Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians

04/11/2013 12:36 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

(Aleppo) - The Syrian Air Force has repeatedly carried out indiscriminate, and in some cases deliberate, air strikes against civilians. These attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war), and people who commit such violations with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes.

The 80-page report, "Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians," is based on visits to 50 sites of government air strikes in opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia governorates, and more than 140 interviews with witnesses and victims. The air strikes Human Rights Watch documented killed at least 152 civilians. According to a network of local Syrian activists, air strikes have killed more than 4,300 civilians across Syria since July 2012.

"In village after village, we found a civilian population terrified by their country's own air force," said Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher who visited the sites and interviewed many of the victims and witnesses. "These illegal air strikes killed and injured many civilians and sowed a path of destruction, fear, and displacement."

Media reports, YouTube videos, and information from opposition activists show that the Syrian government has conducted air strikes all over Syria on a daily basis since July 2012.

Through the on-site investigations and interviews, Human Rights Watch gathered information that indicates government forces  deliberately targeted four bakeries where civilians were waiting in breadlines a total of eight times,  and hit other bakeries with artillery attacks. Repeated aerial attacks on two hospitals in the areas Human Rights Watch visited strongly suggest that the government also deliberately targeted these facilities. At the time of Human Rights Watch's visits to the two hospitals they had been attacked a total of seven times.

In addition to the attacks on the bakeries and hospitals, Human Rights Watch concluded in 44 other cases that air strikes were unlawful under the laws of war. Syrian forces used means and methods of warfare, such as unguided bombs dropped by high-flying helicopters, that under the circumstances could not distinguish between civilians and combatants, and thus were indiscriminate.

In the strikes Human Rights Watch investigated, despite high civilian casualties, damage to opposition headquarters and other possible military structures was minimal. As far as Human Rights Watch could establish, there were no casualties among opposition fighters.

For example, a jet dropped two bombs on the town of Akhtarin in northern Aleppo at around 1 p.m. on November 7, 2012, destroying three houses and killing seven civilians, including five children. The strike injured another five children, all under 5.  Human Rights Watch identified a possible military target in the vicinity, a building about 50 meters away that was used by opposition fighters at the time. This building was only lightly damaged in a subsequent attack, however.

A neighbor who rushed to the site after the attack told a Human Rights Watch researcher who visited the area:

It was tragic. The buildings had turned into a heap of rubble. We started pulling people out using just our hands and shovels. A cupboard and a wall had fallen on the children. They were still alive when we found them, but they died before we could take them to their uncle's house. There is no clinic or medical center here.

In addition to the attacks on bakeries and hospitals, some attacks documented by Human Rights Watch, particularly those in which there was no evidence of a valid military target in the vicinity, may have deliberately targeted civilians, but more information is needed to reach that conclusion, Human Rights Watch said.

The government's use of unlawful means of attack has also included cluster munitions, weapons that have been banned by most nations because of their indiscriminate nature. Human Rights Watch has documented government use of more than 150 cluster bombs in 119 locations since October 2012. Human Rights Watch also documented that the government used incendiary weapons, which should, at a minimum, be banned in populated areas.

Read the recommended actions the international community should take to end continuing arms sales and support to the Syrian government, to meet the urgent need for humanitarian assistance in opposition-held parts of Syria, and to address Russia's and China's reprehensible blocking of meaningful Security Council action.