The government, opposition groups, and Da’esh escalated their use of force during the year. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that more than 250,000 persons had died since the start of protests in 2011, but OHCHR stopped recording this statistic in 2014. In April the UN special envoy for Syria estimated that the fighting had resulted in the deaths of more than 400,000 persons since 2011. In January media outlets widely reported that the government used “surrender or starve” tactics in hard-to-reach and besieged areas of the country. Soldiers surrounding besieged areas set up checkpoints to profit from the limited supply of goods, prices for which rose multiple times in besieged areas. The UN also reported that rebel groups imposed a siege on the villages of Fuah and Kefraya in Idlib province. The SNHR reported that Russian airstrikes on Hama, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia, and Raqqa governorates killed 3,967 civilians throughout the year.
Government forces, Da’esh, and opposition forces attacked civilian institutions, including schools, hospitals, religious establishments, and bakeries. The SNHR noted 45 percent of the country’s hospitals were not functioning due to government shelling and looting, and in many opposition-held areas even fewer hospitals functioned.
Killings: The government reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Government killings and use of lethal tactics reportedly increased during the year, despite a brief decrease during early March at the start of the period designated by the Cessation of Hostilities statement. The SNHR reported the government was responsible for the deaths of 6,924 civilians from January through November and Da’esh killed 1,397 civilians during the same period.
Reports from NGOs, including reports cited by the United Nations indicated that summary killings of civilians took place in the city of Aleppo in December as government forces retook opposition-held areas. These reports also indicated that government and allied forces targeted members of first-responder groups and that men between the ages of 30 and 50 were either detained by the government or immediately conscripted into the army. Reports cited by the United Nations also indicated that armed rebel groups prevented some civilians from escaping.
Progovernment militias reportedly continued to carry out mass killings. According to the SNHR, government-affiliated sectarian militias perpetrated massacres in the cities of Homs and Aleppo. In a June 2015 report on ethnic massacres, the SNHR noted that in February 2015 sectarian militia raided homes in the as-Sabil neighborhood of Homs, killing 14 civilians, including four children and five women. Additionally, in February 2015 Shiite militia reportedly kidnapped 320 individuals from two Aleppo villages and used them as human shields while retreating; fighting in this incident killed 48 civilians.
Opposition forces reportedly increased their killing of government forces, suspected government supporters, and members of minority communities through large-scale attacks and the use of snipers. According to the COI, opposition forces positioned military facilities and equipment in civilian areas. In 2012 several opposition commanders reportedly drafted and endorsed codes of conduct in an effort to curb violations and killings. Adherence to such standards was uneven. Media reports and videos from the country reported the deliberate killing by Da’esh and opposition forces of unarmed prisoners, including government soldiers. In some cases informal courts reportedly tried prisoners in an irregular fashion, such as facing a sharia council prior to execution, according to reports from international NGOs and the COI.
Extremist groups operating in spaces vacated by government forces also committed a large number of abuses and violations. There were unconfirmed reports that Da’esh executed tens of Arab and Kurdish civilians on March 21 before fleeing Kafr Saghir as government forces seized the area. According to the COI, Da’esh directed multiple bombings of medical centers in areas seized by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and targeted civilians with suicide bombings in streets full of civilians and near hospitals.
Other Syrian armed groups engaged in abuses. According to the COI, Jabhat al-Nusra killed more than 20 Druze in a massacre in Idlib governorate in June 2015. The SNHR attributed 132 civilian deaths to the PYD and other Kurdish groups.
Abductions: The government was reportedly responsible for the majority of disappearances during the year. Armed extremist groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly kidnapped individuals, particularly in the northern areas, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists. In August the SNHR attributed approximately 96 percent (nearly 72,000) of the estimated 75,000 forced disappearances to the government. The SNHR attributed 1,479 disappearances to Da’esh, 892 to al-Nusra Front, 397 to the PYD and other Kurdish forces, and 306 to armed opposition forces.
According to reliable NGO reports, government forces as well as Da’esh routinely kidnapped and detained aid providers and severely restricted humanitarian access to territories under their respective control. Activists reported aid workers in Da’esh-controlled territory were at high risk of abduction or violence.
In 2014 Da’esh reportedly abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq and brought them to Syria for sale in markets or as rewards for Da’esh fighters. Fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions. In interviews with the COI, they described multiple rapes by several men, including incidents of gang rape. Numerous NGOs and activists also reported that Da’esh fighters raped women in Da’esh-held areas or forced them to marry Da’esh fighters. Towards the end of the year, most of the abducted girls and women remained in Da’esh custody.
In June the COI issued a report called “They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazedis” that concluded “ISIS has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yezidis, thousands of whom are held captive in the Syrian Arab Republic where they are subjected to almost unimaginable horrors.”
The location and status of Khalil Arfu and Sukfan Amin Hamza from Derek, Hasakah governorate, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party remained unknown.
The COI reported that a dramatic rise in hostage taking, which was often sectarian in nature, triggered reprisals and fueled intercommunal tension. Opposition armed groups abducted civilians and members of government forces to enable prisoner exchanges and for ransom money to purchase weapons.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to reliable NGO reports, the government and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of both opposition members and civilians. Government agents targeted individuals with previous ties to foreign governments that favored the opposition; it also targeted family members and associates of such individuals. Government officials reportedly abused prisoners and detainees, as well as injured and sick persons, and raped women and men as a tactic of war. Additionally, according to the COI, the “Caesar photographs” smuggled out of the country in 2014 by a former government photographer documented the torture and severe malnourishment of more than 11,000 deceased detainees between 2011 and 2013.
The SNHR reported that authorities forced prisoners to witness the rape of other prisoners, threatened them with the rape of family members (in particular female family members), forced them to undress, and insulted their beliefs. According to the COI, the government and affiliated militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations in Deir al-Zour, Dara’a, Hama, Damascus, and Tartus governorates. Detention centers were the most common location for reported abuse, but attacks also occurred during military raids and at checkpoints. Reports included instances in which multiple attackers, usually soldiers and shabiha, gang-raped women in their homes, sometimes in front of family members. Observers believed sexual violence was widespread and underreported. In 2015 the SNHR estimated government forces were responsible for at least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse since the beginning of the conflict. The SNHR noted an increased use of sexual violence against women before granting permission to depart besieged areas or to return with medical supplies and food.
There were widespread reports that Da’esh also engaged in abuses and brutality. According to the COI, Da’esh increased brutal treatment of those it captured in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, and Aleppo governorates. Da’esh frequently punished victims publicly and forced residents, including children, to watch executions and amputations. Activists, NGOs, and the media reported numerous accounts of women in Da’esh-held territory facing arbitrary and severe punishments, including execution by stoning. Da’esh also committed abuses systematically against captured Free Syrian Army (FSA) and YPG fighters. Da’esh fighters reportedly beat captives (including with cables) during interrogations and killed those held in its detention centers in Raqqa and Aleppo governorates. Da’esh also beat persons because of their dress; several sources reported Da’esh members beat women for not covering their faces. Da’esh justified its use of corporal punishment, including amputations and lashings, under religious law.
The COI also reported in previous years that armed groups, under the banner of the FSA, tortured and executed suspected government agents, members of the shabiha, and collaborators. The COI noted that some opposition groups subjected detainees suspected of being members of pro-government militias to severe physical or mental pain and suffering to obtain information or confessions, or as punishment or coercion. The report also noted instances in which extremist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Da’esh arbitrarily detained and tortured individuals passing through checkpoints along the country’s northern border.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued recruitment and use of children in combat. The COI reported that pro-government militias enlisted children as young as 13. The COI reported the government sometimes paid children between the ages of six and 13 to be informants, exposing them to danger. There were no new reports during the year of combatants recruiting boys between the ages of 12 and 14 to conduct surveillance in Aleppo governorate. In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys between 15 and 17 years old and served primarily in support roles away from the front lines. Since 2014, however, all parties to the conflict recruited children at much younger ages--as young as seven years old--and often without parental consent.
More than half of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF)-verified cases of children recruited in 2015 were under 15 years old, compared with less than 20 percent in 2014. These children received military training, participated in combat or took up life-threatening roles in combat zones, including carrying and maintaining weapons, manning checkpoints, and treating and evacuating war wounded. Parties to the conflict used children to kill, including as executioners or snipers.
HRW reported opposition forces used children under the age of 18 as fighters. According to HRW, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra actively recruited children as fighters. According to the COI, Islamic Front-affiliated and other armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.” Jaish al-Mujaheddin enlisted minors younger than 18, according to the COI. A Da’esh camp near Aleppo trained children as young as 14. In Raqqa governorate, according to the COI, Da’esh recruited and enlisted children as young as 10. HRW noted that Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and YPG militias enlisted fighters under the age of 18.
The COI report also confirmed that the YPG demobilized child soldiers from its ranks and began monitoring adherence to its commitment to eliminate children from fighting. Nevertheless, some local groups reported YPG and Asayish forces abused and forcibly recruited children.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting noted that activists in Idlib governorate launched a campaign to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuses: Both the government and opposition forces impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), by October more than 861,000 civilians resided in besieged areas impossible to access. The COI reported that government forces, opposition forces, and Da’esh all employed sieges to devastating effects, deliberately restricting the passage of relief supplies and access by humanitarian agencies. Government forces were responsible for the majority of such activity. Acute restrictions on food and medicine reportedly caused malnutrition-related deaths, as well as outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, typhoid, and dysentery. While the country’s malnutrition rates largely remained below emergency thresholds during the year, the United Nations recorded pockets of malnutrition, primarily in besieged areas. The COI reported that government forces continued to besiege rebel-held areas in southern and eastern Damascus to render the conditions of life unbearable and force civilians to flee. In areas where combatants reached local truces, such as Moadimiyeh, civilians continued to suffer from shortages of food and medicine. From 2012 until June, the government denied UN-facilitated food and medicine intended for four thousand besieged residents in Darayya. The Damascus suburb surrendered to government forces in August.
In September, UNICEF reported emaciated children and a rise in the rates of caesarean sections and miscarriages, due to a shortage of food and medicine in Madaya, a besieged area. The government also failed to provide visas to international humanitarian workers and created unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to relief delivery. The COI and the media reported that opposition groups also surrounded towns and limited access to supplies such as food in Afrin, Nubl, Zahra, and other locations. Da’esh imposed a siege of government-controlled areas of Deir al-Zour governorate.
The COI found that the government detained many Red Crescent volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.” According to reliable NGO reports, the government’s continued bombardment, which they characterized as indiscriminate, destroyed and damaged health-care facilities in opposition-held areas, such as the Hama governorate and Aleppo city. On September 19, aircraft bombed a SARC-escorted UN convoy traveling to Orem al-Kubra in rural Aleppo, killing more than 20 civilians and aid workers. A UN investigative panel concluded in December that it was highly likely that the attack was perpetrated by the Syrian Arab Air Force.
According to the COI, the Islamic Front and Jaish al-Mujaheddin stopped or limited electricity and water to several neighborhoods in Aleppo.
Observers and international aid organizations reported that the government specifically targeted health-care workers, medical facilities, ambulances, and patients and restricted access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners, particularly in Aleppo City. The COI also reported that government sniper fire and military assaults on medical facilities intentionally targeted sick and injured persons as well as pregnant women and persons with disabilities. According to credible NGO and COI reports, the government deliberately obstructed the efforts of sick and injured persons to obtain help, and many such individuals elected not to seek medical assistance in hospitals due to fear of arrest, detention, torture, or death. Government forces also reportedly targeted medical professionals for arrest. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a report in July stating that 269 medical facilities sustained 382 attacks between 2011 and June. PHR reported that the government and its allies committed 90 percent of these attacks. PHR reported that 757 medical personnel were killed between 2011 and June, the majority by the government and its allies.
In October Russian forces in support of the government dropped cluster bombs on M10, the largest opposition-supported hospital in eastern Aleppo City. It had already suffered heavy bombardment three days earlier, in an assault UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denounced as a war crime.
Government and opposition forces reportedly used civilians, including women and children, to shield combatants.
All participants in the conflict used provocative sectarian rhetoric, which the COI warned risked inciting mass indiscriminate violence. According to the COI, the rise in government-supported militias composed mostly of religious minorities and the positioning of these militias within their respective supportive communities fostered sectarian hostilities.
The COI noted mass displacements of communities under Da’esh control, where Da’esh officials warned residents to conform to Da’esh standards or leave. Communities experienced discriminatory sanctions, including specialized religious taxes (“jizya”), forced religious conversions, destruction of religious sites, and expulsion of minority communities. In January the SNHR reported that YPG forces forcibly displaced Arab residents in areas liberated by Kurdish forces. When the YPG-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces began moving to liberate areas from Da’esh in August, human rights groups and humanitarian actors reported that the forces established local governing bodies not representative of or credible with local communities and hindered the work of independent civil society and humanitarian organizations.
International media reported widely on government and nongovernment forces attacking and destroying religious as well as UNESCO world heritage sites. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) noted many instances of visible damage to cultural heritage sites. In Aleppo the AAAS found massive destruction throughout the city, especially within the World Heritage site of the ancient city. According to weekly incident reports from the American Schools of Oriental Research, government forces continued to target mosques and churches. Government forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of defectors and opposition figures.