Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (A/HRC/39/65) [EN/AR]
Human Rights Council Thirty-ninth session 10–28 September 2018 Agenda item 4 Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
In an unprecedented development during the period under review, warring parties carried out battles in Aleppo, northern Homs, Damascus, Rif Damascus, Dara’a and Idlib governorates, which collectively displaced more than 1 million Syrian men, women and children. In the majority of cases documented by the Commission of Inquiry, displacements were either directly induced by the failure of warring parties to take all feasible precautions as required by international humanitarian law or due to unlawful conduct by the parties, which carried out indiscriminate and deliberate attacks with little regard for civilian life.
Battles waged by pro-government forces, armed and terrorist groups and other actors caused civilians to flee their homes in fear and desperation. Thousands of other civilians were forcibly displaced pursuant to “evacuation agreements” negotiated between warring parties. The plight of displaced persons — after seven years of war — now affects more than 5.5 million refugees who have fled the country, and more than 6.5 million internally displaced civilians subsisting inside the Syrian Arab Republic.
For the foregoing reasons, the Commission proposes a pragmatic set of recommendations to all warring parties aimed at addressing the myriad issues affecting civilians displaced as a result of the conflict, including ensuring their housing, land and property rights.
**I. Mandate and methodology **
In the present report, submitted to the Human Rights Council pursuant to its resolution 34/26, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic1 presents its findings based on investigations conducted from 16 January to 10 July 2018. The methodology employed by the Commission was based on best practices of commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions.
The information contained herein is based on 402 interviews conducted in the region and from Geneva. The Commission collected, reviewed and analysed satellite imagery, photographs, videos and medical records. Communications from Governments and non-governmental organizations were consulted, as were United Nations reports.
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 Syrian Arab Republic.
II. Political and military developments
Continued proliferation of warring parties and increased militarization characterized the period under review, together contributing to unprecedented levels of internal displacement. Turkey announced on 20 January the launch of Operation Olive Branch, when Turkish armed forces alongside members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began cross-border operations into Afrin (Aleppo), in the north-west of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Government of Turkey declared that its aim was to fight terrorism and to ensure its border security, pursuant to Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations (see S/2018/53). On 21 January, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic condemned the operation as an act of aggression, a flagrant attack against the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and a violation of the provisions of the Charter (see S/2018/82).
On the political front, the Syrian National Congress concluded its session on 30 January with the adoption of a final statement endorsing 12 principles developed by the United Nations and the establishment of a constitutional committee. The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic rejected the possibility of a role by the United Nations, however, stating that the constitutional process should be followed without foreign interference.
Outside Afrin, military escalation continued into February, when the Syrian Arab Army began a large-scale military operation towards Saraqib (Idlib). On 3 February, following the downing of a Sukhoi-25 fighter jet near Maasran, the aerospace forces of the Russian Federation intensified aerial attacks in Idlib. Clashes also continued between the newly established Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the “Syrian Liberation Front”)2 and the terrorist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham3 in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. In eastern Ghouta, aerial and ground bombardments reached a new peak in February 2018 (see A/HRC/38/CRP.3). In the light of the escalation, the Security Council sought to achieve a cessation of hostilities; efforts to de-escalate were unsuccessful. Turkish armed forces and FSA affiliates meanwhile captured Afrin (see paras. 14–31 below), whereupon the Government of Turkey declared that Tal Rifat and Minbij (Aleppo) would be next.
April was marked by the adoption of Presidential Decree no. 10 (see para. 91 below), which stoked fears among refugees and those internally displaced that the law could legitimize confiscation by the State of absentee property. The period also witnessed increased international tensions after the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and France launched attacks in the Syrian Arab Republic on 13 April following a suspected chemical attack in Douma (see paras. 92–93 below). On 19 April, after failing to secure an “evacuation agreement”, government forces escalated military campaigns against southern Damascus suburbs. On 30 April, the Syrian army began an operation to recapture northern rural Homs after negotiations facilitated by the Russian Federation had broken down a week earlier. Government forces meanwhile reached an agreement with armed factions to evacuate the southern Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem.
Between 13 and 17 May, the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Idriss Jazairy, was invited to Damascus. After his visit, the Special Rapporteur concluded that sanctions were exacerbating the suffering of Syrian civilians by their negative impact on human rights and humanitarian access, an assessment with which the Commission fully concurs.4 9. Also in May, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced operation Al-Jazeera Storm against remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which had regrouped along the border between the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq. At the diplomatic level, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey gathered in Astana on 14 May for a new round of talks to discuss developments in the “de-escalation zones” and humanitarian issues, and to coordinate efforts to resolve the conflict. On 15 May, government forces gained full control of the last opposition held enclave in Homs governorate (see paras. 32–34 below).
After a month of heavy fighting, pro-Government forces declared on 21 May they had recaptured Yarmouk camp (situated in a strategic area near Damascus city)5 and adjacent districts of Qadam, Tadamun and Hajar al-Aswad. In Idlib, the Astana guarantors announced on 28 May the set-up of 29 observation points to monitor the Idlib de-escalation zone. In an attempt to regroup, 11 FSA factions based in Idlib simultaneously merged under the umbrella Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the “National Liberation Front”),6 creating one of the largest armed groups in the Syrian Arab Republic.
On 4 June, the United States of America and Turkey implemented a road map for Manbij (Aleppo), focusing on the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the area. Turkish and American officials indicated the road map would address issues that divided Ankara and Washington. On 18 June, the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, began a two-week process to bridge the gap between the guarantor states of the Astana process and the United States-led Small Group (comprising France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States). Discussions focused on prospects for progress on the constitutional track, and the continuation of diplomatic efforts in support of a political settlement.
After recapturing eastern Ghouta on 14 April and northern Homs on 15 May, pro-government forces directed their attention south, launching an offensive on 19 June to recapture Dara’a governorate, which led to the displacement of more than 270,000 civilians. Despite mediation efforts by the guarantors of the southern ceasefire (the United States, the Russian Federation and Jordan), the military operation continued for two weeks before armed groups reached a deal on 6 July to stay hostilities.