Russian President Vladimir Putin bears responsibility for possible war crimes involving civilians being targeted in Syria, Human Rights Watch said Thursday in an in-depth report calling for sanctions on “those responsible”.
From April 2019 to March 2020, Russian and Syrian government forces engaged in a deliberate and systematic strategy of illegally targeting civilian infrastructure in Idlib that may also amount to crimes against humanity, HRW said in the 167-page publication.
The advocacy group documented dozens of strikes on hospitals, schools and markets during the 11-month military offensive to recapture the rebel-held province, which ended in a ceasefire in March after at least 1,700 civilians were killed.
“The attacks seriously impaired the rights to health, education, food, water, and shelter, triggering mass displacement,” the New York-headquartered group wrote.
“The nature and scale of the airstrikes and ground attacks on civilians committed by the Syrian-Russian alliance during the Idlib offensive in 2019-2020 may amount to crimes against humanity,” the report said.
Attacking civilians is a war crime when it is done deliberately or recklessly. When conducted in a widespread or systematic manner, such attacks may amount to crimes against humanity.
Russia denies targeting civilians, saying it only strikes “terrorist targets” in Idlib.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Mr Putin are both potentially criminally liable for war crimes as the respective commanders-in-chief of the Syrian and Russian armed forces, HRW said.
The report names eight other senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may also be culpable under the doctrine of command responsibility, which holds leaders accountable if they knew or should have known about violations and failed to take action to stop them or punish those responsible.
“Governments should consider unilateral targeted sanctions against those senior officials and commanders credibly implicated in abuses,” HRW said, noting that Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council prevented referrals to the International Criminal Court.
While previous reports have accused Russian and Syrian government forces of targeting civilians, HRW is the first to explicitly argue for command responsibility for the Russian leader.
“This report lays out how intimately involved the Russian military is in Syria's military operations in Idlib, and that goes all the way up to the Russian commander-in-chief, Vladimir Putin,” said report author and senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
Russia and Syrian military strategy appeared to target civilian infrastructure in order to force the displacement of populations, so that the Syrian army could “simply walk into an area and retake it without there being anyone left there,” Ms Wille said.
In March, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria published a report implicating Russia in unlawful attacks on civilian infrastructure, saying they likely amounted to war crimes, including that of forcible transfer.
The Commission of Inquiry was established in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council, a body at which Russia failed to win a seat in 2016, partly due to outrage over the bombing of civilian areas in Syria.
On Tuesday, Russia won an uncontested seat on the council for the next three years.
“Had there been a competitive slate, perhaps Russia would have met with an unpleasant outcome,” said Ms Wille, noting that Saudi Arabia’s bid to win a place on the 47-seat body failed amid concerns over its own human rights record.
Since war broke out in 2011, fighting in Syria has killed over 400,000 people.
After losing control over much of the country early on in the war, President Assad has since regained the upper hand with Russian and Iranian support.
Idlib is the last major rebel bastion and is now home to some three million people, many of whom were displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country.
The UN estimates that nearly 1.4 million people were displaced during the Idlib offensive and that over 300 towns and villages were depopulated as a result of attacks by Russian and Syrian government forces.
Since March the ceasefire has mostly held, though Mr Assad has vowed to recapture the whole country.