The government, opposition groups, the SDF, and ISIS continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the state’s widespread disregard for the safety and well-being of its citizens. This manifested itself in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, a breakdown in the ability of law enforcement authorities to protect the majority of citizens from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Reports indicated that the government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and detained persons on a wide scale. Attacks against schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, water stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, and houses were common throughout the country.
As of October there were more than 5.2 million Syrian refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.3 million IDPs. The government frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that more than 250,000 persons had died since the start of protests in 2011, but the office stopped recording this statistic in 2014. Media sources and human rights groups estimated up to 470,000 persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict, with estimates of more than 200,000 civilians killed.
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 COI stated that the use of siege warfare “has affected civilians more tragically than any other tactic employed by warring parties in the conflict.” In November in a report called, “We Leave or We Die: Forced Displacement Under Syria’s ‘Reconciliation’ Agreements,” AI reported that the government and its allies offered “reconciliation” agreements to communities “after prolonged sieges and bombardment” that led to “the mass displacement of civilians.” AI claimed some of the sieges amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report stated that some armed opposition groups also besieged populations, which in many cases amounted to war crimes. According to the United Nations, as of the end of September, nearly 420,000 Syrian men, women, and children countrywide remain trapped in besieged locations, with the government responsible for besieging approximately 95 percent.
Government forces, ISIS, and opposition forces reportedly attacked civilian institutions, including schools, hospitals (although the opposition attacked these less frequently), religious establishments, and bakeries.
Killings: The government reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Government killings and the use of lethal tactics reportedly increased in the beginning of the year but declined subsequently due to de-escalation agreements. The SNHR reported 8,802 civilian deaths from January through October. Government forces killed the plurality of civilians.
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 2016 as government forces retook opposition-held areas. The COI reported that daily Syrian and Russian air strikes “claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed vital civilian infrastructure.” 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.
The COI reported that in February the armed group Liwa al-Aqsa shot and killed or beheaded at least 128 armed group fighters it had detained near Khazanat Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. Later that month civilians in the area discovered two mass graves containing corpses of armed group fighters, including at least two of which had been minors.
Extremist and terrorist groups also reportedly committed a large number of abuses and violations. Multiple media outlets reported that ISIS shelled the al-Qusour neighborhood of Deir al-Zour in October, killing at least nine civilians, including five children. The COI reported that in January a fuel truck blast in Azaz believed to be carried out by ISIS killed at least 48 persons and injured another 60. The COI reported ISIS’s continued executions of those perceived to violate its strict religious rules, including the death penalty applied to women accused of adultery and men accused of sodomy. There were isolated allegations that the SDF tortured and in one case killed persons accused of affiliation with ISIS. A video available at the website of the SNHR shows three individuals shooting and apparently killing a handcuffed man. According to the SNHR, one of the shooters speaks to the camera and says this is the fate of anyone who stands in the way of the YPG or sides with ISIS. An SDF statement in July said the SDF would investigate the allegations and hold accountable those found responsible. There were reports suggesting that the SDF generally adheres to its responsibilities under the Law of Armed Conflict.
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 September the SNHR documented more than 85,000 persons still forcibly disappeared since March 2011, reporting that the government disappeared 90 percent of them.
According to reliable NGO reports, government forces as well as ISIS routinely kidnapped and detained aid providers and severely restricted humanitarian access to territories under their respective control. Activists reported aid workers in ISIS-controlled territory were at high risk of abduction or violence.
In 2014 ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as several Christians, and brought them to Syria for sale as sex slaves in markets or as rewards for ISIS 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, the women described multiple rapes by several men, including incidents of gang rape. Numerous NGOs and activists also reported that ISIS fighters raped women in ISIS-held areas or forced them to marry ISIS fighters. Thousands of abducted girls and women, however, remained missing.
In June 2016 the COI issued a report called, “They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis” 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, al-Hasakah Governorate, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party remained unknown. Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, kidnapped in 2013, remained unaccounted for at year’s end.
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 fighters and civilians. Government agents allegedly 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. Activists reported that government detention centers did not provide medical care to women during pregnancy or birth. 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.
AI’s research into the Sednaya military prison determined that the government executed thousands of detainees, mostly Sunni, held in Sednaya. The organization’s report stated that the government tried and sentenced Sednaya prisoners in one of two military field courts in the al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus. Prison staff transported detainees to and from court in trucks, where their trials lasted between one and three minutes. AI reported that judges used forced confessions obtained by subjecting prisoners to torture. Prisoners sentenced to death were subsequently transported to an execution room, where they were met by an execution panel that included the director of Sednaya, the military prosecutor of the Military Field Court, and a representative from the intelligence agencies.
According to the report, guards subsequently led blindfolded detainees onto platforms, where prison staff placed nooses around their necks and immediately hanged them. Prison staff left the executed detainees to hang for approximately 15 minutes. Then, AI reported, a doctor determined if any of the detainees exhibited signs of life. Prison assistants pulled downward those believed to be alive to break the necks of the detainees.
According to multiple sources, the government killed as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya. In May a foreign government released information indicating that the government probably installed a crematorium within the Sednaya military prison complex to provide the ability to dispose of prisoners with little evidence.
The SNHR, and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights 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. The SNHR noted an increased use by authorities 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 ISIS also engaged in abuses and brutality. According to the COI, ISIS increased brutal treatment of those it captured in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, and Aleppo Governorates. ISIS frequently punished victims publicly and forced residents, including children, to watch unlawful killings and amputations. Activists, NGOs, and media reported numerous accounts of women in ISIS-held territory facing arbitrary and severe punishments, including execution by stoning. ISIS also committed abuses systematically against captured Free Syrian Army (FSA) and YPG fighters. ISIS fighters reportedly beat captives (including with cables) during interrogations and killed those held in its detention centers in Raqqa and Aleppo Governorates. ISIS also beat persons because of their dress; several sources reported ISIS members beat women for not covering their faces. ISIS 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 progovernment 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 the HTS and ISIS 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 progovernment 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. 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.
HRW reported opposition forces used children under the age of 18 as fighters. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while ISIS and the HTS actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.” In Raqqa Governorate, according to the COI, ISIS recruited and enlisted children as young as 10 years old. In March the COI received a report that a 14-year-old boy approached an SDF recruitment center in Tal Abyad voluntarily, was accepted by authorities, and was killed in combat in the Raqqa countryside in early June. Several humanitarian organizations and NGOs working in areas recently liberated from ISIS by the SDF, as well as media organizations including Reuters, alleged that elements of the SDF and the YPG were engaged in forced conscription. There were reports that, in some areas, the SDF worked with tribes and local councils to negotiate approval of and voluntary compliance with local conscription laws in support of the fight against ISIS.
In September the international NGO Geneva Call reported it had conducted training for more than 100 SDF commanders, which included the law of armed conflict and the topic of children in armed conflict. The COI reported in 2014 that the YPG had demobilized child soldiers from its ranks and began monitoring adherence to its commitments to eliminate children from fighting. In March the COI reported that the YPG continued to conscript men and boys forcibly.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuses: The September COI report documented 25 incidents of chemical weapons use between 2013 and March, of which government forces perpetrated 20 primarily against civilians. The COI reported that during the year government forces further used chemical weapons against civilians in the towns of al-Latamneh and Khan Shaykhun and in eastern Ghouta.
The COI investigated the April 4 attack by government forces on Khan Shaykhun, which the COI determined involved the use of sarin gas or a sarin-like substance, that killed dozens of civilians and injured hundreds more. In addition to its own fact-finding mission, the COI took into account the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The COI reported that Russian and Syrian officials denied Syrian forces used chemical weapons in this incident, claiming that air strikes conducted by Syrian forces struck a terrorist chemical weapons depot.
The COI report stated that a Sukhoi 22 (Su-22) aircraft conducted four air strikes in Khan Shaykhun at approximately 6:45 a.m. Only Syrian forces operated such aircraft. The commission identified three conventional bombs and one chemical bomb. The COI documented that the chemical bomb killed at least 83 persons, including 28 children and 23 women, and injured another 293 persons, including 103 children. The extensive information independently collected by the commission on symptoms suffered by victims was consistent with sarin exposure. Based on the evidence and testimonies collected, the COI found reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces committed the war crimes of using chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks in a civilian inhabited area.
In its August 2016 report, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (established to attribute responsibility for already confirmed chemical warfare incidents) determined responsibility at a “sufficient” level for three of the nine attacks it reviewed. These attacks were a mustard gas attack by ISIS in Marea, Aleppo Governorate (August 2015), and two instances of chlorine used as a weapon by the government, specifically the Syrian Arab Air Force, in Talmenes, Idlib Governorate (April 2014), and Sarmin, Idlib Governorate (March 2015). A report from the Joint Investigative Mechanism in October 2016 found that the government also used weaponized chlorine in 2015 in Qmenas.
Both the government and opposition forces reportedly impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Assistance, by August approximately 3.47 million persons were living in hard-to-reach and besieged locations.
The COI stated that government forces, opposition forces, and ISIS employed sieges, deliberately restricting the passage of relief supplies and access by humanitarian agencies. According to reports, government forces were responsible for the majority of such activity. According to the United Nations, as of the end of September, nearly 420,000 men, women, and children countrywide remain trapped in besieged locations, with the government responsible for besieging approximately 95 percent. Acute restrictions on food and medicine reportedly caused malnutrition-related deaths, as well as outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniosis, typhoid, and dysentery.
De-escalation zone agreements reached under the auspices of Iran, Russia, and Turkey called for improved humanitarian access; however, an October report from a humanitarian organization operating on the ground concluded that Astana de-escalation areas had not yet translated into increased cross-line humanitarian access. To the contrary the report recorded a slight reduction in cross-line assistance in northern rural Homs.
In Eastern Ghouta the report noted an increase in interagency cross-line humanitarian convoys, including four convoys successfully reaching previously besieged areas. The four convoys, however, were directed toward areas held by Jaish al-Islam, the opposition group that agreed to the original ceasefire agreement with the government. The convoys did not deliver aid to areas held by Faylaq Ar-Rahman, which at the time was not a signatory to the agreement. The government, with the support of its partners, continued to besiege Faylaq Ar-Rahman-held areas until the opposition group agreed to join the ceasefire agreement on August 18. The report concluded that the government’s refusal to allow for the delivery of aid to Faylaq Ar-Rahman-held territory until it agreed to cease all hostilities against the government was evidence that the government continued to use the denial of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war.
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. In September 2016 aircraft bombed a UN convoy escorted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) traveling to Orem al-Kubra in rural Aleppo, killing more than 20 civilians and aid workers. A UN investigative panel concluded in December 2016 that it was highly likely the Syrian air force perpetrated the attack.
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 the Syrian and Russian assault on Aleppo City in 2016. Physicians for Human Rights reported that, from 2011 to July, combatants attacked 478 medical facilities, killing 830 medical personnel throughout the country. The COI also reported that government sniper fire and military assaults on medical facilities intentionally targeted sick and injured persons, including 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.
In October 2016 Russian forces in support of the government reportedly 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 that former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon denounced as a war crime.
The frequency and location of Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the same hospitals raised questions regarding the intended targets of the attacks and Russian claims that they were not deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure. Between November 2016 and April, for example, observers recorded repeated airstrikes on the Kafr Zeita Specialty Hospital in northern Homs. The hospital was eventually destroyed on April 29 after being targeted in three separate incidents by Russian and Syrian strikes within a 24-hour timespan. The attacks injured one staff member.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that infrastructure damage reduced the number of facilities and health personnel able to provide pregnant women with antenatal and postnatal care and skilled attendance at delivery.
Female victims subjected to sexual violence lacked access to health care. Violence throughout the country made accessing medical care both costly and dangerous, and the COI reported that the government and armed extremists sometimes denied pregnant women passage through checkpoints, forcing them to give birth in unsterile and often dangerous conditions, without pain medication or adequate medical treatment. In January 2016 UNFPA estimated that approximately 540,000 women in the country and in nearby refugee camps were pregnant and needed care. It also estimated that 70,000 would likely experience complications related to pregnancy or delivery. According to numerous sources, government forces deliberately denied medical care to persons in areas controlled by the opposition.
The COI noted mass displacements of communities under ISIS control, where ISIS officials warned residents to conform to ISIS 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 2016 the SNHR reported that YPG forces forcibly displaced tens of thousands of Arab residents in areas liberated by Kurdish forces. When the SDF, which included members of the YPG, began moving to liberate areas from ISIS in August 2016, human rights groups, humanitarian actors, and other observers expressed concern 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. SDF-influenced areas were relatively stable and secure in 2017.
The United Nations reported in October that nearly 270,000 persons fled Raqqa due to the SDF’s campaign to defeat ISIS. Earlier, in September the United Nations reported that some humanitarian organizations operating in Raqqa continued to assert concerns about IDP screening procedures carried out by the SDF. According to the allegations, SDF screening procedures in some areas prevented freedom of movement for IDPs, in some instances requiring IDPs to obtain ‘sponsorship’ in order to move further into areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. There were allegations that the SDF used checkpoints to forcibly conscript males into service. Some analyses suggested that SDF measures to restrict movement were most likely due to the continued presence of ISIS, the high threat from IEDs, and the need to direct civilian evacuees away from combat zones.
International media reported widely on government and nongovernment forces attacking and destroying religious as well as UNESCO-listed world heritage sites. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science noted many instances of visible damage to cultural heritage sites. In Aleppo the academy found massive destruction throughout the city, especially within the World Heritage site of the ancient city. Government forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of defectors and opposition figures.