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Syria: Strong Coalition Message Against Targeting Civilians

Additional Action Needed on Kidnapping, Attacks on Civilians

(New York) – The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) sent a clear signal that targeting civilians violates the laws of war. The coalition’s statement on December 19, 2012, condemned attacks on civilians, regardless of their nationality.

The coalition should use its influence to help release civilians kidnapped by groups across Syria and condemn attacks on civilians when they occur, Human Rights Watch said. The opposition Free Syrian Army, which is not controlled by the coalition, should take immediate steps to prevent violations of the laws of war, including taking appropriate action against those responsible for serious violations.

“The SNC moved quickly and decisively to reject the idea that civilians can be targeted based on their nationality,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By saying clearly there is no legitimate excuse for targeting civilians, the National Coalition sent a strong message to opposition fighters that such attacks violate the laws of war and those responsible should be held accountable.”

The coalition’s statement publicly rejected statements that “promote targeting of Russian civilians.” In media interviews on December 18, Haytham Maleh, the head of the coalition’s legal committee, said that every citizen of a state that supports the Syrian government is a legitimate target, and noted that Russia is “fighting the Syrian people.” The coalition statement failed to mention that Iranian citizens should also be immune from attack, however, despite Maleh’s earlier statements suggesting that they too were legitimate targets.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applies to all parties to the armed conflict in Syria. A fundamental rule is that only military objectives may be attacked. Attacking civilians or making threats whose primary purpose is to spread terror among civilians is prohibited. Civilians may be subject to deliberate attack only while directly participating in hostilities, such as engaging in fighting or planning military operations.

People who commit or order serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes. Statements from officials that reflect adoption of an unlawful basis for attacks by military forces are evidence of war crimes because they show intent. The opposition Free Syrian Army is obligated to act to prevent violations of the laws of war and should take appropriate action against those responsible for serious violations.

Civilians from Russia and other countries believed to be supporting the Assad government have faced direct threats by Syrian opposition forces. An estimated 30,000 Russians live in Syria, many married to Syrians, a result of more than 50 years of close ties and cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries.

“The National Coalition should follow up its statement by taking concrete action to seek the release of kidnapped civilians,” Whitson said. “Public condemnation of attacks on civilians should be matched by efforts to hold those responsible for such crimes accountable.”

In October, armed groups abducted a Ukrainian journalist, Anhar Kochneva, accusing her of carrying weapons and supporting the Syrian military. Her captors issued a video on December 11 threatening Kochneva’s execution and saying, “Let no Russian, Ukrainian, or Iranian leave Syria alive.” Kochneva’s fate remains unknown.

Journalists, as civilians, should be protected from attack as long as they are not taking an active part in hostilities. Captured combatants must also be treated humanely and may not be executed.  Whether or not Kochneva was actively engaged in hostilities, armed groups should not be threatening her with execution or threatening other civilians on account of their nationality.

On December 17, unknown assailants abducted two Russian workers in Latakia, along with an Italian citizen. Interfax reported that all three men worked for a privately owned Syrian factory in Tartus.

On May 22, an armed opposition group operating in Azaz, Aleppo also kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shiites on a pilgrimage bus in Aleppo governorate. Nine of the kidnapped men are still being held. 

Human Rights Watch previously expressed concern about Free Syrian Army kidnappings of Iranian nationals, some of whom the group has confirmed are civilians. On January 26, the Al-Farouq battalion claimed responsibility  for capturing seven Iranian nationals, five of whom appeared in video footage  confessing to be members of the Iranian armed forces.

In an interview on February 22 with Human Rights Watch, the Al-Farouq battalion media coordinator said that they have detained two other Iranian civilians but only because no Persian speaker was available to confirm their civilian status. When asked why the civilians had not yet been released, since their civilian status had been confirmed, he would not comment.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented and condemned widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including extrajudicial executions  and other unlawful killings of civilians, enforced disappearances, use of torture, use of incendiary weapons, use of cluster munitions, and arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch has concluded that government forces have committed crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch has also documented extrajudicial and summary executions by opposition forces, torture and mistreatment in opposition-run detention facilities, and use of child soldiers by opposition forces. Opposition leaders have told Human Rights Watch that they will respect human rights and that they have taken measures to curb the abuses, but there is no evidence that they have taken concrete steps to end the violations and hold those responsible for abuses accountable.

The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, which would have jurisdiction to investigate violations by both government and opposition forces, Human Rights Watch said. Russia and China should support such a referral.

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