Russia Questioned Over Civilian Causalities in Syria

By Lindsey Mattila (CMC ’17)

Last Monday, Aleppo, a rebel held city in Syria that is home to roughly 275,000 civilians, sustained major bombing.[1] Aleppo has been a controversial target of U.S. and Russian bombing campaigns against ISIS and anti-Assad rebels. In last Monday’s attack, however, 20 civilians were killed, half of whom were children.[2] The attack also destroyed more than half of the 31 trucks that were en route to Aleppo to deliver food and medical aid.[3] The incendiary bombs used are typically only used to damage military assets and bomb shelters, not to target civilian residential areas. It is widely believed that Russia is responsible for the attacks, and now Russia is now facing allegations of war crimes.

The primary question that the international community is posing is: what were Russia’s intentions? If Russia claims the civilians were unintended causalities of a bombing on known rebel locations, Russia may have limited liability (though it would still have violated the ceasefire agreement). If, however, Russia intentionally targeted the area that was known to have civilians, Russia could face serious repercussions since the bombing would then clearly breach international law, as stipulated by the Geneva Convention.[4]

The Geneva Convention is a major source of international war law, as it details actions that are unacceptable during times of war. It was ratified by 196 countries, including Russia, in 1949, exemplifying broad international acceptance. The convention states that “willful killing” is a breach of the convention when targeted at non-combatants. It further states that local civilians not involved in the conflict should be afforded extra protection from the war.[5] The Convention also lists extensive and unnecessary destruction of property as a grave breach of war law. More recently, in 1998, many countries came together to draft and sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Rome Statute echoes many of the same principles from the Geneva Convention, but goes into much more depth about how civilians should be treated during war. The statute prohibits intentionally directing attacks against civilians, intentionally attacking objects associated with humanitarian assistance (materials, vehicles, etc.), and intentionally initiating an attack that is known to have the potential to kill many civilians and have long-term damage.[6] In this case, Russia could be responsible for violating many parts of this statute.

Based on the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute, if Russia did intentionally bomb civilians, then it breached international law. The UN Security Council held a session today to discuss the airstrikes and the United States representatives were quick to point fingers at Russia. Samantha Powers, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, said, “what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism, it is barbarism.”[7] Despite its strong rhetoric towards Russia, the U.S. also faces questions regarding its targeting of non-combatants in recent airstrikes.[8] If Russia is legally held accountable for its actions, there is a strong possibility that the U.S. could be investigated and held accountable as well. This situation once again exposes the complexities of enforcing international war law in conflicts involving major world powers.





[1] BBC. “Syria conflict: Obama ‘deeply concerned’ about Aleppo.” September 26, 2016.

[2] BBC. “Syria conflict: Russia ‘may have committed war crime’ – Johnson,” September 25, 2016.

[3] Barbara Starr, “US blames Russia for Syria convoy attack; Moscow points to terrorists,” CNN, September 21, 2016.

[4] The Avalon Project, Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

[7] Time Hume and Chandrika Narayan, “Syria airstrikes kill 85 in Aleppo on Sunday, activists say,” CNN, September 25, 2016.

[8] Anne Barnard and Mark Mazzetti. “U.S. Admits Airstrike in Syria, Meant to Hit ISIS, Killed Syrian Troops,” NY Times, September 17, 2016.

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