Syria: Populations at Risk - Current Crisis (15 December 2016)

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Populations continue to face the threat of mass atrocity crimes committed by state security forces and affiliated militias in Syria's ongoing civil war. Various armed opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are also committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ongoing fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups has continued across Syria, most notably within Aleppo. Both Russian and Syrian government aircraft have conducted sustained airstrikes on opposition-held Eastern Aleppo, including with illegal barrel bombs, cluster munitions and "bunker-buster" bombs. On 15 November the Syrian government renewed its ground offensive. As of 15 December, Syrian government forces had gained over 90 per cent of opposition-held territory, and evacuations of all opposition fighters and civilians in the few remaining besieged neighborhoods of Eastern Aleppo were underway. 

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced on 9 December that since the start of the offensive, tens of thousands of people had fled Eastern Aleppo into areas under government control, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported that between 15 November and 12 December at least 442 civilians were killed in aerial bombardments. OHCHR highlighted reports of reprisals against civilians who are perceived to have supported armed opposition groups, as well as reports that hundreds of men between the ages of 30 and 50 had gone missing after crossing into government-held territory. On 12 December OHCHR further announced credible reports of government forces and their allies entering homes and killing those found inside. Opposition forces also conducted indiscriminate attacks on the suburbs of Western Aleppo, and reportedly attempted to block civilians attempting to flee from Eastern Aleppo as government forces advanced. 

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 400,000 people have been killed. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that as of December 2016 there were over 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) - the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world. The government has routinely obstructed the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, contravening multiple UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, and attacks against health facilities also continue despite the 3 May adoption of UNSC Resolution 2286 on the protection of medical facilities in armed conflict. Over 13.5 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance, with 4.9 million people in inaccessible areas.

The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has asserted that government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Government airstrikes in residential areas contravene UNSC Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons. The CoI has reported that government-allied militias and other pro-government forces have also conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including "extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts."

Numerous armed opposition groups have committed war crimes, violated IHL and targeted religious minorities for attack. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses a direct threat to civilians as its fighters have carried out crimes against humanity, including mass killings and sexual enslavement in areas under their control. 

The Organization for the Prohibitions of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) has found evidence of Syrian government forces and ISIL using illegal chemical weapons. The JIM has determined that Syrian Government forces used chemical weapons in three separate incidents between 2014 and 2015 and that ISIL was responsible for a 2015 sulfur-mustard attack. On 14 December the OPCW expressed concern at reports of alleged chemical weapons use on 12 December northwest of the Syrian city of Palmyra, an area that has recently come under ISIL control and is currently experiencing heavy bombardment by Syrian government forces. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and also directly contravenes UNSC Resolution 2118.

An international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The SOHR reported that coalition airstrikes have killed 6,455 people, including 700 civilians, between September 2014 and November 2016. Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria during September 2015, claiming it would help defeat ISIL. However, most airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control, including in Aleppo. The SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,911 ISIL fighters and 4,484 civilians, including over 1,100 children, as of 30 November 2016.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to some armed opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide crucial economic, military and political support to the Syrian government.

The collapse of the cessation of hostilities and battle for Aleppo demonstrates that all sides in Syria remain committed to an outright military victory and that the lives of countless civilians are still imperiled by the ongoing civil war. Attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure demonstrate a complete disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL). Reestablishing the cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving the stalled peace talks.

The government, with support from its international allies, continues to utilize its military resources to retain power at all costs. Combined Syrian government and Russian airstrikes have enabled government forces to besiege 16 locations and regain significant territory previously lost to opposition forces. The direct participation of Russian aircraft in the bombardment of east Aleppo makes them complicit in alleged mass atrocity crimes. 

The fracturing and radicalization of the opposition compounds the difficulty of achieving a negotiated political settlement. ISIL and several other armed groups continue to pose a direct threat to civilians, especially those from minority religious communities.

External political influence upon the Syrian government, via the UN and regional actors, remains weak. The UNSC has been unable to enforce compliance with its resolutions, with bitter divisions over Syria evident amongst the permanent members. Despite the current political impasse, Russia, United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain essential to any 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. Despite this, the UNSC has failed to adequately respond to the conflict. Since 2011 China and Russia have vetoed five resolutions on Syria, most recently on 5 December. Russia also independently vetoed another Syria resolution on 8 October. Since 2013, the UNSC has passed several resolutions on humanitarian access, the political process and chemical weapons in Syria. Several of these resolutions refer to the government's responsibility to protect populations, but none of them have been fully implemented.

The CoI, UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted 20 resolutions condemning atrocities in Syria. The latest, adopted on 20 October, called for the CoI to conduct a special inquiry into events in Aleppo.

On 18 November the UNSC extended the mandate of the OPCW JIM for an additional year.

On 2 December, the UN Special Advisers to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, Adama Dieng and Ivan Šimonovic, released a statement expressing outrage at the dire situation of civilians trapped in Aleppo and warning that the battle for the city could become one of the biggest mass killings of civilians in our time. The statement demands all parties abide by their obligations under international law.

On 9 December, following a request for a plenary meeting on the situation in Syria submitted on behalf of 74 member states, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the immediate implementation of a cessation of hostilities, an end to all attacks on civilians in Syria, as well as unhindered and unconditional humanitarian access. It also emphasizes the need for accountability for ongoing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The resolution was adopted with 122 votes in favor, 13 against, and 36 abstentions.

Russia and the United States need to press their respective Syrian allies to reestablish the cessation of hostilities and engage in meaningful negotiations over how to end the civil war. The UNSC must take meaningful action to end the use of indiscriminate and illegal weapons and hold all perpetrators accountable. UN member states should urge the UNSC to call for an emergency special session on Syria in the General Assembly, utilizing the "Uniting for Peace" mechanism.

Building on calls to ensure accountability for violations of international law, member states should also explore avenues to pursue all perpetrators of atrocity crimes in Syria. This could include the possible adoption of a General Assembly resolution establishing an independent mechanism to assist in the collection, preservation and preparation of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In keeping with various UNSC resolutions, Syrian government forces, their international allies, and armed opposition groups must facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to all civilians trapped or displaced by fighting. Neutral humanitarian corridors should be urgently established for besieged civilian populations.

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. All foreign states participating in airstrikes against ISIL must ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold IHL.