Both the government and opposition groups escalated their use of force during the year. The UN secretary-general reported that more than 100,000 persons had been killed since the start of the 2011 protests.
Killings: The rate of deliberate killings by the regime increased throughout the year, as did the regime’s use of lethal tactics. The government reportedly specifically targeted members of opposition groups and communities presumed to be sheltering them, human rights organizations, journalists, activists, artists, and pro-opposition scholars. The government also escalated its use of indiscriminate force, killing a high percentage of civilians, including children, in attacks on opposition targets. In August the SNHR released a report documenting 131 instances in which the government fired SCUD missiles into populated areas between March and August, killing at least 257 civilians. The regime continued its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling. Throughout the country progovernment rooftop snipers continued to target individuals in streets, including civilians going about their daily lives as well as those affiliated with the opposition. According to the SNHR, every two hours during the year a child was killed and every three hours a woman was killed as a result of the conflict. The Oxford Research Group released a report in November finding that over 11,000 children under the age of 18 have been killed as a result of the conflict. Government forces also used rape as a war tactic, specifically during house raids and at checkpoints. The government continued to target individuals with previous ties to foreign governments who favored the opposition and extended targeting to include family members and close associates of those individuals.
The COI concluded that the violations and abuses committed by opposition armed groups did not reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia. In 2012 several opposition commanders and brigades drafted and endorsed various codes of conduct in an effort to curb violations and killings; however, adherence to such standards was uneven.
On August 21, the regime used artillery and chemical weapons in an attack against the Ghouta area east of Damascus, resulting in the deaths of 1,429 persons, including children. The UN team charged with investigating the use of chemical weapons in the country confirmed that, based on site visits; interviews with victims; and chemical, environmental, and medical samples, chemical weapons had been used on a relatively large scale in the August 21 attacks. Doctors Without Borders reported treating several thousand patients bearing symptoms of exposure to nerve agents in the hours following the attack. Local activists, NGOs, and foreign governments alleged the regime committed the attacks, which the regime denied.
Various reports, including statements by member states of the UN Human Rights Council and the COI, alleged that the government and progovernment militias, including members of Lebanese Hizballah, committed massacres in Banyas, Tartus governorate, in early May. The SNHR reported over 458 victims, including 93 children, were killed. The United Nations reported government forces shelled and then invaded Sanamayn in Dara’a governorate in April, targeting and killing civilians during the attack.
Journalists and media activists were also targeted and killed. Observers offered a range of estimates for the number of journalists killed since 2011; in December Reporters Without Borders reported 110 journalists have been killed, while the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 57 journalists killed since 2011. Local NGOs reported that regime and opposition extremist forces killed, tortured, and detained many more media activists. All sides targeted and killed humanitarian aid workers and medical professionals, although the regime perpetrated the majority of such targeted killings.
Opposition forces increased their killing of regime forces, suspected regime supporters, and minority communities through large-scale attacks and use of snipers during the year. According to HRW in August, opposition groups killed 190 civilians, including 57 women and 18 children during an assault on Alawite villages near Latakia. Targeted killings within the opposition also occurred during the year. In July, ISIL assassinated Free Syrian Army commander Kamal Hamami. According to the COI, opposition forces endangered the civilian population by positioning military objects in civilian areas and facilities.
Press reports and videos from the country reported the deliberate killing of unarmed prisoners, including government soldiers, by the opposition. In some cases informal courts tried prisoners in an irregular fashion, such as facing a sharia council prior to execution, according to reports from international NGOs and the COI. According to the COI and press reports, in May in Dayr al-Zawr, a known Jabhat al-Nusra leader executed 11 men. The men were shot in the back of the head while blindfolded with their hands tied. The executioner claimed to be carrying out the sentence by the Sharia Court for the Eastern Region in Dayr al-Zawr. The COI concluded that a series of opposition court trials in Raqqa and Dara’a had sectarian dimensions, as the courts consistently found Alawite prisoners guilty and executed them, but released or imprisoned non-Alawites.
The United Nations reported several instances of violence, including killings of Palestinian refugees living in camps within Syria. In October, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency, seven Palestinian refugees were killed and 15 wounded in the Dara’a camp as intensified fighting spilled into the camp area. The COI reported that opposition forces killed two Palestinians and hung them in the public square of the Yarmouk camp in Damascus after opposition members accused them of being government collaborators.
Abductions: The COI reported government forces and affiliated militia perpetrated forced disappearances at checkpoints throughout the country, including in Shin, Homs province; in Nawa, Dara’a province; and in Qatana, Damascus. In some cases the United Nations reported that government officials refused to disclose the whereabouts of young men arrested. In most cases relatives did not attempt to determine the fate of those arrested due to fear of reprisals.
The COI reported a dramatic rise in hostage taking, noting it was often sectarian in nature. Kidnappings markedly increased in Aleppo and northern Syria in areas beyond government control. On March 6, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade took hostage members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force and UN Truce Supervision Organization. The same group seized four UN observer force peacekeepers on May 7. In all three cases, the kidnappers sought to leverage the hostages to halt regime attacks. The groups released detainees unharmed in all cases. On October 13, gunmen kidnapped seven humanitarian workers in Idlib, including six staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross and one member of the Syrian Red Crescent.
Armed extremist oppositionists conducted kidnappings, particularly in northern areas, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists. In April extremist opposition forces kidnapped bishops Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim while traveling to Aleppo; their whereabouts and conditions remained unknown. In August, Father Paulo Dall’Oglio was kidnapped while visiting Raqqa governorate. In October armed members of ISIL kidnapped media activist Rami al-Razzouk after they raided and destroyed the Radio Activist News Association media office in Raqqa. In December unknown armed gunman kidnapped human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi from the office of the Violations Documentation Center in Douma.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: The government and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of both opposition members and civilians. In addition to the mistreatment of civilians, government officials abused prisoners and detainees, as well as injured and sick persons, and they also raped both females and males as a tactic of war. For example, reports of government-sponsored sexual violence included rape of women at checkpoints, transfer of women to jails to be raped in front of detained husbands (sometimes followed by attacks on detained husbands), and incidents of mass rape.
The COI also reported cases of opposition forces engaging in torture. In detention facilities run by the Judicial Council and the Sharia Board in Aleppo, opposition forces subjected detainees suspected of being “shabiha” to severe physical or mental pain to obtain information or confessions.
Child Soldiers: The COI concluded that the use of children in combat increased compared to previous years. According to the COI, young men entered, sometimes forcibly, the army and the National Defense Forces. Three 17-year-old boys were forcibly recruited at checkpoints in Aleppo; one was killed within two weeks. Older soldiers reportedly mistreated young recruits and pushed them toward frontlines. Persons 16 and 17 years old were observed in the shabiha militias.
The COI reported that some opposition armed groups recruited and used children for active participation in hostilities, potentially drawing them into the mistreatment of detainees. The Abu Yusef Battalion reportedly trained a 14-year-old boy from Homs to use weapons and track soldiers’ movements in al-Waar. A report from several UN relief agencies concluded that opposition forces recruited underage refugees living in camps outside Syria. A March Save the Children report found that armed groups forcibly recruited children under the age of 18 to serve as human shields. The UN secretary-general’s annual report on Children in Armed Conflict found that children under the age of 15 served in support and combat roles in the FSA, acting as porters and loading bullets. The report cited the example of 16- and 17-year-old boys who sustained injuries while in combat with the FSA. The COI reported that a 13-year-old boy, who enlisted with an FSA brigade in Dara’a, was used as a porter whose duties included carrying the wounded and medicines and preparing ammunition. Another 13-year-old boy joined an FSA-affiliated group and provided support services. According to the COI, both Liwa al-Tawheed and Jabhat al-Nusra included fighters between the ages of 14 and 18 years old. The report also noted that other FSA units, such as in Dayr al-Zawr governorate, rejected the use of child soldiers. The Syrian Opposition Coalition publically rejected the use and recruitment of child soldiers.
There were no trends toward improvement in the above practices during the year. Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/.
Other Conflict-related Abuses: The government and opposition forces both impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance. The government deliberately restricted the passage of relief supplies and impartial humanitarian agencies’ access. Acute restrictions on food caused malnutrition-related deaths, including outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. For example, the regime siege of Moadamiya al-Sham near Damascus, which continued throughout the year, led to unprecedented reports of severe malnutrition as well as malnutrition-related deaths, particularly of children. In July the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement saying it had failed to reach agreement with the government to facilitate access to besieged neighborhoods of Homs. In addition to Homs, the COI reported sieges in Damascus, Dara’a, al-Qunaytirah, and Dayr al-Zawr that “appeared to be calculated to render the conditions of life unbearable forcing civilians to flee.” The government also failed to provide visas to international humanitarian workers and created unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to relief delivery. The COI and media reported that opposition groups also surrounded towns and limited access to supplies (such as food) in places such as Afrin, Nubl, and Zahra. Opposition forces also reportedly denied supplies to the central prison in Aleppo until the government released certain prisoners. The COI found that the government detained many Red Crescent volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.”
Government forces attacked civilian infrastructures including schools, hospitals, religious establishments, and bakeries. According to the SNHR, 45 percent of the country’s hospitals were not functioning due to government shelling and looting, particularly in opposition-held areas. The COI reported that, due to government attacks on medical facilities targeting medical personnel and interfering with medical treatment, government forces denied medical care to persons within opposition-held areas. Reports from local contacts and international aid organizations also confirmed that the government specifically targeted health-care workers, ambulances, and patients, in addition to restricting access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners. Government forces also targeted medical professionals for arrest. According to the Violations Documentation Center, the government had imprisoned 469 health workers as of mid-September.
Reports persisted that government and opposition forces used civilians, including women and children, to shield combatants.
According to the United Nations, at the end of the year, there were more than 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), due largely to conflict-related destruction of property, regime targeting of local populations, and violence. The figures on the IDP population vary widely as many areas are inaccessible; actual figures may be higher. The government did not provide sustainable access to services to the IDP population and did not offer this population any special assistance or protections. A fuller discussion of IDPs is in section 2.d.
According to the COI, the rise in government-supported minority militias (shabiha) and the positioning of militias within their respective supportive communities fostered hostilities along sectarian lines. All participants in the conflict used provocative sectarian rhetoric, which the COI warned risked inciting mass indiscriminate violence against minority communities.
According to the COI, regime shelling destroyed religious sites as well as UNESCO world heritage sites. The SNHR documented the destruction of 1,451 mosques and 33 churches due to regime violence. Opposition forces also destroyed religious sites, including a Sufi shrine. Government forces have also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of defectors and opposition figures.