HRW: Aer­ial Attacks Strike Civil­ians in Syria

59 Unlaw­ful Attacks Doc­u­mented in North­ern Syria

(Aleppo)  – The Syr­ian Air Force has repeat­edly car­ried out indis­crim­i­nate, and in some cases delib­er­ate, air strikes against civil­ians. These attacks are seri­ous vio­la­tions of inter­na­tional human­i­tar­ian law (the laws of war), and peo­ple who com­mit such vio­la­tions with crim­i­nal intent are respon­si­ble for war crimes.


The 80-​page report, “Death from the Skies: Delib­er­ate and Indis­crim­i­nate Air Strikes on Civil­ians,” is based on vis­its to 50 sites of gov­ern­ment air strikes in opposition-​controlled areas in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia gov­er­norates, and more than 140 inter­views with wit­nesses and vic­tims. The air strikes Human Rights Watch doc­u­mented killed at least 152 civil­ians. Accord­ing to a net­work of local Syr­ian activists, air strikes have killed more than 4,300 civil­ians across Syria since July 2012.

“In vil­lage after vil­lage, we found a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion ter­ri­fied by their country’s own air force,” said Olé Solvang, a Human Rights Watch emer­gen­cies researcher who vis­ited the sites and inter­viewed many of the vic­tims and wit­nesses. “These ille­gal air strikes killed and injured many civil­ians and sowed a path of destruc­tion, fear, and displacement.”

Media reports, YouTube videos, and infor­ma­tion from oppo­si­tion activists show that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has con­ducted air strikes all over Syria on a daily basis since July 2012.

Through the on-​site inves­ti­ga­tions and inter­views, Human Rights Watch gath­ered infor­ma­tion that indi­cates gov­ern­ment forces delib­er­ately tar­geted four bak­eries where civil­ians were wait­ing in bread­lines a total of eight times, and hit other bak­eries with artillery attacks. Repeated aer­ial attacks on two hos­pi­tals in the areas Human Rights Watch vis­ited strongly sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment also delib­er­ately tar­geted these facil­i­ties. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s vis­its to the two hos­pi­tals they had been attacked a total of seven times.

In addi­tion to the attacks on the bak­eries and hos­pi­tals, Human Rights Watch con­cluded in 44 other cases that air strikes were unlaw­ful under the laws of war. Syr­ian forces used means and meth­ods of war­fare, such as unguided bombs dropped by high-​flying heli­copters, that under the cir­cum­stances could not dis­tin­guish between civil­ians and com­bat­ants, and thus were indiscriminate.

In the strikes Human Rights Watch inves­ti­gated, despite high civil­ian casu­al­ties, dam­age to oppo­si­tion head­quar­ters and other pos­si­ble mil­i­tary struc­tures was min­i­mal. As far as Human Rights Watch could estab­lish, there were no casu­al­ties among oppo­si­tion fight­ers.

For exam­ple, a jet dropped two bombs on the town of Akhtarin in north­ern Aleppo at around 1 p.m. on Novem­ber 7, 2012, destroy­ing three houses and killing seven civil­ians, includ­ing five chil­dren. The strike injured another five chil­dren, all under 5. Human Rights Watch iden­ti­fied a pos­si­ble mil­i­tary tar­get in the vicin­ity, a build­ing about 50 meters away that was used by oppo­si­tion fight­ers at the time. This build­ing was only lightly dam­aged in a sub­se­quent attack, how­ever.

A neigh­bor who rushed to the site after the attack told a Human Rights Watch researcher who vis­ited the area:

It was tragic. The build­ings had turned into a heap of rub­ble. We started pulling peo­ple out using just our hands and shov­els. A cup­board and a wall had fallen on the chil­dren. They were still alive when we found them, but they died before we could take them to their uncle’s house. There is no clinic or med­ical cen­ter here.

In addi­tion to the attacks on bak­eries and hos­pi­tals, some attacks doc­u­mented by Human Rights Watch, par­tic­u­larly those in which there was no evi­dence of a valid mil­i­tary tar­get in the vicin­ity, may have delib­er­ately tar­geted civil­ians, but more infor­ma­tion is needed to reach that con­clu­sion, Human Rights Watch said.

The government’s use of unlaw­ful means of attack has also included clus­ter muni­tions, weapons that have been banned by most nations because of their indis­crim­i­nate nature. Human Rights Watch has doc­u­mented gov­ern­ment use of more than 150 clus­ter bombs in 119 loca­tions since Octo­ber 2012. Human Rights Watch also doc­u­mented that the gov­ern­ment used incen­di­ary weapons, which should, at a min­i­mum, be banned in pop­u­lated areas.

The oblig­a­tion to min­i­mize harm to the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion applies to all par­ties to a con­flict. The Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) and other Syr­ian armed oppo­si­tion groups did not take all fea­si­ble mea­sures to avoid deploy­ing forces and struc­tures such as head­quar­ters in or near densely pop­u­lated areas. How­ever, an attack­ing party is not relieved from the oblig­a­tion to take into account the risk to civil­ians from an attack on the grounds that the defend­ing party has located mil­i­tary tar­gets within or near pop­u­lated areas.

Human Rights Watch was able to visit only sites in opposition-​controlled areas in north­ern Syria because the gov­ern­ment has denied Human Rights Watch access to the rest of the coun­try. While fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion is needed, inter­views with wit­nesses and vic­tims of air strikes in other parts of the coun­try indi­cate that a sim­i­lar pat­tern of unlaw­ful attacks have taken place there.

Human Rights Watch believes this report should gal­va­nize inter­na­tional efforts to end delib­er­ate, indis­crim­i­nate, and dis­pro­por­tion­ate air strikes and other attacks on civil­ians, includ­ing all use of clus­ter muni­tions, bal­lis­tic mis­siles, incen­di­ary weapons, and explo­sive weapons with wide-​area effects in pop­u­lated areas. The infor­ma­tion we have gath­ered should also assist those seek­ing to bring the per­pe­tra­tors of these crimes to jus­tice.

In addi­tion, Human Rights Watch calls on gov­ern­ments and com­pa­nies to imme­di­ately stop sell­ing or sup­ply­ing weapons, ammu­ni­tion, and mate­r­ial to Syria, given com­pelling evi­dence that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ting crimes against human­ity, until Syria stops com­mit­ting these crimes. The inter­na­tional com­mu­nity should in par­tic­u­lar press Iraq to ver­ify that no arms from Rus­sia or Iran for Syria are pass­ing through its ter­ri­tory, and to that end allow inde­pen­dent, third-​party mon­i­tors to inspect con­voys and air­planes cross­ing Iraqi land or air­space and bound for Syria.

“The Secu­rity Coun­cil, largely due to the Russ­ian and Chi­nese veto, has failed to take any mean­ing­ful steps to help pro­tect civil­ians in Syria,” Solvang said. “But that should not stop con­cerned gov­ern­ments from step­ping up their own efforts to press the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to end these violations.”

Source: Human Rights Watch– April 102013

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