The Human Rights Watch investigation presents evidence that incriminates ten top-rung Russian and Syrian military officials in what the organisation describes as "war crimes".
The Russian-Syrian military alliance has resulted in the bombing of Syria's civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and market places. The country's Idlib province has come under one of the most intense bombardments in the recent past, where the damage was done in areas without legitimate military targets anywhere in sight, according to the latest Human Rights Watch report.
By combining the online evidence and eyewitness accounts, the researchers found a pattern of 46 attacks by Russian forces and the Syrian regime. Since the targets were schools, hospitals and markets in Syria's Idlib province between April 2019 and March 2020, the HRW researchers concluded that the series of attacks violated international law and constituted 'war crimes.'
Hundreds of civilians were killed as a result of dozens of air and ground strikes carried out by Russian and Syrian regime forces without giving any prior notice to civilians living in targeted areas.
The attacks triggered a mass displacement. During the period of 11 months that the HRW report covered, nearly 1.4 million people fled from Idlib, abandoning their homes.
The Russians began backing the Syrian regime in 2015, helping to turn the tide in favour of regime leader Bashar al Assad who waged a violent war against Syrian opposition in 2011. After almost five years of Russian-backed air campaigns in opposition-held areas, the only remaining major opposition stronghold that Syrian regime seeks to capture is Idlib.
Human Rights Watch says the purpose of targeting is likely to be forcing the local population to flee so that the Syrian forces could easily capture the rebel-held territories or simply terrorise people so as to achieve victories. These methods disregard the international law as all warring parties are required to distinguish between civilians and combatants and only sanction attacks on military objectives.
The report says, the indiscriminate bombing and ground assaults damaged twelve healthcare facilities, ten schools, five marketplaces, four camps for displaced people, four residential neighbourhoods and two other commercial areas. A prison, church, stadium and an NGO office were also hit in aerial bombings.
Targeting of medical facilities
The targeting of medical facilities was previously raised by healthcare workers in opposition-held Syria.
In an attempt to protect hospitals from a feared assault on Idlib, the medical staff and NGOs agreed to share the coordinates of some hidden hospitals in Idlib. Human rights advocates, who made the connections with the UN, however, later regretted their decision as both the Syrian regime and Russian forces ended up targeting them.
They say that the hospitals, including the hidden ones that had never been targeted before, were hit by more air strikes than they have ever received in the past . The UN then promised an investigation into the accusations that Syria and Russia have deliberately targeted the medical facilities.
Jan Egeland, a Norwegian diplomat and a former adviser to the United Nations on Syria, said the UN failed to impose sufficient repercussions on the responsible parties as Russia blocked action in the United Nations Security Council, the New York Times reported.
Human Rights Watch’s report came two days after Russia, along with China, was elected to have seats in the UN Human Rights Council, in a development that prompted an outcry from rights groups.
Warning a new wave of mass displacement, Human Rights Watch called on governments to sanction and prosecute those who are responsible for alleged war crimes.