In March 2011, during the Arab Spring, pro-democracy protests erupted in the city of Deraa. The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. The government attempted to crush the dissent with force, but merely fueled protesters’ resolve. As the conflict escalated, more pro-government and rebel factions have emerged and a number of outside parties, including Lebanon, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the U.S., the U.K. and France involved themselves as well.
Throughout this conflict, innumerable Syrians have suffered. Human rights abuses have been perpetrated on all sides. This article will discuss the top 10 facts about human rights in Syria that are mostly related to the current situation and the war in the country.
Top 10 Facts About Human Rights
- The Syrian government has launched numerous airstrikes on civilians in opposition-held areas. With support from Iran and Russia, Syria’s government has conducted attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure. At the end of 2016, in their operation to regain rebel-held land in Aleppo, the Russian-Syrian military coalition conducted airstrikes on serval medical facilities, killing 446 civilians, including 91 children.
- The government has employed starvation as a war tactic and has unlawfully restricted access for humanitarian aid. The U.N. estimated that around 540,000 persons were trapped in besieged areas as of June 2017. The deteriorating humanitarian conditions have forced residents into surrendering to brokered ceasefires and evacuation deals with the government. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry and Amnesty International found that some of these evacuations were unlawful.
- Hay’et Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the dominant rebel group in Idlib province, continues to commit human right violations. In response to civilian protests in Idlib province, HTS group members shot at protestors, killing and injuring civilians. HTS has also interfered with humanitarian aid delivery in the province and targeted religious minorities with car bombings. In March 2017, HTS took responsibility for two explosions in the Bab al-Saghir cemetery. The attacks killed 44 civilians and injured 120.
- Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS increased. A local group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, reported 2,286 civilian deaths at the hands of U.S.-backed airstrikes up to September 2017. These strikes raise concerns that the U.S.-led coalition did not take precautions to avoid and minimize Syrian civilian casualties.
- The Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons. Nerve agents have been deployed throughout opposition strongholds in Syria. In September 2017, the U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry’s report concluded that “the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children.” Human Rights Watch also documented government helicopters dropping chlorine on at least eight occasions in an attempt to recapture Aleppo.
- Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, torture, and enforced disappearances continue. In 2017, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented more than 4,252 individual unwarranted arrests. As of August 2017, over 80,000 individuals were “disappeared.”
- Abuses of civilians by ISIS continue. During its defense of Raqqa and other towns, ISIS used civilians as human shields and used internationally banned landmines. The U.N.-OPCW’s (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) joint investigation found that ISIS has used chemical weapons, sulfur mustard gas specifically, against civilians.
- The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD) has detained and harassed members of the political opposition and activists. Human Rights Watch received reports of torture and ill-treatment in facilities controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the majority of which are members of the PYD.
- More than 6.9 million people have been displaced. Women and children account for 75 percent of the refugee population. The neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have sought to curb the massive inflow of refugees through unlawful administrative, legal and physical barriers. Incidents of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrians and smugglers trying to cross the border continue, including the fatal shooting of a 3-year-old in 2017. In the first five months of 2017, the Jordanian government deported around 400 Syrian refugees per month.
- The true scope of the war’s death toll is unknown and is still growing. As the Syrian war drags many international monitoring groups ceased counting the dead. The U.N., which regularly released death toll reports during the war’s first years, gave its last estimate in 2016 and stated that it had become impossible to verify how many people have died, but at least 400,000 people were killed by that moment. In March 2018, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that at least 511,000 people have been killed in the war since March 2011.
These top 10 facts about human rights in Syria hopes to make evident the suffering of millions of people and inspire additional diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to stop the war. The U.S. has the important diplomatic part to play in the support of the Syrian people and it cannot supplant that role with military force. Military involvement cannot replace diplomacy. The people of Syria are in dire need of humanitarian aid. Politics and military force alone will not build the trust needed to get that aid to the country’s besieged populace.
– Carolina Sherwood Bigelow