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Russian-Syrian strike in Idlib ‘appears to be war crime’

A Syrian or Russian airstrike hit the town of Bidama in the western Idlib Governorate. (Qasioun News Agency/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Human Rights Watch says a strike by a Russian-Syrian military alliance on a displacement compound during the summer appears to be a war crime.

The rights group said in a statement on October 18 that, according to witnesses, there was “no apparent military target” in the mid-August attack in the region of Idlib, which killed at least 20 citizens and displaced dozens of others.

The allegation comes just two days after President Vladimir Putin signed a decree pulling Russia out of a key element of the Geneva Conventions that authorizes investigations into alleged war crimes against civilians.

“Since the start of the offensive on Idlib, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has used unlawful tactics to kill and injure hundreds of civilians,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.

“The tragic loss of life and injury to civilians is made worse by the devastating impact these attacks have had on civilian infrastructure, bringing an ongoing displacement crisis in Syria to its breaking point,” Simpson added.

Syrian government forces and their ally, Russia, launched an offensive in April in Idlib, which was mainly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

According to the United Nations, the alliance has killed at least 1,000 civilians and displaced over half a million others.

Adding to the misery, HRW said, Turkey’s incursion into Northeast Syria last week has displaced tens of thousands more civilians.

‘Deliberate Or Reckless Attacks’

The rights group noted that witnesses it interviewed said that “no armed men or other military targets” were in the displacement center. Most of the casualties documented were women and children, HRW said.

“Deliberate or reckless attacks against civilians and civilian objects committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, an attack against a civilian object constitutes a war crime if it is not imperatively demanded by necessities of the conflict,” HRW said.

“The laws of war require parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to ‘take all feasible precautions’ to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects,” it added.

The UN chief’s official spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said on October 14 that he hopes a commission investigating the alleged airstrikes on humanitarian facilities in the Idlib governate will file a report by mid-January.

Putin’s October 16 decree withdraws Russia from Protocol 1 of the 1949 convention “relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts,” citing “exceptional circumstances affecting the interests of the Russian Federation and requiring urgent action.”

Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention was ratified by the Soviet Union’s Supreme Council, the former country’s parliament, in 1989.

Putin said an international commission set up to investigate war crimes against civilians “has effectively failed to carry out its functions since 1991.”

“In the current international environment, the risks of the commission’s power abuse by the states, which are acting in bad faith, are increasing significantly,” according to a letter Putin sent to Russia’s State Duma where he announced the decree.

Despite Putin’s decree, Russia remains a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which is made up of four of treaties and three additional protocols, including Protocol I.