrikes have resulted in a "staggering loss of civilian life," and the SOHR reported that since 1 March coalition airstrikes have killed 686 civilians in Ar-Raqqa governorate.
The United States-led coalition has admitted to using multipurpose white phosphorus munitions in both Syria and Iraq. White phosphorus can be used as an incendiary weapon that burns structures and people. The air-delivery of incendiary weapons in civilian populated areas is prohibited under IHL.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-Joint Investigation Mechanism (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. On 1 May Human Rights Watch reported evidence that Syrian government forces used nerve agents on at least three other occasions during December 2016 and March 2017. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2118 of September 2013.
On 4 April at least 92 people, including 28 children, were killed in a chemical weapons attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. On 30 June the OPCW fact-finding mission confirmed that victims in Khan Shaykhun were exposed to sarin. Following the Khan Shaykhun attack, the United States carried out a unilateral strike on Al Shayrat airfield in Homs governorate. The declared intention was to reduce the Syrian government's ability to deliver chemical weapons and marked the first time the United States has taken direct military action against Syrian government forces. The United States has carried out three more strikes on Syrian government and allied forces since April, including shooting down a Syrian government fighter jet near Ar-Raqqa on 18 June. In response, the Russian Defence Ministry announced it would treat coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River as potential targets.
Iranian government-backed forces and Hezbollah militias have provided essential economic and military support to the Syrian government, while Russian forces have carried out airstrikes since September 2015. Russian operations have largely targeted opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, although the Russian government has claimed their air campaign is focused on ISIL. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 3,527 ISIL fighters and 5,237 civilians, including 1,286 children, as of 30 June. According to the SOHR, airstrikes by the United States-led coalition have killed at least 1,799 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, and directly contravene UNSC Resolutions 2286 and 2139. Any local ceasefire agreements reached by the Syrian government and opposition parties 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 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.
The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. 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. The recent escalation in military friction between the United States-led coalition and the Syrian government threatens a potential direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia. 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 to the conflict. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these resolutions 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, most recently on 12 April. That vetoed resolution would have condemned the Khan Shaykhun attack and obligated the Syrian government to comply with recommendations of the OPCW-JIM.
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, condemned systematic and widespread violations of human rights and called upon all member states to actively support the IIIM. The resolution also demands the Syrian authorities meet their responsibility to protect the population.
The UN hosted a seventh round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva from 10-14 July.
A tentative ceasefire brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan went into effect in southwestern Syria on 9 July.
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. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations. The UNSC should demand UN access to monitor any voluntary evacuations and ensure the wellbeing of civilians. The UNSC previously demanded such access for UN monitors to eastern Aleppo via Resolution 2328.
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 ensure all military operations are fully consistent with international law. All potential violations of international law, including possible war crimes, must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators held accountable.
Last Updated: 17 July 2017