The government, opposition groups, and Da’esh escalated their use of force during the year. The OHCHR reported that more than 250,000 persons have died since the start of protests in 2011. In October the SNHR reported that the government used a “scorched earth” campaign, which SNHR said targeted at least 484 vital civilian infrastructure facilities in the first nine months of the year. Of these, 84 percent were under opposition control and 16 percent were in Da’esh-controlled areas. In December the SNHR reported that Russian airstrikes, which began at the end of September on Hama, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia, and Raqqa governorates, had killed at least 832 civilians.
Killings: The government reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.). Extremist groups operating in spaces vacated by government forces also committed a large number of abuses and violations. In 2012 several opposition commanders reportedly drafted and endorsed codes of conduct in an effort to curb violations and killings. Adherence to such standards was uneven, however. Media reports and videos from the country reported the deliberate killing by Da’esh and opposition forces of unarmed prisoners, including government soldiers. In some cases informal courts reportedly tried prisoners in an irregular fashion, such as facing a sharia council prior to execution, according to reports from international NGOs and the COI.
Government killings and use of lethal tactics reportedly increased during the year. The government continued its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling. The UN Security Council passed multiple resolutions calling on the government to end the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs. The SNHR reported that the government was responsible for the death of 12,044 civilians during the year, and Da’esh killed 1,366 civilians.
There were numerous reports of barrel bombings in Dara’a governorate on a regular basis. On March 17, The Wall Street Journal reported that the government dropped a barrel bomb containing poisonous chlorine gas on a residential neighborhood in Sarmeen, an opposition-controlled town near the Turkish border, killing a family of six and injuring scores of residents.
According to a November report from the SNHR, on October 14, government helicopters dropped a barrel bomb on Dael town in Dara’a suburbs, which was under the control of the armed opposition, and killed three individuals, including a pregnant woman and her child.
In a December report, HRW reported that government forces used cluster munitions on at least 20 occasions since Syria and Russia began their joint offensive on September 30. For example, government forces and their allies dropped cluster munitions on Douma on December 14, killing at least five civilians, according to an activist. Activists indicated that cluster munitions were difficult to document, given that they do not cause significant damage to buildings and explode leaving few remnants.
Progovernment militias reportedly continued to carry out mass killings. According to the SNHR, government-affiliated sectarian militias perpetrated massacres in Homs and Aleppo. In a June report on ethnic massacres, the SNHR noted that, on February 7, sectarian militia raided homes in the as-Sabil neighborhood of Homs, killing 14 civilians, including four children and five women. In addition, on February 21, Shiite militia reportedly kidnapped 320 individuals from two Aleppo villages and used them as human shields while retreating; fighting in this incident killed 48 civilians.
Opposition forces reportedly increased their killing of government forces, suspected government supporters, and members of 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.
Activists and NGOs reported Da’esh continued to engage in widespread and serious violations and abuses. According to the SNHR, Da’esh forces raided al-Mab’oujda village in Hama, where most residents were Ismaili, killing 36 civilians and kidnapping a large number of residents. Da’esh forces reportedly continued to attack Kurdish communities in Kobane. According to the COI, in June Da’esh forces summarily executed approximately 250 civilians in Kobane.
In June the UN Secretary-General reported that Da’esh carried out door-to-door searches in Palmyra for suspected government agents and executed at least 14 civilians for suspected affiliation with the government. During the summer the SNHR reported on an August 2014 Da’esh attack on Deir al-Zour that resulted in the death of 91 civilians and subsequent execution of 276 others. The SNHR also estimated that Da’esh tortured 29 individuals to death.
Other Syrian armed groups engaged in abuses. According to the COI, Jabhat al-Nusra killed more than 20 Druze in a massacre in Idlib in June. The SNHR attributed 132 civilian deaths to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and other Kurdish groups.
Abductions: The government was reportedly responsible for the majority of disappearances during the year. Armed extremist groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly kidnapped individuals, particularly in the northern areas, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists. The SNHR estimated there were more than 65,000 forcible disappearances by the government between early 2011 and August. The SNHR attributed more than 1,100 disappearances to Da’esh, 876 to al-Nusra Front, 352 to the PYD and other Kurdish forces, and 211 to other militant groups in the country.
In August 2014 Da’esh reportedly abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq and brought them to Syria for sale in markets or as rewards for Da’esh fighters. Held as slaves, Da’esh fighters subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, forced marriages, and coerced abortions. In interviews with the COI, they described multiple rapes by several men, including incidents of gang rape. Numerous NGOs and activists also reported that Da’esh fighters raped women in Da’esh-held areas or forced them to marry Da’esh fighters. As of September most of the abducted girls and women remained in Da’esh custody.
In October Da’esh reportedly executed three Assyrian Christians kidnapped with a larger group from their villages near the Khabour River in February.
The location and status of Khalil Arfu and Sukfan Amin Hamza from Derek, Hasakah governorate, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party remained unknown.
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 government forces to enable prisoner exchanges and for ransom money to purchase weapons.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to reports, 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; it also targeted family members and associates of such individuals. Government officials reportedly abused prisoners and detainees, as well as injured and sick persons, and raped women and men as a tactic of war. In addition, according to the COI, the “Caesar photographs” smuggled out of the country in 2014 by a former government photographer documented the torture and severe malnourishment of more than 11,000 deceased detainees between 2011 and 2013.
The SNHR reported that authorities forced prisoners to witness the rape of other prisoners, threatened them with the rape of family members (in particular female family members), forced them to undress, and insulted their beliefs. According to the COI, the government and affiliated militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations in Deir al-Zour, Dara’a, Hama, Damascus, and Tartus governorates. Detention centers were the most common location for reported abuse, but attacks also occurred during military raids and at checkpoints. Reports included instances in which multiple attackers, usually soldiers and shabiha, gang-raped women in their homes, sometimes in front of family members. Observers believed sexual violence was widespread and underreported. The SNHR estimated government forces were responsible for at least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse since the beginning of the conflict. The SNHR noted an increased use of sexual violence against women before granting permission to depart besieged areas or to return with medical supplies and food.
There were widespread reports that Da’esh also engaged in abuses and brutality. According to the COI, Da’esh increased brutal treatment of those it captured in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, and Aleppo. Da’esh frequently punished victims publicly and forced residents, including children, to watch executions and amputations. In Aleppo and Raqqa, the COI and media also reported that Da’esh members tied men to a board or crucifix and displayed them publicly before beatings and lashings. Activists, NGOs, and the media reported numerous accounts of women in Da’esh-held territory facing arbitrary and severe punishments, including execution by stoning. Da’esh also committed abuses systematically against captured FSA and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters. Da’esh fighters reportedly beat captives (including with cables) during interrogations and killed those held in its detention centers in Raqqa and Aleppo governorates. Da’esh also beat persons because of their dress; several sources reported Da’esh members beat women for not covering their faces. Da’esh justified its use of corporal punishment, including amputations and lashings, under religious law.
The COI also reported that armed groups, under the banner of the FSA, tortured and executed suspected government agents, members of the shabiha, and collaborators. The COI noted that some opposition groups subjected detainees suspected of being members of progovernment militias to severe physical or mental pain and suffering to obtain information or confessions, or as punishment or coercion. The report also noted instances in which extremist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Da’esh arbitrarily detained and tortured individuals passing through checkpoints along the country’s northern border. Jabhat al-Nusra, following its April attack on Ishtabraq, detained children and women in Harim Prison. The COI reported that Jabhat al-Nusra tortured women and children in the prison.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued recruitment and use of children in combat. The COI reported that progovernment militias enlisted children as young as 13. The COI reported the government sometimes paid children between the ages of six and 13 to be informants, exposing them to danger. There were no new reports during the year of combatants recruiting boys between the ages of 12 and 14 to conduct surveillance in Aleppo.
HRW reported opposition forces used children under the age of 18 as fighters. According to HRW, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra actively recruited children as fighters. In October Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that Da’esh forcibly recruited boys who were 14 years of age and older from northern Raqqa governorate and threatened those who refused with punishment. According to the COI, Islamic Front-affiliated and other armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.” Jaish al-Mujahideen enlisted minors younger than 18, according to the COI. A Da’esh camp near Aleppo trained children as young as 14. In Raqqa, according to the COI and press reports, Da’esh recruited and enlisted children as young as 10. HRW noted that Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and YPG militias enlisted fighters under the age of 18.
The COI report noted that some FSA units, such as in Deir al-Zour governorate, rejected the use of child soldiers. The COI report also 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: Both the government and opposition forces impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), by the end of the year an estimated 4.5 million persons remained in areas difficult to reach, including 360,000 located in besieged areas impossible to access. The COI reported that government forces, opposition forces, and Da’esh all employed sieges to devastating effects, deliberately restricting the passage of relief supplies and access by humanitarian agencies. Acute restrictions on food and medicine reportedly caused malnutrition-related deaths as well as outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. For example, government forces’ siege of Zabadani, which began in July, resulted in severe malnutrition and deaths, particularly of children. The COI reported that government forces continued to besiege rebel-held areas in southern and eastern Damascus to render the conditions of life unbearable and force civilians to flee. In areas where combatants reached local truces, such as Moadamiya, civilians continued to suffer from shortages of food and medicine. In March The Guardian reported that the government subjected residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp to a siege that left 18,000 civilians at severe risk of starvation with extremely limited access to medical care and potable water. The government 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. The government also failed to provide visas to international humanitarian workers and created unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to relief delivery. The COI and the media reported that opposition groups also surrounded towns and limited access to supplies such as food in Afrin, Nubl, Zahra, and other locations. Da’esh imposed a siege of government-controlled areas of Deir al-Zour.
The COI found that the government detained many Red Crescent volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.” According to reports, the government’s continued indiscriminate bombardment destroyed and damaged health-care facilities in opposition-held areas, such as the Hama governorate and Aleppo city. According to the COI, the Islamic Front and Jaish al-Mujaheddin stopped or limited electricity and water to several neighborhoods in Aleppo.
According to reports, government forces as well as Da’esh routinely kidnapped and detained aid providers and severely restricted humanitarian access to territories under their respective control. In December the UN Secretary-General reported that armed groups expelled humanitarian workers from areas they held and that 29 UN staff members were detained or missing, including 27 UNRWA staff members. Activists reported aid workers in Da’esh-controlled territory were at high risk of abduction or violence.
Government forces, Da’esh, and opposition forces reportedly attacked civilian institutions including schools, hospitals, religious establishments, and bakeries.
According to the SNHR, the government destroyed 850,000 buildings between 2011 and September 2014 and was responsible for damaging 2.5 million structures. The SNHR noted 45 percent of the country’s hospitals were not functioning due to government shelling and looting, and in many opposition-held areas, even fewer hospitals were functional. It also noted fighting destroyed or put out of service more than 85 percent of the hospitals in Raqqa as well as at least 75 percent of the hospitals in Deir al-Zour, Rif Damascus, and Homs governorates. The World Health Organization reported the conflict negatively affected 60 percent of all hospitals.
Observers and international aid organizations reported that the government specifically targeted health-care workers, medical facilities, ambulances, and patients and restricted access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners. The COI also reported that government sniper fire and military assaults on medical facilities intentionally targeted sick and injured persons as well as pregnant women and persons with disabilities. According to reports, the government deliberately obstructed the efforts of sick and injured persons 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 reportedly targeted medical professionals for arrest. In a December press release, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented the deaths of 697 medical personnel and 336 attacks on 240 medical facilities between March 2011 and November 2015; PHR attributed 90 percent of the attacks to the government and its allied forces.
Government and opposition forces reportedly used civilians, including women and children, to shield combatants.
According to the United Nations, by the end of the year there were more than 6.5 million IDPs and 4.3 million refugees due to violence as well as conflict-related destruction of property and government targeting of local populations. 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.).
All participants in the conflict used provocative sectarian rhetoric, which the COI warned risked inciting mass indiscriminate violence. According to the COI, the rise in government-supported militias composed mostly of religious minorities and the positioning of these militias within their respective supportive communities fostered sectarian hostilities.
The COI noted mass displacements of communities under Da’esh control, where Da’esh officials warned residents to conform to Da’esh standards or leave. Communities experienced discriminatory sanctions, including specialized religious taxes (jizya), forced religious conversions, destruction of religious sites, and expulsion of minority communities. In October AI reported that YPG forces forcibly displaced Arab residents in Kurdish areas.
International media reported widely on government and nongovernment forces attacking and destroying religious as well as UNESCO world heritage sites. The UN Training and Research Agency reported in December 2014 that fighting had damaged 290 heritage sites. The SNHR documented the destruction of 216 places of worship due to government violence throughout the year. According to monthly SNHR reporting, government forces continued to target mosques and churches. Government forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of defectors and opposition figures.