THE RECENT ESCALATION IN VIOLENCE combined with a plunging war economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis are inflicting new levels of hardship and suffering on a Syrian civilian population that has endured over ten years of conflict, a new report by the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry finds.
With more than half the pre-war population displaced and over 90 per cent now living in poverty, Syrians are staring into a new abyss as violence escalates both in terms of military skirmishes and bombardments and in terms of abductions and killings away from the conflict zones.
“While parts of Syria are no longer subject to active fighting, make no mistake that violence against civilians continues across the country, from bombardment in the northwest, north and northeast, to targeted killings, unlawful detention and torture,” Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro said. “The population is enduring crushing poverty inflicted on Syrians everywhere, in particular the internally displaced. These are the abysses faced by the Syrian people, caught between warring parties and everywhere being repressed and exploited by armed actors.”
Beyond active frontlines, daily life for Syrian women, men and children is ever more difficult and dangerous. Twelve million people are food insecure, and an unprecedented 14.6 million need humanitarian assistance.
Violations for monetary gain exacerbate the increasingly desperate economic situation. This has included hostage-taking for ransom, extortion and property seizures for confiscation or harvesting and selling crops. These violations are committed across the country by Government forces and other armed actors controlling territory, often targeting minorities.
Syria is today facing the worst drought it has seen in decades. Inflation, already close to 140 per cent at the start of the year, continues to spiral out of control when the price of basic commodities was already rising fast. At the same time, the outbreak of conflict between Russia and Ukraine will only contribute to greater price pressure, likely pushing ever more Syrians into poverty.
In light of the deteriorating living conditions, the Commission has called for a review of the implementation and impacts of sanctions currently imposed on Syria. Despite humanitarian exemptions, more is required to mitigate unintended consequences on the daily lives of the civilian population brought about by over compliance.
“Where sanctions are not adequately reviewed, they can lead to further shortages and impede humanitarian assistance, for the most vulnerable populations, with devastating impact on everyone except the political and economic elite”,, Pinheiro warned.
Gender-based discrimination and violence continued, with women and girls disproportionately impacted in all walks of life. Women most often lack necessary civil documentation among internally displaced persons and struggle to access their legal rights. Girls are increasingly forced into early marriages, and boys are sent to do child labour or recruited into the conflict. The Hay’at Tahrir al Shams group controlling the Idlib pocket enforces so-called morality codes, which amount to gender-based discrimination.
“Gender-based violence continues unabated in Syria, with women and girls subject to a range of violations depending on which armed actor holds sway over their areas,” Commissioner Lynn Welchman said. “Women suffer sexual and gender-based violence in detention – and in their daily life, as they navigate restrictions imposed by armed groups, the myriad checkpoints where they are particularly vulnerable, and the array of challenges that predate the current crisis and that have only been made worse by the ongoing conflict.”
The reporting period witnessed increased bombardments in the northwest of the country and skirmishes between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Northeast. The Commission documented grave violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict, including war crimes and ongoing patterns of crimes against humanity.
In Idlib and western Aleppo in the northwest, residential areas have been shelled indiscriminately from the ground by pro-government forces.
“A bride was killed at her wedding along with four young sisters; a displacement camp for widows and their children was deliberately targeted; children were shelled on their way to school among the many incidents we investigated”, Commissioner Hanny Megally said.
Civilians have also been attacked with sophisticated precision-guided weapons and airstrikes – including strikes where Russian fixed-wing aircraft were identified flying over targeted areas.
In northern Aleppo and in the Ra’s al-Ayn and Tall Abyad regions controlled by the SNA opposition group, indiscriminate shelling and attacks with improvised explosive devices continued to cause fatalities among civilians. Artillery shelling by pro-government forces or by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against populated areas killed at least 13 and injured more than 91 civilians in documented incidents in the northern Aleppo area.
The Commission expressed concern at recent reporting on systemic failures in investigations into possible war crimes and other incidents causing civilian harm in Syria in 2018-2019 by the United States-led coalition. These include hundreds of reports of civilian casualties that the US military had allegedly initially dismissed. The Commission reiterated its recommendation to the United States and all parties to conduct credible, independent and impartial investigations into incidents entailing civilian casualties in which their forces are implicated to ensure those responsible for violations are held accountable and to ensure non-repetition, and to make their findings public.
The landmark ruling in January 2022 by the Koblenz Higher Regional Court in Germany against a former Syrian intelligence officer active in the notorious Branch 251, found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment, is little but welcome progress on accountability. In the report, the Commission takes note of the halting progress on accountability and renews its recommendation for Member States to redouble their efforts in this regard, in the absence of concerted action at the UN Security Council.
The Commission found that Government forces and other parties in the conflict continue to deliberately conceal the fate and whereabouts of detainees, in many cases leaving family members exposed to extortion for information or in danger of arrest or physical risks when searching for missing loved ones. The Commission commended the UN General Assembly for adopting resolution 76/228, requesting the Secretary-General to study this issue.
“All forms of accountability must be strengthened, from criminal investigations to addressing the daily justice needs of Syrians and bringing some resolution to the tens of thousands of families who are missing loved ones, through the creation of an independent, international mandate to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding those missing, including people subjected to enforced disappearance”, Megally said.
The Commission noted a small but increasing repatriation by Member States of their citizens detained in the notorious Al Hol and Al Roj camps in Northeast Syria. But close to 60,000 internees, 40,000 of them children, are still unlawfully held in the camps in appalling conditions, including 7,800 non-Iraqi foreigners. The camp populations live in conditions amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, under constant risk of being injured, killed, or trafficked. The tension in the camps is rising with more killings and fears of large-scale violence. More than 90 murders and 40 attempted murders have occurred in Al Hol alone in the past year. The Commission has repeated its call for Member States to bring home their women and children from the camps.
“No one accuses the children in Al Hol of crimes, but, for over three years, they have been held in horrifying conditions, without legal recourse, deprived of their right to education, to play, to proper health care. They are being punished for suspected crimes that their parents may have committed”, said Welchman.
The recent heavy fighting in and around the SDF-run al-Sina prison in the Ghwayran neighbourhood of Hasakah city in the Northeast, in which hundreds were killed and thousands were temporarily displaced, highlighted the plight of hundreds of children, mostly above the age of 12, held together with around 12,000 men suspected of links with ISIL in the SDF-controlled detention centres.
The Commission’s report is scheduled to be presented on 18 March during an interactive dialogue at the 49th session of the Human Rights Council.