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UN Syria investigators fear replication of Syrian terror in Ukraine

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A young girl and a woman walk past destroyed buildings in the town of Maarat al-Numaan in Idlib, Syria © UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

UN Syria investigators fear an air of déjà vu and a replication of Syrian terror in Ukraine and call on world leaders to do everything in their power to prevent Ukraine from suffering a similar fate to Syria.

“Some of you may be wondering what lessons can be learned from the Syrian crisis – in particular the role of Russia – when we look at what is happening in Ukraine today,” questioned the Chairman of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

“We see similar practices in the conflict that we see now in another country” than Syria, said the UN investigator to the press, while noting that Russia is only assisting the authorities in Syria, unlike its offensive in Ukraine.

According to the Commission of Inquiry, the failure to respect human rights and international humanitarian law in Syria has eroded respect for fundamental norms. This has exposed “the deadly cynicism of armed actors, where force makes right and denial and obfuscation are used to deflect blame or criticism and undermine accountability.”

Commenting on current events from the Syrian perspective, Pinheiro recalled the attempts of the warring parties to resolve the Syrian conflict militarily over the past decade. A situation that has allowed “the violation of almost all fundamental human rights, the commission of almost all crimes against humanity listed in the Rome Statute and almost all war crimes”.

We need “compassion for all Syrians

“We can only hope that world leaders are doing everything in their power to prevent a similar fate for Ukraine,” the Brazilian lawyer said. “We have not seen any change in the Russian presence” in Syria at the moment, said another member of the Commission, Hanny Megally. He said he was “very worried” that the same violations seen in Syria would be found in Ukraine.

In the meantime, the war in Ukraine should not make us forget the daily life of Syrian civilians, with a conflict that has killed “hundreds of thousands of people”. For the UN investigators, ten years of “devastating” conflict have also resulted in the displacement of half the pre-war population. More than 100,000 people are also missing.

More broadly, the “plight of the Syrian people” is not just a warning for other conflicts, as is often presented in the media. “But it is a situation that still requires concerted diplomatic attention, humanitarian action and compassion for all Syrians, whether they are in Syria, refugees or asylum seekers abroad,” insisted Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

UN Syria investigators fear replication of Syrian terror in Ukraine
A man walks past destroyed buildings in Harasta, Syria. © UNICEF/Amer Almohibany

Violence continues, although some areas are spared active fighting

In addition, while parts of Syria are no longer actively fighting, violence against civilians continues throughout the country. These include “bombings in the northwest, north and northeast, targeted killings, illegal detentions and torture,” said the president of the Commission.

On the ground, the reporting period (July 1-December 31, 2021) was marked primarily by intensified shelling in the northwest and skirmishes between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast.

The Commission documented serious violations of basic human rights and international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict, including war crimes and ongoing patterns of crimes against humanity.

In Idlib and western Aleppo, in the northwest, residential areas were indiscriminately shelled from the ground by pro-government forces. “Among the many incidents we investigated, a bride was killed at her wedding with four young sisters and children were bombed on their way to school,” said Hanny Megally.

UN investigators call for review of international sanctions

Civilians are generally attacked with sophisticated, high-precision weapons systems and air strikes – including strikes where Russian aircraft have been identified flying over the targeted areas.

More broadly, in the face of a “devastating humanitarian crisis,” and a collapsing war economy compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN investigators called for a review of international sanctions that affect some of the most vulnerable of a Syrian civilian population that has endured more than ten years of conflict.

[…] “When sanctions are not adequately reviewed, they can lead to further shortages and hamper humanitarian assistance, for the most vulnerable populations, with a devastating impact on all but the political and economic elite,” warned the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro.

Between inflation and fears about the “negative consequences” of the Ukrainian crisis

With more than half of the pre-war population displaced and more than 90% of the population living in poverty, Syrians face a new abyss as violence escalates, from military skirmishes and bombings to kidnappings and killings outside of conflict zones. Beyond the active front lines, the daily lives of Syrian women, men and children are increasingly difficult and dangerous.

Twelve million people are food insecure, and an unprecedented 14.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition, Syria is now facing its worst drought in decades.

In addition, the Commission of Inquiry was concerned about the “negative consequences” of the Ukrainian crisis, which would only contribute to further pressure on the prices of foodstuffs such as wheat. Inflation is already skyrocketing and was already close to 140% at the beginning of the year.

Under these conditions, the Syrian government has begun to ration basic necessities, including fuel.

“Import prices have skyrocketed and we must remember that most of Syria’s wheat imports come from Ukraine or Russia,” Pinheiro argued, noting that this risks pushing more Syrians into poverty. “These are the abysses facing the Syrian people, caught between the warring parties and everywhere repressed and exploited by the armed actors.”

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