Site of a car bomb explosion in the Abbasiyah neighborhood of Homs, Syria, on April 29, 2014.

(New York) – Opposition armed groups in Syria have indiscriminately attacked civilians in government-held territory with car bombs, mortars, and rockets, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The attacks have killed and maimed hundreds of civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure in violation of the laws of war.

The 79-page report, “‘He Didn’t Have to Die’: Indiscriminate Attacks by Syrian Opposition Groups,” documents scores of attacks in heavily populated, government-controlled areas in Damascus and Homs between January 2012 and April 2014, and which continue into 2015. The findings are based primarily on victim and witness accounts, on-site investigations, publicly available videos, and information on social media sites.

“We’ve seen a race to the bottom in Syria with rebel groups mimicking the ruthlessness of government forces with devastating consequences for civilians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Civilians are paying the price, be it in government or rebel-held areas, with an inadequate international response.”

Human Rights Watch documented seventeen car bombings and other improvised explosive device attacks in Jaramana, Damascus countryside, one in central Damascus, six in the Homs neighborhoods of al-Zahra and Akrama, and one in the village of Thabtieh in the Homs countryside. Many of these areas have a high concentration of religious minorities, including Christians, Druze, Shias, and Alawites, who are sometimes perceived to be supporting the government.

The car bombings took place in commercial and residential areas, town centers, and in one case at a cemetery during a funeral. In several instances, two bombs exploded, one shortly after the other, in an apparent attempt to maximize deaths and injuries.

Car bombings have continued, including a twin bombing on October 1 just outside an elementary school in Akrama, Homs that media reports said killed dozens of civilians, mostly children.

In all of the car bomb attacks Human Rights Watch investigated, witnesses said there were no Syrian government military targets anywhere near the site. Besides being indiscriminate, many of these attacks seemed primarily intended to spread terror among the civilian population. No armed group claimed responsibility for most of the car bombings, though the extremist Islamist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for 10 of the 25 attacks documented in the report.

Armed groups opposed to the government also frequently fired mortars, locally-made rockets, and other artillery into Damascus and its environs and Homs, in apparently indiscriminate attacks that caused numerous civilian casualties. Among hundreds of such attacks on Jaramana, at least six struck at or near schools that were full of children, two hit aid and shelter facilities, and four hit central residential areas.

In Homs, armed opposition groups often shelled populated areas under government control. Although they frequently assert in public statements that they are attacking government forces, interviews with witnesses and visits to attack sites uncovered no evidence of military targets in the vicinity, which would make them indiscriminate and possibly deliberate attacks against civilians.

Some armed opposition groups have indicated in public statements that all means are legitimate to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad, saying that those living in areas under government control may be attacked in retaliation for attacks on civilians in opposition areas, and that populations perceived as associated with or supporting the government are subject to attack.

Such arguments carry no validity under the laws of war. Regardless of the violations committed by Syrian government forces and pro-government militias, which Human Rights Watch has long documented, opposition armed groups are obligated to abide by the laws of war. Respect for the law does not depend on reciprocity – that law only need to be obeyed if the other side does so – but each party to the conflict has its own obligation to act in accordance with the law regardless of the other side’s actions.

All warring parties, including rebel groups, are prohibited from conducting attacks that deliberately target civilians, that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, and that cause civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military gain. Individuals who plan, order, or carry out unlawful attacks with criminal intent, including as a matter of command responsibility, are subject to prosecution for war crimes.

In February 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2139 demanding that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas.” Yet the unlawful attacks by all parties to the conflict in Syria continue. The Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and impose an arms embargo on forces credibly implicated in widespread or systematic serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

All parties to the conflict should end all deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against civilians. Influential supporters, including political and religious leaders in Syria and abroad, should condemn all sides for unlawful attacks. Governments and individuals that provide military assistance to belligerents that commit widespread or systematic serious violations of the laws of war risk being complicit in those abuses – and should end their assistance.

“With both sides ignoring the Security Council resolution condemning indiscriminate attacks, the council needs to take stronger steps to punish those committing war crimes,” Houry said.

Witness Statements
“I stumbled on a torn-off hand on the way. People closest to the car were all in pieces. Then I saw my father’s body on the ground. It was intact, but there was an injury – a hole – on the left side of his chest. His leg was broken, sticking out at an angle. I tried to clean his face and embraced him. I felt his last breath.” – Hani, describing the November 28, 2012 car bombing in Jaramana that killed his father and brother (November 2013).

“I heard a low sound, I thought I was dreaming, then I felt the cement shaking, in a fraction of a second I was squeezed in between the rooftop and the floor… I realized that the small girl [my daughter] that was sleeping next to us died… I didn’t want to go to the hospital before I made sure everybody is alright, but they forced me…in the hospital I waited for them to come one after the other, hoping one of them would come in alive. But nobody did.” – Father describing the death of his wife and children in a suicide attack with an explosive-filled truck on November 4, 2013, in Thabtieh, Homs countryside (November 2013).

“Mona was just finishing kindergarten and preparing to start school. We were talking about buying school supplies the following day. I don’t remember what happened, but when I woke up I was in the hospital and they told me that Mona had died.” – Mother describing a rocket attack on June 5, 2013, in Akrama, Homs (November 2013).

“I was watching TV, my daughter was playing on the computer and my wife was sitting on the floor in the middle of the room when the rocket hit. I was conscious, shouting, but I couldn’t move because of the debris on top of me.” – Hady, describing a September 9, 2013 rocket attack in Akrama, Homs in which he, his son, 9, and his daughter, 28, were injured (November 2013).