April 11, 2013


Since late July 2012, Syrian government forces have carried out air strikes from fighter jets and helicopters against cities, towns, and neighborhoods under the control of opposition forces. These attacks have killed more than 4,300 civilians according to one Syrian group documenting casualties, injured thousands of people, and destroyed civilian property and infrastructure in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Deir al-Zor, Damascus, Dar`a, Homs, Raqqa, and other governorates.

In this report, Human Rights Watch documents 59 unlawful attacks, the sites of which we were able to visit. These attacks include deliberate attacks against civilians and indiscriminate attacks—that is air strikes that did not or could not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Both types of attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war).Human Rights Watch has found that the Syrian Air Force appears to have carried out indiscriminate air strikes with knowledge of their indiscriminate effect.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war willfully—that is intentionally or recklessly—are responsible for war crimes. Syrian government air strikes that have deliberately or indiscriminately killed civilians appear to be part of systematic and widespread attacks against the civilian population that Human Rights Watch previously found amount to crimes against humanity.

This report is based on field investigations conducted in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia governorates in August, October and December 2012. Researchers visited 52 sites of government air strikes—some sites had been attacked more than once—in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia governorates, and witnessed some of the attacks firsthand; they interviewed more than 140 witnesses and victims of the attacks during site visits, by phone, and in camps for refugees and displaced persons in Syria or in neighboring countries, and four defectors from the Syrian Air Force. Attacks on sites visited by Human Rights Watch killed 152 civilians. Human Rights Watch has also included several attacks that we documented through interviews with firsthand witnesses and review of photo and video material, but the sites of which we were not able to visit.

The attack sites examined by Human Rights Watch were in towns and villages controlled by the opposition. Most of the towns and villages had been under opposition control for weeks or months and had seen no recent ground fighting at the time of the attacks.

While government forces carried out sporadic air strikes starting March 2012, regular air strikes against opposition-controlled towns started in late July. The exact number of civilian deaths caused by these attacks is difficult to verify. According to the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian monitoring group working in coordination with a network of Syrian opposition activists called the Local Coordination Committees, 4,472 people, most of them civilian, had died as a result of the air strikes between July 2012 and March 22, 2013. The actual number of casualties is probably higher given the difficulties of documentation.

Human Rights Watch gathered information that indicates government forces deliberately targeted bakeries and civilians waiting in breadlines in air strikes as well as in artillery attacks. For this report Human Rights Watch documented in detail eight aerial attacks on four bakeries. For each of these attacks, Human Rights Watch was not able to identify any military target, such as fighters or weapons, in the vicinity. According to the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a local opposition group, Syrian forces have attacked 78 bakeries across Syria, either by air strikes or artillery shelling.

Repeated attacks on two hospitals in the areas visited by Human Rights Watch strongly suggest that the government deliberately targeted these facilities. In Aleppo city, jets launched at least eight attacks on or near a clearly marked hospital, Dar al-Shifa hospital, in the span of four months, and eventually destroyed significant parts of the building so that the hospital could no longer function. Even if opposition fighters were in or near the hospital in Aleppo city, as some information indicates, the hospital should not have been attacked without warning. Moreover, the attacks would have caused disproportionate loss of civilian life compared to any expected military gain, a violation of the laws of war. In Salma in Latakia governorate, helicopters repeatedly dropped improvised aerial bombs in the vicinity of a makeshift hospital, eventually destroying it on October 5, 2012, in what also appears to have been a deliberate attack on a hospital.

In addition to the attacks on the bakeries and hospitals, Human Rights Watch concluded in 44 other cases that air strikes were unlawful under the laws of war. Syrian forces used means (e.g. unguided bombs) and methods (e.g. fighter jets, high-flying helicopters) of warfare that under the circumstances could not distinguish between civilians and combatants, and thus were indiscriminate. In the strikes Human Rights Watch investigated, despite high civilian casualties, damage to opposition headquarters and other structures was minimal and, as far as Human Rights Watch could establish, there were no casualties among opposition fighters. Some of these attacks, particularly in which there was no evidence of a valid military target, may have deliberately targeted civilians, but more information would be needed to reach that conclusion.

Four Syrian Air Force officers who defected told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian Air Force does not have the technology to identify and target specific military objectives in urban areas. They believed their commanders nonetheless ordered air strikes in cities and towns, in part to instill fear in the civilian population in opposition strongholds, and also to deprive the opposition of its support.

Human Rights Watch collected information through field visits, examination of video footage, and interviews with witnesses on dozens of attacks involving cluster munitions, weapons that have been banned by most nations because of their indiscriminate nature. Between July and December Human Rights Watch documented the Syrian armed forces use of air-dropped cluster munitions in populated areas in the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Homs, Latakia, and Damascus. An initial review of available information has identified at least 119 locations across Syria where at least 156 cluster bombs have been used since October, 2012, when there was a dramatic rise in the use of cluster munitions by the Syrian Air Force.

The obligation to minimize harm to the civilian population applies to all parties to a conflict. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Syrian armed opposition groups did not take all feasible measures to avoid deploying forces and structures such as headquarters in or near densely populated areas. For example, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were opposition fighters in or near the Dar al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo city, which might have led to repeated attacks on that hospital. However, an attacking party is not relieved from the obligation to take into account the risk to civilians from an attack, on the grounds that the defending party has located military targets within or near populated areas.

In 41 attacks documented in this report, Human Rights Watch identified possible targets, such as FSA bases, checkpoints or headquarters, within 50 to 400 meters of the strike, but the strikes often missed their presumed target, causing it limited, if any, damage. According to military experts, the Syrian Air Force has only unguided air-dropped munitions. These strikes killed scores of civilians and caused significant damage to civilian objects and infrastructure.

For example, in al-Bab, a town east of Aleppo city that Human Rights Watch visited, the Syrian Air Force launched several attacks in the vicinity of an FSA base in the southern part of the town on September 3, 2012. The jet first struck a residential building 100 meters south of the base, killing four members of the Said family. A second strike hit just to the north of the FSA base. The FSA base itself was never hit.

Another air strike on Azaz, a town close to the Syrian-Turkish border, on August 15 killed at least 34 civilians, and injured more than 100. Human Rights Watch examined the site about two hours after the attack and identified two FSA facilities that might have been the intended targets of the attack: the local FSA brigade headquarters, located 200-300 meters from the block that was hit, and an FSA prison, located 50-100 meters away. Neither of these facilities was damaged in the attack.

One Azaz resident from the Danoun family, “Ahmed,” told Human Rights Watch that the bombing killed at least 12 members of his family in their homes. When Human Rights Watch interviewed him several hours after the attack he believed that four other family members were still under the rubble. He said:

I was about 100 meters away from the house when I saw the airplane and heard the sound of the bombing and destruction. My three brothers lived here. I buried 12 of my family members today, including my father, my mother, and my sister—my brother’s wife as well. Walid, my brother, was cut into pieces. We didn’t recognize him at first. We buried my brothers’ children also. The youngest was 40 days old.

In many strikes documented in this report, remnants of the munitions and the extent of the destruction demonstrate that the Syrian Air Force used large, high-explosive munitions, sometimes destroying multiple houses in a single attack. Even if legitimately aimed at or striking a military target in a populated area, such weapons likely lead to considerable civilian casualties and civilian property destruction in the vicinity. While these weapons are not considered inherently indiscriminate, cases documented in this report suggest that the Syrian Air Force used them indiscriminately in populated areas. Human Rights Watch believes that, as a matter of policy, military commanders should not order the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians.

While the August 15 attack on Azaz cited above destroyed about 20 houses, Human Rights Watch was not able to establish the exact munitions used. However, the level of destruction indicates that the effects of the attack would have been so broad that, even if it had hit the presumed target, the effects would have rendered the attack indiscriminate. In other cases, Human Rights Watch was able to identify the munitions used. For example, one of the bombs used in several of the attacks documented by Human Rights Watch, the high explosive fragmentation bomb OFAB 250-270, has a casualty-producing radius of 155 meters, which means that it would likely lead to civilian casualties in populated areas even when it hits a military target.

Human Rights Watch also documented the use of incendiary weapons in five locations: al-Bab in Aleppo, Daraya in Damascus, Ma`rat al-Nu`man in Idlib, Babila in Damascus, and al-Quseir in Homs. At least three of the five attacks resulted in civilian injuries. Incendiary weapons can cause particularly cruel injuries to both civilians and combatants. They are also prone to being indiscriminate because they start fires and cause casualties over large areas without distinction. Human Rights Watch is advocating for stronger international restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons. A complete ban would have the greatest humanitarian impact, but at a minimum there should be no use of incendiary weapons in populated areas. 

The Syrian government rarely issues statements or comments on specific attacks by its air force. In the few cases when it has done so, the statements were general and vague, referring to attacks on “terrorists” and destruction of “terrorist headquarters,” without providing any further evidence or details. Where it was possible to match government statements with cases that we documented, Human Rights Watch found no evidence supporting the government claims, such as deaths of FSA soldiers in the attacks or destruction of military objects, with the exception of a government statement about the November 21 attack on a hospital in Aleppo city.

Ending the Killing of Civilians

Human Rights Watch hopes that this report will help galvanize international efforts to end the Syrian armed forces’ unlawful killing of civilians and to aid civilians at risk. The information we have gathered should also assist those seeking to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

All concerned governments should intensify their efforts to push Syria, and those with influence over Syria, to take immediate steps to end the killing of civilians in Syria.  In particular, they should press Syria to end deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate air strikes and other attacks on civilians, including all use of cluster munitions, ballistic missiles, incendiary weapons and explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.

In addition, all governments and companies should immediately stop selling or supplying weapons, ammunition and materiel to Syria, given compelling evidence that the Syrian government is committing crimes against humanity, until Syria stops committing these crimes. Arms sales and military assistance to the Syrian government may make the individuals involved complicit in these crimes. Governments and others should suspend any current dealings and stop signing new contracts with companies that are supplying such arms and materiel.

Governments should not permit the use of their national territory or airspace for the shipment to the Syrian government of arms, ammunition, and other materiel. The international community should call on Iraq in particular to do more to verify that no arms from Russia and Iran for Syria are passing through Iraq, including by allowing independent, third party monitors to inspect convoys and airplanes crossing Iraqi land or airspace and bound to Syria. The League of Arab States (LAS), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the UN General Assembly should actively encourage Iraq to accept this monitoring.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called upon the UN Security Council to take measures that would pressure the Syrian government to cease ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity and achieve some degree of accountability for these crimes. These measures include targeted sanctions on the Syrian leadership implicated in crimes, an arms embargo on the Syrian government, and the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Russia and China have opposed these measures. They vetoed three proposed Security Council resolutions on October 2011, February 2012, and July 2012 (the third under Chapter VII) intended to increase the pressure on the Syrian government to end abuses and begin a process of political transition by arguing that these resolutions would undermine political mediation efforts and have no positive influence on the government. They also argued that the resolutions did not do enough to acknowledge opposition abuses. These arguments failed to recognize the severity of the Syrian government’s unlawful actions, which to date has caused many of the 70,000 deaths in the country. Russia and China’s refusal to support even mild resolutions have paralyzed the Security Council, preventing it from taking action that would meet its responsibility to protect the Syrian people from serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Given Russia’s and China’s intransigence, there seems little hope that the Security Council will, in the short term, end this unconscionable abdication of its responsibility. That does not end the responsibility of other governments to redouble their efforts to break this deadlock and to at least take the steps outlined below.  In particular, the LAS, the OIC, and Russia and China’s partners in BRICS – India, Brazil and South Africa – should press Russia and China to take action, particularly on issues in which their inaction is most untenable, such as the need for UN cross-border delivery of aid to ease the humanitarian crisis in opposition-held parts of Syria.  Governments should greatly expand funding and assistance for such cross-border humanitarian aid by others if the UN is not authorized to act.

Governments should also press the Syrian armed opposition to protect civilians. In particular, the armed opposition should take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the risk of attack, avoid to the extent feasible deploying military forces in or near densely populated areas, and ensure the compliance of opposition forces with international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch has not taken a position on whether the international community should intervene with military force to protect civilians in Syria. As concerned states weigh the potential costs and benefits of such measures, they should at least act on the recommendations contained in this report.