The ongoing, brutal civil war in Syria has been the scene of acts that may constitute war crimes, according to Amnesty International. These acts have been perpetrated both by Syrian and Russian elements. The findings of Amnesty International are detailed in a recently published 39-page report.
The U.K.-based human rights group has detailed 18 cases wherein either Russian or Syrian troops indiscriminately targeted civilians or civilian targets. Most of the cases occurred in the last year between May 5, 2019, and February 20, 2020. The group said that these 18 attacks struck schools and medical facilities in Idlib, Hama, and western Aleppo.
Amnesty International reported that prior to the recent ceasefire, about one million residents of Idlib, many of whom have been repeatedly displaced, were once again forced out. They have been living in dreadful conditions along the sealed Turkish border for the past several months.
Heba Morayef, the Middle East and North Africa Director of Amnesty International had to say the following, “Even by the standards of Syria’s calamitous nine-year crisis, the displacement and humanitarian emergency sparked by the latest onslaught on Idlib has been unprecedented. The UN Security Council must not cut the vital lifeline of cross-border humanitarian aid while thousands of lives hang in the balance.”
“The latest offensive continued an abhorrent pattern of widespread and systematic attacks aimed at terrorizing the civilian population,” she added.
“Meanwhile, Russia has continued to provide invaluable military support — including by directly carrying out unlawful airstrikes — despite evidence that it is facilitating the Syrian military’s commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The organization said the attacks in question included three ground attacks and two barrel-bomb attacks by Syrian military forces, as well as airstrikes conducted by both Russians and Syrians.
Amnesty International interviewed 74 people, including internally displaced people, teachers, doctors, and humanitarian workers. They provided accounts of the conditions to the local and international aid workers and U.N. staff members for the 39-page report.
Witness accounts were then authenticated by videos, photographs, and the detailed analysis of satellite imagery. Amnesty International also noted reports on the ground by flight spotters and even produced intercepted Russian and Syrian air force flight communications.
The audio recordings of transmissions between the pilots of combat aircraft and their ground controllers provide damning evidence of Russian military involvement in an unlawful attack that targeted a hospital in the town of Ariha on January 29. The attack destroyed at least two neighboring residential buildings and killed 11 civilians and wounded 30 people.
A doctor who survived the attack told Amnesty International that the Russians conducted three airstrikes on the hospital that day. “I felt so helpless. My friend and colleague dying, children and women screaming outside.” According to the doctor, it took two days for the civil authorities to remove the bodies from the scene of devastation.
Amnesty International also conducted interviews with the Hurras Network (Syrian Child Protection Network), a Syrian non-governmental organization. The NGO said that 28 schools were targeted by air and ground attacks in January and February 2020. Ten schools were hit on February 25 resulting in the deaths of nine civilians.
The investigation also detailed six further attacks on schools between January 28 and February 25. The Syrian military used air-dropped barrel bombs and ground-fired cluster munitions against schools.
“A cluster munition bomblet exploded close to my feet, blowing the flesh off… The pain was unbearable. I felt heat as if my feet were burning,” one teacher testified.
“Two students were walking in front of me. One died instantly and the other one, miraculously, survived. I am sure it was a cluster munition because I heard several explosions. I know the sound of a cluster munition attack very well. You hear a series of small explosions. As if the sky were raining shrapnel instead of water.”
The group produced the remnants of a surface-fired, 220mm, 9M27K rocket manufactured in Russia and transferred to the Syrian regime. It contains 9N210 or 9N235 cluster munitions which are prohibited by international law.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution in July of 2014, which authorized cross-border aid to ease the suffering of the displaced civilians. The resolution also applies to parts of the country that were held by opposition groups. The resolution is set to expire in July.
Amnesty International said that the Syrian government and its allies want all aid funneled through Damascus; this would result in a disaster for the people in rebel-held areas. The group said, “the government has regularly sought to restrict aid operations through bureaucratic requirements. It has also ‘blacklisted’ and persecuted aid workers associated with opposition-held areas. Armed groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham have also hampered humanitarian organizations from doing their jobs effectively.”
Amnesty International is asking the U.N. to extend the resolution to help the people in northwest Syria. The organization has characterized the situation in Idlib as a “horror show.”
Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, nearly 400,000 people have been killed in the fighting; millions more have been displaced.