President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath Party leaders dominated all three branches of government as an authoritarian regime. An uprising against the regime that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election resulted in the re-election of Assad, and the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front won 177 of the 250 seats in the People’s Council 2020 parliamentary elections. These elections took place in an environment of widespread regime coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.
The regime’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Regime-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces, integrated with other regime-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces but possessed limited influence over foreign military or paramilitary organizations operating in the country, including proregime forces such as the Russian armed forces, Iran-affiliated Hizballah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Regime and proregime forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of northwest Syria, killing thousands of civilians and forcing nearly one million persons to flee before the brokering of a ceasefire in March, which largely held through the remainder of the year. The assault, involving the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists. As of August the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported there were 6.6 million internally displaced persons, 2.6 million of whom were children, and more than 5.5 million Syrian registered refugees outside the country. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria found it probable that the regime, its Russian allies, and other proregime forces committed attacks “marked by war crimes” that “may amount to crimes against humanity” during these attacks.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime; forced disappearances by the regime; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prolonged arbitrary detention; political prisoners and detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflict, including aerial and ground attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure including schools, markets, and hospitals; serious restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including severe restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; violence and severe discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
The regime took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security and intelligence forces and elsewhere in the regime.
Regime-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres; indiscriminate killings; kidnapping of civilians; extreme physical abuse, including sexual violence; and unlawful detentions. Regime-aligned militias, including Hizballah, repeatedly launched attacks that killed and injured civilians.
Russian forces were implicated in the deaths of civilians resulting from airstrikes characterized by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate and resulting in the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, particularly during support of the regime’s military campaign in northwest Syria. These airstrikes destroyed hospitals, shelters, markets, homes, and other integral civilian facilities, damaging medical supplies and equipment and shutting down vital health-care networks, and followed a well documented pattern of attacks with serious and deleterious humanitarian and civilian impact.
The unstable security situation in areas under the control of armed opposition groups continued to foster an environment in which human rights abuses were committed, including killings, extreme physical abuse, and detention.
Armed terrorist groups, such as al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), committed a wide range of abuses, including unlawful killings and kidnappings, unlawful detention, extreme physical abuse, deaths of civilians during attacks described by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate, and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, the group continued to carry out unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings, sometimes targeting civilians. The Carnegie Corporation assessed that ISIS benefited from a security vacuum left by the various military forces reducing activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained civilians across the border into Turkey, the cutting of water to civilian populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines.
Elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minority groups that included members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, reportedly engaged in human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, acts of corruption, and restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The UN Commission of Inquiry and human rights groups reported that perpetrators often acted with a sense of impunity, and the vast majority of abuses committed since 2011 went uninvestigated.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
The regime, proregime militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and violent extremist groups, such as the HTS and ISIS, as well as foreign terrorist groups such as Hizballah, continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran participated in armed combat and supported armed groups operating in 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 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 the September COI report, indicated the regime continued to arbitrarily and unlawfully kill, torture, and detain persons, notably including refugees and IDPs who voluntarily returned to regime-controlled territories. Attacks impacting and destroying civilian infrastructure including 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 5.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.6 million IDPs. UNHCR also estimated that as of September there were 11.1 million persons in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.1 million in hard-to-reach, besieged areas.
Killings: The regime reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
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; the United Nations stopped publishing estimates of the death toll in 2016. The SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed within that time, and other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the large number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown. The SNHR attributed 91 percent of civilian deaths to regime and proregime forces.
Regime and proregime forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for IDPs and Palestinian refugee camps throughout the year; these attacks included bombardment with barrel bombs. These forces used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Reports from NGOs and a July COI report indicated that in Idlib, hostilities escalated from the beginning of the year until a ceasefire was brokered between Turkey and Russia in March. Before the ceasefire began, airstrikes by regime and proregime forces caused hundreds of civilian deaths in Idlib.
The SNHR reported the regime and Russian forces carried out at least 490 cluster munition attacks from 2011 to December, comprising the majority of cluster munition attacks during that period. The group also reported that attacks launched by these forces resulted in the deaths of at least 1,030 civilians, including 382 children and 217 women, as well as injuries to approximately 4,350 civilians. For example, the SNHR reported that six civilians, including a child and four women, were killed when a fixed-wing warplane believed to be Russian fired missiles on Jedraya on February 5.
Aerial and ground offensives throughout the demilitarized zone destroyed civilian infrastructure including “deconflicted” hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and farmlands. In April the BOI found it “highly probable” that the regime carried out attacks that impacted three health-care facilities, a school, and a refuge for children in northwest Syria, despite these locations coordinates being deconflicted between the United Nations and Russia.
In July the COI issued a report investigating incidents in northwest Syria, finding that the regime and proregime forces were responsible for 534 of the 582 confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of the year. The COI reported that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that proregime forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” as well as “the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians,” and “that members of progovernment forces, and in particular the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, committed the war crime of pillage.” The COI further stated that proregime forces likely committed “the war crime of spreading terror among the civilian population.” The report noted that “progovernment forces carried out attacks consistent with clear patterns previously documented by COI, affecting markets and medical facilities,” and that “attacks on schools have emerged as one of the most vicious patterns in the Syrian conflict.”
On January 5, as proregime forces intensified efforts to recapture the town of Ariha, six aircraft launched munitions that damaged a water distribution point where civilians had gathered to collect water, in addition to damaging residential homes, a kindergarten, and a mosque, killing at least 13 civilians. On March 5, far from the front lines of the contested area, proregime forces conducted airstrikes on a poultry farm in Marat Misrin where displaced civilians had been relocated, killing at least 16 civilians, including eight women and three children. The COI indicated in its July report there was reason to believe that Russian Aerospace Forces conducted two consecutive airstrikes in this incident.
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 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 part of the same concerted campaign of terror perpetrated by the Assad regime.
Additionally, the PHR, SNHR, and other NGOs concluded that Russia and the regime targeted humanitarian workers, such as the Syria Civil Defense (The White Helmets) as they attempted to save victims in affected communities. In February the Washington Post reported that airstrikes and shelling killed aid and medical workers attempting to help civilians in Idlib. Most of the 10,000 aid workers in the area were displaced by the regime’s offensive in the first few months of the year, including 15 percent of the International Rescue Committee staff.
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 to the HTS in the first half of the year. The HTS arbitrarily detained 19-year-old Mohammed Tano in late 2019 and in April condemned him to death for blasphemy, although activists suspected the HTS executed him after discovering texts criticizing HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. In May the online news outlet Middle East Eye reported the HTS killed a civilian in Idlib while using force to disperse a protest. In June the SNHR reported the HTS executed a university student by firing squad at a detention center after detaining him during a raid on his home. There was no trial, and his family was never given his body for burial. In July the COI reported the HTS launched antiregime attacks that affected civilians in regime-controlled areas. On January 21, a nine-year-old boy was killed by a mortar attack reportedly originating from the HTS-controlled part of Aleppo. The COI’s July report found “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the HTS committed the war crimes of murder and of passing sentences and carrying out executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court as well as the war crime of cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture.”
The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in Syria from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey were involved in fighting in Syria during the year. The COI blamed Russia for aerial attacks in northwest Syria throughout the year. Eyewitnesses, a local human rights monitor, and local media reported that an attack carried out by Turkish forces or TSOs on October 16 struck a rural area killing a young boy and injuring others in Ain Issa; the circumstances of this event are in dispute. Official Turkish government sources reported responding to enemy fire on the date in question and in the area that corresponds with this event, with four to six People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters reportedly “neutralized,” a term Turkish authorities used to mean killed, captured, or otherwise removed from the battlefield. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. According to media, YPG forces have also reportedly fired on Turkish and TSO forces following Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria and in November and December 2020 during fighting in the vicinity of Ayn Issa, including near civilian infrastructure.
During the year TSOs were allegedly engaged in extrajudicial killings. For example, in May the STJ reported TSO Sultan Murad detained and executed Ibrahim al-Youssef, after a failed extortion attempt. In August the Kurdish National Council and the Afrin Post reported that TSO Faylaq al-Sham militants killed a 63-year-old Kurdish Yezidi civilian, Nouri Jammou Omar Sharaf, following an unsuccessful extortion attempt. Human rights monitors also reported several instances of individuals dying under torture in Firqat al-Hamza and SNA Military Police detention. During the year the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), to whom the SNA nominally reports, announced the establishment of a commission within its Ministry of Defense to investigate serious allegations of abuses. The SIG sentenced one SNA fighter to a life sentence for the 2019 killing of the Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, and a range of other SNA abuses committed during Operation Peace Spring; however, the SIG did not publicly announce this sentencing and subsequently reduced the sentence to 10 years. Human rights and documentation groups expressed a lack of confidence in the credibility of the SIG’s accountability effort.
COI, the SNHR, and other human rights groups reported multiple car bombings, other attacks involving improvised explosive devices, and intra-TSO fighting in TSO-held areas in northern Syria, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, and noted the rise in such attacks during the year. While there was generally a lack of attribution for these attacks, Turkish government officials alleged most attacks were carried out by groups affiliated with PKK.
Abductions: Regime and proregime forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority 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.
The COI noted in its March and September reports that the HTS routinely detained and tortured civilians in territory in northwest Syria under HTS control. According to the COI and HRW, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived regime supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of the HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. The SNHR reported that approximately 2,115 persons remained in HTS detention as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention. For example, the SNHR reported that in August the HTS abducted a pharmacist and director of the midwifery institute in Idlib, Mustafa al-Jazi. His fate remained unknown.
Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, who ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, 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 almost 2,800 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 arrest civilians, including women and children, and hold them in detention without charge. In March the SNHR reported that since the start of the crisis in 2011, more than 3,000 Syrians, including 169 women and 602 children, were still missing after being detained or forcibly disappeared by the SDF. 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 Muhsen al-Ibrahim in March 2019 in a raid on his home in Deir Ez-Zour. The SDF did not provide information on al-Ibrahim’s status until September, when the family learned of his death in detention. The SDF continued to allow the ICRC into detention facilities to monitor and report on conditions. In September the SDF stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
The COI, HRW, Amnesty International, and Syrian human rights monitors reported multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention by TSOs, including the groups Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police. The SNHR attributed 185 arbitrary detentions and abductions in the first half of the year to TSO-aligned SNA fighters. The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.
According to the COI, areas where TSOs were active continued to face instability due to increased infighting between the groups during the year. Victims of abductions by TSOs were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin. The Afrin Human Rights Organization, the VDC, and Iraqi media outlet Rudaw reported the February 27 kidnapping of Areen Dali Hassan, a Yezidi woman, in Afrin City. Areen was believed to be in Firqat al-Hamza captivity in the “Castle Prison” in al-Basuta in Afrin District. In June, Families for Freedom and a coalition of 11 other human rights groups reported that fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Firqat al-Hamza resulted in the deaths of three civilians and led to the discovery of at least eight women in degrading conditions in Firqat al-Hamza captivity.
The COI reported in September on the transfer of Syrians detained by SNA fighters to the custody of the government of Turkey, indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.” The Turkish government denied these reports and denied responsibility for Syrian opposition or TSO conduct but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and relayed that the Turkish-supported SNA had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline. The government of Turkey stated its own conduct in the operation was consistent with international law and that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the COI and reliable 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 March the SNHR estimated parties of the conflict committed at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence since March 2011. Regime forces and affiliated militias were responsible for the vast majority of these offenses–more than 8,000 incidents in total–including more than 800 incidents inside detention centers and more than 400 against girls younger than age 18 years. The SNHR also reported 3,487 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. The Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence reported most sexual and gender-based abuses by regime forces during the year occurred at checkpoints or in detention (see section 1.d.). In August the SNHR and the All Survivors Project issued a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as a tool of torture used by the regime against men and boys.
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 June, the SNHR attributed more than 43 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 26 to the HTS (including one child), and more than 33 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 52 deaths to torture by Kurdish forces.
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. On January 29, the SNHR reported it had received notification that Fajr Ibrahim died in custody allegedly as the result of medical negligence, after being detained by the SDF in February. The SNHR also reported detainee Mua’th al-Muhammad al-Kal from Raqqa, reportedly detained in February for transferring money to ISIS-affiliated family members, asserted that while imprisoned, he was left in solitary confinement without food and was subjected to beating and torture for several days. The SNHR also reported video surveillance obtained in March showed severe overcrowding in Ghwayran Prison. In September the COI reported several instances of repeated torture of detainees in SDF prisons. The SDF continued to implement protocols to ensure torture was not used as an interrogation technique and initiated investigations into specific incidents of torture presented by the COI. In September the SDF also stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
According to the SNHR’s June report on the use of torture in Syria, the HTS continued to carryout detentions and kidnappings of local political opponents and journalists. In June the SNHR reported that members of HTS arrested human rights activist Omar al-Eis and kept him in solitary detention for 126 days. Al-Eis reported hearing sounds of torture every day at the Uqab Prison. In April, HTS fighters abducted Hassan Salh Abs from Sarmin. On April 20, his family received information he had been tortured to death at an HTS detention center. Human rights groups continued to report that the HTS officially denounces secularism and routinely detained and tortured journalists, activists, and other civilians in territory it controlled who were deemed to be have violated the group’s stringent interpretation of sharia. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. Media organizations also documented the forced conversion of Druze and Alawite civilians by the HTS, detaining or disappearing those refusing to comply.
The COI, OHCHR, and human rights groups reported that, since January 2018, TSO groups had allegedly participated in the torture and killings of civilians in Afrin and, since October 2019, in the areas taken during Turkish Operation Peace Spring. The COI reported in March, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of armed groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture” in Afrin and the Operation Peace Spring area. The COI in September reported the torture and rape of minors in TSO detention and “corroborated widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions.” The Violations Documentation Center and local media reported in July that SNA-affiliated Firqat al-Hamza had tortured Mahmoud Hassan Omri, a 27-year-old man with a disability, to death in Ras al-Ayn after forcibly disappearing him in November 2019 when he sought to return to his home, which had been seized by the group.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN special representative on children and armed conflict reported in its annual report that at least 820 children had been recruited as child soldiers during the reporting period. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, the SNA, as well as ISIS and the HTS, actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”
The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported the recruitment and use of 820 children (765 boys, and 55 girls) in the conflict between January and December of 2019. According to the report, 798 of the children served in combat roles and 147 were younger than age 15. The report attributed 283 verified cases to SDF-affiliated groups; 245 to the HTS; 191 to Free Syria Army-affiliated groups; 26 to Ahrar al-Sham; one to ISIS; 17 to Jaysh al-Islam; three to Nur al-Din al-Zanki; and 10 to regime forces.
In January the COI reported it continued receiving reports of young boys, some considered by persons who saw them to not be older than age 13, observed at checkpoints staffed by the regime and associated militia in Hama. One interviewee explained to the COI how one of the boys, age 16, joined the regime military forces after ISIS killed his brothers.
The COI continued to receive reports of children being recruited by HTS in Idlib governorate, as proregime forces intensified their offensive. In Aleppo boys between 13 to 17 years of age joined armed groups. One interviewee described the case of a 14-year-old boy who joined Ahrar al-Sham in 2018 along with his older brother to participate in operation “Olive Branch” and served at a checkpoint in Aleppo.
In 2019 the SDF signed 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, as well as to identify and separate boys and girls within the group’s ranks and to put in place protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use. 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 northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibited using children for spying, to act as guards, or to 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 screened out more than 250 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the United Nations.
The United Nations confirmed the SDF had demobilized 86 minors (56 girls and 30 boys) during the year and, working with the SNES, returned these minors to their families for community-based reintegration, pursuant to UN requests. In 2019 also the SDF demobilized 86 children.
The SDF and SNES in August announced the establishment of the Complaints Mechanism, a key component of the child soldier demobilization initiative, which provides parents a single SNES and SDF point of contact to inquire about, identify, and demobilize minors from the SDF. The United Nations reported 10 children were recently returned to their parents through this mechanism.
In August the SDF publicly announced it would cease its use of schools for military purposes; the United Nations subsequently confirmed the SDF withdrew from 16 of 28 schools it identified as under SDF use for military purposes, as well as from two other schools.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In January the COI reported, “warring parties have looted and vandalized educational establishments and used schools for military purposes, including as depots, barracks, sniper posts, temporary bases or launching sites. Repeated attacks on educational facilities combined with the complete breakdown of the education system have minimized the opportunities for children to resume their studies and improve prospects for their future.” The COI further concluded it had documented “instances where Government forces deliberately attacked schools, and therefore committed the war crimes of deliberately targeting a civilian object and deliberately attacking civilians.”
In cities where sieges ended and the regime regained control, the SNHR reported the regime and its allies frequently imposed new collective measures to punish communities by restricting humanitarian access; looting and pillaging; expropriating property; extorting funds; engaging in arbitrary detentions and widespread forcible conscription; detaining, disappearing, or forcibly displacing individuals; engaging in repressive measures aimed at silencing media activists; and destroying evidence of war crimes.
The United Nations estimated that violence in Idlib displaced more than 900,000 persons–80 percent women and children–since December 2019.
According to Amnesty International and numerous other human rights and humanitarian groups, those trapped in the area were crammed into close quarters with IDPs and vulnerable to the regime’s and Russia’s campaign of aerial bombardments impacting civilian infrastructure. The White Helmets documented more than 2,200 airstrikes in January and February, including 32 cluster-bomb attacks and 605 barrel bombs in Idlib, along with Aleppo and Hama. UN officials throughout the year voiced grave concerns about the situation for civilians caught in the Idlib siege. Cross-border assistance remained the only means of reaching persons in and around Idlib.
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, punish perceived opponents, and reward those loyal to it. 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 (SARC) 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 civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups. Foreign Policy and HRW reported that the regime had weaponized humanitarian assistance, only allowing the delivery of assistance to loyalist-held areas through regime organizations such as the Syria Trust for Development, which was led by Bashar Assad’s wife, or the SARC.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning, and hundreds of health-care workers had been killed during the conflict. NGOs and media outlets documented repeated and continuing attacks on health facilities and other civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria perpetrated by regime and Russian forces. From March 2011 through March 2020, the PHR reported 595 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 923 medical personnel, with regime and Russian forces responsible for 91 percent of attacks (301 by regime forces and 229 by either Russian or regime forces). In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year. The COI concluded this pattern of attack strongly suggested proregime forces systematically targeted medical facilities and that such acts constituted war crimes. The BOI further reported that Russian and regime forces launched attacks that devastated medical facilities and networks in Idlib. In June, Russia informed the United Nations it would no longer participate in the UN deconfliction mechanism.
The COI reported that the above incidents followed a well documented pattern of attacks with humanitarian and civilian impact conducted by the regime, with Russian and Iranian support.
The 2018 COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, regime and proregime forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas 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.).
Regime forces and armed groups also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
The COI and NGOs such as PAX indicated that, taken together with steps such as the enactment of Law No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties, the forcible displacements may 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 the M5 highway at the beginning of the year, armed groups such as the HTS launched counterattacks against government positions in Idlib, Aleppo. These attacks, although much fewer and smaller in scale than those by the regime and proregime forces, caused some civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure. The COI reported that on February 5, armed groups fired three rockets impacting a densely populated area in the government-controlled Hamdaniya neighborhood of western Aleppo. This attack damaged a hospital and residential home and killed a family of five. The COI described this attack as “indiscriminate, indirect artillery fire of area weapons into densely populated civilian areas.” The COI also reported the HTS sought to intimidate the local population from expressing dissent by beating and detaining participants during protests throughout the year. In April, HTS forces killed a man while breaking up a demonstration. The COI stated the HTS detained journalists and NGO workers for weeks on the basis of their criticism of HTS activities and that HTS had shot and killed detainees trying to escape during airstrikes on the Qasimiah detention facility on January 17. The COI reported other HTS abuses as well, including looting in Atarib, attempts to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and preventing large numbers of girls from attending school.
The COI and international and Syrian NGOs such as the STJ reported throughout the year that TSO groups had engaged in the systematic looting, seizure, appropriation, and destruction of civilian homes and religious sites, particularly those of Kurds and Yezidis, resulting in significant civilian displacement. TSOs also reportedly continued to bar returnees from their properties in northern Syria and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area. Confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families. According to numerous organizations, including STJ, VDC, and al-Monitor, TSOs, including Firqat al-Hamza and Sultan Murad, seized agricultural machinery, water tanks, and other private property in Ras al-Ayn and sold it back to owners. Firqat al-Hamza and Ahrar al-Sharqiya reportedly seized homes and clinics and then charged their owners rent. In August and September, the COI, media organization The Syria Report, and the STJ reported the Syrian Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council seized two private properties owned by Kurdish residents in Ras al-Ayn and that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, then converted the properties into religious centers without compensating the owners, despite petitions made to the Council. The governor of Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province delivered remarks in June for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of one of these converted sites.
TSOs continued to interfere with and disrupt water access to parts of northeast Syria despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR reported in September that “Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which control the Alouk water pumping station in Ras al-Ain, have repeatedly disrupted water supplies, affecting access to water for up to one million individuals in the city of al-Hassakeh and surrounding areas, including extremely vulnerable displaced persons in various IDP camps.” According to NGO reporting, Alouk Station was offline for 55 percent of the time between October 2019 and August due to TSO denial of access to maintenance crews and deliberate shutdown of the station. Turkish authorities alleged the frequent shutdowns resulted from inadequate power being provided to the plant from a power generation facility in SDF-controlled area, a claim disputed by the United Nations and NGOs present in northeast Syria.
The COI reported in September that SNA members looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites in the Afrin region, including Yezidi shrines and graveyards, as well as sites protected by UNESCO. In April the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar cemetery. These organizations also reported cases where TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.
In August, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported continued abuses against the Christian community, including the detention of Radwan Mohammad by Faylaq al-Sham in Afrin on charges of apostasy after he refused to hand his school building over to the group for conversion into an Islamic school. In July, Faylaq al-Sham also prevented Mohammad from preparing his wife’s body for burial due to her faith.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, the HTS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime attacks on Idlib governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while fear of death and regime retribution resulted in mass civilian displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).
In-country Movement: In areas outside of regime control, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.
The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement, and the COI reported regime security officials detained, forcibly conscripted, and extorted residents at checkpoints, at times impeding civilians’ access to health care and education. Regime forces used violence to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats, including delegations from the United Nations and the OPCW IIT, from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.
In areas they controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, such as the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in July that HTS systematically interfered with women’s freedom of movement, harassing unaccompanied women and denying them access to public events under threat of detention. The HTS also attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, according to COI reporting.
While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in June, HRW reported that the SNES was restricting the movement of more than 10,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP camp. The COI reported in January that many of the children in al-Hol camp lacked birth registration papers, in some cases because parents were unable to register, jeopardizing their rights to a nationality, hindering family reunification processes, and increasing their vulnerability to abuse.
Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Syrian passports cost approximately $800, which many Syrians found prohibitive. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks and arbitrary detention at airports and border crossings.
The regime also often refused to allow some citizens to return, while millions more Syrians who fled to neighboring countries reportedly feared retribution by the regime should they return. In July the regime implemented a new policy of charging returning refugees a substantial fee to enter the country. The press-monitoring organization Middle East Monitor reported this fee presented a barrier to refugee returns. On September 5, Lebanese government officials announced that 17-year-old Zainab Mohammed Al-Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee, had died while she was trapped between the two countries because she could not afford the fee needed to enter into Syria. A regime immigration official stated the regime’s policy was to refuse entry to any Syrian unable to pay the fee and that the Lebanese government did not accept Syrians back once they crossed the border.
Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country. Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.