Update December 13, 2021: After publication, Human Rights Watch interviewed a knowledgeable source who said he observed at least seven large-caliber artillery shells being fired into Ariha on October 20 at 8 a.m.. He said they had been fired from a location where he had seen forces from the Syrian army’s 11th and 14th divisions located.
(Beirut) – The Syrian-Russian military alliance fired at least 14 large-caliber artillery shells into the town of Ariha in Idlib governorate on October 20, 2021, killing 12 civilians and injuring 24, Human Rights Watch said today. The apparent lack of military targets in the areas that were hit, amid homes, stores, schools, and markets, highly suggests an indiscriminate attack.
Russia has been fighting in Syria in partnership with Syrian armed forces since September 2015. In March 2020 Turkey and Russia agreed to a ceasefire for all warring parties in the northwest Idlib governorate, currently under the control of antigovernment armed groups, some of which are loosely tied to Turkey. Small-scale attacks have continued despite the ceasefire but the attack in Ariha was among those with the largest civilian casualties.
“Syria and Russia appear to have violated the laws of war with deadly consequences for civilians there,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Once again, Idlib’s children are victim to callous and unlawful military actions.”
The attack on Ariha, home to roughly 30,000 people, began minutes after two improvised explosive devices detonated in Damascus at 6:45 a.m., targeting a military bus and killing 14 people. An armed group in the Damascus area, Saraya Qassioun, claimed the attack several hours later.
Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed eight people who witnessed the Ariha attack, including one wounded in it, three who had family members who were wounded or killed, one rescue worker, and one healthcare worker who treated the victims. It analyzed 52 videos and 64 photographs taken during and just after the attacks and uploaded to social media platforms or shared directly with it. Human Rights Watch also provided a summary of its findings and questions about the attack to the Syrian and Russian governments but has not received a response.
Dr. Waseem Bakir, head of the Medical Community Committee in Ariha, shared the names of 12 civilians, including 4 children, who were killed in the attack, and the 24 injured civilians, including 6 children.
Three of the witnesses said they heard nearby artillery exchanges between the Syrian-Russian alliance and anti-government forces that day around 7 a.m., and later heard from neighbors that the exchanges had occurred in Ma’rzafa village, five kilometers east of Ariha, where they said the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has a presence.
The first artillery strike in Ariha hit about one hour later. Based on the reviewed videos and photographs, Human Rights Watch documented five impact sites in the center of town, all within an 0.77 square kilometer area. These shells fell near schools, markets, and a chicken slaughterhouse and damaged two buildings. Witnesses said the shells hit near a health clinic. Human Rights Watch documented 14 detonations in the town, most of them within a few minutes of one another.
The attacks took place when children were going to school. A local Education Ministry employee said that shells landed in direct proximity to seven schools, which together serve about 3,800 children. Ariha currently has 21 schools with roughly 260 staff and 6,600 students.
One of the people killed in the attack was a teacher, Qamar al-Hafidh, 28, who died near the Abdul al-Hamid Ghanimi school for girls (also known as Banat Ariha school), where she taught, the Education Ministry employee said. Three of the children killed and one of the wounded were on their way to school at the time of the attack.
Artillery shells also hit a vegetable market and the town’s main market, which was supported by the United Nations, damaging at least five market stalls and destroying parts of a multi-story building and the top floor of another. A shell also hit near a health clinic, the al-Ameen Health Center, killing Zakaria Bizee, 65, who was walking to his mother’s house to have breakfast, his brother said. “The area was calm for months and I don’t know why they targeted us,” said the brother, who is now taking care of Zakaria’s four children.
One shell detonated next to the chicken slaughterhouse, killing a man who worked there, Mahmoud al-Sarih, 28, al-Sarih’s brother said. Al-Sarih’s cousin, who also worked at the factory and was wounded in the attack, said that he, al-Sarih, and at least five others were there when the attack on Ariha started. He said al-Sarih went outside to get internet reception so he could receive news of the ongoing attack when the artillery shell hit.
“The blast pressure threw me up against the wall,” said the cousin. “For several moments I couldn’t see anything through the dust and didn’t know what had happened to me. Finally, I was able to make it outside to see what happened to the others. I found Mahmoud dead, alongside a boy who was only 16 called Ibrahim. It was Ibrahim’s first day working at the store next door.”
The brother said: “When I got home, I found Mahmoud’s body already in the ambulance. I wanted to see him one last time but when I looked, I saw his face all smashed up.”
The seven witnesses interviewed all said they were not aware of any military targets in the vicinity of the six impact sites at the time of the attacks. No military personnel or equipment are visible in the videos and photographs of the five sites that Human Rights Watch reviewed.
The attack in Ariha fits a pattern of unlawful Syrian and Russian attacks that kill civilians. In September, Human Rights Watch documented 46 air and ground attacksdocumented 46 Syrian-Russian attacks across Idlib in the 11-months prior to the ceasefire, including the use of cluster munitions, that killed at least 224 civilians and wounded 561. Based on interviews and analysis of satellite imagery, photographs, and videos, it found that the Syrian and Russian armed forces’ repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib were apparent war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity. Three of the 46 attacks occurred in Ariha.
An end to the ceasefire and resumption of fighting would expose civilians to more unlawful attacks, possibly triggering further mass displacement with catastrophic humanitarian consequences, Human Rights Watch said. Displaced people could try to cross Syria’s northern border, where Turkish forces have previously pushed back, shot, and forcibly returned people fleeing the conflict in violation of international law.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires all warring parties to direct attacks on military objectives, and to avoid harming civilians or civilian objects. Attacks in which there are no evident military target, that are indiscriminate, or that cause civilian harm disproportionate to the anticipated military gain, are unlawful. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as munitions with a large destructive radius, and those that are inherently inaccurate, should be avoided in populated areas where their effects foreseeably extend beyond discrete targets. The manner in which the 14 large-caliber artillery shells were used in the latest Ariha attack, hitting near stores, homes, and schools, falls under this category.
Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly documented the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and the devastating effects they have for civilians and on civilian infrastructure, including by causing deaths and injuries, damaging or destroying schools, hospitals, and affecting access to livelihoods. Warring parties should refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas because of the foreseeable indiscriminate harm to civilians. Countries should support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commit to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Given the current deadlock within the United Nations Security Council, individual governments and regional blocs should, as an interim solution, impose targeted sanctions on civilian and military commanders credibly implicated in ongoing war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations, including Russian commanders. Concerned governments should ensure that their criminal justice authorities can investigate and prosecute criminal cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction against commanders and officials implicated in war crimes, including as a matter of command responsibility.
“All parties should redouble efforts to protect civilians in the 10-year Syria conflict,” Wille said. “Other governments should use their influence and the legal, economic, and political tools at their disposal to stand up for civilians in Idlib and to avoid a humanitarian crisis.”
For more details including on one specific area affected by the attack, please see below.
Human Rights Watch analyzed four videos recorded from balconies and rooftops in Ariha showing artillery shells hitting various parts of the town on the morning of October 20. One video, sent directly to researchers, was recorded from the roof of a residential building that overlooks a school in the southern part of Ariha. It shows plumes of smoke coming from two locations in the town center. Seventeen seconds into the video an alarm goes off and a few seconds later a shell hits another location in the center. Approximately 25 seconds after that another shell detonates near the first shell seen in the video.
Other videos recorded from further away captured the sound of large-caliber projectiles fired by artillery systems with rifled barrels and their detonation upon impact. Given the size and scale of the blast, and fragmentation damage apparent in videos and photographs at each attack location, the munitions used in these attacks were consistent with 152mm high-explosive/fragmentation artillery projectiles. The Syrian-Russian alliance has frequently used this type of cannon artillery and ammunition in recent months. Other attacks by the Syrian government or Russian forces in Idlib with 152mm class cannon artillery systems have used Russian-made Krasnopol laser-guided projectiles, including strikes on the villages of Taftanaz and Afes on November 13, based on reports by the Syria Civil Defence (SDC), commonly known as the White Helmets.
Based on the reviewed videos and photographs and the evidence of victims and witnesses, Human Rights Watch documented six attack sites in Ariha on October 20, including the strike near the school.
The Strike Near at Abdul al-Hamid Ghanimi (Banat Ariha) School
Twin brothers Omar and Ali Abd al-A’al al-Aboud, 10, had breakfast at home with their older brother, Abdullah, and left for school just before 8 a.m. on October 20, Abdullah said. Along the way, the first artillery shells hit Ariha and the boys sought shelter in an appliance store that shared a wall with the Abdul al-Hamid Ghanimi school.
CCTV footage from inside the store, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, shows Omar, Ali, and six other people inside, five children and three adults. A man, identified by witnesses and from the list of victims as Hasoon Hussein Khadija, is holding the hand of his daughter, Zahra Hasoon Hussein, and pulling her to the back of the store. Two other men and a boy are standing at the front of the shop and two children are walking toward them when a shell explodes outside.
The time stamp on the video when the shell hit shows October 20, 2021, at 09:05:28 a.m. This time is inconsistent with witness reports, metadata from other videos, and the time stamp in a CCTV video from a nearby store, all of which place the time of this attack at around 8 a.m. The discrepancy is likely due to the time set incorrectly in this CCTV camera’s settings. Based on videos of the explosion, damage to the shop’s exterior, and debris on the ground, the impact was likely on the street a few meters from the shop and the school wall.
As the dust and debris settle, the CCTV camera captures Omar and another boy lying motionless on the ground, and Ali holding his right leg as he drags himself to the back of the store. Khadija and his daughter run out of the store. The other people in the store cannot be seen. Video recorded outside by the SDC shows rescue workers carrying the bodies of Omar and a second boy, to a nearby ambulance.
Omar and Ali’s older brother said he was worried about his brothers from the moment the shelling began, but it was too unsafe to leave the house. “A few minutes later, I got a call and they told me that Omar and Ali were wounded … Omar passed away and Ali lost his right leg,” he said.
Witnesses said that Khadija, who was holding his daughter’s hand in the store, died. His name appears on the list of victims from the attack and Human Rights Watch obtained a video recorded by the SDC that shows rescue workers carrying his body into an ambulance. Khadija is wearing a distinctive plaid shirt and has injuries to the right side of his abdomen, consistent with where he was standing in the store when the shell struck.
His daughter apparently suffered minor injuries. A photograph posted on Twitter and sent directly to researchers shows her in the hospital right after the attack with cuts to her hands and face.
The SDC footage also shows two other deceased men, one outside the store and the other being carried into the ambulance. Their names are not known. Another boy, who was visible at the back of the store in the CCTV footage, is seen in the SDC footage running out of the store with no apparent injuries.
Omar and Ali’s brother said the family had been displaced from Maarat al-Nu`man, a town also in Idlib governorate that had frequently come under attack and moved to Ariha in 2019. “We were happy that children could go back to school but never thought that they would never come back,” he said.