Since Syria’s emergency law was put into effect in 1963, international observers have considered human rights in Syria to be poor. Following the uprising in March 2011, and the violent government crackdown to crush it, the human rights situation has worsened exponentially, turning the entire country into a battlefield and prompting the Institute for Economics and Peace to list it as the most dangerous country in the world in its annual Global Peace Index.
What Makes Syria so Dangerous?
Putting aside the numerous and egregious violations of human rights and humanitarian law for the moment, the estimated numbers of casualties, in addition to the general number of people affected by the six-year-long war, is incredible. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent research organization, the death toll from the conflict as of February 2017 was an estimated 470,000, approximately twice the number used by the United Nations until it stopped updating its statistics 18 months earlier.
In 2011, Syria’s population was an estimated 21 million, but since the uprising in March of that year, 11.5 per cent of the population has been killed or injured. The number of wounded is around 1.9 million, and life expectancy has dropped from 70 in 2010 to 55.4 in 2015. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the spread and intensification of fighting has led to a massive humanitarian crisis, with 6.1 million people internally displaced and 4.8 million seeking refuge abroad. By mid-2016, an estimated 1 million people were living in besieged areas and were being denied life-saving assistance, while 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country.
Anti-Regime and Radical Groups
Another reason that Syria is the most dangerous country in the world is the presence of extremist groups such as Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (the former al-Qaeda affiliate group). It later changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in an attempt to escape the radical branding of the group, which made it a target of Western allied forces in Syria. These extremist groups are not bound by any international treaties governing armed conflicts. Hence, they are accused of systematic and widespread violations, including targeting civilians with different weapons, kidnappings and executions.
Moreover, anti-regime armed groups have committed their share of serious abuses, mainly indiscriminate attacks against civilians and the use of child soldiers, in addition to torture and the execution of prisoners of war (POWs).
Three ceasefires have been internationally brokered over the past 12 months, in February and September 2016 and January 2017, which briefly decreased the number of unlawful attacks on civilians by all parties. However, the first two deals were too fragile to hold and the infighting persisted throughout the year, with regime forces and its allies continuing to target or indiscriminately strike civilian areas, including markets, schools and hospitals, using barrel bombs and a wide range of prohibited incendiary weapons.
Throughout 2016, Human Rights Watch documented a large number of deliberate attacks on schools, medical facilities and markets, including a major airstrike by the Russian-Syrian alliance that hit al-Quds hospital on 27 April 2016, killing all civilians, patients and medical staff inside. In August 2016, the alliance stepped up its attacks, mainly on health facilities, including in Aleppo, Idlib and Homs, in an attempt to take back territory the Syrian regime had lost to opposition factions. Such targeting was found to amount to war crimes, since for aerial bombardment to be legal, operations must comply with the principles of international humanitarian law and the laws and customs of war: military necessity, distinction and proportionality in addition to refraining from attacks on protected persons – mainly civilians and medical staff.
Findings on the Chemical Attacks
In October 2016, the Joint Investigative Mechanism between the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN released its findings in the fourth report that year. This identified the Syrian government forces as those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Idlib attacks on 24 March 2015. The inquiry also identified the military units responsible for the flights that conducted the attacks, but was unable to name the commanders due to the Syrian government’s refusal to cooperate and respond to the queries. Earlier reports by the inquiry similarly concluded that two other attacks, Kafr Zita on 18 April 2014 and Qmenas on 16 March 2015, were carried out by Syrian government forces. The inquiry also documented ISIS’s use of sulphur mustard gas on areas held by the armed opposition.
Major Reports Highlighting the Human Rights Situation
Two major reports have recently defined the human rights situation in the embattled country. The first is the findings of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic regarding war crimes committed during the battle for Aleppo in late 2016. The second is the Amnesty International report exposing the Syrian government’s campaign of extrajudicial executions at Saydnaya prison.
The UN commission was established on 22 August 2011 by the Human Rights Council, following the adoption of resolution S-17/1 at its 17th special session, with a mandate to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria since March 2011.
The report, issued on 1 March 2017, identified war crimes committed by both regime forces and opposition factions. It accused the Syrian air force of deliberately bombing and strafing a UN and Syrian Red Crescent humanitarian convoy at Orum al-Kubra on 19 September 2016, killing 14 aid workers and halting relief operations. The UN described the targeting of the humanitarian convoy as ‘meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out’. The report states, ‘[B]y using air-delivered munitions with the knowledge that humanitarian workers were operating in the location, Syrian forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid and attacking civilians.’
Regarding Aleppo, the report describes the scale of the destruction as unprecedented. What was once Syria’s biggest city and its commercial and culture centre – a UNESCO World Heritage site – has been reduced to rubble. The report adds that the Syrian air force, mainly helicopters, dropped toxic chlorine bombs, which are internationally banned and have killed hundreds of civilians, on Aleppo ‘throughout 2016’.
Most recently, during the siege of Aleppo in November and December 2016, 5,000 pro-government forces employed a ‘surrender or starve’ tactic in the eastern part of the city. Thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes under an evacuation agreement between the warring parties, which the report found amounted to the war crime of forced displacements. In return, opposition groups shelled government-controlled western Aleppo, killing and injuring dozens, while preventing civilians from fleeing eastern Aleppo and using them as ‘human shields’.
The Amnesty International report, released on 7 February 2017 and titled Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya Prison, documents the weekly and sometimes twice-weekly mass hangings of 50 inmates at a time. In five years (2011-2015), according to the report, approximately 13,000 prisoners, most of whom are believed to be civilians opposed to the regime, have been hanged. The report also shows that the government deliberately inflicted inhuman conditions on detainees in the prison through repeated torture and the systematic deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care.
These practices, which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, were found to be authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government. “The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign […] aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s regional office in Beirut, Lebanon.
The report’s findings are based on an intensive year-long investigation, carried out between December 2015 and December 2016. It involved first-hand interviews with 84 witnesses, including former Saydnaya guards and officials, detainees, judges and lawyers, as well as national and international experts on detention in Syria.
One of the interviewees, a former judge who witnessed the hangings, is quoted as saying, ‘[T]hey kept them hanging there for ten to 15 minutes. Some didn’t die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks.”