Siege, the blockade and subjugation of a city, is an ancient and enduring strategy of war, responsible for some of the cruelest events in modern conflict: the battles of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, of Leningrad during World War II, and of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
Add to these notorious examples the 2016 Siege of Aleppo, an attritional campaign of the Syrian Civil War that lasted 160 days, from July to December, pitting the victorious Syrian Arab Republic against a rebel coalition mixed into a civilian population of some two million. Taken together, the Battle of Aleppo, which began in 2012, and the subsequent siege killed an estimated 31,000 people, with 75% of those believed to be civilians. One of the world’s oldest cities and a cultural capital, Aleppo was reduced to rubble.
On Thursday, April 27, 2017, the Syrian Accountability Project—a student-run organization based in the SU College of Law and led by Professor David M. Crane, a former war crimes prosecutor—published its latest white paper detailing this sad chapter of the civil war: Covered in Dust, Veiled by Shadow: The Siege and Destruction of Aleppo.
A close examination of the multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during the 2016 blockade, the Covered in Dust release event took place in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium, Newhouse 3, Syracuse University. Discussants at the event were Ken Harper, Associate Professor, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications; Cora True-Frost, Associate Professor of Law, SU Law; and Professor Corri Zoli, Director of Research, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism.
Authored by law students Kaitlyn Degnan, Zachary Lucas, and Sean Mills, Covered in Dust uses open sources, media accounts, and contacts in the field to describe events and to document crimes that occurred during the siege in violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Syrian Penal Code.
Although siege itself is not banned under customary international law, this strategy often employs tactics that are considered crimes. In terms of targeting citizens and the aid workers trying to help them, the Siege of Aleppo was especially egregious. Covered in Dust documents six distinct categories of incidents that are representative violations: the use of siege to starve a civilian population; indiscriminate shelling of civilians and specifically the dropping of “barrel bombs”; the use of chemical weapons (there were reportedly at least eight chlorine gas attacks during the blockade); attacks on humanitarian and medical operations, including on aid convoys and hospitals; and extrajudicial killings, especially during the final days of the battle.
The information in this white paper is drawn from SAP’s extensive legal analysis, now in its sixth year. The project’s comprehensive Conflict Narrative and Crime-Based Matrix are detailed accounts of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war. The narrative is a daily accounting of recorded and pertinent crimes taken from open sources, while the matrix highlights specific incidents from the narrative, noting the date, location, description, and responsible party. The matrix also provides the relevant source of potential legal liability under the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions, and/or the Syrian Penal code.
The purpose of this white paper and SAP’s wider work is to aid the eventual administration of transitional justice for the people of Syria after the war. To this end, Covered in Dust will be sent to the newly created United Nations Syrian Accountability Center, which was formed with the help of Professor Crane in December 2016. The report also will be sent to these clients of SAP: the UN Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Chief Prosecutor International Criminal Court; Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes; and various UN ambassadors.
Covered in Dust joins two previous SAP white papers that also draw from the project’s Conflict Narrative and Crime-Based Matrix. Looking Through the Window Darkly: A Snapshot Analysis of Rape in Syria (released March 2016) carefully documents 142 cases of the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war by all sides of the Syrian conflict. Idlib Left Breathless: The Chemical Attack in Kahn Sheikhoun, released in April 2017, documents the sarin gas attack on a rebel-held town that reportedly killed at least 87 people, including 28 children.