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Encirclement, bombardment, and starvation to compel surrender in Aleppo city – Commission of Inquiry

“The situation is indescribable,” a doctor working in eastern Aleppo city’s al-Sukkari neighbourhood recalled in late-November. “We received 168 wounded persons just today, and performed 153 open-wound surgeries. Seven surgery rooms are simultaneously operating to attend to victims.”

By the time pro-Government forces recaptured Aleppo city a month later, all hospitals had been bombed out of service by Syrian and/or Russian air forces.

Victim and witness accounts drawn from over 290 interviews were compiled by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria for its latest specially mandated report, which examines the human rights situation in Aleppo city and its environs between 21 July and 22 December 2016.

“Often without valid military targets, Syrian and Russian forces carried out daily air strikes in eastern Aleppo city, which claimed hundreds of lives,” said Commission Chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro. “Repeated bombardments of hospitals, schools, and markets without any warnings strongly suggest that the encirclement of the city and targeting of civilian infrastructure were part of a meticulous strategy to compel surrender.”

Speaking on the brutal conditions endured by the besieged population, one father recalled buying makeshift fuel made by burning plastic. “The fuel was so toxic, and smelled awful. Every time I used it to cook, I would ask my wife and daughter to lock themselves in a room at the end of the hall.”

Compounding the suffering of besieged civilians, some armed groups withheld the distribution of humanitarian aid in areas under their control. As the situation deteriorated in eastern Aleppo city and people tried desperately to flee, some civilians were also violently prevented by armed groups who used them as human shields, notably in al-Firdous district.

Pushing back against the siege, armed groups ruthlessly shelled civilians in western Aleppo city with improvised weapons, including propane gas cylinders known as “hell” canons. These attacks killed and injured dozens, including women and children. When launched without a clear military target, the report notes the attacks were intended to terrorize the civilian population in western Aleppo city living under Government-control.

Armed groups in western Aleppo countryside and eastern Aleppo city also bombed the Kurdish-held enclave of Sheikh Maqsoud, in northern Aleppo city, with the expressed intent of taking revenge on its majority Kurdish population. Intentional attacks killed and injured scores of civilians in Sheikh Maqsoud, amounting to the war crime of deliberately directing attacks against a civilian population, the report finds.

As part of the aerial campaign, Syrian and/or Russian air forces indiscriminately dropped cluster munitions throughout eastern Aleppo city, which killed and injured civilians. The use of cluster munitions in densely populated districts constitutes the war crime of indiscriminate attacks in a civilian area, the report notes.

The Commission’s report further details numerous incidents involving illegal weapons including chlorine bombs dropped by the Syrian Air Force from helicopters, which left hundreds of adults and children teary-eyed and struggling to breathe. The use of chlorine by Syrian forces follows a pattern observed by the Commission in 2014 and 2015.

“People living underground were dying from suffocation,” one woman from al-Zebdiyeh neighbourhood remembered. “On the ground floor, I began sleeping with a wet towel next to me, just in case I woke up smelling chlorine.”

In one of the most egregious attacks investigated by the Commission, the report finds that the Syrian Air Force deliberately targeted a United Nations/Syrian Arab Red Crescent humanitarian convoy in September, in Orum al-Kubra, western Aleppo countryside. The attack killed more than a dozen aid workers, destroyed 17 trucks carrying vital aid supplies, and led to the temporary suspension of all humanitarian aid throughout Syria.

“The convoy had been authorized by the Syrian Government, and the Government was aware of its location at the time,” said Commissioner Carla Del Ponte. “The attack was obviously planned and carried out by the Syrian Air Force to hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid and target aid workers. Of course, these are war crimes for which accountability must be pursued.”

By the time pro-Government forces took control of northern districts in late November, one civilian described the chaos: “It is doomsday. The humanitarian situation is dire. Shelling is ceaseless—24 hours a day. Civilians are fleeing their homes without taking anything with them. It’s freezing. Some children went missing and their mothers couldn’t find them. People are looking for water in the streets.

Another resident, who managed to flee, echoed “I wanted to leave at any cost. I couldn’t stand the airstrikes or bombing. I knew that I was going to die anyway, even if I’d stayed. Towards the end, we were walking on corpses in the streets.”

After recapturing eastern Aleppo city, pro-Government forces arbitrarily arrested numerous civilians, and separated women from men to forcibly conscript men into their ranks. When armed groups agreed to evacuate the city in late December, thousands of civilians were sent to Idlib governorate as part of a deal struck between warring parties, where they continue to live under airstrikes and without basic necessities. The evacuation amounts to the war crime of forced displacement, the report concludes.

“The siege of eastern Aleppo city was characterised by some of the most serious violations of international law the Commission has documented, which were committed by all warring parties,” said Commission Chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro. “Destruction is nothing new in the Syrian war, but the scale of what happened in Aleppo is unprecedented. Victims are calling for accountability now, and the international community must heed their call.”

1 March 2017