Syrian government forces and their allies committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the ferocious battle for rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, United Nations investigators said on Wednesday, citing the starvation of civilians and indiscriminate bombardment that may have included repeated use of chemical weapons.
The United Nations commission of inquiry monitoring the Syria conflict spoke of “pervasive war crimes” during the siege of eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, this year, while also condemning rebel forces for indiscriminate shelling of civilian residential areas.
The government and its allies took control of eastern Ghouta in April after imposing what the commission described as “the longest siege in modern history,” displacing more than 140,000 people from their homes and unleashing bombardments that destroyed hospitals, markets and schools and forced residents to live in cellars and basements.
Those bombardments — mainly airstrikes by Syrian and Russian planes — killed 1,100 civilians and injured 4,000 others in a period of less than a month from Feb. 18, the commission says in a 23-page report that it is to deliver to the Human Rights Council next week.
Tens of thousands of those who fled are still held unjustifiably by the government, which pursued a policy of blanket internment the panel called “reprehensible.”
Sieges are permitted under international humanitarian law. But, in a departure from established practice, the panel said it considered the way pro-government forces had conducted the siege of eastern Ghouta unlawful.
“Certain acts perpetrated by pro-government forces during the siege laid to eastern Ghouta, including the deliberate starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare, amount to the crime against humanity of inhumane acts, causing serious mental and physical suffering,” the panel concluded.
The group said it was still investigating the use of weaponized chlorine in three attacks carried out by government forces in March and April, including an airstrike on the Damascus suburb of Douma that reportedly killed 49 people and injured up to 650 others, drawing retaliatory missile attacks and airstrikes by Britain, France and the United States.
The panel appears to have been careful not to deliver its conclusions before the release of a report on the episode by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, expected this month.
Available victim was consistent with use of chlorine gas, the panel said, but this “does not explain other reported symptoms, which are more consistent with the use of another chemical agent, most likely a nerve gas.”
As the assault on eastern Ghouta escalated after February, government and allied aircraft systematically struck medical facilities and personnel, even after medical organizations had shared their coordinates in a bid to protect them, the panel said.
In those airstrikes, the government and its allies were “repeatedly committing the war crime” of deliberately attacking facilities and personnel who are protected under international law, it said.
Russia habitually denies that its forces target civilians in Syria, or even hits them inadvertently.
In March, forces loyal to the Syrian government struck a market packed with civilians, killing at least 70 people and injuring up to 200. Many had come out of basements for the first time in days, after hearing that Russia had announced a cease-fire.
Rebel groups, including extremists linked to Al Qaeda, had also killed and maimed hundreds of civilians through indiscriminate shelling of residential areas of the capital, the panel reported.
“Such actions by armed groups and members of terrorist organizations also amount to war crimes,” Hanny Megally, a member of the panel, said in a statement.
Throughout the five years of the eastern Ghouta siege, the panel reported, armed rebels regularly subjected civilians in Douma to arbitrary arrest and tortured them, including members of religious minorities.