UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria: Turkish attacks on North and East Syria may amount to war crimes, Syria in desperate need of a ceasefire

GENEVA — In a damning report, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has brought to light the alarming escalation of violence and the deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria. The report paints a distressing picture of the situation on the ground, detailing widespread attacks on civilians and essential infrastructure, with potential violations of international law hanging over the conflict like a dark cloud.

The catalyst for the recent surge in violence can be traced back to the tragic events of October, when a series of explosions ripped through a military academy in Homs, claiming the lives of at least 63 individuals, including 37 civilians, and leaving scores injured. In response, Syrian Government and Russian forces launched a relentless barrage of bombardments on opposition-controlled areas, targeting civilian infrastructure with alarming impunity.

Hanny Megally, a member of the Commission, condemned the indiscriminate nature of these attacks, stating, “Syrian Government forces again used cluster munitions in densely populated areas, continuing devastating and unlawful patterns that we have documented in the past.” The result has been catastrophic, with hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing their homes in a desperate bid for safety, only to find themselves caught in the crossfire of a brutal conflict.

The Syrian Government’s continued use of enforced disappearances, torture, and ill-treatment of detainees drew condemnation from the Commission. Reports of deaths in custody, including in the notorious Sednaya prison, serve as a grim reminder of the ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by the Assad regime.

Concerning North and East Syria, the report highlighted that the Turkish Army’s targeting of power stations has deprived one million people of water and electricity for weeks, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Turkish drones’ attacks also resulted in civilian deaths.

On the Turkish attacks, the Commission wrote:

[T]he Turkish military accelerated operations against Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in retaliation for an attack claimed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Ankara in October. Turkish aerial attacks on power plants deprived nearly one million people of water and electricity for weeks, in violation of international humanitarian law. Civilians were also killed in targeted aerial attacks fitting a pattern of Turkish drone strikes. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.

In areas controlled by armed groups such as Hayat Tahrir el-Sham (HTS) and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), civilians continue to suffer as a result of arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions. The Commission has documented instances of executions based on summary trials, including for crimes as arbitrary as witchcraft and adultery.

The report also highlights the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) in central Syria, where civilians have been targeted in urban areas in what can only be described as acts of terror.

The UN report highlighted the global negligence in addressing the plight of children associated with ISIS. Commission member Lynn Welchman emphasized that despite the world’s inclination to move on, the issue persists. Even five years after ISIS’s defeat, approximately 30,000 children remain in North and East Syria, enduring the aftermath of ISIS rule. These children were victims long before ISIS’s downfall. “No child should ever be punished for their parents’ actions or beliefs,” Welchman said.

Clashes along the Syria-Jordanian border have also escalated, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence as Jordanian forces clash with drug smugglers.

Amidst this backdrop of violence and suffering, the humanitarian situation in Syria has reached a critical juncture. With 16.7 million people now in need of humanitarian assistance, the largest number since the onset of the crisis, the UN is struggling to meet the growing demand for aid. A severe shortfall in donor funds has forced the suspension of regular food aid, leaving millions at risk of starvation.

The Commission’s report underscores the urgent need for international action to address the escalating crisis in Syria. As Lynn Welchman, a member of the Commission, stated, “No child should ever be punished for their parents’ actions or beliefs.”

The Commission will present its findings to the UN Human Rights Council on 18 March.