Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
g. Conflict-related Abuses
The regime, proregime militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, violent extremist groups such as HTS and ISIS, foreign terrorist groups such as Hizballah, and the governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran were all involved in armed conflict throughout the country.
The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the regime’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government freely and peacefully, law enforcement authorities refusing to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports, such as Amnesty International’s September report, indicated that Syrian refugees who returned to Syria were subjected to torture, sexual abuse, detention, and disappearance by regime intelligence officers. Amnesty International documented violations against 79 refugees who returned to Syria from 2017 through year’s end. Attacks impacting and destroying schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country.
As of September there were more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in neighboring countries and 6.7 million IDPs. In April the World Food Program found that 12.4 million Syrians, nearly 60 percent of the population, were food insecure.
Killings: The regime reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.). The SNHR attributed 91 percent of civilian deaths to regime and proregime forces.
Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. In September the UN high commissioner for human rights announced that from March 2011 to March, 350,209 identifiable individuals had been killed in the conflict. The commissioner noted that the figure indicated “a minimum verifiable number,” and that it “is certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.” Other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the high number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown. Regime and proregime forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, IDP settlements, and Palestinian refugee camps throughout the year. These forces reportedly used as military tactics the deliberate killing of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted siege-like conditions that occasionally forced local surrenders.
These attacks included indiscriminate bombardment with barrel bombs. According to the SNHR, the regime has dropped approximately 81,900 barrel bombs between July 2012 and March. Aerial and ground offensives throughout the demilitarized zone destroyed or ruined civilian infrastructure, including “deconflicted” hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and farmlands. In its February report, the COI determined it had “reasonable grounds” to believe that proregime forces had committed crimes against humanity as a result of their air strikes and artillery shelling of civilian areas. The COI further stated that the Syrian Air Force deployed barrel bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on densely populated civilian areas in a manner that was “inherently indiscriminate and amounted to war crimes.” It added that proregime forces likely committed “the war crime of spreading terror among the civilian population.”
In its September report, the COI detailed a February 2020 cluster munitions attack launched by regime and Russian forces impacting three schools in Idlib. The SNHR reported the regime and Russian forces carried out 495 cluster munition attacks since 2011, comprising the majority of cluster munition attacks during that time period. The SNHR also reported that attacks launched by these forces resulted in the deaths of at least 1,030 civilians, including 386 children and 217 women, as well as injuries to approximately 4,360 civilians. The SNHR documented at least 1,600 attacks on schools between March 2011 and November, with the regime responsible for 75 percent of the attacks.
The COI’s February report noted that progovernment forces established a pattern of intentionally targeting medical personnel. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), hundreds of health-care workers had been killed during the conflict. From 2011 through November the SNHR documented the death of 861 medical personnel, including five deaths from the beginning of the year through November. In March PHR documented the killing of 930 medical personnel since the onset of the conflict, reporting the regime and Russian forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of attacks. In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year.
In June regime forces surrounded and attacked the city of Daraa, breaking the Russian-brokered cease-fire and leading to a surge in heavy shelling. In its September report, the COI found that targeted killings increased in Daraa and noted that it was investigating 18 incidents that occurred between July 2020 and February, although it had received reports of hundreds more. Victims included medical workers, local political leaders, judges, and former members of armed groups, some of whom had reconciled with the regime. The COI reported that in April armed men killed Ahmed al-Hasheesh, a former paramedic who had reportedly resisted reconciliation.
Although no use of prohibited chemical weapons was reported during the year, in April the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe the regime carried out a chemical weapons attack in Saraqib in 2018. The IIT also concluded in its April 2020 report that the regime was responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Ltamenah in 2017. These attacks preceded the more deadly sarin attack in nearby Khan Shaykhun less than two weeks later and were alleged to be part of the same concerted campaign of terror perpetrated by the Assad regime. In April the OPCW Conference of the State Parties adopted a decision condemning the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The organization suspended certain rights and privileges of the regime under the Chemical Weapons Convention, including voting rights, until the OPCW director general reported that the government had completed the measures requested in the executive council’s July 2020 decision.
Additionally, PHR, the SNHR, and other NGOs reported that the regime and Russia targeted humanitarian workers such as the Syria Civil Defense (known as the White Helmets) as they attempted to save victims in affected communities. In June the SNHR reported that regime and Russian forces were suspected of shelling and destroying a Syria Civil Defense center in Hama, killing one rescue worker and injuring three others. The SNHR recorded at least 470 incidents of attacks on Syria Civil Defense facilities between March 2013, the date the Syria Civil Defense was established, and November; it attributed 320 attacks to the regime and 125 attacks to Russian forces.
In March Reuters reported accounts of Russian aerial strikes hitting a gas facility, cement factory, and several towns in the northwest. According to the COI’s September report, drawn from investigations into incidents occurring between July 2020 and June, Russian forces conducted at least 82 air strikes in support of the regime.
There were numerous reports of deaths in regime custody, notably at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison, by execution without due process, torture, and deaths from other forms of abuse, such as malnutrition and lack of medical care (see section 1.a.). In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families.
Violent extremist groups were also responsible for killings during the year. The SNHR attributed 17 civilian deaths, including five children, to HTS from January to November. In its March report, the COI found that some detainees in HTS detention facilities died of injuries sustained from torture and the subsequent denial of medical care. The COI also reported that HTS carried out executions without due process and noted that it had gathered 83 individual accounts, including from former detainees, about the executions.
The COI reported that ISIS also carried out executions of civilians and forced local residents, including children, to witness the killings. According to the COI, unauthorized “courts” handed down the sentences. In August the SNHR documented the killing of eight civilians at al-Hol camp by individuals believed to be affiliated with ISIS cells.
During the year armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey allegedly carried out extrajudicial killings. In March the COI reported the SNA had conducted extrajudicial and summary executions of captured fighters. For example, the SNHR reported the SNA Suqour al-Shamal Brigade unlawfully detained Hekmat Khalil al-De’ar on September 16 for alleged dealings with the SDF. The family received al-De’ar’s body the next day. The autopsy report by Ras al-Ayn Health Directorate confirmed he had been subjected to torture, an assessment corroborated by photographs and videos received by the SNHR. Human rights monitors also reported several instances of individuals dying under torture in Firqat al-Hamza and SNA military police detention. The Syrian Interim Government, to whom the SNA nominally reports, established a commission within its Ministry of Defense to investigate serious allegations of abuses in 2020. Since 2016 the Syrian Interim Government and the armed groups in the SNA had detained 2,390 soldiers on offenses ranging from vehicle theft to murder, but the commission did not announce any new investigations during the year. In its September report, the COI said that the SNA leadership stated it was investigating SNA elements involved in violations and that “it was committed to improving the conditions of detainees, respecting human rights in places of detention, and providing fair trial guarantees.” In September the Syrian Interim Government announced the creation of a human rights office. According to the Syrian Interim Government, military courts prosecuted at least 169 cases for crimes including petty theft, property confiscation, deprivation of liberty, human trafficking, physical violence, and murder among other offenses. The individuals belonged to various armed opposition groups, and many were prosecuted in absentia. The Syrian Interim Government and Turkish government also reported in June and July that SNA forces were receiving human rights training. Geneva Call – an NGO working to strengthen respect of humanitarian norms by armed nonstate actors – reported providing training on international humanitarian law and international human rights law for 33 SNA factions. Human rights activists reported the reforms lacked credibility and did not hold perpetrators accountable.
The COI, the SNHR, and other human rights groups reported dozens of civilian deaths from multiple car bombings, other attacks involving IEDs, and fighting between armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey in areas these groups support in the north. The COI also noted the rise in such attacks during the year.
The Center for American Progress reported the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, were likely responsible for many of the vehicle-borne IED and other attacks on the SNA and Turkish-affiliated individuals, including civilians. In September the news publication MENA Affairs reported a car bomb attack carried out by YPG in the Afrin region killed three civilians and injured six civilians, including three children. Some NGOs and media accused the YPG forces of carrying out shelling on June 12 that destroyed the UN-supported al-Shifaa Hospital in Afrin and killed 19 civilians, including health workers and children, and wounded 27 others; however, attribution for this attack was not confirmed. The attack destroyed the hospital’s surgical department and delivery room and partially damaged the outpatient room, prompting hospital staff to evacuate patients to nearby facilities.
Abductions: Regime and proregime forces reportedly were responsible for the most of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.).
Armed groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists. In March the COI reported that HTS detained civilians “in a systematic effort to stifle political dissent.” According to the COI and human rights organizations, HTS detained political opponents, journalists, activists, and civilians perceived as critical of HTS. The SNHR reported that HTS forces had detained or forcibly disappeared approximately 2,300 individuals as of November, among them 42 children. For example the SNHR reported that in June HTS detained five civilians in Idlib, alleging they had been involved in reconciling and communicating with the regime.
Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,648 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. In its March report, the COI noted that 81 former detainees reported experiencing enforced disappearance or incommunicado detention by ISIS, as corroborated by 218 interviewees who had credibly witnessed such abuses. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, who ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold into sex trafficking, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children had since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but more than 2,700 remained unaccounted for.
There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups during the conflict: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio.
The COI reported the SDF continued to detain civilians, including women and children, and hold them in detention without charge. The SNHR reported that from the start of the crisis in 2011 until November, the SDF forcibly detained or disappeared more than 3,800 Syrians, including 667 children and 522 women. The SNHR and STJ reported instances of SDF fighters detaining civilians, including journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons affiliated with the SNA. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. For example the SNHR reported the SDF detained Muhammad Suleiman in a July raid on his home in Aleppo. The SDF did not provide information on Suleiman’s status after he was transferred from a hospital in Aleppo. In October SANES set up telephone lines for persons in Hasakah and Raqqa to inquire if their relatives had been detained.
The SDF continued to allow the ICRC access to detention facilities to monitor and report on conditions. The SDF continued to investigate charges against their forces. According to the COI, in March the SDF launched an internal investigation into alleged abuses by their forces against civilians detained in a March raid of a hospital in Deir Ezzour, following an attack reportedly carried out by ISIS. The SDF also brought the members before a military tribunal. There was no update available on the results of the military tribunal at year’s end.
The COI, Amnesty International, and SNHR reported multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention by armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey. The SNHR attributed to these groups 86 unlawful detentions and abductions in August alone, including one child and 10 women. The HRW and the COI reported that SNA forces detained and unlawfully transferred Syrian nationals to Turkey. In August the Human Rights Organization of Afrin and the Missing Afrin Women Project reported that hundreds of women had been abducted in areas under Turkish control since 2018 and that nearly 300 women remained missing. For example, the Human Rights Organization of Afrin reported the August 22 kidnapping of Hivin Abedin Gharibo, a young Kurdish woman from the town of Baadina. No additional information was available at year’s end.
According to the COI, abductions and extortions were increasing in regions where hostilities between armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey and government forces had created a security vacuum. Victims of abductions by armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of these armed groups. For example, in February Afrin Post reported that Sultan Murad, a Syrian opposition group supported by Turkey, kidnapped a Kurdish citizen, Khalil Manla, after he filed a complaint against the militant group. Sultan Murad members reportedly beat and tortured Khalil at their headquarters and later released him on a ransom of 1,000 Turkish liras ($104).
The COI reported on the frequent presence of Turkish officials in SNA detention facilities, including in interrogation sessions where torture was used. The justice system and detention network used by SNA forces reportedly featured “judges” appointed by Turkey and paid in Turkish lira, suggesting the SNA detention operations acted under the effective command of Turkish forces. The COI asserted these and other factors reflected effective Turkish control over certain areas of Syria. The Turkish government denied responsibility for conduct by Syrian opposition or armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to reports of abuse. It claimed the Turkish-supported SNA had mechanisms in place for investigation and discipline.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the COI and NGO reports, the regime and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Numerous organizations and former detainees reported that nearly all detainees in regime detention experienced physical abuse and torture at some point during their detention.
As of November the SNHR estimated parties of the conflict committed at least 11,520 incidents of sexual violence since March 2011. Regime forces and affiliated militias were reported to be responsible for the vast majority of these offenses – more than 8,000 incidents in total – including more than 880 incidents inside detention centers and more than 440 against girls younger than 18. The SNHR also reported almost 3,490 incidents of sexual violence by ISIS and 12 incidents by the SDF. Numerous NGOs reported that persons in areas retaken by regime forces remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals. In its February report, the COI found that regime forces and affiliated militias perpetrated rape and sexual abuse against women and girls, and occasionally men, during ground operations and house raids targeting opposition activists and perceived opposition supporters (see section 1.d.).
There were also reports of armed opposition groups engaging in physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected regime agents and collaborators, proregime militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and November, the SNHR attributed 50 deaths from torture, including one child and two women, to armed opposition groups; 30 to HTS, including two children; and 32 to ISIS, including one child and 14 women. In its March report, the COI noted numerous reports of mistreatment and torture of detainees in HTS and ISIS detention facilities, including electrical shocks, stress positions, beatings, and suspension by their limbs.
The SDF was also implicated in several instances of torture, with the SNHR reporting the group used torture as a means of extracting confessions during interrogations. The SNHR attributed 73 deaths from torture to the SDF from 2011 to November, 12 of which occurred during the year. In June the SNHR reported that Amin Aisa al-Ali died in SDF custody after being detained and tortured by the SDF. According to the COI’s March report, 10 percent of former SDF detainees interviewed reported experiencing torture. The SDF reported it continued to implement protocols to ensure torture was not used as an interrogation technique and initiated two investigations into specific incidents of torture presented by the COI. There was no update available on the results of the investigation at year’s end.
According to the SNHR’s March report, HTS continued to torture and abuse perceived political opponents, activists, and journalists. In August an HTS “court” sentenced Hassan al-Sheikh and Khaled al-Jajah to death on charges of collaborating with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The families of both individuals denied the accusations, and al-Sheikh’s family reported that HTS extracted a confession from him under torture. Human rights groups continued to report that HTS, which officially denounces secularism, routinely detained and tortured journalists, activists, and other civilians in territory it controlled who were deemed to have violated the group’s stringent interpretation of sharia. HTS reportedly permitted confessions obtained through torture in its sharia “courts,” denied detainees the opportunity to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
The COI, OHCHR, and human rights groups reported that since 2018, armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey had allegedly participated in the torture and killings of civilians in Afrin and, since 2019, in the areas entered during Turkish Operation Peace Spring. The COI reported in September that it had reasonable grounds to believe that members of armed groups under the umbrella of the SNA committed “torture, cruel treatment, and outrages upon personal dignity, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, which constitute war crimes.” The COI in March reported the torture and rape of minors in SNA detention, stating “the Syrian National Army attempted to systematize its detention practices through its vast network of detention facilities in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn.” The SNHR reported SNA fighters detained and tortured Ali al-Sultan al-Faraj in September, filming themselves beating him with a whip and a club while he was stripped naked.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat.
The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict Report of the Secretary-General, published in May, reported the recruitment and use of 813 children (777 boys and 36 girls) in the conflict between January and December 2020. According to the report, 805 of the children served in combat roles. The report attributed 119 verified cases to SDF-affiliated groups, 390 to HTS, 170 to Free Syria Army-affiliated groups, 31 to Ahrar al-Sham, four to ISIS, three to Jaysh al-Islam, three to Nur al-Din al-Zanki, and two to regime forces.
The United Nations continued to receive reports of children being recruited by HTS. According to the Children and Armed Conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic Report of the Secretary-General published in April, HTS recruited boys as young as 10 years of age in districts across Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama. In the period covering July 2018 to June 2020, the United Nations observed a “significant increase” in HTS’ recruitment and use of children, noting 61 cases in 2018 and 187 cases in the first half of 2020. The report cited the case of two boys who were 16 and 17 years of age who served as guards at camp in Idlib after six weeks of training.
The STJ reported in August that SNA forces, including the Sultan Murad Division, continued to use more than 55 child soldiers.
The UN continued to receive reports of children being recruited by the SDF and YPG-affiliated groups like the Revolutionary Youth Union (RYU). The STJ reported in June that the RYU recruited seven minors in the first quarter of the year. According to the UN report, the SDF continued to implement an action plan with the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, resulting in the “disengagement of 150 children from SDF ranks” during the year. The SDF continued to implement an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in the northeast, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibited using children to spy, act as guards, or deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. During the year the SDF identified 908 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the United Nations. According to the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict, the SDF also established an age assessment committee, as well as a child protection committee and office, to provide parents a single SANES and SDF point of contact to inquire about, identify, and demobilize minors from the SDF. According to the SDF, the child protection office addressed 313 complaints between January 1 and August 31. In October the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the SDF child protection office returned 54 minors to their families. In June the STJ called for stricter monitoring of the protection office in receiving complaints and taking punitive measures against those implicated in child recruitment, including the RYU and Young Women’s Union, the parallel all-women structure of the RYU.
Additionally, reports and evidence from human rights groups and international bodies indicate the Turkish government provided operational, material, and financial support to an armed opposition group in Syria that recruited child soldiers.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In cities where the regime regained control, the COI reported the regime imposed blockades and restricted residents’ movement and access to health care and food. Human rights groups reported the regime and its allies frequently imposed these and other collective measures to punish communities, including by restricting humanitarian access; looting and pillaging; expropriating property; extorting funds; engaging in arbitrary detentions and widespread conscription; detaining, disappearing, or forcibly displacing individuals; engaging in repressive measures aimed at silencing media activists; and destroying evidence of potential war crimes.
In Daraa, Amnesty International alleged in August the regime was resorting to “surrender or starve” tactics, involving “a combination of unlawful siege and indiscriminate bombardment of areas packed with civilians,” to punish them for their association with the opposition and compel surrender. In its September report, the COI found that proregime forces’ use of siege-like tactics may amount to the war crime of collective punishment. In August UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen called for an end to the “siege-like situation” in Daraa. Reports from NGOs also indicated that hostilities in Idlib continued to take place despite the cease-fire brokered between Turkey and Russia in March 2020.
HRW and various media organizations found that the regime implemented a policy and legal framework to manipulate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funding to benefit itself, reward those loyal to it, and punish perceived opponents. The regime regularly restricted humanitarian organizations’ access to communities in need of aid, selectively approved humanitarian projects, and required organizations to partner with vetted local actors to ensure that the humanitarian response was siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the state apparatus, at the cost of preventing aid from reaching the population unimpeded. Organizations continued to report that entities such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent faced difficulties accessing areas retaken by the regime.
The regime frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilians, particularly areas held by opposition groups. In July the Wilson Center reported that the regime had weaponized humanitarian assistance, withholding aid to punish opposition areas and channeling aid to reward “strategically significant” areas.
In February the COI reported that repeated attacks on schools, growing poverty rates amidst economic crisis, recruitment of boys for military roles, and violent treatment of children in detention centers continued to hamper the ability of children to receive an education and had a disproportionate impact on girls as well as on all displaced children.
NGOs and media outlets documented repeated and continuing attacks on health facilities and other infrastructure in northwest Syria perpetrated by regime and Russian forces. According to UNOCHA, more than half of all health facilities in the country were closed or partially functioning. From 2011 through March, the SNHR documented at least 868 attacks on medical facilities between March 2011 and November, whereas PHR reported 598 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 930 medical personnel since the onset of the conflict. PHR reported regime and Russian forces perpetrated 90 percent of the attacks. In March the Syrian American Medical Society reported the artillery shelling of the al-Atareb Surgical Hospital in Aleppo, whose coordinates had been shared with the UN-led deconfliction mechanism. According to the COI, at least eight civilian patients, including two boys, were killed and 13 others were wounded, including five medical workers. In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year; on September 7, artillery shelling struck a medical center in southern Idlib. The COI concluded this pattern of attack strongly suggested “the deliberate targeting of medical facilities, hospitals and medical workers by government forces” and that such attacks “deprived countless civilians of access to health care and amounted to the war crimes.”
The COI and human rights organizations detailed the practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, regime and proregime forces required certain individuals to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect the COI assessed the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime and served as a regime strategy for punishing those individuals. Various sources continued to report cases during the year in which the regime targeted persons who agreed to reconciliation agreements (see sections 1.b., 1.d., and 1.e.). The SNHR documented the arrest of at least 3,530 individuals, including 71 children and 36 women, in areas undergoing reconciliation agreements between 2015 and November.
Regime forces and armed groups also reportedly pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
NGOs such as the SNHR alleged that, taken together with steps such as the law allowing for the confiscation of unregistered properties, the forcible displacements fit into a wider plan to strip those displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the regime and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).
While the government pushed forward to recapture areas around Idlib, armed groups such as HTS reportedly launched counterattacks against government positions. These attacks, although much fewer and smaller in scale than those by the regime and proregime forces, reportedly caused some civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure. The NGO Assessment Capacities Project and STJ reported in March that armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey had engaged in the systematic and repeated looting and seizure of civilian homes and property, particularly those of Kurds, resulting in civilian displacement. According to the Syrian Interim Government, however, in August these armed groups also reportedly began to enable some families to return to their properties in the north. The SJAC confirmed in May that SNA militias continued to profit from their control over real estate and agricultural exports seized from the local population. The group reported that the construction of settlements with foreign investment in these areas hindered the return of the original inhabitants and contributed to the processes of demographic change.
Armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey reportedly continued to interfere with and disrupt water access to parts of the northeast. UNICEF reported in July that damage from hostilities to the Alouk water station, continued to disrupt water supplies, affecting access to water for up to one million individuals al-Hassakeh governorate and surrounding areas. Another factor contributing to the water shortage was lack of electricity to operate the pumps, which was generated by the aging Rumelan gas power plant. UNICEF reported the lack of access to clean water exacerbated threats to public health posed by COVID-19. According to NGOs, Alouk Station was offline for periods of time between October 2019 and August. Turkish authorities alleged the frequent shutdowns resulted from inadequate power being provided to the Derbassiyah plant powering Alouk, which in turn received power from the Rumelan gas station in SDF-controlled areas, a claim disputed by the United Nations and NGOs present in the northeast.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
g. Stateless Persons
Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained a single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Persons not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork lost their Syrian citizenship from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to al-Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.
In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in al-Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported in 2015 that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an estimated increase in population since the 1962 census.
Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the regime did not implement the law effectively. There were numerous reports of regime corruption during the year. Corruption continued to be a pervasive problem in police forces, security services, migration management agencies, and throughout the regime.
Corruption: Due to the lack of free press and opposition access to instruments of government and media, there was no detailed information about corruption, except petty corruption. Freedom House reported that to secure its support base, the regime regularly distributed patronage in the form of public resources and implemented policies to benefit favored industries and companies. Authorities reportedly awarded government contracts and trade deals to allies such as Iran and Russia, possibly as compensation for political and military aid. Basic state services and humanitarian aid reportedly were extended or withheld based on a community’s demonstrated political loyalty to the regime, providing additional leverage for bribe-seeking officials.
Human rights lawyers and family members of detainees stated that regime officials in courts and prisons solicited bribes for favorable decisions and provision of basic services. In its June report, the International Legal Assistance Consortium found that bribery and corruption in the justice system was widespread. Lawyers interviewed for the report said bribes were needed for a case to proceed in court. The consortium said that court officials appeared “highly susceptible” to bribery, noting that the practice “often leaves individuals who lack the financial means for bribes with no recourse to justice.”
Despite a bread crisis, the regime often refused to allow private bakers in areas previously under opposition control to operate. According to HRW, since the beginning of the conflict, regime and proregime forces systematically destroyed bakeries and ovens, thereby limiting the ability to produce and distribute bread in contested areas. HRW reported that the regime security services took bread from bakeries and sold it on the black market. HRW interviewed aid workers who said the government directed the rehabilitation of bakeries according to the political affiliation, rather than the need, of a particular neighborhood. Interviewees also reported the discriminatory distribution of food, noting that government-supported bakeries had separate queues for residents, IDPs, and military and intelligence services, and that those affiliated with the regime were prioritized.
Entities with known or suspected links to Assad regime officials and Hizballah were reportedly producing and trafficking illicit narcotics in the country, particularly an amphetamine-type stimulant known widely as Captagon. According to The New York Times, much of the production and distribution of Captagon in Syria was overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, a unit headed by President Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad. In recent years, authorities in Europe and the Middle East seized hundreds of millions of Captagon pills originating from regime-controlled ports in Syria. According to The Economist, Captagon has become the country’s main source of foreign currency.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The regime restricted attempts to investigate alleged human rights violations, criminalized their publication, and refused to cooperate with any independent attempts to investigate alleged violations. The regime did not grant permission for the formation of any domestic human rights organizations. Nevertheless, hundreds of such groups operated illegally in the country.
The regime was highly suspicious of human rights NGOs and did not allow international human rights groups into the country. The regime normally responded to queries from human rights organizations and foreign embassies regarding specific cases by denying the facts of the case or by reporting that the case was still under investigation, the prisoner in question had violated national security laws, or, if the case was in criminal court, the executive branch could not interfere with the judiciary. The regime denied organizations access to locations where regime agents launched assaults on antigovernment protesters or allegedly held prisoners detained on political grounds.
The regime continued to harass domestic human rights activists by subjecting them to regular surveillance and travel bans, property seizure, detention, torture, forcible disappearance, and extrajudicial killings (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Terrorist groups, including HTS, violently attacked organizations and individuals seeking to investigate human rights abuses or advocating for improved practices. The SDF and other opposition groups occasionally imposed restrictions on human rights organizations or harassed individual activists, in some cases subjecting them to arbitrary detention.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The regime continued to deny access for the COI, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to document and report on human rights violations and abuses in the country. The regime did not cooperate fully with numerous UN and other multilateral bodies, resulting in restrictions on access for humanitarian organizations, especially to opposition-controlled areas. In addition, the regime did not allow the OPCW IIT to access the sites under investigation in Ltamenah, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 2118.
The UNWGEID continued to request information from the regime on reported cases of enforced disappearances, but it failed to respond. The regime also ignored UNWGEID requests for an invitation to visit the country, dating back to 2011. The regime similarly ignored UN and international community calls for unhindered access for independent, impartial international humanitarian and medical organizations to all regime’s detention centers.