Syria/Russia: Strategy Targeted Civilian Infrastructure

(Geneva, October 15, 2020) – The Syrian and Russian armed forces’ repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib in northwest Syria were apparent war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Dozens of unlawful air and ground strikes on hospitals, schools, and markets from April 2019 to March 2020 killed hundreds of civilians. The attacks seriously impaired the rights to health, education, food, water, and shelter, triggering mass displacement.

The 167-page report, “‘Targeting Life in Idlib’: Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure,” details abuses by Syrian and Russian armed forces during the 11-month military campaign to retake Idlib governorate and surrounding areas, among the last held by anti-government armed groups. The report examines the abusive military strategy in which the Syrian-Russian alliance repeatedly violated the laws of war against the 3 million civilians there, many displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country. It names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be implicated in war crimes as a matter of command responsibility: they knew or should have known about the abuses and took no effective steps to stop them or punish those responsible.





Since 2011, the war in Syria has devastated the country and left more than 400,000 people dead. 


In April 2019, the Syrian army and its ally, Russia, launched a military offensive to retake one of the last major areas controlled by anti-government armed groups — Idlib governorate and the surrounding areas.


Human Rights Watch spoke with dozens of witnesses, analyzed satellite imagery, verified over 550 photos and videos, and reviewed flight spotter logs to research and cross-reference details of the offensive.


We documented in detail 46 air and ground attacks by the Syrian-Russian alliance that damaged or destroyed schools, hospitals, and markets. The attacks killed and injured hundreds of civilians and forced thousands to flee their homes.


BELKIS WILLE, Human Rights Watch

Our research into these attacks revealed repeated violations of the laws of war and apparent war crimes, which might also amount to crimes against humanity. These violations were not one-off mistakes, in fact they might instead be part of a strategy by the Syrian and Russian militaries to target civilian life in Idlib to force civilians to leave.


This abusive strategy was successful in the town of Maarat al-Nu`man.


On October 3rd, 2019, one of only two functioning health clinics in the town was hit. 


Anyone injured?
Yes, injured!


Mahmoud al Mur

I was standing by the office door. There was a patient, a woman, in front of me.

I asked her, “[I hear] a sound, is it the sound of a shell?”

She said, “Yes, the sound of a shell in the distance.”

She hadn’t finished her sentence when shells started raining all around us in the clinic.

A woman, a patient, who was sitting in the dentist’s chair receiving treatment, was wounded. 


Out of all the alliance attacks we documented, we were able to attribute some specifically to Russian forces. On the afternoon of May 5th, 2019, an airstrike destroyed a hospital eight kilometers southwest of the town. 


To investigate the attacks, we studied the message logs from a network of observers who monitor aircraft movement in Syria. Minutes before the attack on the hospital, the flight spotters observed a Russian aircraft in the area.


One month later, on June 3, 2019, another Syrian-Russian alliance airstrike hit a marketplace in Maarat al-Nu`man.


To confirm location, we compared witness accounts with satellite images and video footage from the strike. The footage showed a water tower that we also identified in satellite imagery to confirm the exact location of the strike at the market. 


Warplanes are targeting the city of Maarat al-Nu`man.


One of the deadliest attacks we documented took place on July 22nd, 2019. A Russian airstrike hit market stalls and numerous buildings, killing 43 civilians and wounding 75.


The Russian military denied this attack took place and published misleading aerial photos from another market, 350 meters away, to substantiate its false claim.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia

Dear comrades, good afternoon. I sincerely congratulate all the servicemen of the Russian armed forces.


RICHARD WEIR, Human Rights Watch

Russia has been rotating its highest-ranking generals to lead its armed forces in Syria, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has himself followed these operations closely.


Despite repeated warnings and condemnations by United Nations officials and others throughout the Idlib offensive, the attacks on civilians continued. To this day, no one has been held accountable.


BELKIS WILLE, Human Rights Watch

The Syrian and Russian armies’ argument that they’re only targeting military objectives is patently false. We could not identify any military personnel, equipment or weaponry in the direct proximity of any of the attacks that we documented.


Mahmoud al Mur

Children’s schools are “military targets.”

Medical facilities are “military targets.”

Homes are “military targets.”

RICHARD WEIR, Human Rights Watch

Russia and China have repeatedly blocked attempts at the UN Security Council to empower the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria.


BELKIS WILLE, Human Rights Watch

Governments should impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes, on all those implicated in war crimes, including as a matter of command responsibility. States should also consider bringing to justice in their own courts Syrian and Russian officials responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Some 1.4 million people were displaced by the fighting in Idlib since early 2019. To deter future atrocities, governments need to show that there are serious consequences for those who use attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure as a military strategy.

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