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Don't look away: Syrian civilians face the prospect of a new escalation

14 September 2022

Geneva (14 September 2022) -- Syrians are facing increasing suffering and hardships brought on by the deadly consequences of over a decade of war and an intensification along its northern front, warns the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in a new report.

“Today, Syrians face increasing and intolerable hardships, living among the ruins of this lengthy conflict. Millions are suffering and dying in displacement camps, while resources are becoming scarcer and donor fatigue is rising. Syria cannot afford a return to larger-scale fighting, but that is where it may be heading,” said Commission chair Paulo Pinheiro, launching the Commission’s latest 50-page report on the human rights situation in Syria, which covers the period 1 January to 30 June.

Under the threat of another Turkish ground operation, the Commission recorded continued mobilization and fighting between Turkish and Turkish-backed forces and Kurdish-led forces in the north. The report details attacks in northern Aleppo that killed and injured at least 92 civilians and destroyed civilian homes, schools, mosques, medical facilities and administrative buildings.

Continuing this grim pattern, the Commission is investigating several recent deadly incidents, including the August shelling of a crowded market in al-Bab city that killed at least 16 civilians, including five children, and injured at least 36 more.

“We also see continued operations by Israel, as well as the U.S., Turkey and Iran-backed forces, in this protracted conflict,” Commissioner Lynn Welchman warned. In addition, Russia is still actively supporting the Syrian Government, particularly concerning airstrikes that have killed civilians and targeted food and water sources, including a well-known water station serving over 200,000 people. Just last week, fresh airstrikes caused further deaths and injuries in Idlib province, which are currently under investigation.

Families living in front-line areas have borne the brunt of pro-government forces’ ground-to-ground shelling in these areas, with the report recording children killed on their way to school, men killed as they tended to their shops, and an entire family killed as they gathered outside their home for afternoon tea.

In the northeast, the security situation is worsening in al-Hawl camp, with 34 reported murders in the camp between 1 January and 31 August and several deadly clashes between internal security forces and camp residents.

Children in al-Hawl and other camps in the northeast are in a particularly concerning situation. They lack sufficient health care and education, and many are traumatized by the violence within the camps. Once they reach puberty, young boys risk being transferred to military detention centres alongside adult alleged former Da’esh fighters, doomed to indefinite detention without legal recourse. 

The report also presents a comprehensive investigation into the largest Da’esh attack on Syrian soil since it lost its territorial hold in 2019: the fighting in and around Al-Sina’a prison in Hasakah city that started on 20 January resulted in hundreds killed, some beheaded and mutilated. 
“These events shed light on the plight of the more than 10,000 suspected former Da’esh fighters and other individuals allegedly affiliated with the group that have remained detained in north-eastern Syria, for the most part incommunicado, as well as the ongoing risks of detaining such suspects in civilian areas. Foreign detainees, including boys, still have no legal recourse years after their initial detention”, noted Commissioner Hanny Megally.

More encouragingly, hundreds of Iraqi children have been repatriated this year from detention camps in north-eastern Syria to Iraq. Several European countries also repatriated women and children. “The Commission commends those countries that have repatriated their nationals among the foreign women and children held in the camp since the beginning of the year and urges the continuation of efforts to ensure all persons arbitrarily held in these camps are released,” Mr. Pinheiro emphasized.

Worryingly, the Commission’s recent investigations confirm continued patterns of crimes against humanity and war crimes related to torture and ill-treatment committed in Government detention to this day, also leading to the death of detainees. Such war crimes and deaths in custody were also documented in detention facilities controlled by armed groups.

During the reporting period, it also emerged that dozens of people who had been missing since they fled eastern Ghouta through humanitarian corridors established by the Russian Federation in 2018 have now been declared dead – some likely executed, as had been feared and alleged at the time.

Tens of thousands of Syrians remain forcibly disappeared or missing to date. Government forces continue to inflict cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment on the relatives of the missing by deliberately concealing the fate and whereabouts of the missing. Families’ search for their loved ones in Syria – often undertaken by women – is fraught with the danger of being arrested, extorted and abused.

“We welcome the Secretary General’s recent report where he calls for a new body to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the missing and disappeared in Syria. It strongly affirms what the families, the Commission and many others have long advocated for. Now, Member States must seize the moment and make it a reality, for the sake of the victims and their families,” Commissioner Megally noted.

“In addition to being disproportionately affected by the consequences of enforced disappearances, women and girls have been subjected to gendered abuses and violations of their rights – including freedom of movement, expression and association, housing and property rights – depending on which armed actor holds sway over their areas, and often owing to pre-war gender inequalities and persisting discriminatory practices,” Commissioner Welchman said. “They have suffered sexual and gender-based violence in detention, in camps and in their daily life.” 

The Commission has recorded multiple cases where displaced Syrians who returned home were arrested and detained shortly afterwards by government forces. Across the country, it has also documented numerous cases of persons and families who have been unable to return to their hometowns and villages because their properties were confiscated by forces, or because they cannot return to their properties and land, fearing arbitrary detention.

Against this backdrop, the Commission notes that some neighbouring countries are creating concrete plans for mass returns of Syrian refugees. “Returns must be a choice and take place in a safe, dignified, and voluntary manner,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro.

The Commission will present the report to the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday, 22 September, at 15.00 CEST.



For media requests, please contact: Rolando Gómez at +41 (0) 22 917 9711 / [email protected], Johan Eriksson, Commission of Inquiry Media Adviser, OHCHR, + 41(0) 76 691 0411 / [email protected], Matthew Brown / [email protected], or Pascal Sim at +41 (0) 22 917 9763 / [email protected]  

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