Since its outbreak in March 2011, the conflict in Syria has cost the lives of nearly 500,000 people, displaced more than half the country's population, and involved numerous atrocities and crimes against humanity. Seven decades after the Holocaust and despite promises of Never Again, a regime is targeting its own people while the international community stands by.
“The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions.”
The conflict is not simply a civil war between opposing armed forces. What began as a democratic uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has transformed into a violent struggle between local, national, regional, and international forces, in which the Syrian government, extremist groups, and outside actors perpetrate atrocities against civilians as a systematic strategy of war.
Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority have borne the brunt of the Syrian government’s campaign of mass atrocities, while some of the forces opposing the regime have committed atrocities against Syrian civilians. In addition, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which took advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the spring of 2013, has waged a campaign of persecution and horrific brutality against religious communities and others who do not ascribe to its brand of Islamist extremism.
The uprising’s transformation into a sectarian conflict in 2012 saw a dramatic rise in the civilian death toll. Civilians have been directly targeted by multiple actors in Syria, especially by forces loyal to the Assad regime, their Russian and Iranian allies. There has thus far been no consequence to the commission of mass atrocities against civilians, increasing the risk that such abuses will continue.
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Title: Is the Worst Yet to Come? Ongoing Mass Atrocity Risks in Syria
Author: Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide
Published: March 2018
February 2014 Bearing Witness Trip
The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. Every day, Syrian men, women, and children are falling victim to the constant bombardment of their neighborhoods, schools, markets, and hospitals. They are being subjected to starvation, exposure, preventable diseases, and lack of medical care; to enforced disappearances; to chemical weapons attacks—which are banned under international law—and to torture, rape, and killings. The rapidly rising number of Syrian refugees is over 5.5 million, and another 6.1 million are internally displaced.
Most recently, the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, have increased their attack on Idlib province in northwest Syria, one of the final rebel-held areas that has not been reclaimed by Assad. An estimated three million people, including one million children, are living in Idlib. Many of them have already fled fighting elsewhere in Syria. There is a high risk that in Idlib these civilians will be harmed or killed.
In just three weeks from April 29–May 12, 2019, 18 health facilities, 17 schools, and three internally displaced person settlements were attacked. This violence reflects the pattern of the Syrian government and its allies to intentionally target necessary elements of civilian infrastructure throughout the war. Those trapped within Idlib have few places to go, as the border to Turkey is closed. With nowhere to flee, the population is at grave risk of mass killings by pro-Assad forces who perceive them as sympathetic to the rebels.
The Syrian people are not the only ones endangered by the conflict. The escalation of the fighting has exacerbated political and military tensions throughout the region. These tensions, combined with the burden of caring for millions of refugees, threaten to destabilize neighboring countries and lead to wider war. Syria’s humanitarian crisis also has grave implications for security and other interests throughout the world.
This page was last updated in July 2019.