Syria and Civilian Abuse


In the past year, the Syrian regime has engaged in massive human rights abuses as it sought to suppress the civilian population rising up against the government and as it sought to protect itself from Bashar al Assad’s war crimes. Mark Dubowitz (CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies)estimates that since the war began in 2011 as many as half a million lives have been lost. (learn about Mark Dubowitz) An additional 5 million Syrians are living abroad as refugees, and 6 million are displaced internally.

Unlawful and indiscriminate attacks against medical facilities, schools, and mosques have worsened the death toll. The Syrian government, controlled by Bashar al-Assad, utilized support from Russian and Iranian forces to reclaim control over parts of Aleppo killing nearly five hundred civilians in the process. The regime’s uses of cluster munition, incendiary explosives, and barrel bombs, in particular, has raised the risk to civilians.

The Syrian government has also used chemical weapons against civilian targets on multiple occasions. Evidence suggests the weapons are primarily nerve agents which when inhaled shut down the victim’s nervous system causing loss of life through cardiovascular paralysis.

Last September, the UN released a report that concluded that the Syrian air force used sarin gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Dozens were killed, the majority of whom were women and children. Human Rights Watch documented at least eight chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian government during the assault to retake Aleppo.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented more than 4,500 instances of arbitrary arrests conducted by government forces. As many as 80,000 individuals remain missing and are believed to be held within government custody. Detained prisoners are subjected to malnutrition, prolonged isolation, unsanitary conditions, insufficient medical treatment and in some cases torture.

This past August, the wife of a computer engineer and freedom of speech activist, Bassel Khartabil, who had been arrested in 2012 finally received confirmation of her husband’s fate. He was executed in 2015 while being held at a Syrian detention facility, but the government withheld this information for nearly three years.

Despite the substantial loss that ISIS suffered during the previous year of conflict the group has continued abuses against the civilian population. ISIS used civilians as human shields during its defense of Raqqa and deployed landmines in populated areas to hold off advancing forces.

Last May, ISIS attacked a Shia Muslim community in the town of Aqarib al-Safiyah and utilized snipers to kill residents who attempted to flee the area. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, over 100 civilians were injured, and 52 were killed including a dozen children. The UN also confirmed that ISIS has used chemical weapons against civilian populations in the past, specifically sulfur mustard gas.

A Britain-based watchdog group (the Syrian Observatory) found that around 1,100 civilians have died during airstrikes by coalition planes since the campaign to retake the city of Raqqa began. Human Rights Watch investigated the bombing of a school in Mansourah last March that killed over 80 civilians, including 30 children. This and other strikes have raised concern that US-led coalition forces have not taken adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

Famine and illness are rampant with many high-population areas wholly cut off from humanitarian aid. Government forces and armed opposition groups have managed to prevent UN aid workers and non-profit volunteers from being able to provide proper medical care, food, and water to places in desperate need all across the country. The UN estimates that around 540,000 individuals are trapped in areas cut off from outside support. As tensions in the region escalate widespread starvation is only expected to get worse with the majority of those affected being children.


To learn more about this and other Middle Eastern issues please see Mark Dubowitz website here.