At least 20 of the river crossing points used by civilians traversing the Euphrates River in Deir Ez-Zour governorate have been targeted in attacks by three of the main parties involved in the Syrian conflict, SNHR revealed in a report released today.
Flowing along a course of 135 kilometers through Deir Ez-Zour governorate, the Euphrates River runs through the border city of al Boukamal before entering Iraqi territory. While the main river runs through the northern outskirts of Deir el Zour in the area between the governorates of Deir Ez-Zour and Hasaka, a smaller tributary branch off, running through the city proper. Over the years, residents of the governorate have constructed bridges to traverse the river in order to travel between the many villages, towns, and neighborhoods in Deir Ez-Zour city and governorate. These bridges have been destroyed almost completely by Syrian regime forces, Russian forces, and US-led international coalition forces.
The 11-page report notes that the destruction of the bridges has gravely affected civilians’ ability to travel, thereby weakening the economic life of the area and forcing residents to rely more heavily on river crossings. A river crossing refers to any of the points where civilians gather to be transported via small boats, ferries or other vessels to the other side of the Euphrates River. In light of the recent developments, the report adds, these crossing points have become the only means of escape for civilians in the area fleeing areas under bombardment to reach safer ones.
This report documents the attacks on river crossing points, totaling 31 attacks that targeted 20 of the points used to cross the river. Of the 31 attacks, the Syrian regime was responsible for 15, while Russian forces carried out attacks on crossing points 13 times, with international coalition forces being responsible for the remaining three.
The report contains four accounts by eyewitnesses, survivors, and victims’ families, and draws upon investigations conducted by SNHR’s team which showed that these crossing points weren’t being used on a regular basis in any military capacity by ISIS, but were simply gathering places for civilians in areas under ISIS control wishing to cross the river. The report explains that ISIS used different crossing points to transport their fighters and vehicles separate from the crossings mentioned in the report. As such, the report confirms that all the attacks targeted groups of civilians without any military vehicles or ISIS fighters being present in the area during or even before the attacks. Also, the aggressor parties failed to warn the civilians in the vicinity prior to the attacks as required by international humanitarian law.
According to the report, the residents, fearing for their lives and the lives of their children, flee the horrific indiscriminate rain of bombs inflicted in the Russian-Syrian alliance forces’ airstrikes by crossing the river to the other side using rudimentary, locally-made boats, most of which are antiquated and need repairs which are currently impossible to carry out due to the lack of the necessary materials; this makes the escape trip itself, as well as the bombardment, a life-threatening and often traumatic experience. The report notes that there have been a number of incidents in which these boats have capsized or sunk, leaving no fewer than 17 civilians dead, including seven children and one woman, all of whom drowned. Despite the residents’ terror during these desperate attempts to flee death and save their children’s lives, Syrian and Russian warplanes have followed the vessels and bombed them during their voyage across the river in an act which, as the report states, accurately reflects the chilling and wholly calculated depravity and barbarism shown by the regime’s and Russia’s forces in dealing with fleeing civilians.
The report stresses that 90 percent of the attacks carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance forces have targeted groups of civilians as they were trying to flee the bombardment carried out by those forces against their villages and towns to reach safety in villages on the other bank of the Euphrates River. The use of this strategy was especially notable in the offensive launched by forces of the RussianRussian-Syrian alliance against the eastern and western suburbs of Deir Ez-Zour (Shamiya villages to the west of the Euphrates River) in mid-August 2017 which lasted until the end of November 2017. This offensive saw no fewer than 25 attacks on crossings which were concentrated in the villages of the eastern suburbs of Deir Ez-Zour (Shamiya villages).
According to the report, the attacks on river crossings resulted in the death of 241 civilians, including 28 children and 23 women (adult female). Of these civilian fatalities, Syrian regime forces were responsible for killing 98 civilians, including seven children and nine women, while Russian forces killed 143 civilians, including 21 children and 14 women. In addition, these attacks resulted in 15 massacres – nine by the Syrian regime and six by Russian forces.
The report stresses that indiscriminate, deliberate, or disproportionate attacks are deemed unlawful according to international humanitarian law. The attacks by Syrian regime forces and Russian forces, as well as international coalition forces, on water crossings demonstrate an utter disregard for the most basic standards of international humanitarian law. Additionally, these attacks, according to the report, targeted defenseless civilians. Consequently, RussianRussian-Syrian alliance forces have violated the rule of international human rights law which guarantee the right to life. In addition, these violations were perpetrated in a non-international armed conflict which qualifies as a war crime, for which all parameters have been met.
The report adds that Russian-Syrian alliance forces and international coalition forces have, beyond any doubt, violated Security Council Resolutions 2139 and 2254, both of which call for ceasing indiscriminate attacks. In addition, these parties have violated Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court through the crime of willful killing which constitutes war crimes. Moreover, these attacks constitute a violation of customary international humanitarian law since the projectiles were directed at a populated area rather than a specific military target, and resulted in collateral damage that involved massive loss of civilian lives, civilian injuries, and excessive damages to civilian objects. There are strong indicators compelling observers to believe that the damage inflicted was vastly excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated.
The report calls on the Security Council to refer the Syrian issue to the International Criminal Court, to hold all involved accountable, including the Russian regime whose involvement in war crimes has been proven beyond any doubt, to work to sustain peace and security in Syria, and to implement the norm of the Responsibility to Protect to save Syrians’ lives, heritage, and arts from being destroyed, looted, and ruined.
In addition, the report calls on the OHCHR to submit a report to the Human Rights Council and other UN organs concerning the violations involved in the targeting of water crossings, and to work to implement the recommendations included in this report.
The report urges the international community to take action at the national and regional levels to establish alliances to support the Syrian people. This would be achieved through protecting the Syrian people from the daily killing, by lifting the siege, and by increasing the support provided in the form of humanitarian relief. Steps should also be taken to exercise universal jurisdiction over these crimes in trying those responsible before national courts as part of fair trials for all involved.
The report also calls for the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect norm, after all the political channels used to date have proved to be a dead end in achieving this objective, including the Arab League agreement and Mr. Kofi Annan’s plan. As such, action must be taken under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, and the Responsibility to Protect, which was established by the UN General Assembly, must be implemented. At present, the Security Council is still, shamefully, hindering the protection of civilians in Syria.
Additionally, the report stresses that international coalition forces must respect international humanitarian law and customary international law, assume responsibility for the consequences of all of these violations, and do their utmost to avoid any recurrence. The report calls on the international coalition to enhance the manpower of the team charged with monitoring and investigating incidents, and to publicly hold to account all those found to have been involved in the attacks on river crossings following investigations into these incidents.
The report adds that international coalition forces should follow up the military victory against ISIS with a concerted effort to rid other areas from the group’s effects, and seriously work to establish a community-led democratic leadership in which the residents of these areas play an effective role.