(New York) – The United States and Russia should act on their recent commitment to investigate attacks with significant civilian casualties in Syria. In particular, they should open investigations in the May 5, 2016 airstrike on a camp for displaced people and killings of civilians by armed groups as they took a majority-Alawite village on May 12.
In a statement on May 9, the US and Russia promised to carry out a joint assessment of attacks in Syria “leading to significant civilian casualties” and to share the results with the members of the International Syria Support Group Ceasefire Task Force and the UN Security Council. The Security Council should then adopt measures to sanction and deter such violations, Human Rights Watch said.
“These recent attacks should be a test for the resolve of the US and Russia to put an end to the unlawful killing of civilians in Syria,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “The two countries should swiftly investigate them and make their findings public.”
Three airstrikes hit the Kamuna camp, which provided shelter to 4,500 displaced Syrians, at about 5 p.m. on May 5, four witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The camp is near Sarmada in northern Idlib province, five kilometers from Turkey’s increasingly impenetrable border. An independent humanitarian source in Turkey said that medics recovered 20 bodies, including two children, and that at least 37 people were injured, including 10 who lost one or more limbs and who were transferred to Turkey for medical care. Witnesses reported that there was nothing in the camp that would have made it an appropriate military target.
On May 12, armed opposition groups including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked and took over the Alawite-majority town of al-Zara in southern Hama countryside. Human Rights Watch was unable to reach anyone from al-Zara, but the Syrian state news agency SANA reported that the attack by opposition groups coming from nearby Homs took place in the early morning. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the armed groups killed 19 residents, including 6 women.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented abuses by armed groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra after gaining control of Alawite villages or towns, including the killing and seizing of hostages during a military offensive in rural Latakia in August 2013.
Deliberate or reckless attacks against civilians and civilian structures committed with criminal intent are war crimes. The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. Like other civilian structures, hospitals may not be targeted. Furthermore, they remain protected unless they are “used to commit hostile acts” that are outside their humanitarian function. Even then, they are only subject to attack after a warning has been given setting a reasonable time limit, and after such a warning has gone unheeded.
May 5 airstrikes on Kamuna camp
When the airstrikes hit the Kamuna camp, Fatema Qataini, 35, was in her tent with her four children. They had moved to the camp two months earlier to escape violence in Anadan, a town in the Aleppo countryside. She was injured in her head, chest, and stomach, and two of her children died. The other two were severely injured and taken to a hospital in Turkey. Human Rights Watch reached her by telephone in a hospital in Turkey:
I was sitting in my tent teaching my daughter how to read a verse from the Quran when the explosion hit. We didn’t hear anything, no planes or helicopters, all of a sudden there was dust and rocks flying all over the place and I saw my children fly in the air from the impact of the explosion. I was able to pick myself up and when I looked around I saw my son without a head and my daughter was also torn up with no limbs. The other two were bloody and looked dead so I left them where they were. I was shocked and I started to scream and scream and then lost consciousness. The next time I woke up I found myself in the hospital.
Seventeen-year old Fatema Tariq from Salheen in Aleppo’s countryside was in a hospital bed nearby and also spoke to Human Rights Watch over the phone from the hospital:
My mother and I were visiting a neighbor in their tent a bit further from where we were staying. We had just arrived to Kamuna that day from Salheen. It was our first day there. When the explosion hit, we didn’t hear planes or anything, but it was sudden and violent and there was dust blown up everywhere. I was able to get myself out of the tent but my mother was stuck and I had to pull her out from underneath the fallen tent. I hurt my arm in the attack but I didn’t feel anything until the rescue workers took me to the hospital.
Mustafa al-Hassan, the media spokesperson for Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer search and rescue organization that operates in opposition-controlled Syria and that responded to the attack, said that there were three strikes on the camp.
“The first and second strikes were inside the camp, and the third strike was just outside and came as soon as the rescue workers were doing their work,” he told Human Rights Watch. “There are lots of remains of bodies everywhere in the camp, and there were no military targets or armed groups inside the camp.”
Video shot by the Civil Defense group showed rescue workers putting out fires with hoses and smoke coming from damaged tents. The scorched belongings of camp residents were on the ground. Rescue workers are also seen putting injured people in ambulances, and remains of burned bodies are also visible.
The head of the Kamuna camp, Abdul Rahman Khalifah, said on May 9 that rescue workers were still collecting the remains of the dead.
“Most of the people have left the camp to find safety in neighboring villages or at the border,” Khalifah said. “The camp was filled with civilians, many women and children, who had fled violence in northern Aleppo.”
May 12 Attack on al-Zara
The Facebook page of a news channel, al-Khabar, said it interviewed a man who had escaped from al-Zara. The man said that he woke up to the sounds of heavy clashes between government and opposition group forces. He said he fled to the nearest village. Other people the network interviewed said that the opposition forces imprisoned a large number of townspeople, taking them to the town of Rastan, north of Homs.
Photos released by the Twitter account of the Operations Room of Homs Countryside, which coordinated the movements of the attacking armed groups, showed locations inside al-Zara that were taken by fighters as they entered the town. The Twitter account said that besides Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, the other armed groups taking part in the attack included Ahl al-Sunna wal Jama`a and Ajnad Homs.
A video released by the Operations Room showed a fighter in a room with many guns and a dead body on the floor as he claimed victory in of al-Zara and said that the next battles would be in Aleppo. The Operations Room also tweeted photos of three dead men whom they claimed were pro-government operatives. One tweet says that the opposition forces had killed “tens” of government forces and had taken prisoners.
A photo circulated on social media showing fighters over the bodies of two women. On May 13, the Operations Room twitter account issued a statement confirming the veracity of the photograph but stating that the women were shot because they were armed and had killed a fighter. They indicated that they did not approve of the way the fighters posed in the photo. The statement did not provide any information about the fate of any other residents of the town.