Great danger to civilians in Syria's Azaz: Rights group
Feb 18, Beirut: Attacks on Azaz and a neighboring town in northern Aleppo, Syria, hit two hospitals and a school used by displaced Syrians, killing at least 20 civilians. Witness statements and evidence of the aftermath indicates that the attacks on February 15, which also wounded 38, were part of the joint Russian-Syrian offensive in the area.
According to the United Nations, between February 1 and 16, at least 70,000 civilians fled the offensive to cut access between Aleppo city and the Turkish border. The area around Azaz has become the center of a multisided battle between various local, regional, and international actors.
Syria and Russia should stop attacks targeting schools and hospitals and cease any indiscriminate attacks, including the use of cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said. They should also stop using explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as ballistic missiles, in populated areas.
Satellite imagery procured by Human Rights Watch shows a massive influx of displaced persons at a camp on the Syrian side of the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey between December 9 and February 16. Human Rights Watch spoke with a camp leader who said that his camp, located at the border, had received more than 2,400 new families since February 1 and had no more space for new arrivals. Turkey should allow civilians trying to flee the area and who are currently stuck at its borders to enter and seek protection.
A HRW arms expert reviewed photographs of a missile that struck a field nearby and failed to detonate, identifying it as a ground-fired 9M79-series Tochka ballistic missile. The crater by the hospital, approximately seven meters across, is consistent with ballistic missile impact.
Only Syrian government forces have used ballistic missiles in Syria’s armed conflict so far. Syria stockpiles several types of ballistic missiles, according to the authoritative publication The Military Balance, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. They include Scud missiles, variants of Scud missiles, SS-21 Tochka missiles, and Luna-M missiles.
Three local activists told HRW that after the hospital was hit, there were also airstrikes on the city. While the Kurdish YPG forces and allied armed groups advanced to the outskirts of Azaz, the hospital was located in the city proper, four to five kilometers from the front line. Four local residents told Human Rights Watch there was no military target nearby.
An activist and a doctor, both in Azaz, told HRW that the Azaz National Hospital was also struck during the same period. The National Hospital was located near the frontlines and had been evacuated 10 days earlier, the activist said. The doctor, who works at the Azaz Ahly Hospital, said it is the only one of three hospitals in Azaz that remain open after the February 15 attacks.
In addition to local residents, Azaz city hosts nearly 12,000 newly displaced persons from around Aleppo. The number of displaced living in Azaz has increased significantly in the last two weeks, as people fleeing aerial bombardment and ground battles in other parts of Aleppo governorate have sought shelter there, unable to cross the border to Turkey.
Deliberate or reckless attacks against civilians and civilian structures committed with criminal intent are war crimes. The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. When used in populated areas, ballistic missiles with large payloads of high explosives have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and fighters, which almost inevitably leads to civilian casualties. Using these weapons against Azaz, a civilian populated area, would constitute a war crime. Hospitals and other medical facilities are civilian objects that have special protections under the laws of war.
HRW reviewed footage of the victims after the attack, as well as photographs showing the remnants of a ballistic missile lying in fields near Kaljabrin that day. Human Rights Watch’s arms expert identified the item as a 9M79M Tochka missile, with a range of 180 kilometers.
HRW cannot establish the type of warhead carried by the missile, or whether it struck the school. Descriptions of the attack by residents are consistent with a cluster munition attack. Tochka missiles can carry a 9N24 warhead containing 50 explosive submunitions.
Doctor Mohammed al-Laqhini, director of the Azaz Ahly Hospital, which received injured people from both incidents, told Human Rights Watch that a security guard and an ambulance driver from the Women and Children’s Hospital were among the injured, and that he saw women and children among the victims. A list compiled by local activists recorded 20 deaths and 38 injured in the attacks on Azaz and Kaljabrin that day. A representative of the Independent Doctors Association, which runs a field hospital on the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkey border, told Human Rights Watch the hospital received 49 injured people on February 15, after attacks on Azaz, Kaljabrin, and Tel Refaat, another town nearby.
A total of seven medical facilities and two schools were struck in Syria on February 15, killing nearly 50 civilians, according to international organizations working in the country. In Maaret al-Nu`man, in Syria’s Idlib governorate, a hospital supported by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was also struck, the group reported. A representative of the group told Reuters he thought that either Russia or Syrian government forces were responsible. MSF confirmed that at least 11 died after the hospital was struck by four missiles that hit within a few minutes of each other. Ayman al-Yasouf, a pharmacist who rushed to the scene, told Human Rights Watch that the strike happened around 9:10 a.m. “[The hospital] was three stories high and the entire building is now on the ground and completely destroyed,” he said. He added that the nearby National Hospital, where those injured in the MSF strike were taken, was struck multiple times that morning, starting at 11:15 a.m.
In late January 2016, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, began an offensive in northern Syria to break the siege imposed by armed opposition groups on the towns of Nubbul and Zahraa and to cut off the city of Aleppo from Turkey. In line with Turkey’s one-year-old border closure policy with Syria, only those with serious medical injuries are allowed to cross at the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salama border crossing. The rest have fled to Azaz and Afrin or to eight camps for internally displaced people located east of Azaz along the border. Aid workers say the camps sheltered 40,000 displaced Syrians before the recent crisis and are now filled beyond capacity.
The Oslo Times/HRW