Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO headquartered in New York City that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, on Thursday issued a report accusing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, in their roles as the commanders-in-chief of their countries’ armed forces, of “serious laws-of-war violations,” by failing “to take measures to end or take action against military personnel implicated in war crimes and apparent crimes against humanity.”
The report, titled “Targeting Life in Idlib” – Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure, says that “in April 2019, the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, launched a major military offensive to retake Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in northwest Syria—one of the last areas controlled by anti-government armed groups. Over the next 11 months, the Syrian-Russian alliance showed callous disregard for the lives of the roughly 3 million civilians in the area, many of them people displaced by the fighting in other parts of the country.
“The alliance launched dozens of air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure in violation of the laws of war, striking homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study. They used cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and improvised ‘barrel bombs’ in populated areas to deadly effect. The attacks killed at least 1,600 civilians, destroyed and damaged civilian infrastructure, and forced the displacement of an estimated 1.4 million people”
The HRW report examines “the 11-month Syrian-Russian offensive and unlawful attacks that caused harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, which can be defined as the basic structures and facilities, such as hospitals, schools, and markets, that society needs to function. The report documents 46 ground and air attacks that directly struck or indirectly damaged civilian objects and infrastructure in Idlib in violation of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. It builds on a May 2020 report by Amnesty International that documented 18 unlawful air and ground attacks on schools and hospitals during this period in northwest Syria, covering 5 of the same attacks, plus 41 additional ones.”
The report names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be implicated in these violations as a matter of command responsibility: they knew or should have known about the abuses and took no effective steps to stop them or punish those directly responsible.
To document the 46 incidents, Human Rights Watch interviewed 113 victims and witnesses of the attacks, as well as healthcare and rescue workers, teachers, local authorities, and experts on the Syrian and Russian militaries. Human Rights Watch examined dozens of satellite images and over 550 photographs and videos taken at the attack sites, as well as logs of observers who monitored Syrian and Russian aircraft in the area.
In each of the 46 incidents, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of opposition military weapons, equipment, or personnel in the vicinity at the time of the attack. Most of the attacks occurred in populated areas, and no residents said that the Syrian-Russian alliance ever provided any advance warning. The overwhelming majority of attacks documented took place far from active fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government armed groups.
Most of the 46 attacks documented by Human Rights Watch appeared to involve the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The bombing and shelling of populated areas kill and wound large numbers of civilians, and damage and destroy civilian objects and infrastructure. They also have reverberating effects: disrupting essential services, such as health care and education, and access to food and shelter. Long-term impacts include serious psychological harm to the affected population.
Explosive weapons used in Idlib included bombs, rockets, and artillery. Three of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented on or near schools involved cluster munitions, which have widespread indiscriminate effects and pose a long-term danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically release or disperse dozens or even hundreds of small submunitions in the air over an area the size of a football field. Many submunitions may fail to explode on initial impact, leaving remnants that act like landmines. The widely accepted Convention on Cluster Munitions bans cluster munitions; it has been joined by 121 states, although not Syria or Russia.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights identified the use of various explosive weapons by the Syrian-Russian alliance since April 2019, including 30 cluster munitions, at least 21 incendiary weapons, 9 missiles, and nearly 5,000 “barrel bombs” throughout the Idlib region.