The year the world utterly failed Syria


  • More than 1400 illegal barrel bombs dropped and 4732 airstrikes

  • 23 medics, 13 rescue workers, 11 journalists killed

  • Attacks on 171 schools, 81 medical facilities, 55 White Helmet centres by all groups in the conflict

  • More than one million displaced


This year Syria has seen the worst crisis of the conflict so far in the north of the country, yet international action has dropped to an all-time low.


When in previous years the UK, US, France and others have made attempts to impose punitive measures against the Syrian regime and Russia for war crimes, in 2019 there has been notable lack of diplomacy and distinct silence in response to hospital and schools bombings, the killing of humanitarian workers and civilians and detention of activists on a massive scale.


The war is certainly not over. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the death of 2,853 civilians, including 705 children in 2019. Assad’s onslaught against his own people continues unabated in northwest Syria. This year alone Syrian forces killed 1,328 civilians, including 324 children, while their Russian allies killed 320 civilians, including 68 children. Syrian and Russian forces bombed 159 schools, 68 hospitals or medical centres and 55 White Helmet centres.


Executive Director of The Syria Campaign Laila Kiki said: “2019 will be the year historians conclude the world utterly failed Syria. It was the year the US abandoned millions of civilians and the year the UN stood by Turkey as it forced families from their homes under the guise of a safe zone. It has been 12 months of resounding silence from world leaders as Russia and Syria woke every day to fly their planes above the homes, schools and hospitals of ordinary people and drop bombs that kill people as they sleep, shop and study.”


Over the past year the White Helmets rescued 4,530 people from under the rubble of bombed out buildings, including 1054 children. Thirteen volunteers lost their lives trying to save others, while 50 White Helmets were injured as a result of double tap strikes or direct targeting.


The bombing of 81 hospitals and health centres rendered many out of service, while rising fuel prices forced some medical points and ambulances to suspend operations. As the number of injured increased, more people were left without the healthcare they desperately needed.


The UNSG inquiry on attacks on hospitals has given some prospect that evidence will be gathered to secure justice for the bombing of 81 medical facilities this year alone but human rights activists fear that the inquiry will be undermined by Russian pressure, no surprise given Putin’s bombers continue to target hospitals.


The humanitarian crisis in the northwest has been described as the worst of the conflict so far by the head of the White Helmets. More than one million people fled their homes between February and November of this year. International governments have cut funding to Syrian groups trying to help the millions in need of aid but they are left to work with dwindling resources. As a result more children are out of school, displaced people are sheltering under trees with no tent or tarpaulin for protection and sanitation services are scarce.


In the northeast the US withdrawal of troops gave the green light to Turkey to force 200,000 people from their homes under the guise of a “safe zone” but Turkish-backed forces have committed human rights abuses including summary executions and the disappearance of aid workers. The UN Secretary-General announced he has formed a team “to study the proposal” of the new zone, sending an apparent message of support for the plan, which would be tantamount to a war crime.


As the Assad regime took back control of more areas of the country, the risk of detention increased for those living in government-held areas. This year, the Syrian government arbitrarily arrested 2,593 civilians, including 113 children, and 1,460 people disappeared after being taken by regime forces. Families received news that their loved ones had been tortured to death or died in detention, while others continue to campaign for any information that will tell them the whereabouts of their loved ones.


In the wake of ISIS’s retreat, families of those abducted by the group raised the alarm about destruction of crucial evidence. Former ISIS detention centres aren’t being handled with care, ISIS fighters are being released without families learning of what they’ve done with the kidnapped and mass graves are being exhumed by local teams without the proper funding, expertise and resources.


Although 100,000 people remain detained or forcibly disappeared, the UN Security Council discussed detention and disappearance in Syria for the first time in eight years this August but there has so far been no response to the demands made by activists, such as Amina Khoulani from Families for Freedom. Germany’s landmark case against two suspected former Syrian intelligence officers, charged with crimes against humanity, should prompt other states to prosecute war criminals within their borders.


Despite the risks, Lebanon and Turkey both broke international law in 2019 by deporting thousands of Syrian refugees back home, either to a war zone or to face possible arrest and torture. If not forcibly deported, then the harsh policies of both governments have made conditions for refugees in Lebanon and Turkey almost unbearable, giving many no choice but to go back to Syria.


In October, the UN launched a ‘Constitutional Committee’, made up of regime, opposition and civil society representatives, tasked with reforming the Syrian constitution. While the UN and some in the international community are hailing the committee as a sign of hope, a new constitution should be the result of a genuine political transition, not the starting point. And with an effective regime veto on committee decisions due the voting procedures, and no signs that the regime has any interest in making any political concessions, expectations for what it can achieve remain low.


Syrian activists and humanitarian groups in Syria filled the gap where international outrage and initiative waned. Thousands took to the streets in the northwest to protest against both extremists and the Syrian government while human rights activists, journalists and humanitarians continue to risk their lives bearing witness the war crimes being committed on a daily basis.


In numbers


  • The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the death of 23 medics at the hands of the main parties to the conflict, since the start of 2019 until November 2019

  • People killed by Syrian Regime forces: 1328 civilians, including 324 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by Russian forces: 320 civilians, including 68 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by extremist Islamist groups: 119 civilians, including 15 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by ISIS: 87 civilians, including 11 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (an alliance composed of Fateh al Sham Front and a number of factions of the Armed Opposition): 32 civilians, including 4 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by factions of the Armed Opposition: 18 civilians, including 7 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by the US-Led International Coalition forces: 65 civilians, including 20 children (SNHR)

  • People killed by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (the Democratic Union Party): 152 civilians, including 46 children (SNHR)

  • SNHR documented 11 media activists at the hands of the main parties to the conflict since the start of 2019 until November 2019


  • SNHR documented 4242 arrests, including 222 children and 191 women, at the hands of the main parties to the conflict in Syria since the start of 2019 until November 2019

  • SNHR documented 2338 forcibly disappeared at the hands of the main parties to the conflict in Syria since the start of 2019 until November 2019

  • The White Helmets documented 12,346 attacks by Russian warplanes, regime, and other parties, including:

  • 225 cluster bombs
  • 31 incendiary weapons (phosphorus)
  • 1414 barrel bombs and sea barrel bombs
  • 4732 airstrikes
  • 5727 artillery shells, ground missiles and rocket launchers
  • 188 IED cars, motorcycles and bombs
  • 11 guided missiles that targeted civilian vehicles
  • White Helmet teams disposed of 1026 unexploded ordinances and ran 318 awareness campaigns to teachers and students to prevent injuries by UXOs.

  • 220 female White Helmets followed up on medical cases in camps and homes and ran education sessions with 112,393 people.