In the present report, submitted to the Human Rights Council pursuant to its resolution 43/28, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic presents its findings based on investigations conducted from 11 January 2020 to 1 July 2020.
I. Mandate and methodology
Pursuant to its established methodology, which is based on standard practices of commissions of inquiry and human rights investigations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic1 relied primarily on 538 interviews, conducted in person in the region as well as from Geneva, in producing the present report.2 Official documents, reports, photographs, videos and satellite imagery were collected and analysed from multiple sources, including following the Commission’s call for submissions.3 The standard of proof was considered met when the Commission had reasonable grounds to believe that incidents had occurred as described, and, where possible, that violations had been committed by the warring party identified.
The Commission’s investigations remain curtailed by the denial of access to the country and protection concerns in relation to interviewees. In all cases, the Commission remained guided by the principle of “do no harm”.
The Commission thanks all who provided information, in particular victims and witnesses.
II. Political and military developments
Notwithstanding a relative reduction in large-scale hostilities in recent months due to general conflict dynamics and the impact of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), there were regular spikes in violence and continuous violations of human rights across the Syrian Arab Republic. Idlib Governorate and surrounding areas remained the epicentre of confrontation4 between pro-government forces5 and opposition armed groups during the first half of 2020. While the ceasefire starting on 5 March offered respite, sporadic fighting between progovernment forces and terrorist groups6 resumed in May and intensified in June, including around the Ghab plain and Jabal al-Zawiya, in the southern countryside of Idlib Governorate.
In the north-east of the country, while joint Turkish-Russian military patrols resumed7 along the Syrian-Turkish border, periodic clashes between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the Syrian National Army8 and Turkish military forces continued. Car bomb attacks, such as the one on 9 January in Ra’s al-Ayn that killed four Turkish soldiers, or the market attack in Afrin on 28 April that caused over 100 casualties (see para. 42 below), further destabilized the region. The security situation also deteriorated in Dayr al-Zawr, where the Syrian Democratic Forces 9 increased raids and arrests of civilians with alleged links to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Between March and May, two major riots in the Syrian Democratic Forces-run Ghweran and Hasakah prisons erupted, allowing the escape of several prisoners. In June, reports of fighting between Turkish-backed groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Al-Bab area, infighting between Syrian National Army groups in Ra’s al-Ayn, and ISIL attacks against Syrian Arab Army units in the Dayr al-Zawr countryside, were received.
ISIL remained active in central areas of the Syrian Arab Republic. In January and February, the terrorist group launched attacks on Syrian Arab Army positions in the Sukhnah region in Homs Governorate. The attacks prompted the Government to increase security measures in eastern Homs Governorate, and by mid-April, the Government had regained control of fuel refineries in the Governorate. Nonetheless, attacks by ISIL cells against Syrian Arab Army positions in the Badiya Al-Sham region and around Resafa continued.
In the south of the country, unrest intensified. In Suwayda’, protests erupted in January, and continued throughout the first six months of 2020, due to price inflation, corruption and deteriorating living standards. In Dar’a, tensions between local opposition fighters and government forces, as well as civilians, escalated. In mid-March, artillery shelling by the Syrian Arab Army targeted the southerly Dar’a Governorate, triggering retaliatory attacks by local militants near Nawa. The situation remained volatile in May and June following clashes, targeted killings, and the killing of nine Syrian police officers in Muzayrib. In response to these incidents, the Syrian Arab Army deployed additional troops to the region. Throughout the reporting period, Israeli airstrikes were directed at a broad range of targets across the Syrian Arab Republic, including Iranian and Iranian-backed actors.
At the political level, the President, Bashar al-Assad, issued a legislative decree granting pardons for a narrow ambit of crimes committed before 22 March 2020, and proposed a limited amnesty for military deserters. The Government announced that parliamentary elections in government-controlled areas would be held in April, which were subsequently postponed until 19 July 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On 1 June, the President swore in new governors for the Homs, Qunaytirah, Dar’a and Hasakah Governorates.
During the reporting period, the country’s economic crisis accelerated. On 18 January, two legislatives decrees were issued, 10 which prohibited the use of foreign currencies as payment for commercial transactions and set out tighter penalties for disseminating, what the Government viewed to be, misinformation that caused currency depreciation. The currency crisis, compounded by the global pandemic, led to rapidly rising food prices, food insecurity and growing levels of poverty.11 In response, the Syrian authorities stepped up measures to clamp down on currency speculators and forced the closure of exchange offices. Despite these measures, the Syrian pound depreciated further, prompting the President to replace the trade minister on 11 May and the Prime Minister on 11 June. The following week, in June, the United States of America brought the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act12 into force, imposing new sanctions on officials of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and on military officials and business associates.
Internationally, diplomatic efforts to seek a political solution to the conflict continued. In January, the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Geir Pedersen, travelled to Moscow and Damascus where he met with senior Russian and Syrian officials to discuss the Syrian peace process. During the period under review, the Security Council held six meetings on the humanitarian situation and the political process. Moreover, on 11 July, after weeks of discussions, on its fourth attempt, the Security Council authorized cross-border humanitarian aid from Turkey into the north-west of the Syrian Arab Republic for one year, limiting the entry of United Nations cross-border aid to only the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib Governorate. Meanwhile, the Government and opposition representatives agreed to reconvene for the third round of talks of the small body of the Constitutional Committee13 in Geneva as soon as the pandemic situation allowed.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations also submitted to the Security Council a summary14 of the report of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry into certain incidents that had occurred in north-west Syria since 17 September 2018. The Board analysed seven attacks on hospitals, schools, and camps for internally displaced persons and offered conclusions relating to six of the sites. Separately, on 8 April, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released the findings of the first report of its investigation and identification team15 on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Air Force in Ltamenah. Additionally, in April, the first trial in the world on State torture in the Syrian Arab Republic began in Koblenz, Germany.
On 22 March, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic confirmed the first COVID-19 case. In response, authorities announced a host of measures, including the temporary closure of businesses, a ban on movement between governorates, a curfew and the creation of medical emergency centres. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SecretaryGeneral issued an appeal for a nationwide ceasefire and encouraged G-20 members to waive sanctions imposed on countries in order to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and COVID-19 medical support.16 The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria reiterated this message and also called upon all parties to carry out unilateral releases of detainees and abductees.17 In parallel, the Government intensified calls for the lifting of coercive unilateral measures, indicating that they constituted a challenge in fighting the pandemic.18 The Syrian Democratic Forces-linked autonomous administration in north-east Syria (hereinafter referred to as the self-administration) closed all crossings into governmentheld areas, banned movement between towns, imposed a curfew and set up a specialized hospital.