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Attacks on Syrian civilians and aid workers in Aleppo were war crimes

03 March 2017

​​​​Five-year-old Orman Daqneesh sits in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble of his home in Aleppo, his face splattered with dust and blood, his eyes dazed and uncomprehending as he looks at the camera, and then at his blood-smeared hand. It is a silent testimony to the bloodshed suffered by the people of Aleppo and other war-torn areas of Syria, caught in the crossfires of a brutal conflict now in its sixth year.

“The situation is indescribable,” said a doctor in eastern Aleppo, who spoke of the hundreds of wounded in need of treatment following indiscriminate bombings of hospitals, schools, and marketplaces, as government forces sought to reclaim rebel-held parts of the city. By the time pro-government forces recaptured Aleppo city in December 2016, all hospitals had been bombed out of service by Syrian and/or Russian air forces.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria in a new report examining events in Aleppo from July to December 2016, compiles victim and witness accounts drawn from 291 interviews, along with satellite imagery, photographs, videos and medical records.

“The battle for control over Aleppo city was a stage of unrelenting violence, with civilians on both sides falling victim to war crimes committed by all parties,” investigators found.

The report documents the plight of besieged civilians trapped without adequate food or medical supplies as pro-government forces encircled eastern Aleppo.

“Repeated bombardments of hospitals, schools, and markets without any warnings strongly suggest that the encirclement of the city and targeting of civilian infrastructure were part of a meticulous strategy to compel surrender,” said Commission Chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro.

By the time pro-government forces took control of northern districts in late November, one civilian described the chaos. “It is doomsday,” he said. “The humanitarian situation is dire. Shelling is ceaseless—24 hours a day.”
The report also documents how some armed groups withheld the distribution of humanitarian aid in areas under their control. As the situation deteriorated in eastern Aleppo and people tried desperately to flee, some civilians were violently prevented by armed groups who used them as human shields, notably in al-Firdous district.

Pushing back against the siege, armed groups ruthlessly shelled civilians in western Aleppo with improvised weapons, including propane gas cylinders known as “hell” canons. These attacks killed and injured dozens, including women and children.

Armed groups in western Aleppo countryside and eastern Aleppo city also bombed the Kurdish-held enclave of Sheikh Maqsoud, in northern Aleppo city. These were intentional attacks that killed and injured scores of Kurdish civilians in Sheikh Maqsoud, amounting to the war crime of deliberately directing attacks against a civilian population, the report states.

In one of the most egregious attacks investigated by the Commission, investigators found that the Syrian Air Force deliberately targeted a United Nations/Syrian Arab Red Crescent humanitarian convoy in September 2016, in Orum al-Kubra, western Aleppo countryside. The attack killed more than a dozen aid workers, destroyed 17 trucks carrying vital aid supplies, and led to the temporary suspension of all humanitarian aid throughout the country.

“The convoy had been authorized by the Syrian Government, and the Government was aware of its location at the time,” said Commissioner Carla Del Ponte. “The attack was obviously planned and carried out by the Syrian Air Force to hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid and target aid workers. These are war crimes for which accountability must be pursued.”

When armed groups agreed to evacuate the city in late December 2016, thousands of civilians were sent to Idlib governorate as part of a deal struck between warring parties.  This evacuation amounts to the war crime of forced displacement, the Commission concludes in the report.

“The siege of eastern Aleppo city was characterised by some of the most serious violations of international law the Commission has documented, which were committed by all warring parties,” said Commission Chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro. “The scale of what happened in Aleppo is unprecedented. Victims are calling for accountability now, and the international community must heed their call.”

3 March 2017