NEW YORK (HRW) – Civilians are dying in Syria in new indiscriminate attacks despite the “cessation of hostilities” that began on February 26, 2016.
One of the deadliest was the government airstrike on the town of Deir al-Assafir on March 31, killing at least 31 civilians, including nine women and 12 children, local civil rights groups and rescue workers reported. Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were no military targets nearby. On April 5, armed groups fired mortars, locally made rockets, and other artillery into Sheikh Maqsoud, an Aleppo neighborhood under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, in likely indiscriminate attacks that killed at least 18 civilians including seven children and five women, and wounded 68, according to the local Sheikh Maqsoud council. The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the death toll.
“A decrease in casualty numbers brought a much needed respite for Syrians, but many civilians are still dying in unlawful attacks,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Key countries pushing for negotiations in Syria – notably the U.S. and Russia – need to press the warring parties in Syria to end unlawful attacks.”
A decrease in casualty numbers brought a much needed respite for Syrians, but many civilians are still dying in unlawful attacks
Negotiations between the Syrian warring parties are set to resume on April 13, but renewed fighting in recent days threatens to derail the “cessation of hostilities.”
The United States and Russia, as co-chairs of the Syria Ceasefire Task Force, which was set up in February to monitor indiscriminate attacks, need to adopt robust measures to deter further indiscriminate attacks or use of weapons with indiscriminate effects.
Members of the local civil defense groups and rescue teams in Eastern Ghouta, where the March 31 attack took place, told Human Rights Watch that a Syrian plane struck a school and a hospital. Yasir Doghmosh, head of Civil Defense for Eastern Ghouta, said he rushed to the scene and “saw women and children running everywhere in a panic. We saw pieces of bodies on the street and people stuck underneath the rubble.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed video of the aftermath of the attack, which shows members of rescue teams trying to save women and children from rubble and destroyed buildings. The sounds of planes circling overhead is audible, as well as the sounds of explosions as rescue workers were doing their work. The video also showed images of young children in school uniform and backpacks escaping from a school. Human Rights Watch received a list of 31 names of the dead from the local Civil Defense group.
A local media activist, Adam al-Shami, who was in Deir al-Assafir at the time of attack, told Human Rights Watch that the Civil Defense building, a civilian building, in the town was destroyed as well as a hospital and a school. The local Civil Defense group said that 14 bombs were dropped on the town. The videos showed damaged buildings but did not indicate if they were the hospital or the school that were hit. Doghmosh and al-Shami denied that there were any military targets nearby. The Syrian government did not issue any statements about this attack.
“The bombing happened in completely civilian areas in the Ashira neighborhood,” al-Shami said. “One member of the Syrian Civil Defense died in the attack.”
“In Aleppo, opposition armed groups fired locally made rockets, grad, and mortars,” said Emad Dawud, a local council member, in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood. Local activists said that the armed groups began their attacks following clashes with the Kurdish militia over the control of a key thoroughfare.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the armed groups also struck the neighborhood with 23 rockets on March 6, killing nine civilians including four children. On March 19, four civilians, including two children, died when rockets were fired into Sheikh Maqsoud from the al-Halk neighborhood, which armed groups control. Human Rights Watch reviewed video posted on March 7 showing rebels from the Thuwar al-Sham brigade preparing locally made cylindrical rockets in preparation for a launch into Sheikh Maqsoud.
A local journalist in Sheikh Maqsoud, Pervin Roj, said on April 8 that the heavy shelling that began on April 5 had not stopped. She said that the hospital was overrun with dead and injured.
“There are still people under the rubble that the rescue teams cannot reach,” Roj said.
Video of the aftermath of the April 5 attacks showed victims being treated for difficulty in breathing. Photos of the aftermath showed children buried under destroyed buildings and others bloodied and covered with blankets after being lifted from the rubble.
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a major opposition umbrella organization, issued a statement condemning the attacks on April 5. On April 7, the official spokesperson for Jaysh al-Islam, a militant group, issued a statement that “during confrontations [with the Kurdish militia], a local commander in Jaysh al-Islam used weapons that are not authorized to be used in these types of confrontations, which is considered a violation of the group’s internal rules, and he was referred to the military judicial system of the army [Jaysh al-Islam].”
The International Syria Support Group, a group of countries that have been leading the drive for a ceasefire in Syria, negotiated the cessation of hostilities. Syrian and Russian forces agreed to a ceasefire on airstrikes except on locations controlled by militant groups like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. However, while the number of civilian deaths has decreased in the past month, indiscriminate attacks against civilian areas have continued, according to local human rights groups and Syrian civil defense, a group of search and rescue volunteer workers.
The US and Russia, as co-chairs of the Syria Ceasefire Task Force, set up a monitoring system with a hotline for Syrian individuals or groups to report violations of the ceasefire by phone, email or text.
The special task force should strengthen its reporting mechanism particularly for strikes that kill civilians, and publicly report on violations of the laws of war, and adopt measures to sanction and deter such violations, Human Rights Watch said.
“As fighting resumes in parts of Syria, key backers of the Syria negotiations should ensure that protection of civilians remains a key priority by strengthening the monitoring mechanism and sending a strong signal to any warring party that continues to target civilians or use indiscriminate attacks,” Houry said.