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New HRW report implicates top Syrian and Russian officials in war crimes

Strikes conducted by Russian and Syrian armed forces in Idlib amounts to war crimes, a new HRW report says.

15 October 2020

AMMAN — A report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented 46 separate attacks on civilian infrastructure which amount to “war crimes” committed by Syrian government and Russian forces during their military campaign on the northwestern province of Idlib between April 2019 and March 2020. 

The attacks killed at least 224 civilians and wounded 561 others in areas that had no apparent military targets, such as munitions or soldiers. Such strikes could constitute crimes against humanity, according to HRW. 

Russia and Syria also used cluster munitions and improvised barrel bombs in the documented attacks. Both munitions contravene international conventions, due to their wide blast radius and inability to be used in a discriminatory fashion. 

The report names 10 senior Syrian and Russian officials as responsible for the war crimes committed in the attacks, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and both Syrian and Russian Defense Ministers Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub and Sergei Shoigu. 



The attacks documented by HRW represent only a small portion of the at least 882 attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib during the same time period, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). 

Verification of war crimes, while notoriously hard to do in Syria due to its poor security environment, is crucial for holding the perpetrators accountable. The ongoing prosecution of former members of ISIS in Syria and former Syrian security officials in European courts have built their cases in part on eyewitness testimony and documentation techniques similar to those used by HRW for its report. 

In order to determine who bears the responsibility for war crimes committed, HRW used the doctrine of “command responsibility,” which dictates that military or civilian officials who were in the position to stop war crimes from being committed but failed to do so could be found culpable. According to the new report, Syrian and Russian leaders were presented with sufficient evidence to establish that the conduct of their armed forces violated the laws of war, but did not change course. 

Damascus and Moscow have long stood accused of deliberately brutalizing civilian populations by targeting hospitals, schools and public markets to make everyday life increasingly unbearable for those living in opposition-held areas. In this strategy, Syrian civilians are not just “occasional casualties,” but rather the “deliberate targets” of the Russian and Syrian government, HRW director Kenneth Roth said. 

In the offensive on Idlib, the Russian and Syrian air forces bombarded civilians and critical infrastructure indiscriminately in order to empty out population centers to make the ground forces’ advance easier. This strategy was largely successful, displacing an estimated 1.4 million people between April 2019 and March 2020. 

One such attack documented by HRW was on al-Shami hospital, the only hospital in the city of Ariha in Idlib province, on January 19, 2020. The hospital was entirely destroyed, killing 14 civilians and wounding 66. Russia and the regime claim that hospitals are used as fronts to hide terrorist activity, but no evidence has ever been found to corroborate that. 

One resident of Ariha described the despair that the seemingly indiscriminate bombings created: “People have stopped going into the basements to seek shelter; they go into the streets or onto the rooftops, so that it’s easier for rescue workers to find their bodies.” 

Imagery showing the aftermath of the bombing of a primary school in the city of Ariha, 5/1/2020 (HRW)
Imagery showing the aftermath of the bombing of a primary school in the city of Ariha, 5/1/2020 (HRW)

According to the UK-based war monitor Airwars, Russia has conducted 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, but has yet to acknowledge a single civilian death from their air campaign. 

Airstrikes have slowed significantly since the March 2020 ceasefire signed between Ankara and Moscow to end Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield against Syrian regime forces in Idlib province. However, they still have occurred periodically, most recently on Wednesday, October 14, when Russian airstrikes on Jisr al-Shughour killed at least three people and wounded 13 others. 

Though there is ample evidence linking senior Russian and Syrian officials to war crimes and crimes against humanity, there is little chance that accountability will be achieved in the near future. Russia and China have previously vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to allow the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes in Syria, and UN reports which show culpability in war crimes have had no consequences for the perpetrators. 

In fact, rather than being held accountable for crimes committed in Syria, Russia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council yesterday, where it will remain for the next three years. 

Officials can be prosecuted, however, under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows states to charge individuals for war crimes, regardless of where they were committed. Germany, for example, has invoked this principle in its trying of former Syrian security officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib. 

Whether the sitting heads of state of Syria and Russia, Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, will ever be held accountable under universal jurisdiction remains to be seen. However, the possibility of future prosecution could at the least make those giving the orders “think twice,” Roth said.

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