Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
established pursuant to United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions S-17/1, 19/22 and 21/26
20 December 2012? Periodic Update
1. The unrelenting violence in Syria has resulted in thousands of deaths, untold
thousands of wounded, detained and disappeared, and physical destruction on a
massive scale. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes and those that remain
struggle to secure basic necessities. World heritage sites have been damaged or
destroyed, as have entire neighbourhoods. Civilians have borne the brunt of
escalating armed confrontations as the front lines between Government forces and
the armed opposition have moved deeper into urban areas. The patterns of
international human rights and humanitarian law violations that were noted in
previous reports have continued unabated, alongside a proliferation of both anti-
and pro-Government armed entities.
2. On 28 September 2012 the Human Rights Council (HRC) extended the mandate of
the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
(the Commission), requesting it to investigate all massacres and continue to update
its mapping exercise of gross violations of human rights since March 2011. The
HRC also requested the Commission to investigate allegations of war crimes and
crimes against humanity. Updates of the Commission’s findings with respect to
such violations are to be released periodically.
3. This periodic update covers the period 28 September to 16 December 2012.
II. Military situation
4. The Syrian conflict has been marked by a continuous but unequal escalation of
armed violence throughout the country. Levels of violence have varied
geographically due to the interplay of a number of factors: the strategic importance
of a particular area, the deployment and strength of Government forces, the 2
sectarian composition of the local population and anti-Government armed groups’
organisation and access to logistical support.
5. In the southern governorates of Dara’a, al-Suweida and al-Qunayterah,
Government forces remain in control of main localities. This is due to the heavy
presence of army units and security services, together with the existence of
relatively disorganised and poorly armed anti-Government groups in these areas. In
comparison to groups based in the north-west, armed groups in the southern
governorates have struggled to establish themselves and are able only to briefly
attack isolated checkpoints and individuals. In these areas, the army is still able to
set up checkpoints and conduct targeted raids inside restive towns.
6. Reports from northern and central provinces describe a different reality, with antiGovernment armed groups exercising control over large swathes of territory.
Armed groups in governorates such as Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo have been able to
coordinate effectively, both with each other and with unified local military
councils. Further, they are equipped with increasingly efficient military assets
allowing them to mount a serious challenge to the Government forces’ authority.
7. Violence has increased dramatically in and around major cities, in particular
Damascus and Aleppo, where anti-Government fighters have advanced to
neighbourhoods close to the cities’ centres. Anti-Government armed groups were
also reported in governorates such as al-Raqqah and al-Hasakah where they have
clashed with army units, provoking shelling and artillery attacks.
8. Mounting tensions have led to armed clashes between different armed groups along
a sectarian divide (see Section III). Such incidents took place in mixed
communities or where armed groups had attempted to take hold of areas
predominantly inhabited by pro-Government minority communities. Some minority
communities, notably the Alawites and Christians, have formed armed self-defence
groups to protect their neighbourhoods from anti-Government fighters by
establishing checkpoints around these areas. Some of those local groups, known as
Popular Committees, are said to have participated alongside Government forces in
military operations in Damascus countryside in Tadamon and Said al-Zeinab
neighbourhoods. Interviewees alleged that the Government provided arms and
uniforms to these groups.
9. During the last two months, anti-Government armed groups have reached strategic
regions and were able to challenge state forces control of sensitive infrastructure
such as oil fields, major highways, airports and military camps. The armed groups
have increasing access to weaponry, though those in the south tend to be less wellarmed. Most anti-Government armed groups are equipped with individual light
weapons and small arms, typical to any insurgency, including Rocket Propelled 3
Grenades (RPGs) of different calibres and types. The larger armed groups possess
mortars, heavy machine guns and heavy anti-aircraft machine guns. A few have
obtained anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The quality and quantity of such
missiles appear to be limited but would be sufficient to affect Government forces
use of air assets. While significant quantities of arms were taken from army camps,
weapons and ammunition have also been smuggled in from neighbouring countries.
10. Interviews with fighters, including some defectors, indicate that newly formed
armed opposition groups are less likely to attach themselves to the Free Syrian
Army (FSA). Many operate independently from existing groups or are affiliated to
Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Foreign fighters, many of whom also have
links to other extremist groups, are present in Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo
governorates. Multiple interviewees noted that while these groups are independent
of the FSA, they coordinate attacks with them.
11. Government forces, along with supporting militia, have tried to adapt their
deployment, tactics and capabilities to those of the armed groups. They are
focussing now on securing control of main cities – particularly Aleppo and
Damascus – while limiting their actions in the countryside to shelling and aerial
attacks. There are fewer accounts of Government forces engaging in ground
actions. Rather they continue shelling areas under anti-Government armed group
control, endangering civilians who remain in these areas. Interviewees stated that
joint pro-Government forces are conducting house-to-house searches in
neighbourhoods used by the opposition such as Daraya in Damascus countryside
and Mashari’a al-Arbaeen in Hama city. Government forces continue to besiege
opposition strongholds in the central region of the country and reinforce borders
with Lebanon and Jordan in an attempt to limit flows of weapons and people.
III. Increased sectarianism
12. The risk of the Syrian conflict devolving from peaceful protests seeking political
reform to a confrontation between ethnic and religious groups has been ever
present. As battles between Government forces and anti-Government armed groups
approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in
13. In recent months, there has been a clear shift in how interviewees portray the
conflict. In describing the shelling of a village in Latakia governorate by
Government forces, one interviewee stressed that the shelling came from positions
in "Alawite villages”. Another interviewee, describing ground attacks in Bosra in
the southern Dara’a governorate, stated that tensions between the Shia and Sunni
communities in the town were "escalating”, with violence becoming increasingly
14. The country’s other minority groups, such as the Armenians, Christians, Druze,
Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmen (see Section IV), have been drawn into the
conflict. However, the sectarian lines fall most sharply between Syria’s Alawite
community, from which most of the Government’s senior political and military
figures hail, and the country’s majority Sunni community who are broadly (but not
uniformly) in support of the anti-Government armed groups.
15. Attacks and reprisals (and fears thereof) have led to communities arming
themselves, and being armed by parties to the conflict. One interviewee, a Turkman
living in Latakia, captured the situation succinctly: "it is too dangerous to live
beside neighbours who are armed and [consider you to be a rebel], while you
yourself remain unarmed”.
16. Government forces and militias aligned with the Government have attacked Sunni
civilians. One interviewee, present in Bosra in late October, described "members of
the Shia militia”, whom she recognised from the neighbourhood, conducting house
searches. She stated that the militia told her that "they would kill all Sunnis in the
region and that the area belonged to them”. Another interviewee stated that he
regularly witnessed Sunni commuters being pulled out of their cars and beaten at
army checkpoints along the main highway between Dara’a and Damascus.
17. The Commission has received credible reports of anti-Government armed groups
attacking Alawites and other pro-Government minority communities. One
interviewee, an FSA fighter in Latakia, detailed how, upon capturing Government
forces, the Sunni captives were imprisoned while Alawites were immediately
executed. On 30 October, a bomb exploded near an important Shia shrine outside
of Damascus, killing and injuring several people. On 6 November, a car bomb
exploded in the Alawite neighbourhood of Hai al-Wuroud in the north-west of
Damascus, reportedly killing ten people.
18. Most of the foreign fighters filtering into Syria to join the anti-Government armed
groups (or to fight independently alongside them) are Sunnis hailing from countries
in the Middle East and North Africa. The increasingly sectarian nature of the
conflict provides one motivation for other actors to enter into the conflict. The
Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah has confirmed that its members are in Syria
fighting on behalf of the Government. There have also been reports, still under
investigation, of Iraqi Shias coming to fight in Syria. Iran confirmed on 14
September that members of its Revolutionary Guards are in Syria providing
"intellectual and advisory support”.
19. One expatriate interlocutor working inside Syria described a "low intensity
sectarian conflict” taking place alongside the fight against the Government. The 5
dangers are evident. Entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the
country or of being killed inside the country. With communities believing – not
without cause – that they face an existential threat, the need for a negotiated
settlement is more urgent than ever.
IV. Minority groups in the conflict
20. Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have
increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian
21. Syria’s Armenian Orthodox, other Christian, and Druze communities have sought
protection by aligning themselves with the Government, with the consequence that
they have come under attack from anti-Government armed groups.
22. The Armenian Orthodox community resides mainly in Aleppo governorate. On 16
September, ten passengers on a bus travelling from Beirut to Aleppo were
kidnapped. All ten were Christian, with seven being Armenian Orthodox. Their
whereabouts remain unknown. On the same day, the Saint Kevork Armenian
Church in Aleppo was heavily damaged. Syrians of Armenian descent have sought
refuge in Armenia.
23. Christian communities are spread throughout Syria, with the largest communities,
prior to the conflict, living in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs governorates. Homs
city had been home to approximately 80,000 Christians, most of whom have now
fled reportedly to Damascus, with some then making their way to Beirut. It is
estimated that only a few hundred remain. An interviewee, speaking about recent
events in al-Suweida governorate, confirmed that the Sunni and Druze
communities had clashed, leaving several dead. On 29 October, a car bomb
exploded outside a bakery in Jaramana, a predominantly Christian and Druze
neighbourhood in Damascus.
24. Half a million Palestinian refugees live in Syria. A third reside in the Yarmouk
refugee camp in Damascus. Divisions within the community hardened after
February 2012, when Hamas broke with the Government. Reports reviewed by the
Commission indicate that Palestinians in Yarmouk are being armed by both the
Government and the anti-Government armed groups.
25. On 5 November, approximately 20 Palestinians were killed and over 70 injured
during a mortar attack on Yarmouk. Both the Government forces and the antiGovernment armed groups have accused each other of firing the mortars. On the
same day, the body of Mohammed Rafeh, a prominent Syrian-born Palestinian who
had been outspoken in his support of President Assad, was returned to his family 6
bearing gunshots to the head and upper body. A group named "Ahfad al-Siddiqi”
claimed responsibility for the killing.
26. Following airstrikes on Yarmouk on 16 December, which reportedly killed and
injured dozens of residents, damaged a mosque and left the camp devastated, the
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) denounced the Assad Government. The
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command continues to
support the Government.
27. The Kurds, who live predominantly in the north-eastern al-Hasakah governorate,
have remained relatively autonomous due to their fighting ability and independent
supply lines. They have clashed with Government forces and anti-Government
armed groups over control of territory. Hostilities flared between Kurdish militias
and the anti-Government armed groups on 25 October in Aleppo, following the
armed groups’ attempt to enter the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood.
Fighting continued until 5 November, when a truce was signed. On 19 November,
anti-Government armed groups attacked a Kurdish militia checkpoint in Ras alAyn, leaving six rebels dead. An anti-Government sniper also assassinated Abed
Khalil, the president of the local Kurdish council. Four Kurdish fighters were later
executed after being captured by anti-Government fighters.
28. Turkmen militias fight as part of the anti-Government armed groups in Latakia
governorate. Several Turkmen civilians have emphasised the discrimination their
community suffered under the Government. Interviewees also emphasised that the
decision to bear arms was influenced in part by the creation of Alawite militias in
surrounding villages, and the fact that Turkmen were being harassed at checkpoints
and during house searches.
V. Violations of international human rights and humanitarian law
Unlawful killing and ‘massacres’
29. In addition to investigating summary executions and violations of the right to life
generally, under its extended mandate the Commission is also investigating
30. Investigations continue regarding reports that pro-Government forces are
unlawfully killing armed and unarmed persons suspected of opposing the
Government. Accounts from Latakia indicate that Shabbiha arrest and torture,
including torturing to death, suspected opposition members. Incidents in Asfira
(September) and al-Basit (August) fitting this pattern are under investigation.
31. Although fewer credible accounts were received of Government soldiers executing
captives, incidents of direct targeting of civilians by aerial bombardment, including 7
"barrel bombs,” rocket attacks and machine gun fire have risen significantly. The
Commission recorded a large number of incidents in several governorates where
multiple civilian casualties resulted from shelling by Government forces. The
evidence in many of these cases indicates that Government forces take insufficient
precautions to avoid incidental loss of civilian life and that their attacks are
disproportionate to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
Investigations are on-going as to whether these attacks are indiscriminate and
violate the law of armed conflict.
32. Consistent accounts of summary executions by anti-Government armed groups
continue to be collected. Unlawful executions of captured Government soldiers in
Aleppo (10 September), Sabouk (2 November) and Ras al-Ayn (29 November),
where the unarmed captives were gathered together and then gunned down, are
under investigation. Investigations indicate that in some instances captured enemy
fighters are brought before a Sharia council (al-Lajana al-Shariah) prior to their
execution. Neither the substantive nor procedural framework of these councils
could be ascertained, with one interviewee positing that, "only those with blood on
their hands” are executed. It is a war crime to sentence or execute a person who has
been captured, has surrendered, is injured or is otherwise hors de combat, without
33. The use of snipers has become a pronounced feature of the urban insurgency fought
by both Government and anti-Government armed groups, positioned in strategic
areas to freeze the frontlines and hinder movement. Civilians caught in between are
exposed, vulnerable to the constant risk of being hit by snipers. Several interviews
describe civilians, particularly in Aleppo city, being killed by sniper fire. There are
also recorded accounts of women and children victims with injuries that indicate
they were shot by snipers while going about their daily routine. Several credible
accounts concern civilian victims in Latakia who came under sniper fire while
collecting milk in the morning. One woman was hit adjusting the television antenna
on the roof of her house. Similar accounts were recorded elsewhere.
34. Considerable evidence has been collected regarding the use of torture, particularly
in Government-run detention centres in Damascus. The testimony of interviewees
indicates a consistent and systematic pattern of torture during which individuals are
beaten and subjected to electric shocks while held in overcrowded, underground
cells. One victim who had been detained in Harasta Intelligence Branch outside of
Damascus for 30 days, had his genitals electrocuted on multiple occasions. Another
interviewee, a former guard of Harasta prison, described how his superiors
encouraged the ill-treatment of detainees. Testimony was also gathered indicating
that children were held in Harasta Intelligence Branch in the same detention areas
and conditions as adults and were also tortured. 8
35. An interviewee, arrested in August while distributing bread in one of the northern
governorates, was handed over to Military Security, who beat him, asking "where
are you taking this bread? Were you taking it to the FSA?” After five days of
torture and detention without food or water, the interviewee reported, "I couldn't
move my leg or stand up, I reached the point where I wished I could die.” The
interviewee was transferred through a prison in Homs and then to Military Security
Branch 215 in Damascus where for two weeks he was kept in an underground cell
of 4 by 5 metres with 60 other detainees. Multiple accounts have been collected of
torture occurring in Military Security Branch 215, including the use of torture
methods such as hanging from the ceiling by wrists (shabeh) and beaten inside a
tyre (dulab). The consistency among the various accounts lends them significant
36. In Latakia, interviewees described a pattern of shabbiha conduct. In manning
checkpoints to majority-Alawite villages, shabbiha often arrest, harass and torture
individuals suspected of cooperating with the opposition, detain them or hand them
over to Air Force and Military Security Intelligence organs.
37. Accounts were also received of torture by anti-Government armed groups,
documenting an FSA-administered detention centre in Sahara, Aleppo where
detainees were tortured and killed. In Seida al-Zeinab in Damascus, FSA members
reportedly captured, interrogated and beat a suspected Hezbollah member.
Attacks on protected objects
38. Increasing attacks on cultural property as well as the use of protected objects for
military purposes by all parties to the conflict have been recorded. Available
information indicates that Syria’s six World Heritage sites have been damaged in
the fighting. In Aleppo, the historic souk was burned (1 October), the Umayyad
mosque was significantly damaged (14 October), and the Saint Kevork Church (29
October) was damaged by arsonists. The doors of the Aleppo Citadel were also
damaged in August, while looters have broken into one of the world’s bestpreserved Crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers. Artefacts in museums in Palmyra,
Bosra and Homs have also been looted while ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra
have been damaged.
39. Interviewees described Government forces’ shelling of state hospitals as well as
field hospitals in opposition-controlled areas. Multiple interviewees described the
shelling of hospitals in Aleppo governorate, in Aleppo city and the towns of Hirtan
and El Bab. Dar al-Shifa, the main emergency hospital in Aleppo city, has been
shelled on multiple occasions leading to its destruction. Investigations are on-going
about the potential misuse of the hospitals at the time of attacks, the possible 9
presence of legitimate military targets nearby, and whether adequate warnings were
given prior to attack.
40. Attacking protected objects is a war crime, while using protected objects for
military purposes violates customary international humanitarian law in noninternational armed conflict.
Use of cluster munitions
41. The use of cluster munitions in populated urban areas is currently under
investigation. Syria is not party to the international Convention on Cluster
Munitions which prohibits such use. Where the object of an attack was the civilian
population or individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities, the
investigation will seek to verify the occurrence of the war crime of attacking
civilians. Whether the use of cluster munitions was indiscriminate is also being
VI. Impact on the civilian population
42. Investigation into the conduct of hostilities of the parties to the conflict in Syria is
on-going. Certain attacks are of particular concern, particularly those that inflict
terror upon civilians seeking to obtain basic necessities.
43. The evidence collected indicates that anti-Government armed groups consistently
fail to distinguish themselves from the civilian population. The obligation on each
party to the conflict, under customary international law, to remove civilian persons
and objects under their control from the vicinity of military objectives is
particularly relevant where military objectives cannot feasibly be separated from
densely populated areas. The manifest failure to make these distinctions has
resulted in civilians being driven from their homes and contributed to the alarming
increase of IDPs and refugees.
44. Faced with shelling and shortages of food, water and fuel, civilians have fled their
homes, becoming refugees in neighbouring countries or finding themselves
internally displaced. Towns and villages across Latakia, Idlib, Hama and Dara’a
governorates have been effectively emptied of their populations. Entire
neighbourhoods in southern and eastern Damascus, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo have
been razed. The downtown of Homs city has been devastated.
45. The humanitarian situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly during the reporting
period. Many of those interviewed detailed the difficulty in obtaining food, potable
water and fuel. This appears to be particularly acute in Idlib, Latakia and in
northern Aleppo governorates. In Aleppo city, and among much of the north of
Syria, electricity has been cut off, food is no longer readily available and access to 10
medical care or assistance is severely limited. In Idlib, an interviewee described
how in addition to the shelling, the living conditions in the town of Hass had
become unbearable, aggravated by a lack of fuel and domestic gas, frequent
electricity and water cuts, and skyrocketing food prices of basic products such as
bread. The situation in Latakia, according to multiple accounts, has become so dire
that entire villages that are home to the Turkmen community have been emptied.
Investigations are seeking to establish whether such shortages are deliberate and
part of an intentional and concerted siege, or whether they are a direct, albeit
unintended, consequence of protracted armed conflict.
46. In certain areas, the humanitarian situation has been aggravated by widespread
destruction and razing of residential areas. According to the Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), many internally displaced persons
(IDPs) in Syria are unable to return to their homes because they have been
destroyed. The onset of winter poses particular risk to such vulnerable groups.
Numbers of refugees are expected to swell in the coming months to over 700,000,
while there are already 2 million IDPs according to the latest OCHA figures.
47. The war of attrition that is being fought in Syria has brought immeasurable
destruction and human suffering to the civilian population. As the conflict drags on,
the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their
conduct increasingly being in breach of international law. The sole way to bring
about an immediate cessation of the violence is through a negotiated political
settlement which meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. The
Commission strongly supports the mission of Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint
Special Representative of the United Nations and League of Arab States in its
effort to bring the parties towards such a settlement.