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UN Commission of Inquiry: “Syria, too, desperately needs a ceasefire”

11 March 2024

GENEVA (11 March 2024) — Syria is experiencing a wave of violence not seen since 2020, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned in a report released today. Across multiple frontlines, parties to the conflict have attacked civilians and infrastructure in ways likely amounting to war crimes, while an unprecedented humanitarian crisis is plunging Syrians into ever deepening despair.

“Since October, Syria has seen the largest escalation in fighting in four years. With the region in turmoil, a determined international effort to contain the fighting on Syrian soil is imperative. Syria, too, desperately needs a ceasefire,” said Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission.

“The Syrian people cannot sustain any further intensification of this devastating, protracted war,” Pinheiro said. “More than 90% now live in poverty, the economy is in freefall amid tightening sanctions, and increased lawlessness is fuelling predatory practices and extortion by armed forces and militia.”

The upsurge in fighting in Syria started on 5 October when consecutive explosions during a graduation ceremony at a military academy in the government-controlled city of Homs killed at least 63 people, including 37 civilians, and injured scores.

Syrian Government and Russian forces responded with bombardments affecting at least 2,300 sites in opposition-controlled areas over just three weeks, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. Their indiscriminate attacks, which may amount to war crimes, hit well-known and visible hospitals, schools, markets and camps for internally displaced persons, and have since continued.

“Syrian Government forces again used cluster munitions in densely populated areas, continuing devastating and unlawful patterns that we have documented in the past,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally. “The October attacks resulted in some 120,000 people in fleeing, many of them previously displaced several times, including by the devastating earthquakes last February.”

“It should be no surprise that the number of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe last October reached the highest level in seven years,” Megally said. “Syria remains the world’s largest displacement crisis with over 13 million Syrians unable to return to their homes.”

Since the start of the Gaza onslaught, tensions have increased between some of the six foreign armies active in Syria, notably Israel, Iran and the US - raising concerns of a wider conflict. Israel reportedly struck alleged Iran-linked sites and forces in Syria at least 35 times and attacked the Aleppo and Damascus airports, temporarily halting vital UN humanitarian air services. Pro-Iranian militias reportedly attacked US bases in north-east Syria over 100 times, and the US responded with air strikes against pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria.

Meanwhile, in northeast Syria, the Turkish military accelerated operations against Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in retaliation for an attack claimed by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Ankara in October. Turkish aerial attacks on power plants deprived nearly one million people of water and electricity for weeks, in violation of international humanitarian law. Civilians were also killed in targeted aerial attacks fitting a pattern of Turkish drone strikes. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.

Compounding the violence in the northeast, fragmentation of military alliances and heavy infighting between SDF and a coalition of tribal fighters in Dayr-al-Zawr, saw several unlawful attacks leading to civilian casualties. The ongoing hostilities are fuelled by longstanding grievances that the cash-strapped Kurdish-led self-administration is failing to provide essential services to secure basic rights.

ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as Da’esh) also stepped up its operations in central Syria, not only on military targets but also on civilians in urban areas in attacks likely amounting to war crimes. Recent reports also indicate that civilians trying to make a living by gathering lucrative truffles are again being killed in the central Syria desert. Clashes also increased on the Syria-Jordanian border between Jordanian forces and drug smugglers, with civilians caught in the middle, killed and injured.

The Syrian Government continued to disappear, torture and ill-treat its detainees, and the Commission documented yet more deaths in custody, including in the infamous Sednaya prison. Four months after the International Court of Justice ordered the Government to prevent torture and destruction of evidence, Syrian authorities still deliberately obstruct and profit from families’ efforts to ascertain the whereabouts and fate of their detained loved ones, engaging in extortion.

In Idlib, Hayat Tahrir el Sham (HTS) continued to commit acts of torture, ill-treatment and unlawful deprivation of liberty, with reports of executions based on summary trials, including for witchcraft, adultery and murder. Several women’s rights organizations suspended their activities owing to threats, denial or delays of permits required by HTS. In areas held by the Syrian National Army (SNA), torture and ill-treatment continued in several detention facilities. Some armed SNA-factions continued to appropriate land and olive harvests belonging to absentee landowners.

“And as much as the world may wish to forget, five years after the fall of Baghuz when ISIL lost its territorial control in Syria, almost 30,000 children are still held in internment camps, prisons or rehabilitation centres in northeast Syria,” Commissioner Lynn Welchman said. “These children were already victimized during ISIL’s rule, only to be subjected to years of continued human rights violations and abuses.”

The Commission has concluded that living conditions in Al Hawl and Al Rawj camps amount to cruel and inhuman treatment and outrages on personal dignity.

“No child should ever be punished for their parents’ actions or beliefs,” Welchman said. “We urge all States to immediately allow all children, including Syrian children, to return home from the camps and take measures to ensure their reintegration into society and accountability for the crimes they have suffered. These children were all only 12 years old or younger at the time of ISIL’s rule – what crimes could possibly justify their continued detention? End the inertia, now.”

Amid all this, Syrians faced unprecedented hardship. 16.7 million inside the country now require humanitarian assistance, the largest number of people in need since the start of the crisis. A severe shortfall in donor funds has forced the UN to suspend regular food aid in Syria, placing millions in the grip of hunger. Yet aid deliveries are held hostage to arbitrary decision-making by the Syrian Government and hampered by sanctions.

The Commission will present its latest mandate report to the UN Human Rights Council on 18 March.

Read the full report here.

Background: The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was established on 22 August 2011 by the Human Rights Council through resolution S-17/1.The mandate of the Commission is to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic. The Human Rights Council also tasked the Commission with establishing the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and, where possible, to identify those responsible with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity, are held accountable. The Human Rights Council has repeatedly extended the Commission's mandate since then, most recently until 31 March 2024.

Get more information on the work of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

For media requests, please contact: Johan Eriksson, UN Syria Commission of Inquiry Media Adviser, at +41 76 691 0411 / [email protected]; or Todd Pitman, Media Adviser, Investigative Mandates, at +41 76 691 17 61 / [email protected]; or Pascal Sim, Human Rights Council Media Officer at +41 22 917 9763 / [email protected].