Damascus, Syria – In April 2019, the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, launched a major military offensive to retake Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in northwest Syria— one of the last areas controlled by anti-government armed groups. Over the next 11 months, the Syrian-Russian alliance showed callous disregard for the lives of the roughly 3 million civilians in the area, many of them people displaced by the fighting in other parts of the country.
The alliance launched dozens of air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure in violation of the laws of war, striking homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study. They used cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and improvised “barrel bombs” in populated areas to deadly effect. The attacks killed at least 1,600 civilians, destroyed and damaged civilian infrastructure, and forced the displacement of an estimated 1.4 million people.
A ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey halted the fighting in March 2020. By that time, the Syrian government had regained control of nearly half the territory in and around Idlib, including hundreds of towns and villages that were largely depopulated because their residents had fled during the offensive. Since then, some people have returned to areas still controlled by anti-government armed groups, where they face a decimated infrastructure and limited access to food, water, shelter, health care, and education. The chance of renewed fighting, and the dangers to civilians, loom large.
This report examines the 11-month Syrian-Russian offensive and unlawful attacks that caused harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, which can be defined as the basic structures and facilities, such as hospitals, schools, and markets, that society needs to function. The report documents 46 ground and air attacks that directly struck or indirectly damaged civilian objects and infrastructure in Idlib in violation of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. It builds on a May 2020 report by Amnesty International that documented 18 unlawful air and ground attacks on schools and hospitals during this period in northwest Syria, covering 5 of the same attacks, plus 41 additional ones.
Woman and child in rubble in Idlib
These attacks represent only a fraction of the total attacks during that time in Idlib and surrounding areas. They reveal repeated violations of the laws of war that were apparent war crimes, and may amount to crimes against humanity. The attacks also seriously impaired the rights of the population to health, education, and an adequate standard of living, including food, water, and housing.
For these grave violations, no one in Syria or Russia has been held to account. Compounding the abuse, both countries have actively worked to hinder humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need.
The report names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be implicated in these violations as a matter of command responsibility: they knew or should have known about the abuses and took no effective steps to stop them or punish those directly responsible.
To document the 46 incidents, Human Rights Watch interviewed 113 victims and witnesses of the attacks, as well as healthcare and rescue workers, teachers, local authorities, and experts on the Syrian and Russian militaries. Human Rights Watch examined dozens of satellite images and over 550 photographs and videos taken at the attack sites, as well as logs of observers who monitored Syrian and Russian aircraft in the area.
In each of the 46 incidents, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of opposition military weapons, equipment, or personnel in the vicinity at the time of attack. Most of the attacks occurred in populated areas, and no residents said that the Syrian-Russian alliance ever provided any advance warning. The overwhelming majority of attacks documented took place far from active fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government armed groups.
Syria and Russia have said that the offensive in Idlib was a response to repeated attacks on their forces by anti-government armed groups and an effort to counter “terrorism.” Senior Syrian and Russian officials have denied that their operations violated the laws of war, despite repeated allegations of unlawful attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian objects during at least 21 United Nations Security Council meetings and at least two sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.
Human Rights Watch provided a summary of its findings and a list of questions with the Syrian and Russian governments on August 17, 2020 but had not received a response at time of writing.
Attacks on Civilian Objects, Infrastructure
Most of the air and ground attacks that Human Rights Watch documented were in and around four main population centers: Ariha, Idlib city, Jisr al-Shughour, and Maarat al-Nu`man. Two attacks were in Maarat Misreen, 10 kilometers north of Idlib city, and four attacks were in four camps for displaced people near the towns of Dana, Hass, and Sarmada. In total, the 46 strikes killed at least 224 civilians and wounded 561 others, according to reports from witnesses, family members of victims, residents, local authorities, and healthcare and rescue workers. Victims typically suffered injuries from munitions’ fragments and building debris.
The documented strikes damaged 12 healthcare facilities and 10 schools, forcing these institutions to shut down, in some cases permanently. At least five markets, four displaced persons camps, four residential neighborhoods, two commercial areas, and a prison, church, stadium, and nongovernmental organization office were also damaged in the attacks.
Human Rights Watch received credible reports about dozens of other attacks that damaged civilian structures, which international law protects from deliberate attack unless they are being used for military purposes. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that at least 1,600 civilians were killed in areas controlled by anti-government armed groups in northwest Syria during the period covered in this report. In 2019, the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, made up of international nongovernmental organizations, reported 147 separate incidents of violence against or obstruction of health care in Syria, with over half occurring in Idlib governorate. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported in May 2020 on at least 882 attacks in and around Idlib on civilian infrastructure since April 2019, including 220 places of worship, 218 educational facilities, 93 healthcare facilities, 86 Syrian Civil Defense (SDC) centers, and 52 markets.
One of the deadliest attacks documented by Human Rights Watch occurred on July 22, 2019 in Maarat al-Nu`man. The first munition, probably from an airstrike, hit a four-story apartment building and nearby shops and damaged a small market. Shortly thereafter, a second munition hit, collapsing two three-story buildings. An SCD worker at the scene was killed and another was wounded.
“There were bodies everywhere – women, bits of children,” said the injured SCD worker, who received fragmentation wounds to his hand and back. SCD volunteers worked for 24 hours pulling people from the rubble and identified 39 of the 43 people killed. Another 75 were wounded. “I remember one boy who had been carrying vegetables in his hands when he was killed,” another SCD worker said. “His severed hands were still gripping them.”
Three attacks on Idlib city’s commercial area and a nearby market in January and February 2020 killed 4 civilians, wounded 110 others, and damaged countless shops, which provided livelihoods for thousands of residents and their families. “We are terrified,” said Ayman Assad, who runs a car repair shop in the neighborhood. “Schools, markets, homes, hospitals, everything is a target. They are targeting life in Idlib.”
On January 5, 2020, an attack struck al-Naqib neighborhood in Ariha town, killing 13 civilians and wounding another 25. One munition hit a four-story building housing a preschool, and two others hit residential buildings next to two schools. One school employee described evacuating students out of the building minutes before the attack because local observers had reported aircraft overhead. “I looked at them and there was nothing I could do other than calm them, tell them not to be afraid, tell them to pray, tell them that it would soon be over,” she said. After the school was evacuated, a munition landed in the schoolyard, shattering windows and damaging doors, but no students were harmed.
Three weeks later, three munitions hit the three-story Ariha Surgical Hospital (also known as al-Shami hospital), the town’s only hospital. The attack destroyed the hospital, killed at least 14 civilians, and wounded at least 66 others. An Ariha resident, who lived a kilometer away, described people’s deadly predicament:
Panic and fear is the best way to [describe] the situation. We don’t know where to take our children. If we go west, we get hit by bomb fragments. If we go east, it’s the same. We have no windows or doors left. People have stopped going into the basements to seek shelter; they go into the streets or onto the rooftops, so that it’s easier for rescue workers to find their bodies. … We knew we were going to die, and we went out into the street so we would not end up under the rubble. Continuing attacks on Ariha forced people to flee for safety, and by late February 2020, the town was nearly empty.
One result of the Idlib offensive was mass displacement. According to the UN, nearly 1.4 million people across Idlib fled their homes during the period covered in this report, out of an estimated population of 3 million people. Many said they fled because of repeated attacks in populated areas, or feared ill-treatment if Syrian forces were to retake the area.
The repeated Syrian-Russian alliance attacks on civilian infrastructure in populated areas in which there was no apparent military objective suggests that these unlawful attacks were deliberate. The intent may been have been to deprive local residents of the means to sustain themselves, to force the civilian population to flee and make it easier for Syrian ground forces to take territory, or simply to instill terror in the civilian population as a way to achieve victory. The Syrian-Russian alliance apparently intended to fulfill these aims with little regard for international law.
While international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, recognizes that civilian harm may result from lawful attacks, it requires that all warring parties direct attacks on military objectives, distinguish between civilians and combatants, and take all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians or civilian objects, and that attacks not cause disproportionate civilian harm. Populations also remain protected by international human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas
Most of the 46 attacks documented by Human Rights Watch appeared to involve the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The bombing and shelling of populated areas kill and wound large numbers of civilians, and damage and destroy civilian objects and infrastructure. They also have reverberating effects: disrupting essential services, such as health care and education, and access to food and shelter. Long-term impacts include serious psychological harm to the affected population.
Explosive weapons used in Idlib included bombs, rockets, and artillery. Three of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented on or near schools involved cluster munitions, which have widespread indiscriminate effects and pose a long-term danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically release or disperse dozens or even hundreds of small submunitions in the air over an area the size of a football field. Many submunitions may fail to explode on initial impact, leaving remnants that act like landmines. The widely accepted Convention on Cluster Munitions bans cluster munitions; it has been joined by 121 states, although not Syria or Russia.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights identified the use of various explosive weapons by the Syrian-Russian alliance since April 2019, including 30 cluster munitions, at least 21 incendiary weapons, 9 missiles, and nearly 5,000 “barrel bombs” throughout the Idlib region.
The attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance on civilian objects and infrastructure have caused massive displacement and loss of life and harmed residents’ ability to access food, housing, health care, and education. This has resulted in a dire humanitarian situation in northwest Syria, with the almost complete decimation of the region’s healthcare infrastructure, severe overcrowding in areas sheltering displaced civilians, and heightened fears of restricted humanitarian access. As of May 2020, almost 2.8 million people in the northwest were in need of aid to meet their basic needs.
The humanitarian response is heavily reliant on UN agencies, which in 2014 were authorized by the UN Security Council to use border crossings from Turkey into the northwest to provide supplies and coordinate the response. The cross-border operation is the sole means for the UN to bring assistance into northwest Syria. In December 2019, Russia vetoed the renewal of the full cross-border authorization, but the Security Council was able to renegotiate a weaker resolution in January 2020, reauthorizing the two border crossings into northwest Syria for six months but removing the authorization from the two other border crossings into northeast and southern Syria. In July 2020, Russia and China vetoed two draft resolutions that would have renewed the mechanism and ultimately succeeded in deauthorizing one more border crossing. As a result, the only authorized crossing is at Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border.
Responsibility for Unlawful Attacks
Civilian officials and military commanders can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility if they knew or should have known about violations committed by forces under their control and failed to prevent them or punish those directly responsible.
To identify the range of Syrian and Russian officials who may bear criminal responsibility for the attacks documented in this report, Human Rights Watch reviewed public statements from Russian government and military officials; public reporting from the office of the Russian president and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministry; and Russian media accounts. Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven experts on the Russian and Syrian armed forces.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 has involved the deployment of attack and transport aircraft, surveillance drones, and armed forces personnel, including military advisors, forward air controllers to help coordinate and direct airstrikes, special forces, and military police. These Russian forces have supported the Syrian armed forces through airstrikes; close air support for Syrian units during ground operations; co-location with Syrian units on the front lines; and development, training, and advising on tactics and the planning of operations. In at least one case, a Russian military officer temporarily commanded an entire corps of the Syrian army. The coordination of this support has involved the highest levels of the Russian military, Defense Ministry, and the president.
Human Rights Watch is not aware of any efforts by the Syrian or Russian governments to credibly investigate or stop the attacks on civilians and civilian objects or infrastructure. In only one case of which Human Rights Watch is aware, Russian officials followed up on reports of civilian casualties after the attack on a market in Maarat al-Nu`man on June 29, 2019. However, the officials denied responsibility after having identified the wrong location. Instead of investigating the alleged violations, the Syrian-Russian alliance continued, and in some cases intensified, their attacks, despite regular briefings about the impact of unlawful attacks during UN Security Council and Human Rights Council meetings that senior Russian and Syrian officials attended. In February 2020, President Vladimir Putin reportedly conferred on the Russian commander who headed operations in Syria from April through September 2019, the Hero of Russia award, the nation’s highest honorary title. In late July 2020, the same title was reportedly awarded to the next Russian commander who headed operations in Syria at least through September 2020.
Given the lack of accountability in Syria and Russia, as well as the deadlock in the UN Security Council that has prevented the situation in Syria from being referred to the International Criminal Court, concerned governments should consider unilateral targeted sanctions against those senior officials and commanders credibly implicated in abuses. They should also support judicial officials in their efforts to pursue criminal cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction, where possible and in line with national laws.
As detailed in the report, the Syrian and Russian civilian and military commanders who may bear command responsibility for violations during the 2019-2020 Idlib offensive include Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who are the commanders-in-chief of their respective armed forces; Syria’s defense minister and second-in-command of Syria’s armed forces, Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub; Syria’s air force commander, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Balloul; Russia’s defense minister and second-in-command of the Russian armed forces, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu; Russia’s first deputy defense minister and chief of the general staff of the armed forces, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov; Russia’s first deputy chief of the general staff of the armed forces and head of the main operations directorate of the general staff of the armed forces, Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoy; commander of Russian forces in Syria from at least some time in March 2019 until April 10, 2019, Col.-Gen. Sergei Vladimirovich Surovikin; commander of Russian forces in Syria from April 10, 2019 until September 2019, Col.-Gen. Andrei Nikolaevich Serdyukov; and commander of Russian forces in Syria from September 2019 until at least September 2020, Lt.-Gen. Alexander Yuryevich Chaiko.
A March 2020 ceasefire agreement negotiated between Russia and Turkey has largely held as of early September, prompting some displaced people to return to areas still under the control of anti-government armed groups. They have returned to areas decimated by the latest military offensive, with collapsed infrastructure and limited access to food, water, shelter, education, and health care, including psycho-social (mental health) support. While as of late August, there were only 59 known cases of Covid-19 in northwest Syria, the actual number of cases is likely much higher due to limited testing. A further outbreak of the pandemic will exacerbate existing shortages and associated vulnerabilities. Crowded conditions in camps and poor access to basic services make it impossible to properly engage in social distancing or take other health precautions.
The risk to civilians of renewed hostilities also looms. Without measures being taken domestically or internationally against those responsible for serious violations, there is little to deter perpetrators of crimes and others from committing atrocities in the future.
Human Rights Watch calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to fully abide by the laws of war. Our findings in this report highlight the need for Syria and Russia to end all deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, such as medical facilities, schools, and markets. They should conduct transparent, credible, and impartial investigations into credible allegations of laws-of-war violations, including the incidents detailed in this report.
All states that are high contracting parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 undertake in common article 1 “to respect and ensure respect” for the Geneva Conventions in “all circumstances.” They should press all parties to commit to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Canada, the European Union, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other states should impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes, on those civilian and military commanders credibly implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including as a matter of command responsibility. Where possible, judicial authorities should also consider investigating and prosecuting those implicated in serious crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws. The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), established by the UN General Assembly in 2016, should continue to work to build files related to serious crimes committed in Syria, including those documented in this report, in order to facilitate criminal proceedings where possible.
Concerted international efforts towards accountability are crucial to demonstrate there are consequences for unlawful attacks, to deter future atrocities, and to show that no one can elude accountability for grave crimes because of their rank or position.