Documenting the Deaths of 229 Syrian Civil Defense Members Since Its Establishment in March 2013 to Date
In its latest report released today, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reveals that Syrian-Russian alliance forces have targeted 31 Civil Defense vital facilities in the fourth de-escalation zone within an 11-week period, noting the deaths of 229 Syrian Civil Defense members to date since the organization’s establishment in March 2013.
The 26-page report notes that the targeting of relief activities and their pillars is a recurring pattern of behavior by the Syrian regime and its allies used to inflict the most severe suffering among civilians to force them to capitulate and surrender through targeting those who offer them relief, aid and treatment services.
The report points out that the distinction between civilians and combatants and the protection of all those not taking part in hostilities constitutes the essence of international humanitarian law applicable in the case of armed conflicts, with many of its articles calling for the protection of medical personnel assisting civilians and the wounded following attacks, and for respecting them as neutral individuals helping the sick and wounded without discrimination. Amongst these articles of legislation, the report notes, is the first Geneva Convention, which states in Article 24 that medical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease, staff exclusively engaged in the administration of medical units and establishments, as well as chaplains attached to the armed forces, shall be respected and protected in all circumstances. The first Additional Protocol, in Chapter VI, also defines the meaning of civil defense and, in Article 62, provides for the protection of civil defense personnel. Also, the report points out, under Rule 109 of customary humanitarian law, each party to the conflict has to take all possible measures to search for, collect and evacuate the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. This includes permitting humanitarian organizations to assist in their search and collection.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, the Chairman of the SNHR, adds:
“The tasks carried out by the Syrian Civil Defense teams (White Helmets) are diametrically opposed to the strategy of the Syrian regime and Russia of inflicting as much pain and fear in the community as possible. This is primarily why its equipment, headquarters and personnel have been subjected to deliberate shelling. Its reputation was also distorted by an attempt to link it to extremist organizations. All those who kill and target those who assist and aid civilians must be condemned and exposed. ”
The report provides some background on the Civil Defense organization, explaining that it was established in March 2013, with the current number of Civil Defense volunteers standing at nearly 2,393, of whom 201 are female volunteers. The report adds that the duties of the Syrian Civil Defense organization aren’t limited to operations of ambulance, rescue, and the recovery of bodies from under the rubble, but also extend to helping with the evacuation of civilians from areas under bombardment, the provision of housing and shelters for these displaced people, and responding to the requirements in their camp areas. The Civil Defense teams also contribute effectively to the removal of rubble and debris, and firefighting, identifying and marking hazardous areas, removing unexploded ordnance, delivering water and repairing electricity networks damaged as a result of the shelling. In addition to providing all these services, the Civil Defense members, especially women, monitor the situation of the wounded and provide first aid and care for children and pregnant women, and raise awareness, as well as filming the rescue operations and the remnants of weapons used, and recounting the details of bombing incidents.
Accordingly, the report notes that it may be considered that attacking the Civil Defense teams constitutes a violation of both the Fourth Geneva Convention, Articles 17, 23, 59; Protocol (I), Article 70; Protocol (II), Article 18-2), and Rule 55 and Rule 56 of Customary Humanitarian Law.
The report details the exceptional challenges facing the Civil Defense teams in Syria, most notably the ‘double tap strike’ tactic, which is based on bombing sites that were bombed a short time before as the ambulances and rescue workers rush to rescue the survivors; this grotesque tactic is deployed calculatingly in order to not only inflict the greatest possible loss of civilian lives, but also to harm the greatest possible number of rescue workers and medics and their equipment, in addition to the bombing of roads used by paramedics and civil defense teams in the aftermath of the bombing by the Syrian-Russian alliance forces in order to obstruct their work in rescuing the survivors of bombings. The report points out that the widespread use of cluster and incendiary munitions constitutes a double burden on civil defense teams, noting also the defamation used by the Syrian and Russian regime’s media machine to spread disinformation and slander, in parallel with launching numerous media campaigns and false news reports smearing the Syrian Civil Defense organization with ludicrous and offensive accusations, slanderously linking them to al Qaeda on the one hand and with Western governments and intelligence agencies on the other, as well as accusing them of preparing chemical attacks and counterfeiting rescue operations, staging false massacres for photo opportunities, and other vile charges without providing any credible evidence to substantiate these defamatory claims.
This report includes the record of the most notable violations against the Civil Defense Organization by the main parties to the conflict in Syria from the establishment of the Civil Defense Organization in March 2013 up until July 12, 2019. The report also highlights the most notable attacks carried out by the Syrian-Russian alliance forces against the Civil Defense Organization in the fourth and final de-escalation zone (consisting of Idlib governorate and parts of the governorates of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia), which took place during the recent military campaign against the region between April 26, and July 12, 2019.
As the report states, for eight years, the Syrian regime has committed grave crimes and violations against Syrian civilians. It has also consistently failed to respond to any of the demands of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, or to those of the High Commission for Human Rights, or even to Security Council resolutions. The Security Council, which was supposed to take collective measures and action under Article 41 and 42 of the Charter of the United Nations, also failed because of the immunity granted by Russia to the Syrian regime, with Russia routinely using its veto in the case of the Syrian regime, which not only failed to abide by the responsibility for the protection of civilians, but committed the most egregious violations against them, reaching the level of crimes against humanity, and extermination within detention centers through torture.
Furthermore, according to the report, the conscience-shocking situations which the UN is required to take action to prevent are exactly what have continued to happen in Syria, not only in the form of one massacre or one violation but in industrial-scale, continuous killings and torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and besieging civilians, quoting from a report issued in December 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which stressed that: “The Security Council should take into account in all its deliberations that, if it fails to discharge its responsibility to protect in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, concerned states may not rule out other means to meet the gravity and urgency of that situation. ”
The report documents the deaths of at least 229 Civil Defense personnel at the hands of the main perpetrator parties to the conflict in Syria between March 2013 and July 12, 2019, of which the Syrian regime killed 159, Russian forces killed 38, ISIS killed three, Syrian Democratic Forces killed one, and other parties killed 28.
The report also documents at least 396 attacks on Civil Defense vital facilities in Syria at the hands of the main perpetrator parties to the conflict during the same period, of which 277 were at the hands of Syrian Regime forces, 102 at the hands of Russian forces, one at the hands of factions of the Armed Opposition, and 16 at the hands of other parties.
During the recent military campaign by the Syrian-Russian alliance forces against the Idlib region since April 26, up until July 12, 2019, the report has documented the deaths of four Civil Defense personnel, all at the hands of Russian forces, and the injury of at least 22 others with varying injuries, noting that the Syrian-Russian alliance forces attacked at least 31 Syrian Civil Defense vital facilities (centers and vehicles), during the same period, with 15 of these attacks at the hands of Syrian Regime forces, and the other 16 at the hands of Russian forces.
The report stresses that the incidents included are unquestionably breaches of UN Security Council resolutions 2139, 2254 and 2286, noting that most of the attacks included targeting of unarmed civilians, and therefore, the perpetrators have violated International Human Rights Law. In addition, these crimes were committed in a non-international armed conflict, meaning that these attacks constitute war crimes.
The report also stresses that deliberate attacks against medical facilities, medical personnel, clearly identified individuals and facilities marked by emblems protected by the Geneva Conventions, and those working in the humanitarian field or with peacekeeping groups, constitute war crimes, and it is part of the International Criminal Court’s duties to hold the perpetrators accountable, according to Article 8 of the court’s charter, as well as constituting a breach of the rules 31, 32, 45, 55, 56 of the International Customary Humanitarian Law.
The report calls on the Security Council to take extra steps after issuing Resolutions number 2139 and 2254, to refer the Syrian file to the International Criminal Court, and to hold all those responsible for related crimes accountable including the Russian regime whose involvement in war crimes has been repeatedly proven.
The report also calls on the Security Council to reevaluate the level of risk of violations of human rights and its threat levels to international and regional peace and security, and to revert to Article Seven to protect humanitarian workers and facilities in Syria, to no longer classify the Syrian government as a legitimate official party in regard to any relief efforts, and to ensure that it is no longer supplied with large amounts of financial or any other relief, which mostly fails to reach those who desperately need and deserve this aid.
The report urges the International Community to take action at both national and regional levels to form alliances to support the Syrian people in a way that can protect them from the daily killings, and to increase support for relief efforts.
The report also calls on the United Nations to take steps under Chapter VII of its own Charter, while the norm of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly, should be implemented. The Security Council is still actively obstructing the protection of civilians in Syria.
The report recommends that the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) should launch investigations into the cases included in the report, and confirms the SNHR’s willingness to cooperate and provide further evidence and data.
The report urges the European Union and United States of America to support the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) established in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution 248/71 issued on December 21, 2016, and to open local state courts that operate according to the principle of international justice in order to pursue justice for the victims of war crimes perpetrated in Syria.
The report also calls on Russian forces to launch investigations into the incidents included in this report, to make the findings of these investigations public for the Syrian people, to hold those responsible accountable, to compensate, rebuild and reequip all damaged centers and facilities, and to compensate all families of the wounded and the victims killed by the current Russian regime, to completely cease the bombardment of hospitals and protected objects, and to respect customary humanitarian law.
Finally, the report calls on all humanitarian organizations working in Syria to make no distinction between help and protection, and to report all violations they suffer during their work.