A United Nations report says both Russian-backed Syrian forces and rebel factions committed war crimes in the besieged eastern districts of Aleppo between July 21 and Dec. 22, 2016, when the city was recaptured by the government.
"Parties to the battle for Aleppo committed serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes," the 37-page report, issued Wednesday by the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said. "As pro-government forces and armed groups fought for control of eastern Aleppo city, civilians caught in the fighting were increasingly left vulnerable to repeated violations by all sides."
The evacuation of the last rebel-held districts of Aleppo in November 2016 amounted to "forced displacement," the report says: The warring sides struck the deal for strategic reasons — not for the safety of civilians or urgent military necessity — making it a war crime.
The city is now under full control of Syrian troops and their allies, though rebels still fire deadly mortars from the countryside. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says many residents have returned to their homes in the eastern districts — if only to survey the damage. The area remains nearly uninhabitable. In January, Syria's parliament allocated roughly $5.1 million to begin restoring electricity and water, clearing rubble and starting reconstruction.
The U.N. commission, which relied on information gleaned from 291 interviews, satellite imagery, photographs, videos and medical records, documented numerous human rights violations committed by Syria's warring sides over the course of the battle for Aleppo last year. Among the most serious: an aerial attack on an authorized U.N.-Red Crescent aid convoy west of the city last November, which saw 14 people killed and critical humanitarian supplies destroyed. The report says that no Russian or coalition aircraft were in the area during the time of the attack and that satellite imagery and forensic evidence implicate Syria's air force.
Inside the city, Syrian or Russian warplanes carried out repeated attacks against critical civilian infrastructure including hospitals, markets and bakeries, the report says. A single attack in September on a bakery cut off almost 6,000 families from critical sustenance and killed eight people, including one of the bakery's owners. A blockade of the area by government troops and hoarding by rebel factions meant supplies grew scarce and food prices skyrocketed.
Armed opposition factions launched a deadly offensive from the countryside over the summer, breaking through government lines and briefly imposing their own blockade. The U.N. commission says that rebels terrorized 1.5 million residents and displaced people living in the government-held districts. Indiscriminate shelling was aimed at areas with no apparent military objective.
Syrian and Russian warplanes launched a new aerial campaign in September, which the commission says killed approximately 300 people in the first four days alone. Doctors in the eastern, rebel-held districts were forced to amputate limbs that might have been saved, had there been sufficient supplies.
As the siege tightened, the commission says rebels prevented civilians from leaving contested districts, both physically and through intimidation: One young woman the U.N. interviewed said opposition fighters killed her husband when he tried to escape in September.
The commission also documented reprisal killings by pro-government forces. In some cases, soldiers killed their own relatives for supporting the armed opposition.
The commission says that the final evacuation deal, hammered out between the warring sides in the final days of the battle, amounted to forced displacement. A spokeswoman for the ICRC, which implemented the evacuation with Syria's Red Crescent, tells NPR that the operation helped avoid an even greater humanitarian catastrophe.
Spokesperson Ingy Sedky, reached in Aleppo via Skype, recounted how residents didn't leave the buses transporting them, even on days when the evacuation was stalled, because they were so afraid to miss their chance to flee.
Sedky says a number of people did stay in their homes, but most had lost everything and were desperate to escape an area with no hospitals, electricity or water supplies. The reality, Sedky says, is that people were simply out of options. "All they wanted," she says, "was to end the suffering at any price."