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Non-international armed conflicts in Syria

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

There are multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts taking place in Syria. The Syrian government and its allies are involved in non-international armed conflicts against a wide array of rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State group and Kurdish militia. There are also parallel non-international armed conflicts between different armed groups. An international coalition led by the United States is involved in a non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State group. Finally, Turkey is using force against against both the Islamic State group and Kurdish militia inside Syria.

There are multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts taking place in Syria.

  • Supported by Shia militia, Hezbollah and Russia,  the Syrian government is involved in non-international armed conflicts against a wide array of rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Tahrir al-Sham (former al-Nusra front), Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State group and Kurdish militia. There are also parallel non-international armed conflicts due to the infighting between various armed groups.
  • Without the consent of the Syrian government, an international coalition led by the United States initiated airstrikes against the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda affiliates in a spill over from the conflict against these groups in Iraq.
  • Turkey is also involved in the non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State group. Moreover, Turkey has been targeting Kurdish militia inside Syria and deployed ground troops in northern Syria, leading to a military occupation of part of northern Syria.

The violence in Syria has repeatedly spilled over into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights As a result, both Syrian and Israeli forces have repeatedly violated the 1974 Agreement, see for example Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Disengagement Force for the Period from 2 March to 16 May 2017, UN doc S/2017/486, 8 June 2017; Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Disengagement Force for the Period from 1 March to 20 May 2016, UN doc S/2016/520, 8 June 2016.  Israel previously carried out missile and airstrikes inside Syrian territory, including in order to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. Examples include the downing of a Syrian warplane that had entered the airspace of the Golan Heights in September 2014, see ‘Israel Shoots Down Syrian Warplane’, CBS/Associated Press, 23 September 2014; the bombing of Syrian army positions in March 2014, December 2014, and September 2015, see L. Smith-Spark and M. Schwartz, ‘Israel Retaliates in Syria After Roadside Bomb Attack Against Israeli Troops’, CNN, 19 March 2014; P. Beaumont, ‘Israeli Jets Bomb Syria, Says Damascus’, The Guardian, 7 December 2014; ‘Israel Strikes Syria After Stray Rockets Land in Golan’, Al Jazeera, 28 September 2015; and a series of bombings believed to aim to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, for example in March 2013 and in November 2016, see ‘Israel Bombs Hezbollah-bound Missiles in Syria: Official’, Reuters, 4 May 2013; ‘Israeli Airstrikes Hit Damascus Outskirts, Syrian Reports Says’, The Guardian/Associated Press, 30 November 2016; P. Beaumont, 'Israel Reported to Have Bombed Syrian Chemical Weapons Facility', The Guardian, 7 September 2017.

On February 11, Israel launched its largest scale aerial attacks inside Syria so far. After claiming to have intercepted an Iranian drone crossing the Syrian-Israeli border, Israeli fighter planes attacked a Syrian military base. During the attack, an Israeli fighter plane was shut down by Syrian air defence. In response, Israel launched attacks targeting Syrian air defences.  A. Taylor, 'Israel Has Taken Its Biggest Step Into the Syrian War Yet. What Does that Mean?', The Washington Post, 10 February 2018; L. Sly and L. Morris, 'Syria's War Mutates Into a Regional Conflict, Risking a Wider Conflagration', The Washington Post, 12 February 2012; A. Carey, L. Smith-Spart and N. Chavez, 'Israeli PM: Airstrikes Dealt "Severe Blows" to Iran, Syria', CNN, 11 February 2018: 'Damascus Warns Israel of "More Surprises" in Syria', Reuters, 13 February 2018;  R. Bergman,  'The Middle East's Coming War', The New York Times, 12 February 2018. The use of force by Israel against Syria amounts to a short-lived international armed conflict. The threshold for an international armed conflict is very low. Whenever there is a resort to hostile armed force between two states, there is an international armed conflict. For further information, see 'international armed conflict - a low threshold' in our classification section. Iran backs the Syrian government, but denied that it was an Iranian drone. O. Holmes and S.K. Dehghan, 'Israel and Iran Consider Next Move After Syrian Clash Crosses Red Line', The Guardian, 12 February 2018; 'Iran Sneers at Reports of Israel Downing Iranian Drone: State TV', Reuters, 10 February 2018. Similarly, Iran consistently denies direct military involvement in the armed conflicts in Syria although it acknowledges the presence of military advisory to train and assist government forces and government-allied militia. B. Hubbard, I. Kershner and A. Bardnar, 'Iran, Deeply Embedded in Syria, Expands "Axis of Resistance', The New York Times, 19 February 2018. However, such capacity building activities do not render Iran a party to the conflicts in Syria. For further information on who is a party to the armed conflict, see 'contemporary challenges - who is a party to an armed conflict' in our classification section. 

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturnaces and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria or organization. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - intensity of violence' in our classification section.

After protests started in March 2011, the government of President Assad deployed the armed forces, including mechanized and armored units for the first time in April 2011. Faced with an increasingly violent response by security and military forces, the protests spread across the country during 2011. Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/S-17/2/Add.1, 23 November 2011, §27 ff. The first sporadic clashes between Syrian armed forces and the newly formed rebel group Free Syrian Army were reported during September and October 2011. ‘Cracks in the Army’, The Economist, 29 October 2011. Sieges accompanied by heavy shelling before ground clearance operations became a regular feature of the government's strategy. The escalating violence led to rapidly raising numbers of Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of internally displaced people. E. Solomon, ‘As Syria Bleeds, Neighbors Brace for Refugees’, Reuters, 10 February 2012. In its February 2012 report, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry documented bombings and shelling ‘with heavy weapons, leading to massive casualties and the destruction of homes and infrastructure’. Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/19/69, 22 February 2012. Established by the Human Rights Council under Resolution S-17/1, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has the mandate to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law. After the failure of a UN brokered peace plan and cease fire in June 2012, the hostilities spread to previously relatively insulated areas surrounding Damascus and Aleppo. With the fighting intensifying beyond the three initial hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama, the ICRC announced in July 2012 that the violence in Syria had reached the threshold of a non-international armed conflict. ICRC, ‘Syria: ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent Maintain Effort Amid Increased Fighting’, 17 July 2012. However, others have argued that the the threshold to an armed conflict was reached earlier in 2012. K. Huszti Orban and N. Kalandarishvili-Mueller, ‘Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? Is it an Armed Conflict? -The Classification of the Situation in Syria, 1 Journal of International Law, 2012, available at SSRN; C. Phillips, 'Syria' in L. Arimatsu and M. Choudhury (eds), The Legal Classification of the Armed Conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, Chatham House, March 2014, p 15. Some also criticise that an overly formalistic and legalistic analsysis of the required degree of organization for armed opposition groups leads to an undesirable under-application of international humanitarian law, see L. R. Blank and G. S. Corn, 'Losing the Forest for the Trees: Syria, Law and the Pragmatics of Conflict Recognition', 46 Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law (2013) p 693, available at SSRN.

A long time ally of the government in Syria, Hezbollah confirmed in May 2013 that it had sent fighters to support President Assad. B. Mroue, ‘Hezbollah Chief Says Group is Fighting in Syria’, Associated Press, 25 May 2013. Since then, fighting has been continuing. In July 2014, the United Nations announced that it was no longer updating the death toll estimates due to the difficulties to verify sources. M. Pizi, ‘UN Abandons Death Count In Syria, Citing Inability to Verify Toll’, Al Jazeera, 7 January 2017.

The violence in Syria has been spilling over into Iraq, and vice versa. The group that calls itself Islamic State originated in Iraq. After territorial gains against the backdrop of the non-international armed conflict in Iraq, the group proclaimed a caliphate spanning across large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed group is not fulfilled, there is no non-international armed conflict. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - organization' in our classification section.

Far from being a unified movement, the Syrian armed opposition is highly fragmented with several overlapping non-international armed conflicts between armed groups and the Syrian government, but also between such armed groups. See also T.D. Gill, ‘Classifying the Conflict in Syria’, U.S. Naval War College, 92 International Law Studies, pp 354 – 361.  The armed conflicts tend to be very localized. A multitude of armed groups operate in different areas to a varying degree, sometimes cooperating with each other, sometimes fighting each other. Alliances are fluid and frequently shifting, contributing to the frequent emergence and disappearance of armed groups or mergers between armed groups.

First, the most important armed group is the Islamic State group, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham / the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) and Da’esh. The Islamic State group fights against government forces and other rebel groups. The Islamic State group grew out of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization formed by various Sunni insurgency groups in 2006 and dominated by al-Qaeda in Iraq. In 2012, the group expanded its activities into Syria and helped set up the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. After both Jabhat al-Nusra and the leadership of al-Qaeda rejected the Islamic State group’s attempt to merge with Jabhat al-Nusra in spring 2013, the group began operating under the name of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria. For further information, see Standford University, Mapping Militant Organizations: The Islamic State, 23 October 2017. Simmering tensions between the Islamic State group and other rebel groups erupted into open conflict from January onwards when a broad array of rebel groups launched attacks to expel ISIS from various towns across Syria. L. Morris, ‘Stretched thin, Syrian Extremists Are Pressured', The Washington Post, 7 January 2014. After an unsuccessful call to end the infighting, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri disavowed all links with the Islamic State group in February 2014. ‘Al-Qaeda Disowns ISIL Rebels in Syria', Al Jazeera, 3 February 2014. The group changed its name to Islamic State after taking control over Mosul in June 2014. Research into the structure of the Islamic State group reveals that, in addition to its military structure and operations, the group includes a complex structure for the administration of the territories it controls. A. Al-Tamimi, ‘The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence’, 9 Perspectives on Terrorism 4 (2015); N. Thompson and A. Shubert, ‘Anatomy of ISIS’, CNN, 14 January 2015; C. Reuter, ‘Secret Files Reveal the Structure of the Islamic State’, Spiegel Online, 18 April 2015; R. Barrett, The Islamic State, The Soufan Group, November 2014. Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Islamic State group lost territory in Syria and Iraq. For interactive maps showing the evolution of territorial control in Syria, see ‘Islamic State and Crisis in Iraq and Syria in Maps’, BBC, 18 January 2018 and S. Asrar, 'Syria: Who Controls What?', Al Jazeera, 29 November 2017 , and the constantly updated maps by liveuamaps for Syria and the syrian civil war map. See also Fourth Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Paragraph 7 of Resolution 2233 (2015), UN doc S/2016/592, 5 July 2016; Global Conflict Tracker: War Against Islamic State in Iraq, Council on Foreign Relations. Backed by the U.S.-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of rebel groups led by the Kurdish Protection Units YPG, captured Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State groups' self-proclaimed caliphate, in October 2017. However, the Islamic State group continues to control territory, namely in the estern province of Deir al-Zor and continues to be able to sustain military operations.  For maps showing who controls what in Syria, see S. Asrar, 'Syria: Who Controls What?', Al Jazeera, 29 November 2017; 'Islamic State and the Crisis in Iraq and Syria in Maps', BBC, 10 January 2018;  'Syria War: UN Says It Is Ready to Go Into Raqqa', BBC News, 18 October 2017; T. Perry, L. Barrington, 'U.S.-Backed Campaign Against IS in Eastern Syria to Speed Up - SDF Militia', Reuters, 18 October 2017; M. Petkova, 'What Will Happen to Post-ISIL Raqqa?', Al Jazeera, 17 October 2017 .

Second, wide arrays of diverse armed groups fight against the government and the Islamic State group. They operate mostly on a local level and belong to a shifting web of broader alliances or coalitions spanning all or part of Syria. For a mapping of the major Syrian militant organizations that have been operating since 2011, see Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations: Syria, 10 January 2018. In opposition held areas, local administrative councils usually depend on armed groups and their enforcement powers and some local administrative councils are dominated by armed groups. See B. Hajjar, C. von Burg, L. Hilal, M. Santschi, M. Gharibah and M. Sharbahi, The Experience of Local Administrative Councils in Opposition-held Syria, Swiss Peace, January 2017. Since the outbreak of the conflict, many such broader alliances have appeared and ceased to exist. Currently, it seems that the most important alliances are the so-called Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Tahrir al-Sham, and the Democratic Syrian Forces led by Kurdish militia.

Formed by deserters from the Syrian armed forces in July 2011, the Free Syrian Army is a loose alliance of rebel groups that fight against both the government of President Assad and the Islamic State group. In 2012, the group established a Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct is available in the Geneva Call Database Their Words. Directory of Armed Non-State Actor Humanitarian Commitments,  'Code of Conduct of the FSA', 2012.  The Free Syrian Army also made several unilateral statements, for example calling for the demilitarization of schools and hospitels. See Geneva Call, Their Words, Directory of Non-State Actor Humanitarian Commitments, 'Free Syrian Army', 2016. In July 2017, four of its brigades signed Geneva Call's Deeds of Comittiment prohibiting the use of child soldiers and sexual violence. Geneva Call, 'Syria: 4 Brigades of the Free Syrian Army Commit to Prohibit Sexual Violence and the Use of Child Soldiers', News, 3 July 2017.  While it is difficult to identify the components of the Free Syrian Army and assess their relative strength, rebel groups under the banner of the free Syrian Army continue to be involved in the hostilities. For example, Free Syrian Army affiliates joined the battle for Kobane in 2014, captured the city of Bosra al-Sham in March 2015 and participated in the offensive to expel the Islamic State group from Jarablus in August 2016. Abo Bakr al Haj Ali, ‘FSA Take Control of Ancient City in Southern Syria’, Middle East Eye, 26 March 2015; A. Barnard, ‘Knowing the Risks, Some Syrian Rebels Seek a Lift From Turks’ Incursion’, The New York Times, 29 August 2016. Turkey backs and fights along the Free Syrian Army, in particular along the Turkish border region. S. Al-Khalidi, 'Turkish Army Expands Deployment in Syria's Northwest: Rebels', Reuters, 15 October 2017.  In January 2018, the Free Syrian Army supported the Turkish offensive against Afrin, a region controlled by Kurdish forces. 'Turkey Deploys Thousands of FSA Rebels at Syria Border', Al Jazeera, 20 January 2018.

Set up in 2011 by the al-Qaeda operative al-Jawlani, Jabhat al-Nusra aims to overthrow the government of President Assad. In 2016, the group changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and announced its split from al-Qaeda. See L. Sly and K. DeYoung, ‘Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra Splits from al-Qaeda and Changes its Name’, The Washington Post, 28 July 2016. Its relationship with other rebel groups is complicated, sometimes cooperating with them, especially on a local level, sometimes attacking them. M. Chulov, ‘US Plan for Proxy Army to Fight ISIS in Syria Suffers Attack’, The Guardian, 2 September 2014. For further information on the group, see Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), 25 August 2016.  Initially, they reportedly cooperated with Ahrar al-Sham in attacks against the Syrian armed forces, B. Hubbard, ‘In Syria, Potential Ally’s Islamist Ties Challenge U.S.’, The New York Times, 25 August 2015. Ahrar al-Sham, founded by Islamists after their release from Syrian prions as part of an amnesty in spring 2011, is considered one of the largest and most powerful rebel groups. Led by Ali al-Omar, the group is also involved in the hostilities against the Islamic State Group. Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations. Ahrar al-Sham,  5 August 2017. However, cooperation between the two alliances reportedly ended in January 2017 when several armed militia joined Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham formed a new alliance with other extremist factions, called Hay'et Tahrir al Sham (HTS), against its former ally, Conference Room Paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/34/CRP.3, 10 March 2017, §9 and footnoe 14; see also Standford University, Mapping Militant Organizations. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), 14 August 2017.  After a period of fighting between the two groups, Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/36/55, 8 August 2017, §13. HTS reporteldy ejected Ahrar al-Sham from Idlib in August 2017. H. Haid, 'Why Ahrar al-Sham Couldn't Stand Up to HTS's Attack in Idlib', Chatham House, 17 August 2017.

Third, Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) assumed control over the Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria, namely Rojava, following the withdrawal of the Syrian army in summer 2012. Widely believed to be the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, its leader claims that the YPG includes about 10’000 fighters. Little is known about its organization, but they seem to have a unified command and control structure. ‘Interview mit Salih Muslim: Es gab keinen Kurden-Deal mit dem Regime’Frankfurter Rundschau, 1 December 2012; B. Szlanko, ‘Why Syria’s Kurds Are Beating Al Qaeda’, Syria Comment Blog, 17 December 2013. In 2012, all female units known as the Women's Protection Units YPJ were set up. 'YPJ: The Kurdish Feminists Fighting Islamic State', The Week, 7 October 2014. N. Tavakolian, 'Meet the Women Taking the Battle to ISIS', Time, 2 April 2015. Both the YPG and the YPJ signed Geneva Call's Deeds of Commitment to prohibit the use of anti-personnel mines, the sexual violence and gender discrimination and the use of child soldiers, which further illustrates their degree of organization. Geneva Call, 'Syrian Kurdish Armed Non-State Ctors Commits to Ban Anti-Personnel Mines, Sexual Violence and Child Recrutiment', News, 16 June 2014. The Deeds of Committment are available in the Geneva Call Database Their Words. Directory of Armed Non-State Actor Humanitarian Commitments, 'YPG/YPJ', 2014. In 205, the general command of the YP issued a circular  reminding its recruiting centers and leaders to abstain from recruiting children. Backed by the United States, the Kurdish Protection Units have been fighting against the Syrian government and other armed groups, in particular the Islamic State group. R. Said, 'Kurdish Militia Launches Assault to Evict Syrian Army from the Key City of Hasaka’, Reuters, 22 August 2016; ‘Syrian Kurds’ Drive Islamic State out of Kobane', BBC, 26 January 2015.  They dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group composed of Kurdish and Arab rebel groups. E. Schmitt, 'U.S.-Backed Militia Opens Drive on ISIS Capital in Syria', The New York Times, 6 November 2016; Conference Room Paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/34/CRP.3, 10 March 2017, §86.  In May 2017, the United States started to provide weapons to the Kurdish milita. P. Cockburn, 'Donald Trump's Decision to Arm Kurdish Fighters Could Have Profound Impact on the Syria Crisis', The Independent, 10 May 2017; P. Stewart, 'U.S. Starts Providing Weapons to Syrian Kurds', Reuters, 30 May 2017. In October 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State group's caliphate.T. Perry, L. Barrington, 'U.S.-Backed Campaign Against IS in Eastern Syria to Speed Up - SDF Militia', Reuters, 18 October 2017; M. Petkova, 'What Will Happen to Post-ISIL Raqqa?', Al Jazeera, 17 October 2017.

International interventions

U.S. led international coalition

Upon request of the Iraqi government, an international coalition led by the United States began airstrikes against Islamic Group targets in Iraq in August 2014. The United States extended the airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria in September 2014. Since then, the coalition has conducted more than 9000 airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Syria, the large majority by the U.S. For further information, see the data gathered by Airwars, a non-profit organization tracking coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State group.

The international coalition’s operations against the Islamic State group can be considered as a single non-international armed conflict that takes place across Iraq and Syria. However, the intervention in Syria takes place without the consent of the Syrian government. Albeit controversial, the use of force against a non-state armed group on the territory of another state without the consent of the territorial state leads to a parallel international armed conflict between the intervening state and the territorial state. For further information, see 'contemporary challenges - targeting non-state armed groups abroad' in our classification section. Therefore, there is also a parallel international armed conflict between the members of the international coalition and Syria. While under the approach adopted by RULAC it is not necessary for the intervening states to target government positions, it is wortwhile to point out that in 2017, the U.S. has repeatedly targeted Syrian government positions. First, in April 2017, the U.S. conducted missile strikes against a Syrian Air Force field in April in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria.  U.S. Department of Defense, 'Statement from Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on U.S. Strike in Syria', Press Release, 6 April 2017; S. Almukthar, K.K.R. Lai, S. Peçanha and K. Yourish, 'Mapping the Targets of the American Military Attack on Syria', The New York Times, 7 April 2017. Second, in May and June 2017, the U.S. targeted Syrian government forces or pro-government militia advancing towards area where U.S. special forces were working with armed opposition groups.  M. Ryan, 'U.S. Launches Rare Intentional Strike on Pro-Government Forces in Syria', The Washington Post, 19 May 2017; T. Gibbons-Neff, 'U.S. Conducts New Strikes on Pro-Syrian-Government Forces Threatening U.S. Special Operations Base', The Washington Post, 6 June 2017.

However, within the international coalition, some states intervene only in Iraq, some only in Syria, and some in both countries. Currently Australia, Belgium, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States undertake airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also participate in the airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, although less regularly than the other coalition states. Canada ceased airstrike operations in Iraq and Syria in February 2016, but continues to provide air-to-air fuelling assistance and reconnaissance flights in support of the coalition in Iraq. Germany also provides air-to air-fuelling assistance and reconnaissance flights in support of the fight against the Islamic Stage group in Iraq and Syria. In December 2016, Denmark announced that it was not extending its military operations in Syria and Iraq. ‘Denmark to Pull F-16 Fighter Jets from Syria and Iraq’, Reuters, 2 December 2016.  The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic pointed out that some of the reported airstrikes by the international coalition 'raise concerns regarding distinction, prooportionality, and precautions in attacks under international humanitarian law'. Conference Room Paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/34/CRP.3, 10 March 2017, §96. In its August 2017 report, the Commission concluded that a U.S. attack in February 2017 had hit a building part of a mosque complex that was being used for religious purposes and that the U.S had  failed to take all precuationary measures. Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/36/55, 8 August 2017, §§53-61.

Turkish intervention

Turkey also undertakes airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. In addition, Turkey targets Kurdish positions in Syria. Generally, the international coalition's support to Kurdish militia causes tensions with Turkey. Turkey views the Kurdish People's Protection Units YPG in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK, against which Turkey is involved in a non-international armed conflict on its own territory. Associated Press, 'US to Arm Kurdish Fighters Against ISIS in Raqqa, Despite Turkish Opposition', The Guardian, 9 May 2017; M. Chulov and F. Hawramy, 'Ever-Closer Ties Between US and Kurds Stoke Turkish Border Tensions', The Guardian, 1 May 2017. Following the launch of its ground operations in Syria in August 2016, Turkey relied on its individual right to self-defence to justify its military action, see Letter Dated 24 August 2016 from the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2016/739, 25 August 2016.  With the dual objective of containing the Islamic State group and the YPG in the Syria-Turkey border region, Turkey launched a major ground operation known as operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, leading to the occupation of part of northern Syria. As part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish a de-escalation zone in northern Syria, Turkey deployed additional ground forces in northern Idlib in October 2017. J. Dettmer, 'Turkey Deploys More Forces in Northern Syria', VOA, 3 November 2017; W. Frangieh, 'Hostility Toward Militants Grows in Idlib as Turkey Deploys Troops', Syria Deeply, 23 October 2017; S. Al-Khalidi, 'Turkish Army Expands Deployment in Syria's Northwest: Rebels', Reuters, 15 October 2017.Throughout 2017, Turkey repeatedly targeted Kurdish militia inside Syria. See for example H. L. Smith, 'Turkey Targets Kurdish Militia in Bid to Halt Syria "Land Grab"', The Times, 27 February 2017; M. R. Gordon and K. Kakol, 'Turkish Strikes Target Kurdish Allies of U.S. in Iraq and Syria', The New York Times, 25 April 2017; 'Turkey Returns Fire on YPG in Syria, Warplanes Hit Militants in Iraq', Reuters, 28 June 2017. Backed by allied Syrian rebels, Turkey initiated a ground offensive against the YPG in Afrin in January 2018, leading to a further escalation of the non-international armed conflict against the YPG. K. Shaheen, 'Turkey Starts Ground Incursion into Kurdish-Controlled Afrin in Syria', The Guardian, 21 January 2018; E. Cunningham and L. Loveluck, 'Turkey Says Its Troops Have Entered Syria in Fight Against Kurdish Militias', The Washington Post, 21 January 2018; 'Turkey Deploys Thousands of FSA Rebels at Syria Border', Al Jazeera, 20 January 2018.

Russian intervention and Iranian support

In September 2015, Russia extended its military support to its long time ally President Assad and initiated airstrikes against armed groups in Syria. The Russian intervention takes place with the consent of the Syrian government in support of the government against the rebel. Hence, the Russian intervention does not change the nature of the non-international armed conflicts of the Syrian government against the rebel groups. Russian aristrikes reportedly caused high civilian casualties. See the information gathered by Airwars, a non governmental organization tracking airstrikes in Syria.  Russia and United States signed a memorandum of understanding in October 2015 to avoid incidents between Russian and coalition aircraft and drones operating in Syria. N. MacFarquhar, 'U.S. Agrees with Russia on Rules in Syrian Sky', The New York Times, 20 October 2015.  However, Russia suspended the agreement after the U.S. targeted Syrian government positions in April 2017.  M. Bulman, 'US Air Strikes in Syria: Russia Suspends Agreement Preventing Direct Conflict with American Forces', Independent, 7 April 2017. In February 2018, U.S. airstrikes reportedly hit Russian contractors fighting with Syrian government forces who had launched an attack against U.S backed Kurdish militia. I. Nechepurenko, N. MacFarquhar and T. Gibbons-Neff, 'Dozens of Russians Are Believed Killed in U.S.-Backed Syria Attack', The New York Times, 13 February 2018; A. Troianovski and A. Roth, 'Russian Mercenaries Said to Be Killed by U.S. Airstrike in Syria', The Washington Post, 13 February 2018.

With the military support of Russia, the Syrian government forces captured many areas from rebel groups and extended its territorial control. For maps showing who controls what in Syria, see S. Asrar, 'Syria: Who Controls What?', Al Jazeera, 29 November 2017; 'Islamic State and the Crisis in Iraq and Syria in Maps', BBC, 10 January 2018. In addition to its military involvement, Russia is sponsoring peace talks that parallel the peace talks under United Nations auspices. As part of the Astana peace talks during 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to establish so-called de-escalation zones with mixed results. See for example A. Barnard and R. Gladstone, 'Russia Reaches Deal for Syria Safe Zones, but Some Rebels Scoff', The New York Times, 4 May 2017; C. Stratford, 'Syria Talks in Astana Aim for Lasting Ceasefires', Al Jazeera, 14 September 2017. See also Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc. A/HRC/36/55, 8 August 2017, §8 and §11. However, the de-escalation zones have been repeatedly bombed, see for example 'Idlib: Dozens Killed in Syrian Government Air Raids', Al Jazeera, 29 January 2018. With the support of Iran and Turkey, Russia convened further peace talks in Sochi in January 2018. F. Najjar, 'Syria Talks: Could Sochi Bring Peace Via a New Track?', Al Jazeera, 29 January 2019.

The Syrian government is also backed by Iran. Iran sent military advisors to train and assist government forces and set up local militia. B. Hubbard, I. Kershner and A. Bardnar, 'Iran, Deeply Embedded in Syria, Expands "Axis of Resistance"', The New York Times, 19 February 2018. However, such capacity building activities do not render Iran a party to the conflict. The available information on Iran's involvement remains scarce and does not support the conclusion that Iran's involvement has a direct impact on Syria's ability to carry out military operations, which, in turn, would render it a party to the ongoing non-international armed conflict. For further information on who is a party to the conflict, see 'contemporary challenges - multinational forces: who is a party to an armed conflict' in our classification section. For information on the Iranian involvement, see A. Waidaari, 'Who Sent Iranian Green Berets to Syria', Al-Monitor, 28 April 2016; S. Al-Khalidi, 'Syrian, Iranian Backed Forces Advance in Border Area near Israel', Reuters, 25 December 2017.

 

Use of chemical weapons

Chemical weapons  have been used in the Syrian armed conflict. First reports alleging the use of chemical weapons surfaced in December 2012. In September 2013, United Nations weapons inspectors confirmed the use of chemical weapons in relatively large scale attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013. Report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 2013, UN doc A/67/1997-S/2013/553, 16 September 2013. In a later report, they confirmed the use of chemical weapons on six additional locations. United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegation of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, UN Doc A/68/663-S/2013/735, 13 December 2013. Based on an US-Russian agreement, President Assad authorized inspectors of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to begin destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. Despite the progress made in the elimination of chemical weapons, they continue to be used. Security Council resolution 2235 (2015) set up a new joint investigate mechanism to investigate and identify those involved in the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Although it was unable to reach a conclusion on the identity of the perpetrators in all confirmed uses of chemical weapons, the Leadership Panel of the joint investigative mechanism determined that the Syrian armed forces had used chemical weapons in three cases in 2014 and 2015 and that the Islamic State group had used sulfur mustard in Marea in August 2015. Third Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism, UN Doc S/2016/738, §54; §56 and §58, 24 August 2016; Fourth Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism, UN Doc S/2016/888, 21 October 2016, §19, §26-27. Despite these efforts, chemical weapons continue to be used. See the inforgraphic on chemical weapons attacks documented by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, as of 6 September 2017.

In response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons, the United States conducted missile strikes against a Syrian Air Force airfield on 7 April 2017, leading to a distinct international armed conflict of the United States with Syria. U.S. Department of Defense, 'Statement of Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on U.S. Strike in Syria', Press Release, 6 April 2017. Russia responded by suspending the October 2015 agreement that regulated aircraft and drone flights over Syria to avoid incidents. M. Bulman, 'US Air Strikes in Syria: Russia Suspends Agreement Preventing Direct Conflict with American Forces', Independent, 7 April 2017.

Views of parties to the conflict and other actors

During an address to his new cabinet in June 2012, President Assad said that Syria was in ‘a state of war’. ‘Syria in State of War, says Bashar al-Assad’, BBC News, 27 June 2012. In July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded that ‘there is currently a non-international (internal) armed conflict occurring in Syria opposing Government Forces and a number of organised armed opposition groups operating in several parts of the country’. ICRC, ‘Syria: ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent maintain aid effort amid increased fighting’, Operational Update, 17 July 2012. In its August 2012 report, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic determined that ‘the intensity and duration of the conflict, combined with the increased organizational capabilities of anti-Government armed groups, had met the legal threshold for a non-international armed conflict.’ Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN doc A/HRC/21/50, §3.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. All parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state armed groups

A wide array of non-state armed groups are active in Syria. Below is a selection of the most important armed groups or alliances.

  • The Islamic State group, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham / the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) and Da’esh. The Islamic State group grew out of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization formed by various Sunni insurgency groups in 2006 and dominated by al-Qaeda in Iraq.  For further information, see Standford University, Mapping Militant Organizations: The Islamic State, 23 October 2017. After taking control of Mosul in June 2014, the group changed its name to Islamic State. The Islamic State group is listed on the Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida sanctions list. With the adoption of Security Council resolution 2253 (2015), the Security Council renamed the Al-Qaida sanctions list to ‘ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida’ sanctions list. The Islamic State group is listed under Al-Qaida in Iraq. The Islamic State group includes so-called foreign fighters from across the globe. See the Geneva Academy research on so-called foreign fighters.
  • Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Reportedly set up with the help of the then Islamic State of Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra announced its formation in January 2012. Its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani is believed to be a veteran of the Islamic State of Iraq. Considered as the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda since its inception, the group formally pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda in April 2013. However, in 2016, the group changed its name and announced its split from al-Qaeda. The group is listed on the Security Council ISIL (Da'esh) & Al-Qaida sanctions list. See the permanent reference number QDe. 137 Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant on the sanctions list. In January 2017, the group formed a new alliance with other extremists factions under the name Hay'et Tahir al-Sham (HTS). For further information, see Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), 14 August 2017.
  • The Free Syrian Army. Formed by deserters from the Syrian armed forces in July 2011, the Free Syrian Army is a loose alliance of rebel groups that fight against both the government of President Assad and the Islamic State group. For further information, see E. O'Bagy, 'The Free Syrian Army', Middle East Security Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, March 2013.
  • Kurdish Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has been fighting against the Syrian government and other armed groups, in particular the Islamic State group, and aim for autonomy for the Kurdish people in northern Syria. All female units known as the Women's Protection Units YPJ were set up in 2012. The YPG reportedly leads the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group composed of Kurdish and Arab rebel groups, which is backed by the international coalition. The international coalition's support to the YPG creates tension with Turkey who views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker Party PKK. T. Perry, 'Raqqa to Be Part of "Federal Syria", U.S.-Backed Militia Says', Reuters, 20 October 2017.
  • Ahrar al-Sham. Founded by former Islamist prisoners, Ahar al-Sham is considered one of the largest and most powerful rebel groups. The group has ties to al-Qaeda affiliates, but is not on the Security Council al-Qaeda sanctions list. Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations. Ahrar al-Sham, 23 October 2016.
  • Hezbollah. Initially founded to fight the occupation after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah established a political party to participate in Lebanese elections, but did not disarm in 1990. Hezbollah includes not only a political and military wing, but also maintains important social development programs. A long-time ally of the Baath government of Syria, Hezbollah confirmed in May 2013 that it had sent fighters to support President Assad.
Last updated: Tuesday 18th December 2018