Beirut – With Russia’s continued support, the Syrian government is using unlawful tactics in its assault on Eastern Ghouta, including what appears to be the use of internationally banned weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. There are significant concerns about how government forces will treat residents in areas that come under its control, given past reports of reprisal executions.
The UN Security Council should urgently demand a United Nations monitoring team be granted immediate access to areas of Eastern Ghouta, now under government control. The team should document any crimes already committed; their presence may deter further violations. They should also visit sites to which the government is transferring Eastern Ghouta residents, as there are significant concerns about their treatment. If Russia again vetoes council action, the UN General Assembly should call for the immediate deployment of monitors.
“Instead of just watching while the Syrian-Russian military alliance annihilates Eastern Ghouta, the UN Security Council should act to put a stop to these unlawful attacks,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Russia again tries to protect the Syrian government by preventing council action, the General Assembly should demand monitors for Ghouta’s residents. For weeks these people endured starvation and bombardment and now they’re at risk of detention and even execution.”
Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Syria’s capital, Damascus, and home to an estimated 400,000 civilians, has been under attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance since February 19. Syrian government forces have besieged Eastern Ghouta since 2013, severely restricting humanitarian aid in violation of the laws of war and preventing civilians from leaving. The alliance has bombarded Eastern Ghouta, failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets, hitting residential areas, hospitals, schools, and markets. According to the Ghouta United Relief Office, at least 1,699 residents have been killed since February 19.
On March 17, Human Rights Watch received a distress call from a member of the Syrian Civil Defense who told Human Rights Watch that he and 19 colleagues, five of whom are wounded, have been surrounded by government forces. According to him, in addition, there are 90 members of the Syrian Civil Defense and their relatives trapped in a second location, and they are all requesting safe passage to non-government-held areas. He said they fear retaliation, including summary execution, when the government takes the area.
After government forces retook Aleppo, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations received reports of reprisals and mass executions. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the Aleppo reports and has not yet documented reprisals against Eastern Ghouta residents who have come under government control, but it has previously reported mass executions of civilians by Syrian government forces in areas that have come under their control.
The UN General Assembly’s landmark decision in December 2016 to establish a quasi-special prosecutor mechanism for Syria was prompted by outrage at the way Russia prevented the council from taking action to protect civilians during the brutal Syrian-Russian operation to retake Aleppo.
On February 24, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, to allow in humanitarian aid and stop indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as required by international law. But the resolution was never fully implemented and the council has taken no action. Russia, which shares responsibility for violations committed by joint operations of its military alliance, has used its veto 11 times to shield Syria from accountability.
There is evidence that Syria’s operation with Russia in Eastern Ghouta involves the use of internationally banned weapons, including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and chemical weapons.
Human Rights Watch spoke to three witnesses who said that on March 7, 2018, the military alliance attacked residential areas in al-Hammouriyeh with ground-launched and air-dropped cluster munitions, among other munitions. According to local doctors and first responders, at least 20 residents died in the attack. Human Rights Watch examined photos of weapon remnants taken by a local media activist at one of the strike sites and identified the munition as an OTR-21 “Tochka” surface-to-surface, short-range tactical ballistic missile. A first responder told Human Rights Watch that there were several consecutive attacks with cluster munitions that day, including in al-Hammouriyeh, but that he could not recall precise details of their location because he had responded to many such attacks. He said the Syrian Civil Defense rescued more than 40 victims that day.
There is evidence that cluster munitions have been used in several attacks on Eastern Ghouta in March. Photographs shared by Syria Civil Defense of weapons remnants from a reported attack on March 11 show unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions delivered in RBK-500 cluster bombs. A witness to an air attack on Hammouriyeh on March 7 gave Human Rights Watch a photograph of a AO-2.5RT submunition he said was left over from the attack. Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian government use of banned cluster munitions since 2012.
Syria Civil Defense reports that at about 11:48am on March 16, air-dropped incendiary munitions were used on the Eastern Ghouta residential area of Kafr Batna, killing at least 61 and wounding more than 200. It said that most victims were women and children who were burned alive. Photographs and video provided to Human Rights Watch by doctors, and publicly available, show at least 15 bodies with serious burns.
Photographs reported by the Syrian Civil Defense to have been taken immediately after the attack show multiple small fires burning brightly, indicating the possible use of ZAB submunitions which are delivered by Soviet or Russian-made RBK-500 bombs.
Since November 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from Syrian government use of air-dropped incendiary weapons. Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which Syria has not ratified.
Doctors in Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch that they have treated symptoms of chlorine use from multiple attacks, including on February 25 in Chifouniya, March 7 in al-Hammouriyeh, and on March 11 in Arbin. Human Rights Watch has not independently corroborated the use of chlorine in these strikes but has previously documented use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria, including during the government’s operation to re-take Eastern Aleppo. Syria acceded to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.
As Syrian government forces entered the town of al-Hammouriyeh on March 14, there was a frenzied aerial bombing campaign, witnesses said. Among the casualties was Ahmad Hamdan, a media activist and resident of al-Hammouriyeh, reported to have been killed by an airstrike. One witness told Human Rights Watch that on March 14: “I was trying to escape with my family, and I saw an entire family get blown up in front of my very eyes. I immediately turned back and took my children back to the basement.”
As government forces retake territory in Eastern Ghouta, civilians have started to evacuate. On March 15, Syrian and Russian media livestreamed the evacuation of what was claimed to be 12,000 residents from al-Hammouriyeh crossing to government-held areas. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage which showed many people leaving. According to one witness and media reports, residents who have moved into areas under government control are being transported to sites around the enclave, including camps and schools, where they are being screened.
International law unequivocally prohibits summary and extrajudicial executions. In situations of armed conflict, combatants are legitimate targets as long as they take part in hostilities, but deliberately killing injured, surrendered, or captured soldiers (those hors de combat) would constitute a war crime. Any evacuation must be safe and voluntary, and protected by guarantees of security and non-reprisals. Civilians are entitled to protection whether they choose to leave or stay in an area, and parties to the conflict should not block civilians from leaving. Parties must allow impartial humanitarian relief reach civilians in need, regardless of whether the civilians have an option to leave.
The Syrian government should verifiably guarantee that the fundamental rights of individuals who were living under the control of non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta will be respected and protected, in particular when they are subject to security screenings and in detention. Authorities should ensure that the screening process is limited to a period of hours rather than days, and that anyone held longer is treated as a detainee and afforded all protections to which detainees are entitled under international law. No one should be presumed to be a combatant based on age or gender absent individualized evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The authorities should allow UN and other independent monitors access to all screening and detention centers.
“For every hour that a potential Russian veto prevents any decisive action by the UN Security Council, civilians on the ground in Eastern Ghouta are facing a real threat of reprisals,” said Fakih “The least the Security Council can do now is to deploy monitors to offer some protection for civilians. If the council can’t do so, the General Assembly should act as it did for Aleppo.”