GENEVA — U.N. human rights experts on Tuesday unveiled fresh evidence of Syrian war crimes and possible crimes against humanity involving people trapped in civilian areas of the opposition-held Idlib province since November.
The three-member United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said children, women and men endured “unfathomable suffering” during a military campaign launched in late 2019 by forces fighting for President Bashar Assad’s government to retake the last opposition-held areas.
The pro-government offensive has displaced 1 million and killed more than 500 civilians, according to U.N. officials. Civilians fled amid the fighting between Russia-backed Syrian government forces and Turkish-backed forces in one of the last rebel enclaves. The fighting preceded a March ceasefire led by Russia and Turkey that has been more or less holding in Syria’s Idlib province.
The commission’s report describes 52 “emblematic attacks” between November 1 and June 1 that resulted in civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure, including 17 that damaged hospitals and medical facilities, 14 that impacted schools, 12 that involved homes and nine that occurred at marketplaces.
It cited evidence of war crimes by all sides: Assad’s government forces, backed by Russia, indiscriminately bombarded civilians in Idlib province, as the opposition’s jihadist forces tortured and executed civilians.
“It is completely abhorrent that, after more than nine years, civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, or even targeted, while going about their daily lives,” Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the commission chair, said in a statement.
Pinheiro said children, parents and medical patients were shelled while at schools, markets and hospitals.
“Entire families were bombarded even while fleeing,” he said. “What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and U.N.-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians.”
Syria’s main al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, pillaged civilian homes and “detained, tortured, and executed civilians expressing dissenting opinions, including journalists,” the commission reported.
“Female media workers were doubly victimized, as the terrorist group continued to systematically discriminate against women and girls, including by denying their freedom of movement,” it said. “HTS, moreover, indiscriminately shelled densely populated civilian areas, spreading terror amongst civilians living in government-held areas.”
“What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and @UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of #war & the rights of #Syrian civilians”. @UNCoISyria on new report
Press release: https://t.co/5htXCkIXwd https://t.co/FoecTsC0S4
— HRC SECRETARIAT (@UN_HRC) July 7, 2020
Pandemic-fueled ‘perfect storm’
Hoping to bring perpetrators to justice, the commission has documented abuses since it was created by the U.N. Human Rights Council in August 2011. That was less than a half-year after the uprising against Assad began with protests in Daraa over security forces’ detention of a group of boys accused of painting anti-government graffiti on school walls. On March 15, 2011, a protest was held in Damascus’ Old City.
In January, the commission said the war has stolen the childhoods of 5 million boys and girls displaced by fighting, including many killed, maimed, tortured, sexually abused and forced into military training.
“Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights and extremely limited humanitarian assistance,” said commission member Karen AbuZayd, a U.S. citizen and former head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. “The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”
With the coronavirus pandemic extending to Syria, civilians there, including at Idlib and western Aleppo, face “the perfect storm” for an even more dire humanitarian situation, the commission emphasized.
The U.N. Security Council was blocked on Tuesday from renewing for another year a humanitarian operation in Syria that permits cross-border aid deliveries through Turkish crossings. Russia and China vetoed the measure.
The six-year operation will close unless a compromise is found by Friday. Each of the 15-nation council’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — hold veto power. That reflects the global power structure at the end of World War II — a perennial sore topic among U.N. members.
Russia favors restricting the aid deliveries to just one Turkish border crossing for six months. In January, the council gave in to Russia’s demand that it reduce cross-border aid to only two Turkish crossings, cutting off help to more than 1 million Syrians.
Before then, the council had since 2014 authorized the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria each year without Assad’s permission through four border crossings: two in Turkey — Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa — and two other ones at Al Yarubiyah in Iraq and Al-Ramtha in Jordan.
“Now more than ever, civilians need sustained and unfettered access to humanitarian assistance which must neither be politicized by member states nor instrumentalized by parties to the conflict,” said the commission’s third member, Hanny Megally, an Egyptian scholar, researcher and investigator who is senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation focusing on violent extremism, human rights and rule of law. “Pandemics know no borders, neither should life-saving aid.”
Sahar Atrache, Refugees International’s senior advocate for the Middle East, said 5 million people depend on the world to ensure that humanitarian continues to pass through the border crossings.
“Amid the worst pandemic the world has faced in more than a century, and against the backdrop of a massive economic downturn in Syria, cutting this humanitarian lifeline will be devastating,” she said in comments provided to Arete News. “The international community should not allow Russia to bring additional suffering and death to the very people it recently tried to bomb into submission.”