New UN report on Syria: Turkey's attacks may amount to war crimes

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria stated that the Turkish attacks on northern and eastern Syria are a violation of international law, and that attacks targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure may amount to war crimes.


Syria is experiencing a wave of violence not seen since 2020, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned in a report released today. Across multiple frontlines, parties to the conflict have attacked civilians and infrastructure in ways likely amounting to war crimes, while an unprecedented humanitarian crisis is plunging Syrians into ever deepening despair.

The present report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic covers the period from 1 July to 31 December 2023. It is based on 528 interviews, conducted in accordance with established methodology and practices of commissions of inquiry and human rights investigations. The report will be discussed at the 55th UN Human Rights Sessions, which started on 26 February at the UN Geneva Office and will continue until 5 April.

“Since October, Syria has seen the largest escalation in fighting in four years. With the region in turmoil, a determined international effort to contain the fighting on Syrian soil is imperative. Syria, too, desperately needs a ceasefire,” said Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission.

“The Syrian people cannot sustain any further intensification of this devastating, protracted war,” Pinheiro said. “More than 90% now live in poverty, the economy is in freefall amid tightening sanctions, and increased lawlessness is fuelling predatory practices and extortion by armed forces and militia.”

Pinheiro stated that the Turkish military accelerated operations against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria in retaliation for an attack claimed by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Ankara in October. Turkish aerial attacks on power plants deprived nearly one million people of water and electricity for weeks, in violation of international humanitarian law. Civilians were also killed in targeted aerial attacks fitting a pattern of Turkish drone strikes. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.

The members of the commission presented their report following a press conference. In the report, the political and economic situation in Syria as well as the human rights violations caused by the ongoing conflict in the country were highlighted, as well as the air strikes of the Turkish state against North and East Syria and the war and crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in the occupied territories.

The report said that Turkey accelerated operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after an attack by the PKK in Ankara on 1 October that injured two Turkish police officers. “Turkey claimed to have targeted more than 70 sites linked to PKK in the Syrian Arab Republic and northern Iraq as of late December, including an attack on an Asayish (Kurdish internal security forces) training facility that killed 29 Asayish members. The Commission documented civilian casualties and the impact of attacks on civilian infrastructure that affected hundreds of thousands of civilians. Shelling also continued between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and SDF, particularly around the Operation Peace Spring area.”

“In response to the 1 October Ankara attack, Turkey carried out a series of aerial attacks in north-east Syrian Arab Republic, stating that infrastructure, superstructure and energy facilities of the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were legitimate targets. Between 5 and 9 October, Turkey attacked what it termed SDF military facilities, as well as electricity and petrol production infrastructures, stating that it had destroyed 194 targets and neutralized 162 terrorists, with the self-administration reporting more than 200 sites hit across the north-east in this period. Strikes were also conducted in residential areas, including a camp for internally displaced persons, interrupting services provided by non-governmental organizations for residents.

On 5 October, Turkish aerial attacks on the Swediyah power plant and two electric transfer stations in Amuda and Qamishli resulted in electricity cuts, which in turn affected electricity-reliant water pumps, depriving nearly 1 million people of access to water for weeks. The Commission was not able to identify any military targets nearby. Dozens of health facilities were temporarily deprived of power, notably in the Qamishli and Malikiyah districts. Production of fuel and cooking gas, dependent on the Swediyah power plant, also significantly dropped at a time when residents, including internally displaced persons, were increasingly relying on fuel and gas to cope with electricity shortages. Electricity was partly restored in the weeks following the escalation, although emergency repair measures risked damaging equipment further in the medium term.

Subsequently, between 23 and 27 December, Turkish forces again conducted a series of aerial attacks against targets they claimed to be PKK facilities, following the reported killing of a dozen Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq.71 These remain under investigation, along with renewed air strikes occurring in mid-January.

Other Turkish aerial attacks, including with drones, continued to be documented. On 23 August, a woman journalist working for a media outlet deemed close to the self-administration was severely injured and her male driver killed, when a suspected Turkish drone struck their vehicle between Qamishli and Amuda, as they were returning from an interview with self-administration officials. Similarly, on 23 November at night, a drone attack killed a humanitarian worker and injured two of his relatives when it struck their car near Amuda, after they attended a family gathering. On 20 June, a drone launched two consecutive strikes, hitting a moving vehicle near Qamishli, killing two civilian self-administration officials and their driver, and injuring another civilian official. A third strike near the vehicle hampered attempts to help victims.

The 5 October attacks on electricity infrastructure disrupted the provision of electricity to water pumping stations, depriving civilians of access to water. Such acts amount to attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as direct attacks against civilian objects, which may amount to war crimes.

The suspected drone attacks of 20 June, 23 August and 23 November fit the pattern of drone attacks by Turkish forces. No information was provided indicating that any of the victims had taken part in hostilities. Thus, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the incidents constitute direct attacks on civilians, which may amount to war crimes.”

Referring to the situation in the areas occupied by the Turkish army, the report pointed out that: “In areas under effective Turkish control, Turkey has a responsibility to ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children. Turkey remains bound by its obligations vis-à-vis all individuals present in such territories, including in relation to violations committed by SNA members. Where Turkish forces fail to intervene to stop such violations when made aware of them, they risk violating their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Regarding the presence of a Turkish official during the interrogation of a detainee involving torture or ill-treatment, Turkish officials remain bound to prevent torture and ill-treatment when present. Turkey must investigate any such reports and hold accountable those involved.”