Syria-Russia alliance targeted civilians in Idlib: HRW report

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad upon his arrival for a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 21, 2015. Assad, on his first foreign visit since Syria's war broke out, told his main backer and counterpart Putin in Moscow that Russia's campaign in Syria has helped contain "terrorism". AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Syria-Russia alliance of committing possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by attacking civilians in rebel-held Idlib province and called for sanctions against top military officials.

In a 167-page report released on Thursday, the New York-based rights body states that repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib between April 2019 and March 2020 violated international law.

The report, titled Targeting Life in Idlib, Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian infrastructure, documents and examined 46 attacks on civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals in the rebel-held area during the 11-month offensive. The 46 attacks “represent only a fraction of the total military campaign in Idlib and surrounding areas”.

Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW and co-author of the report told Al Jazeera the purpose of the report was to move the discussion from individual attacks by the alliance “to examine the military strategy behind the attacks”. The conclusion HRW came to was that “the strategy was to target civilian lives”.

“Civilians were targeted to a point where they could no longer live in an area. This allowed the Syrian army to simply take an area without having to fight for it,” said Wille, adding that the HRW could not find any evidence of any military objectives.

Syria and Russia have said the offensive in Idlib was a response to repeated attacks on their forces by anti-government armed groups and an effort to counter “terrorism”. Senior Syrian and Russian officials have denied their operations violated the laws of war.

Targeted sanctions

More than 1.4 million civilians in Idlib were displaced out of an estimated three million people largely because of the widespread use of explosive weapons during the offensive. Many of the displaces fled to Northern Idlib where they live in camps.

The rights group has long documented violations by the Syria-Russia alliance in Syria. According to Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at the rights body, the report is a “culmination of work Human Rights Watch has done on Syria”. Kayyali said the timing of the report is important because it comes at a time of a ceasefire in Idlib and it illustrates the price civilians have paid throughout the conflict.

The HRW report names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who could be implicated in the violations and may bear command responsibility for violations.

According to Wille the list is by no means complete but an attempt to start naming the most senior perpetrators.

The New York-based rights body called on the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution or statement calling on member states to impose targeted sanctions on military commanders implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Kayyali, the Syrian researcher, called on the international community to take “a much more assertive approach to ensure that the blood that was shed in Idlib will not be shed again.”

Deadly weapons

HRW condemned the use of cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and improvised “barrel bombs” in populated areas that killed at least 1,600 civilians and damaged and destroyed civilian infrastructure during the military offensive.

In addition, both countries have hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians in their attempts to regain territory, the report said.

Husam Abdulmajeed was a witness to many crimes against civilians in Idlib such as the bombing of the Al-Mihka building in the city of Maarat al-Numan in 2017. The building was targeted by vacuum attacks that killed 145 civilians.

Syrian and Russian forces seek to push the population to flee, “making it easier to control them”, Adulmajeed, who worked as an administrator in the Syrian Civil Defence that helped rescue people from under the rubble, told Al Jazeera. He added: “Civilians had hardly any way of avoiding such lethal raids other than fleeing to the shelters.

“There are many permanent physical and mental disabilities that afflict those who survive. The bombing left many mental illnesses especially among children.”

Lack of accountability

In a March 2020 report, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) directly implicated Russia in unlawful attacks on civilian infrastructure in the war-torn country, saying they amounted to war crimes. And in a report delivered to the Human Rights Council in July 2020, the COI again implicated Syria and its allies in unlawful attacks on civilian infrastructure that amounted to war crimes.

But to date, no one has been held accountable for the atrocities committed in Syria, which has seen half of its pre-war population displaced with millions leaving the country for safety.

In light of the deadlock at the UN Security Council that has prevented the situation in Syria from being referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), concerned governments should consider unilateral targeted sanctions against those senior officials and commanders credibly implicated in abuses, the HRW said.

“The UNSC has been completely unfit and unable to address the abuses in Syria. There is also a lack of willingness to engage in creative solutions for Syria, Wille said.

“It has been shocking that the world has stood by and watched the atrocities but we are at a moment that there is reason to be more optimistic and that states are willing to close the accountability gap.”

Beth van Schaak, professor of international law at Stanford University, believes an ad hoc international criminal tribunal should have been set up for Syria, along the model of the Yugoslavia Tribunal (ICTY).

As an alternative, she suggests the use of universal jurisdiction by states as well as the “pooling of universal jurisdiction” by states to hold perpetrators of war crimes in Syria to account. Germany has already used its universal jurisdiction legislation to initiate cases against perpetrators of crimes in Syria.

Van Schaak said: “One of the most helpful aspects of the HRW report is the listing of names of senior perpetrators of crimes in Syria”.  She believes this will help prosecutors worldwide to prepare for cases and to start “structural investigations” against the perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. She says, however, that it is important “to go further down the chain of command.”