On August 30, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian commented on the Syrian government’s allegation that the United States, terrorist groups and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “have conducted illegal activities such as stealing and destruction” since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
Zhao accused the U.S. of “plundering in Syria” and taking more than 80% of the country’s oil production, a false allegation that Polygraph.info has previously debunked. Both Damascus and Russia have made similar bogus claims.
Zhao blamed Syria’s war on the U.S., claiming Washington hoped to “to start a color revolution.”
“Its frequent military interventions in Syria have caused great civilian casualties and inestimable economic loss, and displaced more than 12 million people,” he said.
That is a false characterization that whitewashes years of brutalities by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Russian military forces allied with his regime. Let's look back.
What began in March 2011 as popular and peaceful protests against Assad, calling for more freedoms, democratic reform and an end to corruption, quickly escalated. Assad ordered deadly attacks on protesters, prompting the opposition to take up arms.
Since then, the conflict has been complicated by varying degrees of foreign involvement. Russia and Iran backed the Assad regime, while the United States, with allies that included Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, supported opposition forces.
Non-state actors, including Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Kremlin-linked mercenary company Wagner Group, also aided the Assad regime. Extremist jihadist groups, including Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida, took advantage of the chaos and joined the fighting with their own aims.
In short, over 11 years of conflict, many actors took part in the fighting, not just the U.S.
The conflict has killed more than 306,000 civilians and displaced more than 12 million Syrians, according to the United Nations. In ruins and still enduring war, Syria has experienced economic deterioration, extreme poverty, hunger, the COVID-19 pandemic and the destruction of vital infrastructure to meet basic humanitarian needs.
While all parties to the conflict, the U.S.-led coalition included, have been accused of human rights violations and war crimes, the Assad regime and its key ally Russia have by far perpetrated most of the violence against civilians and caused widespread destruction as a matter of strategy.
As writer Zachary Laub wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations:
“Both Assad’s forces and rebel groups have regularly targeted civilians in areas outside of their control. The deaths of some 1,400 civilians from chemical weapons deployed by the Assad regime in the summer of 2013 mobilized world powers to dismantle the regime’s chemical arsenal. However, in the years since, the Syrian government has employed devastating conventional arms that have also caused massive civilian casualties.
“The regime has made regular use of sieges and aerial bombardment. These collective-punishment tactics serve dual purposes, analysts say: they raise the costs of resistance to civilians so that they will pressure rebels to acquiesce, and they prevent local committees from offering a viable alternative to the regime’s governance. In 2018, the U.N. humanitarian agency said more than one million people lived in areas that were besieged or otherwise beyond the reach of aid.”
Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria in 2015 turned the tide of the war in favor of the Assad regime, prolonging the fighting.
Assad’s forces were repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons against civilians, including the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013, the 2017 chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, a town in rebel-held Idlib province and the Douma chemical attack in 2018.
“While all sides to the conflict have committed heinous laws-of-war violations, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has conducted indiscriminate aerial bombing of schools, hospitals, and markets – the civilian infrastructure essential to a society’s survival,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a 2022 report on Syria.
According to Airwars, a British monitoring group, the Russian air force launched more than 45,000 airstrikes from September 2015 to September 2019, “many targeting civilian areas and infrastructure, according to observers.” The group in September 2021 estimated that about 23,000 civilians had been killed in Syria as a result of Russian military actions since 2015.
A U.N. Commission of Inquiry said in a March 2020 report that Russian forces were directly involved in attacks on civilian targets, such as medical facilities and markets, and called those attacks war crimes.
The report, covering July 2019 to January 2020, focused on two attacks in which evidence of Russian involvement was discovered.
Airstrikes on a market in northern Syria on July 22, 2019, killed 43 civilians, including four children, and wounded at least 109 people. Rescue workers who rushed to the site were also targeted. On August 16, 2019, airstrikes hit a compound for displaced civilians in Idlib province, killing 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injuring 40.
“Based on the evidence available, including witness testimonies, video footage, data imagery as well as reports by flight spotters, flight communication intercepts and early warning observation reports, the commission has reasonable grounds to believe that a Russian aircraft participated in each incident described above,” the commission's report said.
“In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas.”
Airwars noted in its 2021 report that Syrian regime or Russian forces had carried out 244 attacks on medical facilities. It cited Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group that tracks attacks on medical workers in Syria. The New York Times reported that Russian planes bombed four Syrian hospitals over 12 hours in a May 5, 2019, attack.
“[T]he United Nations shared a list of hospitals and clinics in Idlib province with the Syrian government and the Russians, basically in the hopes of getting the Russians to avoid accidentally hitting these places. And, instead, the Russians used this list to target these hospitals,” journalist Anand Gopal told the New Yorker magazine.
“So, it was part of the Russian strategy – to attack hospitals. And that was, I think, partly to break the morale of not just the rebel movement but the population. And also, of course, if you are fighting a war against an enemy and you destroy their health centers, then you make it difficult for them to reproduce themselves on the battlefield. So, it got to a point where people in Idlib had to put their clinics literally underground. I saw hospitals that were underground because the Russians would target anything that looked like a humanitarian center or a hospital.”
By June 2021, the U.K-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had documented 494,438 deaths in Syria. “It said at least 159,774 civilians had been killed, with the Syrian government and its allies responsible for most of those deaths,” the BBC reported in March.
“The group estimated that the actual toll from the war was more than 606,000, saying 47,000 civilians were believed to have died of torture in government-run prisons and that it had been unable to document almost 53,000 reported deaths due to a lack of information,” the BBC added.
The United States has conducted airstrikes inside Syria since 2015 as part of its broader counter-terrorism efforts against Islamic State and al-Qaida. The U.S. has since also targeted Syrian government forces, Iran-backed militias and Russian mercenaries.
The U.S. deliberately attacked Syrian government forces for the first time in April 2017, when it conducted a missile strike on Shayrat Airbase in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.
The U.S. military also conducted airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria in February and June 2021. Those militias had attacked U.S. forces in Iraq from facilities in Syria.
There is no denying that U.S. military operations caused numerous civilian deaths in Syria.
The New York Times reported in December 2021 – based on confidential Pentagon assessments of “more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties” – that U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East had been “marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children.”
On August 25, the Pentagon announced a 36-page action plan to reduce risks and harm to civilians from U.S. military operations.
The plan “directs broad changes at every level of military planning, doctrine, training and policy in not only counter-terrorism drone strikes but also in any future major conflict,” The New York Times reported.
The U.S. operations are quite different from those of Russia and the Assad regime.
In an interview with the National Public Radio (NPR), Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser to the vice president for North Africa and the Middle East at the U.S. Institute of Peace, called Russia's targeting of civilians intentional:
“I think given how widespread the tactic was used in Syria, which, as you note, for now more than 10 years has seen indiscriminate shelling and bombing of hospitals, medical facilities, schools, residential neighborhoods, areas with no military targets to speak of - that kind of shelling really can't be understood in any other way. And, I would note, there was also, in 2016, the deliberate targeting of a U.N. humanitarian convoy by Russia. The convoy was attempting to bring food and assistance into a besieged part of Aleppo. So I think there's very little question that this was a very deliberate tactic to intimidate and kill civilians and win by brutal force.”
The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syria. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Washington has “allocated more than $14 billion since FY2012 for humanitarian efforts in Syria and in neighboring states that host Syrian refugees.”
Russia, together with China, has repeatedly used its U.N. Security Council veto power to block sending humanitarian aid into Syria’s rebel-held provinces.
China has provided humanitarian aid to Syria through bilateral and multilateral channels. It has also participated in conflict-mediation efforts in the war.
However, China has vetoed multiple U.N. resolutions aimed at halting Syrian government brutality, citing a longstanding policy of not interfering in the internal affairs of other nations.