On 15 September 2020, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) issued its 21st report on the situation in Syria (English and Arabic). The report was released on 15 September under the heading “No clean hands – behind the frontlines and the headlines, armed actors continue to subject civilians to horrific and increasingly targeted abuse” and was officially presented on 22 September during an interactive dialogue at the UNHRC.
The report provides detailed descriptions of violations by all parties to the conflict, including violations by Turkish affiliated forces in the North. However, it falls short of acknowledging the responsibility of the Syrian government and the UNSC for Syria’s current humanitarian crisis. The COI’s recommendation to lift economic sanctions is consequently misguided and would not properly address the humanitarian situation while ensuring accountability for all perpetrators.
Only three days after the report was released Turkey publicly denounced it, claiming that the allegations of human rights violations attributed to Turkish forces and the Syrian National Army (SNA) were baseless. Turkey repeated these claims during the official presentation of the report. However, the report’s focus on Turkey is based on strong evidence and reflects recent changes in the conflict. Turkey and the SNA have become two of the main actors in Syria over the last year. This is due to the withdrawal of some U.S. forces in October 2019 resulting in a significant increase in Turkey’s military presence through “Operation Peace Spring.” Turkish president Erdogan sought to create a 30km wide “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border, both to remove the SDF presence and create a resettlement zone for Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. However, as the COI report indicates, people in this zone are far from safe. The report finds that Turkey was aware of the war crimes and violations of humanitarian law, such as pillaging, looting, destroying and seizing property of an adversary, rape, cruel treatment and torture, committed by the SNA in regions under Turkish control. According to the report, Turkey not only failed to investigate these instances, there are also indicators that Turkey formed joint hierarchy and command structure with the SNA. In addition to Turkey’s obligation to ensure human rights and adherence to humanitarian law in regions under its control, a joint hierarchy would give rise to criminal liability for those in the Turkish army, who knew about the violations committed by the SNA.
The COI consequently made recommendations calling on Turkey to start independent and impartial investigations into human rights violations within its own ranks as well as within the ranks of armed groups it is supporting. Such investigations and respective fair trials are not a mere suggestion by the COI, but Turkey’s obligation under international law, which it so far failed to adhere to. It is crucial that investigations are carried out in accordance with international human rights and fair trial standards and conducted in a transparent manner.
In addition to the many SNA and Turkish perpetrators of violations described in the report, prisons in the Turkish controlled zone are overcrowded with alleged perpetrators, most of them suspect to affiliation with ISIS, who are still waiting for trial. Turkey should therefore enhance its international cooperation to hold these alleged ISIS perpetrators as well as the SNA leaders, responsible for serious human rights and humanitarian law violations, accountable. This can be done by extraditing them to the EU and other countries. These countries can prosecute alleged ISIS perpetrators under universal jurisdiction, in cases where there is no connection to victim or perpetrator, or under personal jurisdiction, in cases where there is a connection to the victim or in cases of so-called “returning foreign fighters” where there is a connection to the perpetrator. In addition to prosecuting ISIS fighters and most responsible SNA members, the international community should also support Turkey in fulfilling its obligations to improve detention conditions by taking back their own nationals, especially women and children who are currently detained in prisons controlled by the SNA and Turkey.
Sanctions are still the way forward, despite the UN’s failure to provide proper humanitarian assistance
The COI report also documents various violations committed by the Syrian Arab Army and its allied forces, including indiscriminate targeting, rape, arbitrary detention, destruction of cultural property and looting. The report also provides background on the worsening humanitarian situation and asserts that sanctions on individuals or companies involved or affiliated in the conflict should be lifted to further the fight against COVID-19. However, this is the wrong approach.
Despite the argument commonly put forward by the Syrian government, sanctions are not the main cause of the serious and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, which was further aggravated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These conditions are rather caused by the Syrian government’s own policy choices and human rights violations which are also reported by the COI. The cessation of cross-border humanitarian aid at Bab al-Salam and Al-Yarubiyah due to Russia’s veto at the UNSC is another aggravating factor.
While current sanctions do not directly affect the humanitarian sector, there are credible concerns that these sanctions are having a freezing affect, and can unintentionally make aid provision more difficult. The bureaucratic hurdles of sanctions should be eased to ensure that they are not hindering humanitarian assistance. In addition, sanctions should be expanded to include leaders of non-state armed groups and individuals supporting these groups, in order to deliver accountability for these perpetrators. The UN, in the form of the COI, should further not try to shift blame by urging member states to lift sanctions, but instead urge them to increase their humanitarian aid. International efforts should also focus on reauthorising the use of the Bab al-Salam and Al-Yarubiyah border crossings.
Of course, a sanctions-only policy is unlikely to alter the behaviour of the Syrian government despite impacts upon the population that might arise in course of the already existing economic crisis, as former Obama administration officials observe. Nonetheless, lifting existing sanctions, as the COI report asserts, would reduce pressure on the Syrian government. Various groups of states, among them the EU and the Nordic States, already mentioned this during the official presentation of the report. Pausing or lifting these sanctions might delay justice in Syria, perhaps for years, as no one knows how long the country will be affected by the ongoing pandemic. It would also signal that such measures can be easily bypassed, by claiming that their economic effects would endanger the civilian population.
It is commendable that the COI has called out Turkey for its role in violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Syria. Turkey should hold its own nationals and leaders of armed groups responsible, prosecuting them domestically and extraditing them for prosecution pursuant to universal or other jurisdiction.
It is further possible to maintain pressure on the Syrian government by continuing to enforce sanctions while taking measures to alleviate the suffering of the population. Primary among these measures are efforts to reopen the border crossings for provision on humanitarian aid and streamlining the process of granting special licenses exempting groups responsible for the provision of aid.