Civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of the violence in the bitter battle between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters for control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the country’s economic capital. The Syrian government forces’ increasingly frequent use of aircrafts and artillery to strike residential areas is further exposing civilian residents to harm.
Scores of civilians not involved in the conflict, many of them children, have been killed and many more injured, in recent weeks as a result of air strikes and artillery and mortar attacks by government forces against residential neighbourhoods. Some of the victims died in the very places where they had sought shelter, having been forced to flee their homes due to the fighting.
During a 10-day fact-finding visit to Aleppo city in the first half of August, Amnesty International investigated some 30 attacks in which more than 80 civilians who were not directly participating in hostilities were killed and many more were injured. In the overwhelming majority of cases the victims were killed or injured in attacks by government forces that violated international humanitarian law (IHL). Some attacks were indiscriminate; some appear to have been direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects. In some cases, the source of the attack could not be established.
Every day, the Amnesty International delegate witnessed a barrage of air and artillery strikes by government forces in different parts of the city. Attacks often failed to distinguish between opposition fighters and civilian residents and appeared to be generally directed at neighbourhoods which are under the de-facto control of opposition fighters and/or where opposition fighters are based or operate from, rather than at specific military objectives. The use of inaccurate munitions – both air-delivered bombs and missiles, and artillery shells and mortars – and an apparent lack of efforts to spare civilian lives resulted in a growing numbers of civilian casualties and appear to reflect a disturbing disregard for the rules of IHL and the need to protect civilians.
The presence of combatants and military objectives within densely populated urban areas has further heightened the risk of harm to the civilian population. Dozens of armed opposition groups, composed of Syrian army defectors and volunteers, are participating in the fighting in Aleppo. Many are acting under the general banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but in reality are only loosely connected with the FSA and operate largely independently of the FSA and of each others.
In addition to the killings of civilians as a result of attacks and armed confrontations in the context of the conflict, there has been an increase in killings of detained civilians and captured combatants. Bodies of mostly young men, handcuffed and bearing torture marks, are being found every few days dumped on the outskirts of the city, near the headquarters of the Air Force Intelligence. Amnesty International is alarmed that a pattern of extrajudicial and summary executions by all parties in the conflict appears to be gathering pace.