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Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic: Report for July 2016 - February 2017

[Logo of the UN Human Rights Council] [Logo of the UN Human Rights Council]

[The following report was issued on 13 March 2017 by the United Nation Human Rights Council's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.]

Human Rights Abuses and International Humanitarian Law Violations in the Syrian Arab Republic, 21 July 2016 - 28 February 2017*

A conference room paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic


After almost six years of conflict, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the brutal violence waged by warring parties in the Syrian Arab Republic. Government and pro-Government forces continue to attack civilian objects including hospitals, schools and water stations. A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them.

Government and pro-Government forces continue to use prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponised chlorine canisters on civilian-inhabited areas, further illustrating their complete disregard for civilian life and international law.

The terrorist group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham persists in carrying out summary executions including of women, and recruiting children in Idlib governorate. Coordinated attacks undertaken by the terrorist group alongside armed groups launched by indirect artillery fire resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, including many children. Life under the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rule continues to be marked by executions and sever corporal punishment in civilians accused of violating the group’s ideology, and the destruction of cultural heritage sites including the Tetrapylon in Palmyra (Homs).

Armed groups launched numerous indiscriminate attacks with indirect fire artillery systems, including with unguided, locally manufactured weapons, killing and maiming civilians in Aleppo, Idlib and Dara’a governorates. Armed groups based in Idlib further exacted justice through the use of “shari’a courts” which lacked fair trial standards, while other groups carried out arbitrary arrests, detentions, enforced disappearance and committed torture countrywide.

Across northern Syria, Kurdish People’s Protection United (YPG) or Syrian Demcoratic (SDF) forces have displaced communities in order to clear areas mined by ISIL. In some cases, YPG or SDF forces did not provide adequate humanitarian aid to displaced communities. YPG forces persist in forcibly conscripting men and boys for military service. 

Over the period under review, the number of Member States carrying out airstrikes or deploying ground forces on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic increased, raising concerns regarding the escalation of the conflict and the potential to exacerbate civilian harm.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Conflict dynamics
  3. Government and pro-Government forces
  4. Armed groups
  5. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
  6. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
  7. Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)
  8. International coalition
  9. Obligations of States
  10. Conclusions and recommendation
  11. Annex: Map of the Syrian Arab Republic

I.     Introduction

1. In the present report, submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 31/17, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic presents its findings based on investigations conducted from 21 July 2016 to 28 February 2017.[1] The present report should be read in conjunction with previous reports of the Commission.[2]

A. Challenges

2. The Commission’s investigations remain curtailed by the denial of access to the Syrian Arab Republic.

B. Methodology

3. The methodology employed by the Commission was based on standard practices of commissions of inquiry and human rights investigations. The Commission relied primarily on first-hand accounts.

4. The information contained herein is based on 326 interviews conducted in the region and from Geneva.

5. Photographs, video recordings, satellite imagery and medical records were collected and analysed. Reports from Governments and non-governmental sources, academic analyses and United Nations reports were reviewed.

6. The standard of proof is met when the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that incidents occurred as described, and that violations were committed by the warring party identified.

II.     Conflict Dynamics

7. The conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic will soon enter its seventh year. Despite a general reduction in violence achieved by the nation-wide ceasefire agreed by the Russian Federation and Turkey on 30 December, armed violence persists on a number of frontlines. The ceasefire agreement, which came on the heels of the capture of Aleppo city by pro-Government forces, was buttressed by the adoption of Security Council resolution 2336 (2016), which commended Turkish and Russian political efforts and called for an immediate resumption of the political process.

8. Turkey, Iran and Russia sponsored talks in Astana, ostensibly aimed at capitalising on the post-Aleppo battlefield developments by reinforcing the ceasefire. In the final joint communique, the sponsors called for the creation of a trilateral ceasefire monitoring mechanism and for the effective separation of armed groups from United Nations recognised terrorist entities Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It also emphasised the need to apply Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) as a road map for a political solution. By reinforcing the ceasefire agreement, the talks were meant to support the February Geneva talks.

9. The outcome of the Astana talks also had important consequences for the armed groups, particularly in Idlib and western Aleppo governorates. Terrorist group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham considered the final communique of the talks as a declaration of war against it, and proceeded to attack the depots and checkpoints of armed groups that participated in the Astana meeting. Fearing further attacks by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, many of the Astana associated armed groups joined the Ahrar al-Sham armed group, for protection and formed a new group under its umbrella.   In response, the terrorist group united with a number of extremist factions under the name Hay’et Tahrir al Sham (HTS).  So far, infighting has led to hundreds of military casualties and is having serious repercussions on the general armed groups’ ability to mount offensive operations against government forces.

10. On 23 February parties to the conflict gathered in Geneva as part of the United Nations-sponsored talks mediated by Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura. The opposition was primarily represented by the High Negotiating Committee Bloc (HNC) and headed by Nasr al Hariri from the Syria National Coalition. Two opposition platforms from outside the HNC structure, the Moscow and Cairo groups, also joined. Differing perspectives on immediate priorities prevented direct talks between the Syrian government delegation and the HNC bloc from taking place. While the opposition emphasised an immediate political transition, the Syrian Government pushed for the need to fight terrorism. Talks were considered a relative success to the extent that consultations between the parties and the Special Envoy continued until the official conclusion of the talks on 3 March. A common framework agreement to pursue talks at the end of March was agreed on the basis of Security Council resolution 2254.

11. A number of fronts continue to be intermittently active since January. These are focused on Douma (eastern Damascus countryside), Homs and southern Dara’a governorate. On 25 February, a series of suicide attacks claimed by the HTS reportedly killed 32 people in Homs city including high-ranking government security officials. Thereafter, Syrian Air Force airstrikes hit the besieged town of al-Waer (Homs) and Douma leading to scores of civilian casualties. In the same context, government forces continue active military operations around the besieged areas of Qaboun, Barzeh and Harasta (eastern Damascus). In February, fighting erupted in Dara’a city as parts of the Manshieh neighbourhood were overtaken by armed groups.

12. On 24 August 2016, Turkey initiated a military operation in northern Syria against ISIL.[3] Since then, Turkish troops and affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups pushed through areas of northern Aleppo governorate as part of the cross-border operation “Euphrates Shield”. On 23 February, these forces gained control of the strategic town of al-Bab from ISIL. In eastern Aleppo governorate, Syrian government forces continued to make swift advances at the expense of ISIL successfully connecting to territory controlled by the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) around the town of Minbij to the west of the Euphrates River. A reported military agreement with the SDF has allowed the entry of Syrian government forces to the vicinity of Minbij thus overtaking a number of villages to the west of the town and effectively facing the Turkish forces to the south. On a different front, SDF forces continue their rapid advance through the northern ar-Raqqa governorate towards the self-proclaimed “capital” of ISIL reaching the outer limits of the city at the time of this writing.

13. Facing multiple actors on a number of fronts, ISIL continued to lose territory particularly in the governorates of Aleppo, Homs and ar-Raqqah. Subsequently to the reporting period, on 3 March, government forces regained control of Palmyra (Homs) for the second time in less than a year. The terrorist group’s defences also appear to have significantly weakened in eastern Aleppo governorate and to the north of ar-Raqqah. In a major development, SDF forces with the support of international coalition airstrikes, established control of parts of the road connecting ar-Raqqah city to Dayr az-Zawr thus severing one of the last vital supply lines for the terrorist group.

14. During the reporting period, external actors continued to provide material and financial support to the parties inside the Syrian Arab Republic contributing to the protraction of the conflict and with it the suffering of civilians. Involvement of external actors in the war has led to further fragmentation of the political and military landscapes and has contributed to an increase in levels of violence and extremism. While the war on ISIL has achieved tangible results, civilians continue to the bear the brunt of the conflict throughout areas investigated by the Commission. The multiplication of active military actors on the ground or groups supported by proxy continues and could become a formidable obstacle to achieving a coherent political settlement.

[Click here to access the full report.]

[1] The commissioners are Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Carla Del Ponte and Karen Koning AbuZayd.

[2] A/HRC/S-17/2/Add.1, A/HRC/19/69, A/HRC/21/50, A/HRC/22/59 and Corr.1, A/HRC/23/58, A/HRC/24/46, A/HRC/25/65, A/HRC/27/60, A/HRC/30/48 and Corr.1, A/HRC/31/68 and A/HRC/33/55.

[3] On 24 August 2016, the Republic of Turkey submitted a letter to the President of the United Nations Security Council (S/2016/739), in which it invoked Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations concerning the national right to self-defence and informed the President that “Turkey initiated a military operation in the early hours of 24 August 2016” in areas of northern Syria under ISIL control.

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