Armed groups surrounding the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo city have repeatedly carried out indiscriminate attacks that have struck civilian homes, streets, markets and mosques, killing and injuring civilians and displaying a shameful disregard for human life, said Amnesty International.
The organization has gathered strong evidence of serious violations from eyewitnesses, and obtained the names of at least 83 civilians, including 30 children, who were killed by attacks in Sheikh Maqsoud between February and April 2016. More than 700 civilians were also injured, according to the local field hospital. Video evidence seen by Amnesty International shows artillery shelling, rocket and mortar attacks carried out by the Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest) coalition of armed groups in the area, targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) controlling the area.
“The relentless pummelling of Sheikh Maqsoud has devastated the lives of civilians in the area. A wide array of armed groups from the Fatah Halab coalition has launched what appear to be repeated indiscriminate attacks that may amount to war crimes,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
There are around 30,000 civilians living in Sheikh Maqsoud which is a predominately Kurdish part of Aleppo city. The area is controlled by YPG forces and surrounded from the northern, eastern and western fronts by opposition armed groups who have targeted it from all three sides. Syrian government forces control areas south of Sheikh Maqsoud. In 2014, YPG forces started fighting against the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). In recent months however tensions have increased with opposition armed groups, particularly in the Aleppo area. Attacks by armed groups have killed at least 62 YPG fighters, according to the Families of the Martyrs Association.
In recent days the very fragile cessation of hostilities across Syria agreed to in Geneva in February was extended to areas around Sheikh Maqsoud in the Aleppo Countryside governorate. However, attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud have continued unabated over the past few months.
Mounting evidence of indiscriminate attacks
Satellite imagery, obtained by Amnesty International and corroborated by testimony from residents, shows destroyed and badly damaged houses in a residential street in the western part of Sheikh Maqsoud, more than 800 metres away from the frontline.
Mohamad lost seven members of his family when his home in Sheikh Maqsoud was struck by an improvised ‘Hamim’ rocket launched by an armed group on 5 April 2016. Those killed included his 18-month-old daughter, his two sons, aged 15 and 10, and an eight-year-old nephew. He and two of his other young nephews sustained shrapnel wounds and were critically injured. His home is 800 metres away from the frontline.
“There are no [military] checkpoints near my house. It is a residential street and there are even people displaced by fighting or who fled airstrikes in Aleppo city living on the same street,” he told Amnesty International.
Two days earlier Mohamad’s neighbour’s house was hit by a mortar which killed two children.
Another resident of Sheikh Maqsoud told Amnesty International that the shelling intensified in February and that people spent days in their homes unable to leave. She described how her home was attacked in April by what she believed was a weapon fitted with a gas canister.
“All I remember was the walls collapsing and hearing an explosion. We got injured – I had shrapnel in my hands and legs […] We live […] very far away from the frontline. There are no checkpoints close by or any other military points,” she said.
Saad, a local pharmacist living in Sheikh Maqsoud, described 5 April 2016 as “the bloodiest day the neighbourhood had witnessed”. Shelling from armed groups continued for nine hours straight, he said.
“We counted at least 15 Hamim rockets and more than 100 mortars. The shells were falling everywhere, it was indiscriminate,” he said.
Among the weapons used by the armed groups are unguided projectiles which cannot be accurately aimed at specific targets such as mortars and home-made ‘Hamim’ rockets, as well as other projectiles fitted with gas canisters which are known as “hell cannons”. These weapons are inherently indiscriminate and should not be used in the vicinity of civilian areas.
“By firing imprecise explosive weapons into civilian neighbourhoods the armed groups attacking Sheikh Maqsoud are flagrantly flouting the principle of distinction between civilian and military targets, a cardinal rule of international humanitarian law,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
There are also allegations that members of armed groups attacking Sheikh Maqsoud may have used chemical weapons. A local doctor told Amnesty International that on 7 and 8 April he treated six civilians and two YPG fighters for symptoms including shortness of breath, numbness, red eyes and severe coughing fits. Several of the victims, he said, reported seeing yellow smoke as missiles impacted. A toxicologist consulted by Amnesty International, who viewed video-clips of the apparent attack and reviewed the doctor’s testimony, said the patients’ symptoms could be the effects of a chlorine attack. A subsequent statement purportedly issued by the leader of the Army of Islam armed group said that a field commander had deployed an “unauthorised weapon” on Sheikh Maqsoud and that he would be held to account.
International community must not tolerate abuses by armed groups
Two of the armed groups attacking YPG forces in Sheikh Maqsoud - Ahrar al Sham and Army of Islam - have sent their own representatives to the UN-brokered negotiations over the Syria conflict in Geneva. The other armed groups have approved other delegates to represent them at the talks.
“The international community must not turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence of war crimes by armed opposition groups in Syria. The fact that the scale of war crimes by government forces is far greater is no excuse for tolerating serious violations by the opposition,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
The terrifying accounts from civilians in Sheikh Maqsoud shed light on the horror of daily life in pockets of the city under constant attack by armed groups that are violating the laws of war with impunity.
“International backers of armed groups operating in Syria must ensure they are not fuelling abuses by transferring weapons that are being used or might be used by armed groups to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
Amnesty International is calling on the Gulf states, Turkey and others believed to be providing support to armed groups in Syria to immediately block the transfer of arms to armed groups, including logistical and financial support for such transfers, where there is credible evidence that they have committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. Only those groups that meet stringent reliability tests which demonstrate that they can act consistently with full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law should be considered for future supply.
Deteriorating humanitarian conditions
As well as being subjected to indiscriminate shelling, civilians in Sheikh Maqsoud are effectively trapped in the area amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation. Continuing clashes have prevented aid from entering Sheikh Maqsoud and people from leaving. Government forces have only allowed civilians requiring medical attention out of the area on the side that they control and have also restricted the entry of medical supplies and food – with only vegetables and bread allowed in. According to residents, the pharmacies in Sheikh Maqsoud are empty, many have shut down.
“We barely have any food left in the neighbourhood,” one resident said adding that aid supplies were running out rapidly.
“Sheikh Maqsoud is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. It is critical that the Syrian government and armed groups urgently allow unfettered access for humanitarian aid and allow civilians who wish to leave the area to do so,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
The armed groups carrying out indiscriminate attacks on the Sheikh Maqsoud area are part of the Fatah Halab military coalition which includes: Islamic Movement of Ahrar ash-Sham, Army of Islam, al-Shamia Front, Brigade of Sultan Murad, Sultan Fatih Battalions, Fa Istaqim Kama Omirt Battalions, Nour al-Deen Zinki Battalions, 13 Brigade, 16 Brigade, 1st Regiment (al-Foj al-Awal) and Abu Omara Battalions.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights at least 23 civilians were killed by YPG shelling and sniper attacks in opposition-held areas in Aleppo city between February and April 2016.