Forces loyal to Syria’s government committed what amounted to crimes against humanity, including deliberately starving civilians, during the siege of Eastern Ghouta, UN investigators said on Wednesday.
The five-year siege, on the outskirts of the capital, ended in April when Damascus regained control of the rebel enclave.
“Following the end of the longest running siege in modern history, the UN Commission of Inquiry [on Syria] has condemned this method of warfare in Syria as barbaric,” the UN investigators said in a statement.
The commission, tasked by the UN Human Rights Council in March to urgently investigate recent events in Eastern Ghouta, released a 23-page report filled with horrific details of civilian suffering.
“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” commission head Paulo Pinheiro said.
As pro-government forces dramatically escalated their campaign to recapture Eastern Ghouta between February and April this year, they used tactics that were “largely unlawful in nature,” the report said.
The tactics “aimed at punishing the inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta and forcing the population, collectively, to surrender or starve,” it added.
The report described thousands of desperate people holed up for months in squalid basements with dwindling food rations and few, if any, sanitation facilities as bombs and missiles rained down.
According to the report “certain acts perpetrated by pro-government forces, including the deliberate starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare, amount to the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering.”
The investigators slammed the widespread use of sieges throughout Syria’s seven-year conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people.
“Hundreds of thousands of Syrian women, men and children countrywide have suffered for too long the perverse and long-lasting effects of this medieval form of warfare,” the report said.
The UN’s Syria commission, set up in 2011 shortly after the civil war began, has repeatedly accused the warring parties of crimes.
In its latest report, the commission also faulted armed opposition groups like Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham for committing “war crimes” by launching “indiscriminate attacks” on Damascus, and killing and maiming hundreds of civilians.
Through the entire duration of the siege, armed groups also regularly arbitrarily arrested and tortured civilians in Douma, including members of religious minority groups, repeatedly committing the war crimes of cruel treatment and torture, and outrages upon personal dignity
UN Commission of Inquiry
The investigators, who were never granted access to Syria, said they based the findings in their latest report on some 140 interviews conducted in person in the region and from Geneva.
They also said they analysed photographs, video recordings, satellite imagery, and medical records, as well as reports from government and non-government sources.
The report noted that about 140,000 people had been displaced from their homes when government forces declared Eastern Ghouta recaptured on April 14.
Tens of thousands of them are still being unlawfully interned by government forces in managed sites throughout the Damascus region, the report said.
Following local “evacuation agreements”, up to 50,000 civilians from Eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, it said.