Buildings destroyed by explosive weapons in the Ramouseh neighborhood of eastern Aleppo, Syria.

© 2019 AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
 

The Syrian government’s elite special mission force opened fire on older women as they prepared to flee from advancing troops in western Aleppo, media reports suggest. Video recordings reportedly obtained by the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph newspaper show the older women gathering their belongings and preparing to escape when they appear to come under attack.

The Telegraph also said it had access to intercepted radio transmissions of the soldiers’ communication before and during the attack. The newspaper reported one of the soldiers as saying: “She looks elderly. It’s clear she’s coming to pack her belongings, then she’s leaving.” Another replies, “I am watching them. They are about to enter a house. Go! I am firing now, fire, fire!”

In the first two weeks of February alone, more than 100 civilians were killed by the Syrian-Russian military alliance in the course of their offensive on Idlib and western Aleppo, according to the United Nations.

If confirmed, a Syrian army attack on local residents trying to flee violence would belie the claims by the Syrian and Russian governments that their offensives solely target fighters.  

It would also be a disturbing case of targeting older women in conflict, a tactic which the UN has found is used by armed groups in other contexts to forcibly displace communities. For example, a May 2019 report found that in 2018, armed groups in South Sudan targeted older women, among other groups, with sexual violence in order to force entire communities from their homes.

International humanitarian law requires the safe removal of older people from besieged areas to safety zones. Any attack targeting civilians violates international humanitarian law and may be prosecuted as a war crime. Syria’s civilians have already suffered terribly during the country’s nine-year conflict, and its soldiers should not add the needless targeting of older people to the terrible list of crimes that its people have endured.