Syria: ‘Nowhere is safe for us’: Unlawful attacks and mass displacement in north-west Syria – Syrian Arab Republic
1. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Between December 2019 and March 2020, the Syrian government, backed by its ally Russia, subjected civilians in opposition-held areas in north-west Syria to a new wave of horrors. In an all-too-familiar pattern, attacks from the air and the ground repeatedly struck residential areas and crucial infrastructure. Yet even by the standards of this calamitous nine-year crisis, the resulting displacement and humanitarian emergency were unprecedented.
In towns and villages in Idlib and western Aleppo governorates, the barrage of attacks emptied out entire communities; the escalation was evidently a continuation of an offensive that began in April 2019 targeting the last pocket under the control of armed opposition groups. Cornered, and with nowhere left to go, civilians flooded already overstretched displacement camps, pitched tents in farms and schools, or ended up in the open in brutal weather. A strained humanitarian community struggled to meet overwhelming needs. And the international community, including the UN Security Council, once again remained largely paralysed as even the most basic humanitarian norms were politicized.
Amnesty International has examined the impact of the latest military offensive. The findings are based primarily on remote research conducted between January and April 2020. Researchers interviewed 74 people, including direct witnesses of attacks, displaced people who provided accounts of conditions in displacement, local and international aid workers and UN staff members. Researchers also reviewed videos and photographs, analysed satellite imagery and obtained logs of aircraft observations by flight spotters on the ground, as well as intercepted aircraft radio communication, to assess consistency with witness accounts. On 15 April 2020, Amnesty International sent letters summarizing its findings and requesting related information to the permanent missions of the Syrian and Russian governments to the UN in New York, as well as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the largest coalition of armed groups in north-west Syria. No response had been received as of 4 May, when this report was finalized.
Amnesty International documented a total of 18 attacks on medical facilities and schools that happened between 5 May 2019 and 25 February 2020 in Idlib, north-western Hama and western Aleppo governorates. Of those, Syrian government forces carried out three ground attacks and two barrel bomb attacks. The remaining 13 attacks were air strike attacks: two by Syrian government forces, seven by Russian government forces, and four by Syrian or Russian government forces.
A doctor who survived one of the documented attacks – three air strikes in the vicinity of al-Shami hospital in Ariha on 29 January 2020 – told Amnesty International how the strikes flattened at least two residential buildings around the hospital, killed 11 civilians including one of his colleagues, and injured more than 30 others. “I felt so helpless. My friend and colleague dying, children and women screaming outside… We were all paralysed,” he said. “It took the civil defence two days to remove the bodies” from underneath the rubble of one the flattened buildings, he added. Based on corroborating witness statements and other credible information, particularly observations by flight spotters, Amnesty International concluded this unlawful attack was carried out by Russian government forces.
A teacher who witnessed an attack on a school in Idlib city on 25 February 2020 described to Amnesty International how a cluster munition explosion injured her and killed a student before her eyes. As soon as she had finished teaching the first period that day, the principal ordered everyone to evacuate the school due to a wave of attacks on the city. She and others who evacuated were walking past another nearby school when it was hit by a cluster munition. “A bomblet exploded close to my feet, blowing the flesh off… The pain was unbearable… Two students were walking in front of me. One died instantly and the other one, miraculously, survived… I know the sound of a cluster munition attack very well. You hear a series of small explosions. As if the sky were raining shrapnel instead of water,” she said. In total, three people were killed, and five others injured. Amnesty International concluded this unlawful attack was carried out by Syrian government forces; it identified the remnant as a surface-fired, 220mm 9M27K cargo rocket, manufactured in Russia and transferred to the Syrian army, containing 9N210 or 9N235 cluster munitions, which are prohibited under international law.
Evidence shows that, in their entirety, the documented attacks by Syrian and Russian government forces entailed a myriad of serious violations of international humanitarian law. To name a few, the attacks were not directed at a specific military object and they violated the immunity from direct attack of civilians and civilian objects, as well as the special protection afforded to specific persons and objects, particularly medical facilities, medical personnel and children. These violations amount to war crimes. The attacks must also be viewed in the context of the well-established pattern of Syrian government forces targeting civilian infrastructure and civilians in areas under the control of armed opposition groups as part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population, therefore constituting crimes against humanity.
The onslaught on residential areas and civilian infrastructure between December 2019 and early March 2020, when a ceasefire was reached, pushed close to 1 million people out of their homes and in the direction of the Turkish border. The vast majority of them were women and children. The UN described the resulting humanitarian crisis as the worst since the beginning of the conflict. Families converged on displacement camps that had already been packed to the brim; schools, abandoned sports facilities and other public buildings were turned into temporary shelters. Unable to afford exorbitant rents and down payments requested by property owners, many families also resorted to staying in unfinished buildings. At one point, the UN was reporting that tens of thousands of people were staying in the open in sub-zero temperatures.
Displaced families, many of whom have had to flee their homes several times over the past few years, described to Amnesty International the multiplicity of hardships and unsafe living conditions they faced in displacement. Many feared for the lives of their children amid credible reports of children freezing to death and families found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in their tents. Many families were unable to find new sources of income and struggled to live off the limited food and cash assistance they were receiving from humanitarian organizations. Practically all those who spoke with Amnesty International described struggles due to minimal hours of electricity a day and inadequate sanitation conditions that undermined their inherent dignity and left them further exposed to disease. In some instances, displacement sites were subjected to attacks, further terrorizing residents; Amnesty International documented one such incident. A displaced woman who has three children and whose family was displaced twice in the past eight months said: “My daughter, who’s in first grade is always afraid… She asked me [after we were displaced]: ‘Why doesn’t God kill us?… Nowhere is safe for us.’”
In March and April 2020, after the ceasefire and the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic, some of those who were displaced since December 2019 – an estimated 114,000 at the time of writing – returned to their original communities in Idlib and western Aleppo governorates. However, the vast majority of those who had fled the fighting remain in displacement. Many areas remain destroyed and uninhabitable. Civilians have also been fearful of returning to towns and villages that have been retaken or are at risk of being retaken by the government. There is a well-documented record of Syrian government forces arbitrarily arresting, torturing and forcibly disappearing civilians from opposition-held territories. During the latest escalation, too, there were credible reports of Syrian government forces unlawfully killing civilians and mutilating their bodies in towns they have retaken.
As such, the needs of those who live in displacement remain immense, including when it comes to shelter, food and sanitation, let alone longer-term necessities such as livelihood assistance and education. Even before the latest military escalation and mass displacement, the vast majority of those living in oppositionheld areas in north-west Syria needed humanitarian aid, with relief organizations struggling with funding gaps. Amnesty International’s research shows how attacks by government forces and, to a lesser extent, interference by armed opposition groups have violated international humanitarian law and have undermined access to aid and crucial services. Government attacks caused massive interruptions in health and education services and displaced many humanitarian workers who were servicing their communities.
Humanitarian workers also said that in 2019 and to a lesser extent in 2020, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the largest coalition of armed groups in north-west Syria, attempted to regulate the work of humanitarian organizations inside and outside camps through bureaucratic and financial measures. Since Hay’at Tahrir alSham, designated by the UN Security Council a “terrorist” group, expanded its control in north-west Syria, humanitarian organizations have been operating in an increasingly complex environment under pressure by donors and counter-terrorism regulations, but at the same time striving to honour their obligations and deliver independent and impartial assistance. Donors have been placing a disproportionate amount of the burden of mitigating the risk of aid diversion on humanitarian organizations, and at times have taken measures such as cutting funding altogether to certain programmes, the latter action undermining the resilience of the community and causing a sense of stigmatization, humanitarians said.
The COVID-19 global health crisis is putting further pressure on the humanitarian response in a region where the health care system, battered by hostilities, is already struggling and far from equipped and where overcrowded displacement sites heighten the risk of transmission. Donors must ensure that a UN plan to prepare for and respond to a potential outbreak of the disease in north-west Syria receives the needed funds. All parties to the conflict must refrain from any actions that would impede rapid, impartial assistance.
Simply put, humanitarian assistance is needed more than ever in north-west Syria. Civilians cannot afford any interruptions in the provision of timely and sustained aid. Since it was established in 2014, the UN’s cross-border aid mechanism has been key in ensuring that the massive needs of civilians in the area have been met. It is unrealistic to expect aid from within the country, which requires the authorization of a government that has a track record of curtailing assistance, to replace cross-border aid. As it is, inaction and piecemeal measures by the international community have facilitated all sorts of violations against civilians on a massive scale since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. The renewal of this crucial aid mechanism cannot continue to be politicized every time it is up for a vote in the UN Security Council. The council must ensure that the mechanism remains functional as originally envisaged in Security Council resolution 2165, meaning also reinstating the UN’s ability to deliver aid through the al-Yarubiyah crossing point to north-east Syria, another region with overwhelming needs
Opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Observatory.