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Rights Group: Syrian-Russian attacks on rebel-held Idlib may amount to crimes against humanity

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

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

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Syrian government and its Russian ally have shown “callous disregard” for the lives of millions of civilians during their military offensive to retake the last rebel-held enclave in northwestern Syria.

In a report released on October 15, the New York-based human rights group said indiscriminate air and ground attacks on civilian areas in Idlib Province may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“The repeated Syrian-Russian alliance attacks on civilian infrastructure in populated areas in which there was no apparent military objective suggests that these unlawful attacks were deliberate,” HRW said in its report, titled Targeting Life in Idlib: Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure.

According to the report, dozens of air and ground strikes on hospitals, schools, and markets during an 11-month period spanning from April 2019 to March killed hundreds of civilians.

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The attacks may have been intended to “deprive local residents of the means to sustain themselves, to force the civilian population to flee and make it easier for Syrian ground forces to take territory, or simply to instill terror in the civilian population as a way to achieve victory,” it said.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 turned the tide of the war, allowing President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to regain control over much of the country’s territory and population.

The Syrian government has vowed to retake Idlib Province, which is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate. The group is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, United Nations, and Russia.

Idlib hosts nearly 3 million civilians, many of them crowded into refugee camps after being previously displaced from other parts of Syria.

In April 2019, the Syrian government and Russia launched a large military offensive to retake Idlib and surrounding areas in northwestern Syria, saying that their forces were coming under attack from rebel factions and were countering “terrorism.”

After pro-government forces retook as much as half the province, a fragile cease-fire negotiated by Russia and Turkey in March 2020 has reduced fighting.

The offensive killed at least 1,600 civilians, destroyed and damaged civilian infrastructure, and forced the displacement of an estimated 1.4 million people, according to HRW.

The watchdog said it had documented 46 ground and air attacks, including the use of cluster munitions, carried out by the Syrian-Russian alliance on civilian areas, including homes, schools, health-care facilities, and markets.

These strikes killed at least 212 civilians and wounded 560.

Although only a fraction of total attacks, “they reveal repeated violations of the laws of war that were apparent war crimes, and may amount to crimes against humanity,” HRW said.

The report found the majority of attacks targeted civilian areas where there was no legitimate military target, far from active fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government armed groups.

Damage caused to infrastructure has since made many towns and villages unlivable, with food, water, shelter, health care, and education all lacking. Making the situation worse, both Russia and Syria worked to hinder humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need.

Meanwhile, “the chance of renewed fighting, and the dangers to civilians, loom large,” according to HRW.

The report names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be responsible for possible war crimes because they knew or should have known about the abuses and did nothing to stop them or punish those directly responsible.

Among them are Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as top military commanders from both countries.

“Given the lack of accountability in Syria and Russia, as well as the deadlock in the UN Security Council that has prevented the situation in Syria from being referred to the International Criminal Court, concerned governments should consider unilateral targeted sanctions against those senior officials and commanders credibly implicated in abuses,” HRW said.

Syria’s brutal nine-year war has claimed more than 400,000 lives, displaced over 6 million internally, and forced at least another 5.5 million to live as refugees, according to UN agencies.