Human Rights Council
13 September–1 October 2021
Agenda item 4
Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
In the present report, submitted to the Human Rights Council pursuant to its resolution 46/22, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic presents the findings it has drawn from investigations into incidents occurring between 1 July 2020 and 30 June 2021 in government-controlled areas; Idlib and western Aleppo; northern Aleppo and Ra’s al-Ayn; and the north-east of the Syrian Arab Republic.
I. Mandate and methodology
In preparing the present report, pursuant to its established methodology and guided by standard practices of commissions of inquiry and human rights investigations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic 1 relied primarily on 538 interviews, conducted in person, in the region and from Geneva. 2 Documents, reports, photographs, videos and satellite imagery from multiple sources were collected and analysed.3 The Commission also requested, in writing and during meetings, information on incidents, events and developments from the Government, parties to the conflict and States Members of the United Nations.4 The standard of proof was considered met when the Commission had reasonable grounds to believe that incidents occurred as described, and, where possible, that violations were 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
The 5 March 2020 ceasefire led to a significant decrease in hostilities in the northwest, but the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic remained volatile.5 The economic situation continued to deteriorate, and the COVID-19 pandemic further strained the country’s war-torn health system. The Secretary-General’s appeal in March 2020 for a nationwide ceasefire and for Group of 20 members to waive sanctions in order to ensure access to food and essential health supplies, including COVID-19 support, remained unheeded.
Daily life presented mounting challenges for civilians. Fuel shortages placed many in a desperate situation when, in early January, the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources announced that it would reduce fuel distribution – for some types of fuel, by almost a quarter – due to supply chain delays, which it blamed on the impact of sanctions.6 On 15 April 2021, the Central Bank again devalued the Syrian pound, from LS 1,250/US$ 1 to LS 2,500/US$ 1,7 leading to further increases in the price of goods and medication.
The World Food Programme found that 12.4 million Syrians (nearly 60 per cent of the population) were food insecure – the highest number ever reported – while 43 per cent reported poor food consumption, which is double the figure reported last year.8 Meanwhile, lagging testing capacity, an acute shortage of oxygen supplies and slow delivery of vaccines under COVAX, the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, impaired responses amid widespread community COVID-19 transmission.9 7. Of the estimated 13.4 million Syrians needing humanitarian assistance as of March 2021 – a 21 per cent increase from 2020 – 4.9 million reside in the north-west of the country.10 In its resolution 2585 (2021), adopted unanimously on 9 July, the Security Council renewed the cross-border aid delivery mechanism, albeit mandating the Bab al-Hawa border crossing as the sole entry point for United Nations humanitarian goods.
Meanwhile, conflict endured and military tensions remained high, with government forces, non-State armed groups, United Nations-designated terrorist groups, and five foreign armies11 operating in close proximity, although front lines remained static during the period (see annex II). Forces of the Russian Federation conducted at least 82 air strikes in support of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, while the international counter-Da’esh coalition, led by the United States of America, carried out at least 56 air strikes in the Syrian Arab Republic.12 Reportedly, the United States conducted at least four additional air strikes, two in August 2020 near Qamishli and two further air strikes in February and June 2021 against non-State armed groups near the Iraqi border.13 The Commission tracked at least 19 incidents of reported air strikes by Israeli forces on territory of the Syrian Arab Republic, including a particularly deadly one on 13 January against pro-government forces.14 9. Idlib and the surrounding governorates remained the epicentre of violence, including attacks on joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the de-escalation zone. Aerial and ground attacks intensified in early 2021, affecting deconflicted hospitals and gas facilities (see sect. IV below).
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions, detonations of improvised explosive devices became a near weekly occurrence for civilians. The Commission documented seven such incidents, which killed and maimed at least 243 women, men and children and damaged civilian infrastructure (see sect. V below).
In the north-east, economic hardship, a precarious security situation and unpopular “regulations” by the self-administration15 triggered widespread demonstrations in Hasakah and Aleppo Governorates (see sect. VI below). The presence of Da’esh remnants continued to pose a threat to security in the region, and – as Da’esh attacks increased – amplified public discontent.
Presidential elections in the Syrian Arab Republic were announced on 18 April and took place on 26 May. The President, Bashar al-Assad, who has led the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000, was re-elected with 95 per cent of the vote. Voting was restricted to government-controlled areas and among parts of the diaspora abroad, and the credibility of the elections, which were not monitored by the United Nations, was questioned.16 13. Ahead of the elections, on 2 May, the President granted pardons to people who had been found guilty of crimes such as smuggling, drug abuse and foreign currency trading. Reportedly, a limited number of prisoners was subsequently released.
Three rounds of meetings of the constitutional committee that will draft a new constitution in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) were held during the reporting period. The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, informed the Security Council in late 2020 that substantial differences, including at the general level, persisted, impeding tangible progress in advancing a political solution.
The foreign ministers of Qatar, the Russian Federation and Turkey met in Doha on 11 March to discuss the Syrian Arab Republic. After the meeting, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Turkey announced that the three countries had launched a new trilateral consultation process to contribute to a lasting political solution in the Syrian Arab Republic, but pointed out that the process was not intended to undermine the Astana talks.
The Secretary-General announced the establishment of the three-person Independent Senior Advisory Panel on Humanitarian Deconfliction in the Syrian Arab Republic on 21 January 2021, tasked with advising the Secretary-General on how to strengthen the deconfliction mechanism.
The issue of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic remained high on the agendas of both the Security Council and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons during the period under review. On 12 April, the latter’s Investigation and Identification Team published its second report, concluding that there were reasonable grounds to believe that, on 4 February 2018, a Syrian Air Force helicopter had dropped at least one cylinder of chlorine in the area of Saraqib, affecting at least 12 individuals.17 On 22 April, the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction adopted a decision to suspend certain rights and privileges of the Syrian Arab Republic under the Convention.18 18. On accountability, the first verdict in relation to State torture in the Syrian Arab Republic was delivered on 24 February in Koblenz, Germany. Separately, the Netherlands, and later Canada, announced their intention to hold the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic responsible for gross human rights violations and torture under article 30 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.19