(By Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher, Human Rights Watch) <
Dozens of government airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians, including children, in Aleppo governorate in the last month were unlawful. After months of stalemate between government and opposition forces in Aleppo, Human Rights Watch documented an intensification of government attacks starting on November 23. December 15 to 18 saw the most intense aerial attacks in Aleppo to date.
The attacks have hit residential and shopping areas, often killing dozens of civilians, either missing possible military targets or with little indication of any intended military objective in the vicinity. Human Rights Watch interviewed victims, witnesses, local activists, and medical personnel by phone and corroborated their statements by analyzing video and photographs posted on the Internet. A Human Rights Watch consultant visited three attack sites and interviewed eight victims and witnesses.
“Government forces have really been wreaking disaster on Aleppo in the last month, killing men, women, and children alike,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian Air Force is either criminally incompetent, doesn’t care whether it kills scores of civilians – or deliberately targets civilian areas.”
The London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which investigated deaths that occurred between December 15 and 18, documented the deaths of 232 civilians, the vast majority from airstrikes. Another Syria-based monitoring group that systematically collects information about deaths in the conflict, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), collected the names of 206 killed in aerial attacks between December 15 and 18, including two fighters.
VDC has documented the killings of 433 people in aerial attacks in the entire Aleppo governorate between November 22 and December 18, only eight of them opposition fighters.
These recent airstrikes appear to have followed the same pattern as strikes Human Rights Watch documented in its April report, “Death from the Skies.” Human Rights Watch concluded that government forces had used means and methods of warfare that, under the circumstances, could not distinguish between civilians and combatants, making attacks indiscriminate and therefore unlawful. Government forces in some cases appeared to target civilians and civilian structures deliberately or did not target an apparent military objective.
Most of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented in the last month struck at least 16 neighborhoods in the opposition-controlled part of the city of Aleppo and Al-Bab, a town 40 kilometers to the northeast, Al-Bab, has been under opposition control since July 2012, and often supplies fighters to battle government forces in Aleppo.
Some of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented struck relatively close to potential military objectives. For example, on November 12, a bomb that killed 12 civilians in Aleppo struck about 100 meters from a building occupied by opposition fighters. But local residents in Aleppo and Al-Bab said that attacks in the last month did not hit or significantly damage any of the known opposition bases or checkpoints in the cities.
Local residents who witnessed the attacks or arrived at the scene shortly afterward told Human Rights Watch that they saw no armed opposition fighters among the wounded and killed. One doctor who works in an Aleppo field hospital that received more than 100 injured people on December 15 told Human Rights Watch that a few opposition fighters were among the injured, but that none were among the 30 people who died in the hospital that day. The doctor said that the opposition fighters were wounded when bombs struck the apartment buildings where their family lives when they were home resting, not during fighting.
The witnesses and media reporting have alleged that many of the bombs that struck Aleppo and Al-Bab in the last month were oil drums filled with explosives and materials to enhance fragmentation, like scrap metal or nails, often referred to as barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters. A photo posted on the Facebook page of Halab Today TV of a crushed oil drum a helicopter allegedly dropped on Aleppo on December 16 appears to support the claim that such barrel bombs were used, and Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian Air Force use of such weapons in the past. But the lack of conclusive video evidence and the absence of weapons remnants at the attack sites mean that Human Rights Watch has not been able to conclude what weapons were used in the recent attacks.
The interviews, videos, and photos from the aftermath show that many of the attacks caused significant damage, sometimes completely destroying one or several buildings. Human Rights Watch believes that military commanders should not, as a matter of policy, order the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians.
Opposition forces also appear to have violated international law in the latest intensification of the fighting by indiscriminately launching rockets and mortars into civilian areas in the government-controlled part of Aleppo. On December 4, for example, opposition forces fired at least 10 surface-to-surface rockets into several of these residential areas, killing at least 19 civilians, according to an interview with a resident of the area and photo and video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Peace talks are scheduled to begin in the “Geneva II” political negotiations between the government and some parts of the opposition in Montreux, Switzerland on January 22, 2014.
The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, impose a weapons embargo on the government, and adopt sanctions against government officials implicated in violations, Human Rights Watch said.
“As the world focused on potential peace talks, the Syrian government has been attacking civilian areas with significant firepower,” Solvang said. ”Even as diplomats try to find a political solution, the world should not silently accept the unlawful killing of civilians.”
Below are the attacks since November 22, 2013, that Human Rights Watch documented with the highest numbers of civilian deaths.
December 15-18, Aleppo
The Syrian Air Force carried out a sustained offensive, with jet aircraft and helicopters, dropping dozens of bombs on at least 16 neighborhoods in the opposition-controlled part of Aleppo between December 15 and 18.
The intensive bombardment and the large number of civilian casualties made it hard to immediately determine an accurate death toll, but the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which specifically investigated deaths resulting from air strikes, has collected the names of 233 people killed in the course of the four days. According to SNHR, one of the dead was an opposition fighter killed by shelling on December 16, while the rest were civilians. The names SNHR collected included 60 children and 35 women. The Violations Documentation Center (VDC) collected 206 names, including two fighters. The VDC list includes 72 children and 15 women.
Witnesses and local residents Human Rights Watch interviewed confirmed the high number of civilian casualties following the repeated strikes on residential and commercial areas in the city. A doctor working in one of the field hospitals in Aleppo said that, on December 15 alone, his hospital received more than 100 wounded people, 30 of whom died in the hospital. Among the wounded were 41 children and 11 women. He told Human Rights Watch that several other hospitals in Aleppo also received injured people.
The Syrian Air Force has repeatedly hit the Haidariyeh roundabout, a key intersection on one of the main roads connecting opposition-controlled Aleppo to the countryside. The roundabout is also a gathering point for buses serving the Aleppo countryside, so it is usually crowded with civilians, residents told Human Rights Watch. Government forces attacked this area on both December 15 and 16, according to SNHR and two witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed. One activist who arrived 10 minutes after the strikes on the roundabout on December 16 said the attack struck a garage packed with people next to the roundabout:
I saw at least eight microbuses on fire. There were a lot of injured people there, including women and children. One man’s hand had been severed in the attack. He had been selling vegetables in a nearby market. I think at least 60 people were injured and 25 were killed in that attack.
Both witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw no armed opposition fighters among the wounded and that no armed opposition bases or checkpoints are near the roundabout.
At about 3:30 p.m. on December 15, after the attack on the roundabout, a helicopter dropped two bombs on the Sakhour neighborhood, about 400 meters away, killing 12 people, said an activist who arrived at the scene 15 minutes after the last attack:
About six buildings had been significantly damaged. The helicopter had dropped one bomb first, and then a second one after the ambulance arrived, so many of the killed were from the paramedic team.
Videos and photos from the attack site reviewed by Human Rights Watch show significant destruction to several buildings.
The activist told Human Rights Watch that he also went to the vegetable market in the Sakhour neighborhood after it was hit on December 16. He said that nine houses had been completely destroyed and 17 people were killed in that attack.
One of the attacks on December 16 struck outside the gate of the Taiba school in the Inzarat neighborhood, killing at least 14 civilians, including two teachers, four children, and one woman, according to SNHR. The field hospital doctor confirmed the names of 10 of those killed, and that the bombs had struck them in a school. A neighbor told Human Rights Watch that he was home when the attack happened:
There was huge explosion and my wife and I fell to the ground. Shattered glass from the broken windows covered us. After the explosion I went out. When I reached the Taiba school I saw that a rocket had struck just outside the gate of the school. Several people who were standing next to the gate were killed. One 11-year-old boy, our neighbor, had been cut into three pieces. I also saw the guard and three or four teachers who were killed.
The neighbor told Human Rights Watch that the Taiba school was one of very few schools in the opposition-controlled part of Aleppo that had reopened after the fighting broke out in Aleppo last year. He said that there were buildings used by armed opposition fighters 200 meters east and 200 meters west of the school, but that parents had insisted that there be no armed opposition fighters near the school because of the risk of attack:
The government still runs the school and pays the teachers’ salaries. They know that there are no opposition fighters close to the school. I never thought they would attack the school. When it reopened the parents insisted that there be no armed opposition fighters near the school and they cleared out of the neighborhood. I will never understand why they would attack the school like this.
According to the SNHR, more than 30 bombs struck at least 16 neighborhoods in Aleppo as well as Al-Bab and Anadan in the Aleppo countryside, on December 15 and 16.
November 30-December 1, Al-Bab
On November 30 and December 1, the Syrian Air Force attacked Al-Bab, firing rockets from jets and dropping bombs from helicopters, killing at least 61 people, according to a list of casualties given to Human Rights Watch by a member of the Al-Bab Local Coordination Committee, which documents violations and provides aid.
A local activist who collects information about those injured and killed and who investigated the attacks told Human Rights Watch that a jet first fired two rockets toward the main market in the city on November 30, killing 12 civilians. Helicopters then dropped six bombs on residential areas in the eastern part and center of the city at different times, killing another 18 people.
On December 1, helicopters dropped at least four bombs on Al-Bab, according to two local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch. One bomb struck near a market known as the covered market, or the old market. One local resident who arrived at the scene 30 minutes after the attacks told Human Rights Watch:
The bomb struck a coffee shop owned by the Habash family. The shop was completely destroyed, and five people from the family were killed. Several buildings were completely destroyed. Most of the injured were women, children, and just regular shoppers. The air strikes mostly happen in densely populated areas.
A second witness confirmed the strike on the coffee shop. The Local Coordination Committee’s casualty list includes the names of five members of the Habash family. In all, the aerial attacks in Al-Bab on December 1 killed 31 civilians.
The two witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they saw no wounded opposition fighters at the scene of the attack. The casualty list, which indicates whether the dead are civilians or fighters, lists all the people killed as civilians. The two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that none of the well-known armed opposition bases in Al-Bab were hit or damaged in the attacks.
November 28, Aleppo
Around 3:30 p.m. on November 28, a helicopter dropped a bomb near the Qadi Askar roundabout in Aleppo. The VDC recorded the names of 12 people killed in the attack, including five children. Human Rights Watch visited the site and interviewed five witnesses. Witnesses said they believed that about 15 people had been killed. A car mechanic who worked in a nearby shop said:
We saw helicopters flying in the sky, and we then heard an explosion. As usual, I stayed inside the shop in case there were more bombs. After a couple of minutes, I heard a really loud explosion, and the ground was shaking. Pieces of the building were falling down on me. When I ran outside, I saw a lot of dead people. A bus had been passing in the street when the bomb fell, and there were several dead people inside the bus. I recognized some of my neighbors among those killed.
The bomb landed in the street about 50 to 150 meters from several buildings used by opposition groups, Human Rights Watch found in an on-the-ground investigation.
November 23, Aleppo
Around noon on November 23, a helicopter dropped bombs near the Al-Hilwaniyeh roundabout in the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, completely destroying one building and damaging others. Neighbors provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 23 people killed in the attacks, including six children, all of them civilians. Human Rights Watch interviewed three witnesses. An owner of a shop adjacent to the building that collapsed said:
I was helping a customer in my shop, when suddenly we heard a huge sound and felt the ground shaking. Stones were flying through the air, and there was dust everywhere. We ran out and saw that the building next door had collapsed and that the fifth floor of our own building had been destroyed as well. We started removing the rubble to search for survivors. I saw at least 10 dead people in the ruins, some of whom I knew.
According to information collected by Human Rights Watch, opposition fighters held a small base adjacent to the building that collapsed, and a larger base about 350 meters away. According to the neighbors who provided Human Rights Watch with the names of those killed, there were no opposition fighters among the injured or killed.
Unlawful Attacks by Opposition Forces
December 4, Aleppo
On December 4, at least 10 surface-fired rockets struck several residential areas of the government-controlled part of Aleppo, killing at least 19 civilians.
A political analyst based in government-controlled Aleppo, who has been critical of both government and opposition forces and who writes under the pseudonym of Edward Dark, told Human Rights Watch by phone that he went to the Forkan neighborhood, one of the areas that was struck, shortly after the attack. According to people he interviewed, first one rocket struck the street, causing other people to rush to the scene. Shortly thereafter, a second rocket struck in the immediate vicinity, causing additional casualties.
The pro-government News Network of Aleppo posted on its Facebook page the names of 19 people, including two children, who were killed by rockets in government-controlled areas on December 4.
Dark told Human Rights Watch that the rockets in the Forkan neighborhood fell on the northern side of a road lined with five-story buildings, indicatingthat the rockets came from opposition-controlled areas to the south of the attack site.
Footage on Syrian TV and photographs of remnants of the weapons indicate that they were surface-fired unguided artillery rockets. This type of weapon is prone to indiscriminate use because it is a long-distance area-saturation weapon that cannot be reliably targeted or contain its effects to military objectives.
Dark told Human Rights Watch that opposition forces fire rockets into the government-controlled part of Aleppo almost daily:
I don’t know if they are targeting anything, but if they do, they miss it. Some of these areas are full of security service buildings, but they have not been hit. Sometimes the rockets fall on roofs or empty streets, but sometimes they fall on busy streets as well, doing a lot of damage.
Dark told Human Rights Watch that opposition attacks had also killed civilians on other occasions, including November 19, when the street outside the municipal building in Aleppo was attacked. Closed circuit TV outside the building captured the strike, showing an explosion right next to two people sitting on the side of what appears to be the entrance path to the building.
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