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Nearly half a million civilians live in areas under siege across Syria four years after mass popular protests against the government sparked a bitter, ongoing armed conflict that has seen war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses committed on an epic scale.

The prolonged sieges enforced by the Syrian government and non-state armed groups have cut civilians off from food, basic necessities, and life-saving assistance, in violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law. The hundreds of thousands of civilians living under siege who struggle to survive amidst this deprivation also have to contend with daily, often indiscriminate, aerial strikes and shelling.

Conditions for the 163,500 people living under siege in Eastern Ghouta, an agricultural and industrial area 13km north-east of Damascus, are particularly acute. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), parts of Eastern Ghouta have been under siege by Syrian government forces since 2013. The government had, however, begun restricting the movement of civilians, confiscating food and arbitrarily depriving civilians from electricity and water since late 2012. Non-state armed groups operating in the area have also contributed to the worsening humanitarian situation for civilians there, including by inflating the price of food and other basic necessities and arbitrarily restricting the movement of civilians trying to leave Eastern Ghouta. Amnesty International has been conducting research on the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta since late 2012.

A glimmer of hope emerged for Syrians, in particular those living under siege, when the UN Security Council adopted, over a year ago, Resolutions 2139 and 2165 demanding that all parties to the conflict, and in particular the Syrian authorities, end all attacks against civilians, lift all sieges, provide unfettered cross-line and cross-border humanitarian aid access and release all arbitrarily detained people. Despite these unequivocal demands, however, well over a year after the resolutions were passed, the parties to the conflict continue to violate them, and international law, with impunity.

The Syrian government has been carrying out aerial and shelling attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Eastern Ghouta since 2012. This report documents Syrian government attacks against civilians and civilian objects in Eastern Ghouta between January and June 2015 and the conduct of non-state armed groups operating in the area. Amnesty International conducted 32 interviews with current and former residents of Eastern Ghouta, as well as with three doctors, five local aid workers and two humanitarian organizations based there. The interviews were conducted either in person or by Skype, phone or email, between April and June 2015. In addition, Amnesty International reviewed hundreds of photos and videos that corroborated witness accounts. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), a local monitoring group, aerial and shelling attacks killed at least 462 civilians and 16 fighters in Eastern Ghouta between January and June 2015. For this report, Amnesty International investigated 13 attacks that killed in total 231 civilians and three fighters. Eyewitness testimony and expert analysis of weapons’ remnants in videos and pictures indicate that in the majority of the 8 attacks the Syrian government used fighter jets to drop unguided bombs and locally produced explosives on civilians and civilian objects, weapons that are too imprecise to target military objectives that may be present in heavily populated civilian areas such as Eastern Ghouta. Witness testimony and photos and videos from strike sites indicate that in 10 of the 13 attacks there was no legitimate military objective struck or present at or in the vicinity of the strike site. Whether the strikes directly attacked civilians or were indiscriminate in nature, they were serious violations of international law. Directing attacks at civilians not directly participating in hostilities or at civilian objects and carrying out indiscriminate attacks that kill or injure civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes.

In the three incidents that Amnesty International investigated in which fighters were among those killed, it should have been evident to the attacking forces that the anticipated military advantage would be outweighed by the harm to civilians and damage to civilian objects that the attack caused. Such disproportionate attacks are prohibited by international humanitarian law and are war crimes.

Amnesty International’s research findings also provide damning evidence that the Syrian government is systematically subjecting civilians in Eastern Ghouta to an unlawful siege which restricts civilians, the wounded and sick from being able to leave the area and restricts the delivery of humanitarian and medical assistance and goods needed for survival, as well as striking medics, aid workers and facilities in indiscriminate attacks. The evidence indicates that non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta, and in particular the Army of Islam (Jaysh alIslam), are also responsible for inflating the price of food and other basic necessities there, arbitrarily restricting the movement of civilians wishing to leave, and abducting and arbitrarily detaining people. These groups have also indiscriminately shelled civilians living in neighbouring and nearby government held territory and committed other war crimes. Residents and aid workers in Eastern Ghouta told Amnesty International that the Syrian government had restricted access to humanitarian aid, food, medicine, gas, water, electricity and other basic necessities by arbitrary detention, sniper attacks and shelling. According to the Syrian American Medical Society, 208 civilians died from the lack of food or access to medical care in Eastern Ghouta from 21 October 2012 to 31 January 2015.

Under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must not deliberately restrict the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in need but rather are obliged to facilitate rapid and unimpeded aid deliveries. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime. The siege of Eastern Ghouta and the unlawful killing of its besieged civilians, including in direct and indiscriminate attacks, is part of a widespread and systematic attack by government forces against the civilian population. As such, state forces are responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity in Eastern Ghouta.

Amnesty International has also documented violations committed by non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta. Residents and aid workers told Amnesty International that non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta were restricting access to food and basic goods by selling goods and life-saving necessities for inflated prices. Two residents also provided Amnesty International with information regarding arbitrary arrests and abductions by non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta of local activists and seven residents and five aid workers said that the Army of Islam in particular was arbitrarily restricting civilians from leaving Eastern Ghouta. One resident told Amnesty International:

“I wish I could leave. My family and I have no food, water or electricity. The food aid from local organizations does not last more than a week or two. But even if I managed to bribe the Syrian authorities, the Army of Islam will never allow me to leave. People who tried to request permission from the Army of Islam to allow them to leave were arrested as a result.”

Amnesty International has also reviewed videos published by YouTube accounts affiliated with non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta that show these groups shelling government held territory concentrated with civilians neighboring or near to Eastern Ghouta, including with improvised mortars and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The Army of Islam has publicly stated in the media that some of the attacks have been carried out in retaliation for Syrian government attacks.

The Syrian government and other parties to the conflict have failed to meet the demands of UN Security Council Resolutions 2139 and 2165; they have maintained unlawful sieges, restricted humanitarian assistance deliveries, deliberately attacked civilians, and carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, arbitrary detentions, abductions and enforced disappearances. Amnesty International calls on the UN Security Council, in particular Russia and China, to uphold its commitment to take further steps to enforce the resolutions including by imposing targeted sanctions against those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, imposing an arms embargo on the Syrian government, and by referring the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.