Rights group says Putin may bear 'command responsibility' for war crimes in Syria

Human Rights Watch has named 10 senior Syrian and Russian officials who knew or should have known about the "unlawful attacks" taking place in Idlib.

al-monitor A wounded Syrian child sits at a makeshift clinic in the town of Maaret Misrin following Syrian government forces airstrikes on March 5, 2020, in the country's northwestern Idlib province. Photo by AREF TAMMAWI/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 15, 2020

When Russian and Syrian warplanes pummeled civilian infrastructure in Idlib province, they did so without warning or a legitimate military target, Human Rights Watch said in a new report calling on world governments to hold President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials responsible for failing to prevent war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Syria.

The New York-based watchdog described what it said were deliberate and disproportionate attacks on civilians carried out by the Syrian government and its ally Russia during their 11-month offensive to retake Idlib, the last major swath of territory still in the hands of the opposition after nearly a decade of war. 

By the time Turkey and Russia announced a cease-fire in March, the fighting had left at least 1,600 civilians dead, the United Nations estimates. The regime's offensive also forced some 1.4 million people to flee their homes, with many finding refuge in crowded camps along the closed Turkish border. 

Human Rights Watch examined 46 air and ground attacks carried out by the Syrian-Russian alliance on civilian objects and infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and markets. The attacks represent just a fraction of the total use of cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and improvised barrel bombs used in Idlib, the group said.

In each instance, researchers found no evidence of the opposition's weapons, equipment or military personnel near where the attacks took place. Residents were not given advance warning of the attacks, an overwhelming majority of which took place far from the active fighting between pro-regime forces and the opposition. 

Sara Kayyali, the Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the attacks appear designed to make it easier for the Syrian government to retake opposition areas by first emptying them of civilians.

“They either kill a large amount of civilians, which also fulfills their purpose, or they end up displacing them because those areas are unlivable,” Kayyali said. 

The 167-page report is based on interviews with more than 100 civilian witnesses and rescue workers, as well as experts on the Russian and Syrian armed forces. Researchers also analyzed satellite imagery of the strike locations, reviewed logs of flight spotters and examined more than 550 videos and photographs taken during or in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. 

In one of the deadliest attacks documented, a munition hit a four-story apartment, nearby shops and a small market in the town of Maarat al-Nu'man before a second munition struck, collapsing two three-story buildings. 

“I remember one boy who had been carrying vegetables in his hands when he was killed,” one volunteer rescue worker said of the July 2019 attack. “His severed hands were still gripping them.”

Damascus and Moscow deny targeting civilians and insist they only target extremist groups in Idlib like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

The report names 10 Russian and Syrian officials who under the doctrine of command responsibility knew or should have known about the abuses against civilians and failed to prevent them or punish those responsible. 

That list includes both commanders-in-chief, Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Syria’s defense minister, Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub; Syria’s air force commander, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Balloul; and Russia’s defense minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu. 

“There’s evidence that they were heavily involved in the development of the strategy, that they regularly requested updates on it and that they were provided with notice that these war crimes and violations are being committed — and apparently did nothing to stop them,” Kayyali said. 

The watchdog group urged concerned governments to consider sanctions against those senior officials who “bear command responsibility” and where possible, pursue criminal cases against them in their own countries.