The Assad Regime Air Raids: War Crimes and systematical killing of Civilians

The Developmental Interaction Network (DIN) worked on analyzing the data gathered by the “Insan Center for the monitoring of violations of Human Rights in Syria” (also a member of the network). DIN analyzed the figures relating to the air strikes and their distribution among military and civilian targets as well as the losses (human, economic, and environmental) generated by these attacks. The figures were collected in 10 different regions for the months of July, August and September 2014. The outcome of the study shows that the higher percentage of these strikes (and mainly the ones constituting of barrel bombs, explosive containers and barometric bombs) occurred in populated areas and/or in front line areas. This led to the killing and wounding of a considerable number of civilians in residential areas, as well as public places such as bakeries and hospitals.

Syria is known to be at war with Israel since 1948 and has undergone two major wars against this country in 1967 and 1973. The government claims that it is prepared to stop any eventual Israeli attack. What is striking however is the lack of shelter designed to protect the civilians. This is one of the reasons why there is such a big number of civilian casualties.

This paper firstly aims at revealing the findings of these studies to the public opinion. It also seeks to study the weapons used in light of the International Law, the International Humanitarian Law and the international human rights law to show to what extent the combatants, in general, and the Assad regime aerial strikes in particular, are violating the International and International Humanitarian Law and constitute war crimes. Moreover, this paper will argue the existence of systematic killings which may amount to crimes of genocide and crimes against Humanity. Some recommendations will also be provided.

We would like to thank the people working in ground monitoring and data entry for, without them, this work would not have been possible.

Facts and figures

“Insan Center for the monitoring of violations of Human Rights in Syria” issued statements (during the months of July, August and September 2014) which prove the perpetration of war crimes by the Assad regime, the sole owner of military aviation. A quick look at the following statements leaves no doubt as to the perpetration of these crimes.

A/ The type of weapons used in the airstrikes and the number of attacks

  1. 234 air raids were launched using barrel bombs[1]. The majority of the strikes used more than one barrel bomb per strike, in some cases reaching 14.
  2. 66 air raids were launched using explosive containers, barometric bombs and cluster bombs[2].
  3. 323 air raids involved missiles[3]

B/ The targeted areas

  1. 299 air raids were launched on civilian inhabited areas
  2. 141 air raids were launched on civilian uninhabited areas (Farms and/or unoccupied houses)
  3. 141 air raids were launched on military areas and front line areas

It is worth noting that an attack can constitute of several air raids. Also the percentage of front line areas attacked was higher than the purely military areas.

  1. Targeted civilian areas by category

– Destruction of housing (total or partial): 799 cases,

– Destruction of private properties: 137 cases,

– Targeting of schools: 4 cases,

– Targeting of hospitals and medical clinics: 7 cases,

– Targeting of bakeries: 3 cases,

– Targeting of infrastructure (bridges, roads, electricity, water… etc): 43 cases,

  • Targeting of forests: 15 cases.

C/ Human losses

The statements issued by the “Insan Center for the monitoring of violations of Human Rights in Syria” show that, for the 3 months under study, the number of civilian casualties reached 840 (76.5% of the total number of victims) in comparison with 258 soldiers (23.5% of the total number of victims).

Among the civilians, the children death toll reached 129 (15,3% of civilian casualties) whereas the women death toll amounted to 64 (7.6% of the civilian casualties). The majority of the victims have fallen in populated residential areas or in the vicinity of bakeries.

D/ The types of weapons used and International Humanitarian Law

Both sides at war in Syria are using different types of heavy weapons; the aerial dropping of bombs and missiles however is exclusively used by the Assad regime. And while the use of some of these bombs and missiles is allowed against military targets, they are prohibited against civilians, as well as in civilian areas. Below are some of the bombs and missiles used by the government forces:

1- Traditional missiles (allowed against military targets, prohibited against civilians)

2- Barrel bombs and explosive containers (internationally prohibited)

3- Barometric bombs (internationally prohibited)

4- Cluster bombs (internationally prohibited)

These weapons fall under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (signed in 1980) which prohibits the use of weapons which cause excessive damage or whose effects are indiscriminate. The first protocol on Non-Detectable Fragments prohibits the use of any weapon which leads to injuries by fragments which cannot be detected in the body by X-rays. The second protocol, amended in 1996, prohibits the use of certain Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices. The third Protocol on the Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary weapons prohibits the use of incendiary weapons on the civilian population. Finally, the fourth protocol, Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons prohibits the use of laser weapons which cause permanent blindness. The table below contains the weapons internationally prohibited and the conventions which prohibit their use.

Used in Syria The conventions prohibiting their use Internationally prohibited weapons
Yes, often Saint Petersburg Declaration (1868) Explosive projectiles under 400 grams weight
Yes, often Hague Conventions (1899) Bullets which expand or transform inside the human body
Yes, often Hague Convention (1907) Poison and poisoned weapons
Yes, more than once Geneva Protocol (1925)  

Chemical weapons


Yes, more than once Chemical Weapons convention (1993)  

Chemical weapons

Not used Geneva Protocol (1925)  

Biological weapons


Not used Biological Weapons Convention (1972) Biological weapons
Yes, more than once Protocol I on Non-Detectable Fragments (1980) Weapons which injure by fragments and cannot be detected in the body through X-ray
Yes, more than once Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (1980) Incendiary weapons
Not used Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons (1995) Blinding leaser weapons
Yes, more than once Protocol II on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby Traps and Other Devices (1996) Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices
Yes, more than once Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention (1997) Anti-personnel mines
Not used Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War (2003) Explosive remnants of war
Yes, more than once Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008) Cluster munitions

E/ The International Humanitarian Law: protection of civilians in times of war

The International Law, the International Humanitarian Law, as well as the international human rights law confirm the primordiality of protecting the civilians in times of war, and prohibit their deliberate targeting. The statements which were gathered from the field and analyzed, show that, during the period under review, inhabited civilian areas, infrastructure as well as other protected categories (hospitals, holy places, schools, bakeries and civilian provisioning warehouses) have been targeted in most of Syria. The regime, through its continuous shelling of a wide geographical territory containing civilians, shows its indifference and its systematic excessive use of force. It also manifests the intentional killing of civilians in areas controlled by the opposition, as collective punishment. The statements reveal that the majority of the air raids on these areas had no apparent reasons, apart from a few cases where the opposition had attacked first. This proves the existence of cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the government is responsible for the majority of these crimes, the use by the armed opposition of residential areas to build their military bases from which they launch attacks also amounts to war crimes.

As mentioned earlier, according to the statements provided 76.5% of the casualties are civilians and 23.5% military. Both these categories have been targeted by the governmental forces, in areas out of the government’s control. The fact that the governmental forces are behind these strikes is proven for the government is the sole owner of military aviation.

The situation in Syria amounts to a non-international armed conflict. According to the international definition, non-international armed conflicts are “protracted armed confrontations occurring between governmental armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups arising on the territory of a State [party to the Geneva Conventions]. The armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity and the parties involved in the conflict must show a minimum of organisation.”[4]Since the war in Syria falls under this category, a strict set of laws contained in the article 3, common to the 4 Geneva conventions, as well as the second additional protocol, apply to the situation.

Article 3, common to all four Geneva Conventions of 1949, defines, in its first paragraph civilians as being “persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed ‘ hors de combat ‘ by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause”. [5]

The first additional protocol to the Geneva Convention (1977) defines civilians as “?????????” and ???? [I CAN’T FIND THE ARTICLE]

In its articles 35.2 and 48, respectively, the protocol declares:

“It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.”

“In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

Since a high percentage of the victims are children (15.3%) and women (7.6%), this means that the perpetrator of these crimes is violating both the Convention on the Rights of the Child[6] and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[7].


The data gathered and analyzed in this paper reveals that the civilians are directly targeted by aerial raids. Targeting civilians is used as a collective punishment, aiming at killing and displacing civilians, which amounts to crimes against humanity. The non respect of the law of war in itself amounts to a war crime.

The number of civilian casualties, the number of housing targeted (far from fighting zones and front line areas) as well as the amount of barrel bombs, explosive containers, barometric bombs and cluster bombs, all prove a systematization in killing which amounts to genocide.

The systematical use of traditional weapons, prohibited under international law in general, and against civilians in particular, leads to the conclusion, that the government is seeking to kill the highest number possible of civilians as well as destroying residential areas and displacing its population, which also can amount to crimes of genocide.

In counterpart, the military opposition is also committing war crimes through the building of some of its military bases in residential areas and/or starting attacks from them.


The parties at war should:

  • Stop the bombing of populated areas
  • Avoid populated areas when clashing
  • Provide humanitarian corridors for civilians in regions controlled by combatants
  • Provide the basic needs (food, water, hospitals)
  • Provide safe places for the civilians caught in clashing areas

Civil Society should:

  • Take the initiative, when possible, to create committees to support the civilians and help provide food, water and medical treatment.
  • Take the initiative of monitoring the violations committed by combatants, whether  members of the regime or opposition. Report these violations to International organizations, as well as non governmental and/or governmental organizations, and/or to United Nations’ organizations, specialized in monitoring violations.
  • Assist in opening negotiation channels between the parties at war in order to spare the civilian areas.

The International Community should:

  • Take the initiative of interfering to stop the ongoing civil war in Syria and prohibit external parties from instigating atrocities of war
  • Stop the armament of combatants from all sides
  • Conduct a military intervention against the party that commits the most violations against Human Rights, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria
  • Take the initiative of providing aid (food, water, hospitalization and shelter) to the internally displaced Syrians as well as the refugees outside Syria
  • Activate mechanisms of international accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and judge the criminals from all sides in Special Tribunals or the International Criminal Court, thus stopping impunity

[1] Citation needed?

[2] Citation needed?

[3] Citation needed?





Photo: Smokes rise after Assad regime and its allies carry out air strikes in eastern Ghouta’s Douma town in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018.