Government, Opposition Forces Should Respect Laws of War
August 10, 2012
As Syria deploys helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, and heavy artillery in populated areas of Aleppo, it should do everything feasible to protect civilians from harm. At the same time, the Free Syrian Army forces in and around the city should do what they can to minimize the risk to civilians in the fighting.
Anna Neistat, acting emergencies director

(Hatay) – Civilians in and around the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo are increasingly at risk from aerial attacks, artillery shelling and gunfire. Commanders of Syrian government forces and the opposition Free Syrian Army should ensure that their troops abide by the laws of war and never target civilians or conduct indiscriminate attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted a week-long field investigation in northern Aleppo province in early August 2012, and are continuing to gather information at the Syrian border in Turkey, where many Aleppo residents have fled.

“As Syria deploys helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, and heavy artillery in populated areas of Aleppo, it should do everything feasible to protect civilians from harm,” said Anna Neistat, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, the Free Syrian Army forces in and around the city should do what they can to minimize the risk to civilians in the fighting.”

Human Rights Watch issued a Question and Answer Document on August 10, 2012, to provide legal guidance on the fighting to the parties to the conflict and those with the capacity to influence them.

Dozens of families from the Aleppo neighborhoods of Hanano, Shaar, Bab al Nerab, Sikari, Al Marjeh, Salah el Din, Sakhour, and Fardous, among other places, told Human Rights Watch that they had fled their neighborhoods after government forces subjected the areas to intensive shelling and aerial attacks. They described extensive destruction and damage to houses, bakeries, and other structures. Images and accounts from Aleppo and its environs by international journalists confirm these reports.

Witnesses said that fighters from the Free Syrian Army were controlling the neighborhoods at the time of the attacks, so the government attacks may have been directed at military targets.

The number of civilian casualties in Aleppo and the surrounding area is impossible to verify, Human Rights Watch said. According to the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian monitoring group working in coordination with a network of Syrian activists called the Local Coordination Committees, 265 civilians were killed by shelling in the Aleppo governorate from July 19 to August 9. Another 166 civilians died from gunfire. VDC does not maintain statistics on the injured.

Wounded civilians brought to a hospital in Turkey described to Human Rights Watch attacks in which civilians were injured and killed.

In one attack on August 7 in Tel Rifat, a town about 40 kilometers north of Aleppo city, government aircraft delivered six munitions near a school that held an opposition civil administration, a court and a small detention facility, and was guarded by a few armed men. None of the bombs hit the school but one of them struck a nearby house, instantly killing eight members of the Blaw family. A ninth family member was taken to Turkey for medical care but she also died.

Free Syrian Army fighters who were staying in another school nearby may have been the intended target. One munition hit that school but witnesses did not report any casualties among the fighters.

“It was impossible at first to tell how many were inside [the Blaw family home]—they were blown apart into small pieces,” a witness to the attack said. “There were several small children, with hands and legs torn off, and heads so distorted, it was impossible to recognize them.”

In an attack on August 8, at least seven civilians were wounded by munitions delivered by government aircraft in the village of Akhtarin, near Aleppo.

“I heard an enormous blast and saw a big flash in front of my eyes, metal flying around, and I fell on the ground in pain,” said 47-year-old “Mahmoud,” who suffered shrapnel wounds all over his body in the attack. “I was covered in blood. My son was unhurt, but he was terrified – he thought I was dead and was screaming for help.”

Six or seven other civilians were wounded in the attack, another witness said. He and Mahmoud did not know the government’s intended target.

Most witnesses said that at the time of government attacks, the Free Syrian Army was manning checkpoints and conducting patrols in their neighborhoods. International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to take all feasible steps to avoid placing civilians under their control at risk and not to deploy their forces unnecessarily in densely populated areas.The Free Syrian Army should endeavor to remove civilians from the vicinity of its forces and other potential military targets, Human Rights Watch said. At the same time, government forces are obligated to consider the harm to civilians if they attack populated areas in which Free Syrian Army forces are located.

The laws of war prohibit attacks that do not distinguish between military targets and civilians, or attacks on military targets in which the anticipated harm to civilians is disproportionate to the anticipated military advantage. The government’s use of heavy artillery with a wide blast radius and other indirect-fire weapons without adequate spotters against military targets in populated areas raise serious concerns about indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch’s investigation found no evidence to support Syrian government claims that Free Syrian Army forces are preventing civilians from fleeing Aleppo. To the contrary, all of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that FSA soldiers had encouraged them to leave the areas under attack, and helped them to flee the city by providing cars, gasoline, and advice on safe routes.

International humanitarian law also prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” against anyone in custody, including captured combatants and civilians. Human Rights Watch is investigating reports of extrajudicial and summary executions by both government and opposition forces during the recent fighting in Aleppo.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Aleppo and neighboring towns. Residents and displaced people in the area are experiencing serious shortages of electricity, gas, potable water, bread, and other necessities, such as baby formula and milk, Human Rights Watch said. Field hospitals in Aleppo and nearby villages lack equipment and supplies to give the wounded medical care.

In four towns and villages in northern Aleppo province visited by Human Rights Watch, displaced people, many of them women and children, had received no assistance, aside from the minimal aid provided by local residents. They were staying in empty houses or schools, many without mattresses, blankets and other necessities.

Human Rights Watch called on all parties to the conflict to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid by the United Nations and other agencies to internally displaced persons in need of help. Under international humanitarian law, all parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartially distributed humanitarian aid.

“All sides should make sure that the displaced people in northern Aleppo get the aid they urgently need,” Neistat said. “People fleeing the fighting are desperate for medicine, food and basic supplies.”

Accounts of Civilian Casualties in Aleppo Province:

Tel Rifat Bombing: 9 in Family Killed
Eight witnesses from Tel Rifat, a town about 40 kilometers north of Aleppo, described to Human Rights Watch how government forces continually shelled and launched aerial attacks on the town on August 7 and 9. At around 7 a.m. on August 7, they said, government forces shelled Tel Rifat from the nearby Menneg airport. In 30 minutes, about 40 artillery shells were fired into the town. At the same time, two MiG fighter jets delivered six munitions in the direction of the school where the local opposition administration, a court, and small detention facility were located, guarded by a few armed men. The munitions did not strike the school but hit a house across the street, killing nine members of the Blaw family. Two witnesses described the scene at the home. One of them said:

It was a house of my neighbors, the Blaw family. When we came, the house was a pile of rubble. It took us three hours to get the trucks and start taking the people out. It was impossible at first to tell how many were inside—they were blown apart into small pieces. There were several small children, with hands and legs torn off, and heads so distorted, it was impossible to recognize them. Fatma Blaw [a daughter] was still alive—we rushed her to a hospital in Turkey, but her injuries were too serious and the doctors couldn’t save her. Her two brothers, parents, and four other children died on the spot, but it took us awhile to collect their remains. I’ve never seen anything so horrible.

Some FSA fighters were sleeping in another school nearby, witnesses said, and they might have been the intended target. One munition hit that school but witnesses did not report any wounded or killed fighters.

Other witnesses from Tel Rifat said that the shelling continued in town the following night and during the day on August 9, causing hundreds of residents to flee to Turkey.

Akhtarin Bombing: at Least 7 Civilians Wounded
“Mahmoud,” 47, sustained multiple shrapnel wounds all over his body when a MiG fighter jet bombed a street in the village of Akhtarin, in Aleppo’s countryside. Mahmoud, who is undergoing medical treatment in Turkey, told Human Rights Watch that on August 8 he went with his 15-year-old son to buy food before the evening meal. He said:

Suddenly, we saw an airplane. It was flying above us, and most people immediately fled to their homes. Our house was far away, so we had nowhere to escape. I heard an enormous blast and saw a big flash in front of my eyes, metal flying around, and I fell on the ground in pain. I was all covered in blood. My son was unhurt, but he was terrified – he thought I was dead and was screaming for help.

Another witness from the village, who brought Mahmoud to a field hospital in a nearby village and then across the border to Turkey, told Human Rights Watch that the hole in the ground from the munition was 3 meters deep and the impact radius was more than 50 meters (he found Mahmoud about 50 meters from where the bomb exploded). He said the same blast injured another six or seven people and destroyed two nearby houses.