ARMED CONFLICT: Spotlight on Syria


Historical background

The internal conflict

Human rights violations



Since the start of the anti-government protests in 2011, which led to an internal armed conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule, at least 190,000 Syrians have lost their lives, more than 10,000 of them children.

The conflict has forced more than nine million people from their homes, almost 2.5 million of whom have found refuge in neighbouring countries, creating the worst refugee crisis in the last 20 years.

The violence hasn’t spared children at any point. On Wednesday 5 November, a school in the town of Qaboun was shelled, killing at least 13 children.


Historical background

Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 but experienced periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of its various religious and ethnic groups.

From 1958 to 1961, Syria united with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, but a military coup restored independence before the pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963, which still rules to this day. The Baath government has seen authoritarian rule at home and a strong anti-Israeli policy abroad, particularly under former President Hafez al-Assad.

In 1967 Syria lost the Golan Heights to the Israelis, while civil war in neighbouring Lebanon allowed it to extend its political and military influence in the region.

A referendum in 2007 endorsed Bashar al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad’s son, as president for a second seven-year term.

Syria pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2005, having come under intense international pressure to do so.

The Hama massacre

Under its rule, the Baath party came to dominate and control all aspects of political and social life, crushing any political opposition under emergency laws implemented in 1963.

In 1982, a litany of human rights violations occurred in the context of an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. In February 2, 1982, troops ordered by the late President Hafez al-Assad seized the city, and bombed its centre with fighter jets, enabling tanks to roll through Hama’s narrow streets, crushing an armed rebellion by an estimated 200 to 500 fighters from the Muslim Brotherhood’s military wing.

The subsequent 27-day military campaign killed around 25,000 people according to the UN and destroyed almost two thirds of the city, according to human rights organisations and foreign journalists who were in Syria but were not allowed to enter the city.

The 1982 massacre is regarded as the single bloodiest assault by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times and remains a pivotal event in Syrian history.

For decades, most witnesses of the events remained silent out of fear of further reprisals by government forces.

Decades of repression

The first report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic of November 2011 explains that:

“During the past four decades, suspected opponents of the Government have suffered torture, detention and long prison sentences imposed under vaguely defined crimes relating to political activity. Surveillance and suppression has been conducted by an extensive apparatus of intelligence, the mukhabarat. Decades of tight control of freedom of expression, as well as surveillance and persecution of opponents, have severely limited political life and the constitution of an autonomous civil society.”

Many hoped that the human rights situation would improve in 2000 when Bashar al-Assad became president. Instead, the new president focused his efforts on opening up the economy and continued to rule by emergency powers.

Human Rights Watch reported in 2010 that “Syria’s security agencies, the feared mukhabarat, continue to detain people without arrest warrants, frequently refuse to disclose their whereabouts for weeks and sometimes months, and regularly engage in torture. Special courts set up under Syria’s emergency laws, such as the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), sentence people following unfair trials.”

The internal conflict

The uprising

In early 2011, inspired by a wave of similar demonstrations elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, limited protests broke out demanding legal and political reform and respect for human rights.

In March, peaceful protests erupted in Dar’a in response to the detention and torture of a group of children accused of painting anti-government graffiti on public buildings.

By July 2011, hundreds of thousands of protesters nationwide were demanding the resignation of Bashar al-Assad and were met with an increasingly violent response by State forces.

In November 2011, the UN Committee against Torture voiced deep concern about massive human rights violations by Syrian forces, including the reported torture of children.

In June, video footage emerged showing the body of Thamer Al-Sahri, a 15-year-old boy, reportedly tortured to death after his arrest in April. Thamer's body was returned to his parents with a broken neck, broken leg, bullet holes, missing an eye and several teeth. He was arrested along with his friend, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, whose mutilated body was returned to his family after nearly a month of torture.

According to a report by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):

“Government response to the demonstrations of February and March 2011 set in motion a policy of violent repression. This policy concentrated on three main strategies: the violent suppression of demonstrations; extensive detention and torture of opposition activists, and the terrorizing of their families; and the deliberate murder of men, women and children by the Assad Government’s military forces and its Shabiha paramilitary units.”

In August 2011, the UN Human Right Council established the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic mandated to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic. The Commission is chaired today by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

The descent into civil war

The government’s use of military force to crush dissent merely hardened the protesters' resolve. Opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas.

Numerous defectors from military and security forces organised themselves into the “Free Syrian Army”, which has claimed responsibility for armed attacks against both military and security forces.

The country quickly descended into civil war and the fighting reached the capital Damascus and second city of Aleppo in 2012.

A UN report of June 2013 documented examples of how children are suffering gross violations of their human rights during the conflict. Experts say death, injury, torture, sexual violence, arrest and detention, and a lack of education and health facilities are just some of the horrific abuses they face.

On 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta area of Damascus, a chemical weapons attack reportedly killed more than 300 civilians, including a number of children. The UN later confirmed that chemical weapons were used during the attack and concluded that this amounts to war crimes.

In March 2014, the Commission of Inquiry declared that the UN Security Council "bears responsibility" for allowing such war crimes to continue and criticised the Council for failing to refer grave violations of the rules of war to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution. The Commission reported that all sides fighting in Syria's civil war are using shelling and siege tactics to punish civilians.

The US and European Union passed numerous sanctions against the regime that include asset freezes and travel bans but the UN Security Council failed to take a strong stand to ensure justice for the ongoing crimes committed in Syria. The Security Council has adopted two unanimous resolutions, one on the use of chemical weapons and the other designed to open up humanitarian access – though with little success so far. Russia and China vetoed four resolutions, the last one in May 2014, that aimed to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

Armed groups and the rise of Islamist movements

When the opposition first took up arms, they announced they were supporting a fight for freedom and democracy, away from sectarian ideals.

But the opposition quickly became fragmented and Salafi armed groups started to emerge in early 2012, calling for the establishment of an Islamic regime in Syria.

Today, there are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups. Many of the groups are small and operate on a local level, but a number have emerged as powerful forces with affiliates across the country or formed alliances with other groups that share a similar agenda.

Secular moderates are outnumbered by Islamists and jihadists linked to al-Qaeda, whose brutal tactics have caused widespread concern and triggered rebel infighting.

Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the first jihadist groups to emerge in Syria. It was created in 2011 and has been one of the most effective rebel forces since 2012. The group was blamed for dozens of suicide bombings in major city centres, killing many civilians. Today, they control territory in northern Syria.

Fighters of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) now control up to a third of Syria as well as swaths of Iraq and have declared a ‘caliphate’ in the territories they control. ISIL was formed in April 2013 and has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda. It has become one of the main militant groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq and one of the most dangerous jihadist groups. The group has gained a reputation for brutal rule in the areas that it controls. A recent report documents cases of Kurdish children from the Syrian city of Kobani who were tortured and abused while detained by ISIL. Four children gave detailed accounts of the suffering they endured while held for four months with some 100 other children. Read the report here.

Read a briefing on the Sunni-Shia’a conflict.

Armed groups fighting the government have committed many serious abuses, including recruiting and using children under 18 in combat and in direct support roles. According to Human Rights Watch, it first documented this practice in November 2012, finding that boys as young as 14 assisted in support roles for the Free Syrian Army. Since then, local residents and former child fighters reported that extremist Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL have systematically sought to recruit children.

US-led intervention

An American-led intervention targeting ISIL was launched in September, conducting air strikes against the group. Human Rights Watch reported a US missile strike that killed at least two men, two women, and five children, urging the US government to investigate the attack for possible violations of the laws of war.


More on human rights violations

The conflict’s patterns of violence and destruction have had a deep impact on children. In March 2014, UNICEF estimated that 5.5 million children are directly affected by the crisis and need humanitarian assistance, which amounts to 56 percent of all Syrian children.

Involvement of children

The 2012 annual report of the UN Secretary-General (SG) on children and armed conflict to the Security Council included Syrian government forces and their allied Shabiha militia for the first time as parties that violate international standards on children and armed conflict. "In almost all recorded cases, children were among the victims of military operations by government forces, including the Syrian armed forces, the intelligence forces and the Shabiha militia, in their ongoing conflict with the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army," the report says.

Since then, the SG added five armed groups to the list of parties committing grave violations of children’s rights. According to the the Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council issued on 15 May 2014, all the groups listed actively recruit and use children for logistics, handling ammunition, manning checkpoints and as combatants. Reports indicate that the recruitment of children or pressure to join armed groups also occur among refugee populations in neighbouring countries. Government forces and armed groups continue to kill and maim children; more than 10,000 children are estimated to have been killed since the outset of the conflict.

According to the report, adults and children released from detention relayed that children were still present in detention facilities and suffered treatment that amounts to torture.

Boys and girls and other victims of sexual violence in government-controlled detention facilities and checkpoints. Government forces also reportedly abducted young women and girls in groups at checkpoints or on the roads and released them a few days later in their village, intentionally exposing them as victims of rape and subjecting them to rejection by their families. The SG also received allegations of sexual violence against boys and girls by armed groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Read more in the SG’s report.

Attacks on education

A total of 4,000 schools have been destroyed or are being used as temporary housing. This contributes to the situation of 2.8 million Syrian children who are either out of school or are at high risk of dropping out of school.

In June 2013, a report by Human Rights Watch documented the use of schools for military purposes by both sides. It also describes how teachers and state security agents interrogated and beat students for alleged anti-government activity, and how security forces and shabiha, pro-government militias, assaulted peaceful student demonstrations. In several instances reported to Human Rights Watch, government forces fired on school buildings that were not being used for military purposes.

The refugee crisis

According to the UN refugee agency, as of January 2014, 6,520,800 persons were internally displaced in Syria and more than 2,468,000 have found refuge in neighbouring countries, 1.3 million of them are children. Only around 140,000 refugees returned home since the start of the conflict.

Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey struggling to accommodate the flood of new arrivals. The exodus has accelerated dramatically since the start of 2013, as conditions in Syria have deteriorated drastically.

Trapped civilians

According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), deliberate siege of the civilian population has been a persistent feature of the Syrian conflict. “Millions [...] have been stuck in highly dangerous and deprived environments.”

The Commission of Inquiry  formally acknowledged in 2013 that “siege warfare has entered the arsenal of the parties to the conflict”. It noted that siege was being used deliberately “to trap civilians in their homes by controlling the supply of food, water, medicine and electricity”, and that starvation and the denial of humanitarian relief was being used as a weapon of war in breach of International Humanitarian Law.


Reports of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, January 2014

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):
- Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis, May 2014.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees


Human Rights Watch:


International Crisis Groups



The Guardian:




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