In a report released today on the recapture of East Aleppo by pro-Syrian government forces, the United Nations Human Rights Council concludes that the much-touted “evacuation” of civilians from the rebel-enclave last year was actually a “war crime of forced displacement” because it was carried out for strategic reasons rather than any regard for protecting non-combatants or for military necessity. The population transfer had in fact been overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The 37-page report, based on the work of a Commission of Inquiry, lays blame on both sides of the conflict for failing to take sufficient safeguards against against the loss of life or the destruction of vital infrastructure, although it finds that the Syrian and Russian air forces wrought a particularly devastating toll.
Warplanes targeted hospitals, bakeries and schools in a non-stop bombing campaign that lasted for months, beginning in September 2016. ”Approximately 300 people—including 96 children—were killed in the first four days of the offensive alone,” the report states.
Daily airstrikes “exclusively employing, as far as the Commission could determine, unguided air-delivered munitions. These included aerial bombs, air-to-surface rockets, cluster munitions, incendiary bombs and improvised air-delivered munitions (barrel bombs), and weapons delivering toxic industrial chemicals, including chlorine.”
For their part, rebels in East Aleppo indiscriminately shelled regime-held West Aleppo, using “improvised weapons” that killed or injured dozens of civilians, including women and children.
No evidence was found that Russian aircraft deployed chemical weapons in Aleppo. However, Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters did, dropping chlorine bombs all “throughout 2016” and therefore putting his regime in stark violation of the very Chemical Weapons Convention it signed in 2013.
Accession to that international treaty was a prelude to the regime’s decommissioning of its chemical weapons program resulting from a U.S. and Russian-brokered deal after the regime’s use of sarin gas against opposition districts in Damascus that same year. In October, the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that pro-Assad forces was still using chlorine and even sulfur mustard gas against various enemy targets, including the so-called Islamic State. On Tuesday, however, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to sanction the regime for this violation of the Convention.
Among the buildings in East Aleppo reduced to rubble by a sustained air war were “hospitals, markets, water stations, schools and residential buildings.” Women and children were acutely affected because they tended to remain indoors more often; those injured then struggled to find adequate medical treatment owing to the wholesale annihilation of East Aleppo’s medical facilities.
In the al-Shaar neighborhood, Syrian or Russian planes hit three hospitals, a clinic and a blood bank. One of these, al-Hakim, was the only children’s hospital in the rebel-held sector of the city. “On 23 July, an air strike damaged the building and caused a power cut,” the report states, “that led to the death of four newborns in incubators. In an attempt to protect patients, the hospital was moved underground. Until this point, all hospitals in al-Shaar had been clearly marked, after which emblems were removed out of fear of being targeted.”
By December, all hospitals in the opposition enclave were “bombed out of service.” Families fleeing additional raids were forced to leave their dead and injured in the street. Pregnant women gave birth without any medical assistance or opted for caesarian sections to reduce the time of labor.
Very often, non-military targets such as the Firdous vegetable market were subjected to “double tap” airstrikes to maximize casualties. This is when a plane wages one sortie, flies off, and then returns for a sequel attack, typically to hit any and all who may have arrived at the scene of the first attack in order to rescue the wounded or recover the dead.
In the district of al-Firdous, too, “certain armed groups,” likely amplified civilian casualties by using civilians as human shields, preventing their departure in the hope that this would dissuade further attacks from pro-regime forces—which of course it didn’t. Elsewhere rebels stockpiled food and doled it out preferentially, forcing a price surge.
One opposition faction guilty of war crimes to which the UN repeatedly refers is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is—or was, if you believe them (and you shouldn’t) —al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Of the 6,000 to 8,000 rebel fighters in East Aleppo, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s total number did not exceed 200, however, its influence was pronounced owing to its “operational capacity coupled with the fear that [it] engendered from other groups.” Both the Kremlin and the Assad regime inflated the number of al-Qaeda terrorists in East Aleppo well beyond this figure.
Of special interest is what the Commission found about the destruction of 17 trucks carrying humanitarian aid on behalf of the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent in mid-September in the area of Orum al-Kurba. Fourteen civilian aid workers were killed and 15 others were wounded in the convoy.
The Russian Ministry of Defense, which was found by open-source research organization Bellingcat to have deployed a surveillance drone monitoring the convoy throughout the day, on Sep. 19, blamed the attack on the Civil Defense Forces, or White Helmets, a Western government-funded team of first responders operating in throughout northern Syria. (A Netflix-produced short documentary about their work just won an Academy Award on Sunday.)
“The perpetrator of the fire, as well as his goal may be known by members of the White Helmets organization that has connection to the Nusra Front terrorists who have ‘accidentally’ been at the right time and in the right place with cameras,” the Ministry had alleged. Igor Konashekov, a ministry spokesman, categorically denied that either the Russian or Syrian air forces were responsible for the convoy attack.
The UN now disagrees with that assessment: “The types of munitions used, the breadth of the area targeted and the duration of the attack strongly suggest that the attack was meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out by the Syrian air force to purposefully hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid and target aid workers, constituting the war crimes of deliberately attacking humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid and targeting civilians.”
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat and a coauthor of a recent Atlantic Council report titled, “Breaking Aleppo,” which documents many of the same atrocities the UN has now weighed in, told The Daily Beast that the convoy attack and attendant disinformation campaign that followed it shows “Russian government repeatedly lied to the public and international community in an attempt to cover up their Syrian ally's war crimes.