The government, opposition groups, and ISIL all escalated their use of force during the year. The OHCHR reported more than 200,000 persons had been killed since the start of the 2011 protests.
Killings: Regime killings and use of lethal tactics increased during the year. The government reportedly targeted members of opposition groups and the communities presumed to be sheltering them, human rights organizations, physicians, journalists, activists, artists, and pro-opposition scholars. The government also escalated its use of indiscriminate force, killing a high percentage of civilians, including children, in attacks on opposition targets. Such attacks resulted in the deaths of 32,507 persons, including 3,629 children; 131 medical professionals also were killed. The SNHR reported 1,993 persons died as a result of torture in government facilities, including 11 children and nine women. Additionally 152 children died due to insufficient food and medical supplies.
The regime continued its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling. In February the UN Security Council called on the regime to end the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs. HRW reported that between February and July, the regime used barrel bombs 650 times against Aleppo. According to the Syrian Violations Documentation Center, aerial bombings in Aleppo Governorate killed 1,655 civilians between February 22 and July 22.
According to a June 18 media report, a barrel bomb attack killed 20 persons, mostly women and children, in a refugee camp near the village of Shajra. HRW reported another June aerial bombing killed 50 civilians in Aleppo, with an additional 18 killed in other attacks on the same day.
On November 25, the regime carried out nine airstrikes in the city of Raqqa, resulting in 73 deaths, including seven children and three women, according to the SNHR.
The SNHR reported security forces used chemical weapons at least 26 times since the beginning of the year, including nine shells containing chlorine gas used against the village of Kafr Zeita between April 11 and May 22. An HRW report released in September documented persistent use of cluster munitions, identifying at least 249 instances of their deployment since mid-2012. According to the SNHR, the government used cluster munitions 83 times between January and September, killing 49 and injuring 450. Throughout the country progovernment snipers targeted individuals in the streets, including unarmed civilians as well as those affiliated with the opposition. In an October report, the SNHR documented the deaths of 5,307 persons, including 518 children and 641 women, from sniper fire by regime forces and associated militias since the start of the conflict. The SNHR noted snipers used religious sites, including minarets, to gain vantage points. The SNHR noted ISIL killed eight persons with sniper fire during the year.
Government forces also used rape as a war tactic, specifically during house raids and at checkpoints.
According to the COI, opposition groups also committed violations and abuses, although less so than government forces and affiliated militia. In 2012 several opposition commanders and brigades drafted and endorsed various codes of conduct in an effort to curb violations and killings; however, adherence to such standards was uneven.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) established a fact-finding mission that documented several instances, based on witness accounts and other evidence, of attacks using chlorine as a chemical weapon in April and May. Invariably, witnesses connected the release of toxic chemicals to helicopters flying overhead; only the regime used helicopters. Moreover, the mission noted alleged reports of similar chlorine attacks in August and September.
Progovernment militias, including Lebanese Hizballah, continued to carry out mass killings. According to the SNHR, Shiite militias perpetrated massacres in the Khnaser countryside in Aleppo. On February 22, a Shiite militia called the Abdulfadl al-Abbas forces took 26 young men from the cultural center building, accused them of being terrorists and “Yazidis,” lined them against a wall, and opened fire. The SNHR also reported witness testimony from a June 21 regime bombing in Rasm An-Nafl village, Aleppo, in which 192 civilians--including 27 children and 21 women--were killed. Activists and NGOs reported ISIL continued to engage in widespread and severe violations and abuses. In October the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported ISIL killed more than 650 persons in its offensive against Kobane near the Turkish border. ISIL attacks forced an estimated 150,000 residents of Kobane to flee, according to the SNHR. In October a video showed the Islamic Front shelling the primarily Shia villages of Nubl and Zahra.
According to the SNHR, ISIL killed a total of 3,557 persons during the year.
The Free Syrian Lawyers Association reported the discovery of mass graves in northeast Homs and the Hama countryside following ISIL’s departure from the area. The association also reported the executions of more than 100 members of the Ahrar al-Sham militia following ISIL’s capture of Raqqa City early in the year and the execution of dozens of members of Jabhat al-Nusra, in Shuheil, in Dayr al-Zawr, following its takeover by ISIL in the summer.
In May, ISIL detonated a bomb near the Syrian-Turkish border, killing 43 persons and injuring 80. According to the SOHR, fighting between ISIL and regime forces in the east killed more than 700 individuals during a 48-hour period in July.
The COI reported ISIL continued to target journalists systematically. In August, September, and October, ISIL decapitated foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers and circulated video images of the beheadings on social media. In January, ISIL fighters raided the offices of several media organizations in Kafranbel, where they arrested journalists and confiscated equipment.
Opposition forces increased their killing of regime forces, suspected regime supporters, and minority communities through large-scale attacks and the use of snipers. According to the COI, opposition forces positioned military facilities and equipment in civilian areas.
The SNHR reported indiscriminate shelling by rebels of varying factions resulted in the deaths of 987 civilians during the year, including 288 children and 171 women.
On June 20, the Islamic Front detonated a truck bomb in the Hama countryside, killing four children and injuring 50.
Press reports and videos from Syria reported the deliberate killing by ISIL and opposition forces of unarmed prisoners, including regime soldiers. In some cases informal courts tried prisoners in an irregular fashion, such as facing a sharia council prior to execution, according to reports from international NGOs and the COI.
According to the COI, in February ISIL beheaded a 15-year-old boy. In April, ISIL executed seven men in Raqqa City, five less than age 18. In May a man detained by the Islamic Front was later found shot and killed. According to press reports, in July ISIL decapitated at least 50 regime soldiers, placed their corpses on public display in downtown Raqqa, and mounted their heads on fence posts in the city’s main square. In July, ISIL militants stoned to death two women in Raqqa Governorate and another woman in Hama, in October.
According to media reports, ISIL executed between 700 and 900 members of the Sheitaat tribe in Dayr al-Zawr during a two-week period in August. The SOHR also reported in August that ISIL beheaded three men in Dayr al-Zawr for resisting ISIL domination. Following ISIL’s August seizure of the Syrian military base of Tabqa, in Raqqa Governorate, ISIL fighters executed between 100 and 200 regime soldiers, insulted members of the Alawite religious group, and recorded and circulated these actions on social media. On numerous occasions ISIL crucified captured civilians and soldiers. In October the SOHR reported ISIL crucified a 17-year-old boy. In June ISIL crucified eight captured opposition fighters in Aleppo Governorate.
In March a video released by Jabhat al-Nusra depicted the killing of two men accused of joining ISIL. In October, Jabhat al-Nusra executed a man in Dara’a. The same month the Islamic Front killed several men suspected of collaborating with the regime, according to the COI.
The United Nations reported several instances of violence, including killings of Palestinian refugees living in camps within the country.
The SNHR reported Kurdish militia forces killed 102 civilians during the year, including 42 persons in two villages in September alone.
Abductions: The COI reported government forces and affiliated militia perpetrated forced disappearances at checkpoints throughout the country, including in Shin, Homs province; Nawa, Dara’a province; and Qatana, Damascus. In some cases, according to the United Nations, government officials refused to disclose the whereabouts of young men arrested. In most cases relatives did not attempt to determine the fate of those arrested due to fear of reprisal.
The COI reported that a dramatic rise in hostage taking, which was often sectarian in nature, triggered reprisals and fueled intercommunal tension. Antigovernment armed groups abducted civilians and members of regime forces to enable prisoner exchanges and for ransom money to purchase weapons.
Kidnappings markedly increased in Aleppo and northern areas outside of government control. In August gunmen linked to Jabhat al-Nusra abducted 43 Fijian peacekeepers deployed to the Golan Heights as part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force monitoring mission and attempted to leverage the hostages to demand several changes in UN policy. Jabhat al-Nusra later released the detainees unharmed.
Extremist oppositionist groups conducted kidnappings, particularly in northern areas, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists. For example, in January unknown gunmen in the north abducted five aid workers from the organization Doctors Without Borders. According to HRW, in May ISIL abducted 153 children returning to the town of Kobane after taking year-end exams in Aleppo. In October the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land reported Jabhat al-Nusra seized Hanna Jallouf, a Franciscan priest, and approximately 20 of his parishioners, whose whereabouts remained unknown.
Some foreign abductees were killed. ISIL claimed responsibility for the killing of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, aid worker Abdul Rahman “Peter” Kassig, and David Haines and Alan Henning.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: The government and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of both opposition members and civilians. Government agents targeted individuals with previous ties to foreign governments that favored the opposition; family members and associates of such individuals also were targeted. Government officials abused prisoners and detainees, as well as injured and sick persons, and raped women and men as a tactic of war. For example, reports of government-sponsored sexual violence included rape of women at checkpoints, transfer of women to jails to be raped in front of detained husbands (sometimes followed by attacks on detained husbands), incidents of mass rape, and the gang rape of women by security forces. Additionally, according to the COI, the “Caesar photographs” smuggled out of the country early in the year by a former regime photographer documented the torture and severe malnourishment of more than 11,000 deceased detainees between 2011 and 2013.
The COI also reported cases of opposition forces engaging in torture. In detention facilities run by the Judicial Council and the Sharia Board in Aleppo, opposition forces subjected detainees suspected of being shabiha proregime militia to severe physical or mental pain to obtain information or confessions. According to COI and media reports, ISIL subjected western hostages to waterboarding, lashing, and other forms of corporal punishment, such as amputation, in ISIL-held areas. Activists reported that in July ISIL tied a 14-year-old boy to a cross and left him exposed to the sun for several hours. ISIL carried out punishments in public, forcing crowds including children, to gather and watch. The SNHR reported ISIL tortured at least 20 persons to death in detention throughout the year.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued recruitment and use of children in combat. The COI reported progovernment militias enlisted children as young as age 13. The COI reported the regime sometimes paid children between ages six and 13 to be informants, exposing them to danger. Observers regularly saw boys between ages 12 and 14 whom the Popular Committees in Nubul and Zahra and in the Nairab camp in Aleppo tasked with surveillance.
HRW reported opposition forces used children under age 18 as fighters. According to HRW numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra actively recruited children as fighters. According to the COI, Islamic Front-affiliated and other armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.” Jaish al-Mujahideen provided a 15-year-old with weapons training and also enlisted minors younger than 18, according to the COI, which also reported an ISIL camp near Aleppo trained children as young as age 14. In Raqqa, according to the COI and press reports, ISIL recruited and enlisted children as young as age 10. HRW noted that Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Kurdish People’s Protection Units militias enlisted fighters less under 18.
The COI report also noted that some FSA units, such as in Dayr al-Zawr Governorate, rejected the use of child soldiers. In March the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces announced it implemented training to eliminate the recruitment of child soldiers. In December 2013 the General Command of the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, issued an order prohibiting enlistment of children under 18. The COI report confirmed that the YPG demobilized child soldiers from its ranks and began monitoring adherence to its commitment to eliminate children from fighting. Nevertheless, some local groups reported YPG and Asayish forces abused and forcibly recruited children.
Also, see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at 2009-2017.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuses: The government and opposition forces both impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 4.7 million persons remained in areas difficult to reach, with 212,000 located in besieged areas impossible to access. The government deliberately restricted the passage of relief supplies and access by impartial humanitarian agencies. Acute restrictions on food and medicine caused malnutrition-related deaths, including outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. For example, the regime siege of Moadamiya al-Sham, near Damascus, resulted in severe malnutrition and deaths, particularly of children. In May opposition forces agreed to withdraw from Homs after a sustained period during which government security forces blocked all aid, food, medicine, and goods as part of a “starve or surrender” campaign, according to residents. In addition to Homs, the COI reported regime sieges in Damascus, Dara’a, Qunaytrah, and Dayr al-Zawr that “appeared to be calculated to render the conditions of life unbearable and forcing civilians to flee.” In April, The Guardian reported the regime subjected residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp to an 18-month siege that left 18,000 civilians at severe risk of starvation with extremely limited access to medical care and clean water. The regime refused the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and NGOs entry to the camp to provide humanitarian aid to Yarmouk residents. In March, AI reported at least 128 residents of Yarmouk died of starvation during the siege. The regime also failed to provide visas to international humanitarian workers and created unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to relief delivery.
The COI and media reported opposition groups also surrounded towns and limited access to supplies such as food in Afrin, Nubl, Zahra, and other locations. Opposition forces also reportedly denied supplies to the central prison in Aleppo until the government released certain prisoners. The COI found that the regime detained many Red Crescent volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.” According to the COI, the Islamic Front and Jaish al-Mujahideen stopped or limited electricity and water to several neighborhoods in Aleppo. The COI also reported that between May 5 and May 14, Jabhat al-Nusra deliberately severed electricity and water to parts of Aleppo. The Islamic Front stopped access to the primarily Shia villages of Nubl and Zahra and halted the passage of civilians and goods in and out of the villages.
The regime and ISIL targeted aid providers systematically and severely restricted humanitarian access to territories under their respective control. In late October the UN secretary-general reported armed groups expelled humanitarian workers from areas they held and that 27 UN staff members were detained or missing, including 24 UNRWA staff members. The secretary-general indicated the total number of humanitarian workers killed since 2011 was 66, including 17 UN staff members, 38 Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) staff members and volunteers, seven Palestine Red Crescent Society volunteers and staff members, and four staff members of international NGOs.
Activists reported aid workers in ISIL-controlled territory were at high risk of abduction or violence. In October the United Nations reported ISIL continued to block its employees from providing humanitarian assistance in territory ISIL controlled.
Government forces, ISIL, and opposition forces attacked schools, hospitals, religious establishments, and bakeries. According to the SNHR, the government destroyed 850,000 buildings between 2011 and September and was responsible for damaging a total of 2.5 million structures. On February 28, while withdrawing from Azaz, ISIL destroyed the al-Faisal flourmill in northern Aleppo, severely restricting the availability of flour in the region. According to the SNHR, 45 percent of the country’s hospitals were not functioning due to government shelling and looting. The World Health Organization reported the conflict negatively affected 60 percent of all hospitals. In many opposition-held areas, even fewer hospitals were functional. According to the SNHR, more than 85 percent of the hospitals in Raqqa were destroyed or out of service, as well as at least 75 percent of the hospitals in Dayr al-Zawr, Rif Damascus, and Homs governorates.
Observers and international aid organizations reported the government specifically targeted health-care workers, ambulances, and patients, in addition to restricting access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners. The COI also reported government sniper fire and military assaults on medical facilities intentionally targeted the sick and injured, as well as pregnant women and persons with disabilities. The government deliberately obstructed the efforts of the sick and injured to obtain help, and many such individuals elected not to seek medical assistance in hospitals due to fear of arrest, detention, torture, or death. Government forces also targeted medical professionals for arrest. According to the Violations Documentation Center, the government had imprisoned 469 health workers as of mid-September. A March report by HRW noted that violence against and detention of health-care workers remained pervasive. The COI reported a documented pattern of ISIL detaining physicians and other medical workers. Physicians for Human Rights reported 195 attacks on 155 separate medical facilities between March 2011 and the end of August, with 560 medical personnel killed since the beginning of the conflict; government forces were responsible for 90 percent of the attacks. According to a December SNHR report, government forces killed 131 medical professionals during the year. The governorates of Rif Damascus and Aleppo had the highest numbers of attacks on medical facilities, sustaining 35 attacks each. In Rif Damascus, 78 medical personnel were killed; 77 were killed in Homs. According to the SNHR, on February 7, government forces launched a missile into a medical clinic in Aleppo, killing two patients and injuring 16 persons, including eight staff. The attack forced the facility to close, leaving that area of Aleppo without a functioning hospital.
Government and opposition forces reportedly used civilians, including women and children, to shield combatants.
According to the United Nations, by year’s end there were more than 7.6 million IDPs, due largely to conflict-related destruction of property, regime targeting of local populations, and violence. The figures on the IDP population varied widely, since many areas were inaccessible; actual figures may have been higher. The government did not provide sustainable access for services to the IDP population and did not offer IDPs assistance or protection (see section 2.d.).
According to the COI, the rise in government-supported militias composed mostly of religious minorities “shabiha” and the positioning of militias within their respective supportive communities fostered sectarian hostilities. According to the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, YPG forces forcibly displaced Arab residents in Kurdish areas, resulting in significant demographic changes in Tell Brak, al-Qahtaniya, and Ras al-Ayn in Hasakah province. The Free Syrian Lawyers Association reported that forced population transfers caused thousands of families to leave their homes and that the YPG arrested large numbers of children and women and killed an unknown number of civilians. The SNHR reported YPG forces killed 42 persons, including 15 children and three women on September 13 in Hajyea and Tal Hamis in Hasakah.
The NGO Kurdwatch reported Asayish forces captured and forcibly recruited an unknown number of young men between ages 18 and 30 at checkpoints in Darbasiyah.
All participants in the conflict used provocative sectarian rhetoric, which the COI warned risked inciting mass indiscriminate violence. The COI noted mass displacements of communities under ISIL, where residents were warned to conform to ISIL standards or leave. Communities experienced discriminatory sanctions, including specialized religious taxes (jizya), forced religious conversions, destruction of religious sites, and expulsion of minority communities.
According to the COI, regime shelling destroyed religious sites as well as UNESCO world heritage sites. The UN Training and Research Agency reported in December that 290 heritage sites had been damaged. The SNHR documented the destruction of 244 places of worship due to regime violence throughout the year. On June 20, the Syrian ambassador to Russia stated 98 Christian churches had been either wholly or partially destroyed since the beginning of the conflict and 1,900 mosques had been destroyed. According to a February SNHR report, government forces continued to target mosques and churches. From January 1 to February 20, the regime dropped more than 330 barrel bombs on Darayya city, outside Damascus, hitting the Martqla church. In May regime shelling and violence destroyed the historic Jewish synagogue in Jobar. Government forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of defectors and opposition figures.
Opposition forces also destroyed religious sites, including a Sufi shrine. In March, ISIL bombed and destroyed a Shia shrine in Raqqa. In May, ISIL forces destroyed Shiite religious sites, including the Uwais al-Qarni Shia mosque and seventh century tombs in Raqqa. In September, ISIL destroyed an Armenian church in Dayr al-Zawr.