Reports on the Syrian Arab Republic

Katrin Cassidy-Ginsberg
Vol. 39 Contributing Editor

On March 1, 2017, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released its report on the events in Aleppo and the “alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law.”[1] Based on extensive evidence gathered through interviews and reviewing data that included satellite imagery, photographs, and medical records, the Commission concluded all parties involved had committed war crimes that had resulted in civilian deaths.[2]

The Commission applied international humanitarian law (IHL) in reviewing the events in Aleppo.[3] The Commission noted that the “methods and means” of warfare employed suggested a “wil[l]ful disregard” of the international humanitarian law rules of “proportionality and distinction” as well as the obligation “to take all feasible precautions to avoid incidental loss of []life, injury or damage to civilian objects.”[4] While this article focuses on the actions of the pro-government Syrian and Russian forces below, armed groups in opposition were also found to have violated IHL.[5]

The continuous attacks and bombing of hospitals, markets, schools, water stations and other residential buildings by pro-government forces destroyed civilian infrastructure and resulted in dangerous consequences, particularly for women. For example, the bombing of residential buildings disproportionately affected women and children because they often spent more time present in the home.[6]

As hospitals were the victims of repeated air strikes, civilians chose to forego trips to the hospital rather than risk being there when an attack occurred.[7] Women who were in labor increasingly stayed home to give birth without medical assistance, which can increase the risks associated with labor for both the mother and child.[8] The Commission found the repeated bombing of hospitals without warning and without any military presence was indicative of a deliberate effort to target “medical infrastructure” that was “part of strategy to compel surrender,” thereby committing the war crime of “intentionally targeting protected objects.”[9]

Numerous markets and other food sources were also repeatedly attacked by air strikes, violating the “right to regular, permanent and unrestricted access to sufficient food.”[10] Similar to the strikes against hospitals, the Commission found the pattern of attacks suggested this right was being intentionally violated to compel surrender.[11]

Syrian forces also carried out an egregious attack on humanitarian aid convoy, first by bombing the area in two phases and then by “fir[ing] machine guns at survivors.”[12] Syrian forces specifically used munitions that were effective in attacking unarmored vehicles and targeted a wide area. These factors, along with the length of the attack, suggested it was “meticulously planned” to “purposefully hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid and [to] target aid workers . . .  .”[13] Such actions are consistent with the war crimes of “deliberately attacking humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid and targeting civilians.”[14]

In addition to targeting civilian infrastructure, the attacks were often carried out using prohibited chemical weapons, such as chlorine and cluster munitions, that caused extensive civilian injuries and deaths. Such chemical weapons are prohibited under IHL because they are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets and “amount to the war crime of indiscriminate attacks in a civilian populated area.”[15] During one four-day period, toxic chemicals were reportedly dropped daily in a neighborhood.[16]

Evidence of the repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and food sources, along with the type of weapons employed led the Commission to conclude that both Russian and Syrian pro-government forces had committed war crimes in Aleppo. Considered a party to the major United Nations human rights treaties, the Syrian Arab Republic has an obligation to provide a remedy for civilians whose rights were violated and to “investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of [] violations.”[17] It remains up to the international community to hold the Syrian Arab Republic accountable for this obligation.


[1] Human Rights Council, Report of the Indep. Int’l Comm’n of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, at 4, ¶ 1, U.N. Doc A/HRC/34/64 (Feb. 2, 2017) [hereinafter Report].

[2] See id at 4, ¶ 2.

[3] Id. at 23, ¶ 1 [hereinafter Report Annex] (citing Prosecutor v. Tadić, Case No. IT-94-1-T, Judgment, ¶ ¶ 561-568 (Int’l Crim. Trib. for the Former Yugoslavia May 7, 1997)) (finding that the “intensity and duration” of the conflict met the threshold for non-international armed conflict).

[4] Report, supra note 1, at 5, ¶ 12.

[5] Report Annex, supra note 3, at 24, ¶ 5.

[6] Report, supra note 1, at 7, ¶ 25.

[7] Id.

[8] See Am. Cong. of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee Opinion #669 (2016) (finding hospitals the safest place for a woman to give birth); Robyn M. Kennare, et al., Planned Home and Hospital Births in South Australia, 1991-2006: Differences in Outcomes, 192 Med. J. Austl. 76 (2009).

[9] Report, supra note 1, at 8, ¶ 32 (referencing Report Annex, supra note 3, at 31, ¶¶ 36-39).

[10] Report, supra note 1, at 10, ¶ 41 (citing Report Annex, supra note 3, at 30, ¶ 35).

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 17, ¶ 83.

[13] Id. at 18, ¶ 88.

[14] Id. (citing Report Annex, supra note 3, at 30, ¶ ¶ 34-35).

[15] 1 Int’l Comm. of the Red Cross, Customary International Humanitarian Law, Rule 12 (2005) (“Indiscriminate attacks are those: (a) which are not directed at a specific military objective; (b) which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or (c) which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by [IHL]; and consequently . . . are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.”)

[16] Report, supra note 1, at 12, ¶ 55.

[17] Report Annex, supra note 3, at 24, ¶ 4.