Home Human Rights Journalism Syria: Turkish Drone Attacks, Russian Airstrikes Ramped Up in Tandem with Astana Talks

Syria: Turkish Drone Attacks, Russian Airstrikes Ramped Up in Tandem with Astana Talks

Targeting AANES employees or any other civilians to whom the classifications of international law relating to continuous combat function or direct participation in hostilities do not apply may amount to a war crime

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A vehicle struck by a Turkish drone in the countryside of the city of Qamishli in northeast Syria on July 27, 2023 - Credit: local media

Executive Summary

Turkish drone strikes have been alarmingly increasing in frequency in northern Syria over the past three months, hitting targets at ever-diminishing intervals.

On 2 August 2023, a Turkish drone attack targeted two cars in the suburbs of Qamishli/Qamishlu city in al-Hasakah province. The drone-fired missiles killed four fighters from the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) and injured two others as they headed home for their monthly leave.

This drone strike furthers a widespread pattern of attacks in the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). This strike happened only four days after another drone hit a site on the outskirts of Tell Rifaat town in Aleppo’s northern countryside on 30 July 2023. This attack inflicted damage on the targeted house.

A third drone attack—the Turkish military launched on 27 July 2023— killed three SDF fighters. The drone targeted the fighters’ vehicle on the road between Tall Ma’rouf and Khaznah villages in the southern suburbs of Qamishli/Qamishlu city.

Keeping tabs on Turkish drone attacks in north-eastern Syria, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) documented at least 92 strikes between 2021 and mid-August 2023. The strikes killed approximately 83 people and wounded at least 55 others.

The recurrent drone attacks are often met with silence from the international community, even though drone mortalities are not limited to military personnel. In a breakdown of the documented numbers, STJ recorded the deaths of 21 civilians, among them three AANES staff members. The casualties also included five members of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish), three staff members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), one of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and one of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist–Leninist, as well as seven fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), eight from the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), 33 from the SDF, and four from the Syrian government forces.

The wounded also included civilians. The drone attacks injured 37 civilians, nine Asayish members, two YPG fighters, four SDF fighters, and three from the Syrian government forces.

One of the documented Turkish drone attacks targeted a car driving AANES employees on 20 June 2023. The drone hit the vehicle in Beyandru village, east of Qamishli/Qamishlu city, killing three passengers and wounding the fourth.

The AANES condemned the attack, saying that Türkiye “never hesitated to fulfill its threats, hitting and targeting civilians and infrastructure in the AANES areas since the start of the Syrian crisis in full view of the international community.” The AANES added that drone strikes “prove there are agreements and joint policies between the [Astana Talks] group and the Turkish government.”

This attack stands out particularly as it corresponded to the first day of the 20th session of the Astana Talks about Syria, held over 20-21 June and in which Türkiye acts as one of the three guarantor States to the “de-escalation” agreements, along with Russia and Iran. In their joint statement for the latest Astana session, which again excluded local authorities in north-eastern Syria, the three guarantor States rejected “all attempts to create new realities on the ground, including illegitimate self-rule initiatives under the pretext of combating terrorism.”

Notably, Türkiye was not the only guarantor that “breached” the purposes of the Astana Talks—purportedly aiming at maintaining “de-escalation” across Syria. Also in tandem with the first day of the 20th session, Russian fighter jets bombarded the al-Hersh area and the outskirts of Sheik Bahr village near Idlib city, controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The air raid caused massive damage to civilian properties in the targeted area.

The Russian air force escalated strikes in the area after the Astana Talks ended. On 25 June 2023, Russian aircraft renewed attacks on Idlib’s suburbs. The raids killed nine civilians, mostly farmers, and wounded at least 61 others who assembled at a farmers’ market on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour city in Idlib’s western countryside.

The air raid on the farmers’ market falls within ongoing Russian airstrikes and joint artillery and rocket shelling by the Russian military and Syrian government forces in Aleppo, Idlib province, and its suburbs in northern Syria. Between 2021 and 2023, STJ documented 10 Russian airstrikes in Idlib and Aleppo. The attacks killed nearly 36 people and wounded 88 others, mostly civilians.

Additionally, STJ documented 84 artillery and rocket bombings over the same duration. The shelling killed approximately 45 people and wounded 56 others in Idlib. In Aleppo’s northern and western suburbs, the joint shelling killed nearly 38 people and wounded 92 others. Some of the shelling instances in Aleppo are carried out jointly by the SDF and Syrian government forces deployed in the al-Shahbaa area.

Notably, Idlib remains a constant target for Russian air raids even though it is subject to a ceasefire under the Turkish-Russian Moscow Agreement, signed in March 2020.

In this report, STJ unveils the details of two Turkish drone attacks in north-eastern Syria, shedding light on the adverse impact these strikes have on civilians in the region. Additionally, STJ investigates the Russian airstrike on the farmers’ market in Idlib, touching on the instability and concerns gripping the province due to recurrent raids.

For this report, field researchers with STJ carried out six interviews. The interviewees were met online or in-person and included five witnesses and survivors of drone strikes in north-eastern Syria and one source in Idlib, who relayed the details of the Russian airstrike on the farmers’ market.

In addition to the interviews, the report draws from relevant publications and open-source visual and written material on the Turkish and Russian attacks. The contents of many of the open sources consulted were verified and inscribed into the visual evidence analysis the digital forensic expert with STJ carried out regarding the Russian air raid on the farmers’ market in Idlib.

Legal Opinion

Several legal doctrines intersect upon analyzing drone attacks in Syria under international law, primarily international humanitarian law applicable during armed conflict; State sovereignty and self-defense in line with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter; and the relevant provisions of international human rights law.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

Syria is experiencing several parallel international and non-international armed conflicts, including the non-international armed conflict between Türkiye, on the one hand, and the SDF, comprising the YPG and the YPJ, on the other; and the non-international armed conflict between the HTS and the armed groups of the Syrian National Army on one side, and Syrian and Russian forces on the other.[1] IHL applies to non-international armed conflict and governs the practices of the parties to such conflict irrespective of whether one or all of the parties to the conflict recognize its status; the justification of the conflict as lawful or unlawful; or other labels, such as countering terrorism or self-defense. As long as the necessary and commonly accepted criteria for the classification of a conflict as non-international are in place, the relevant contractual and customary provisions of IHL shall apply. These criteria include the level of organization of non-State armed groups involved in the conflict, the severity and duration of violence, and the territorial scope within the State or across borders.[2]

The parties to this armed conflict must respect the rules and principles of IHL, particularly military necessity, distinction, proportionality, and precaution, in all their military actions. This applies to the use of drones. Nowhere in its provisions does the IHL ban the use of drones or consider drones per se as prohibited means or methods of war, for drones are not regarded as indiscriminate weapons or as causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Therefore, the use of drones is subject to the principles of IHL, primarily distinction, which equally applies to the use of any other means or methods of war, such as artillery shelling or airstrikes by the Russian forces documented in this report.

As is well established as an international norm, only military objectives may be targeted during armed conflict, be they individuals or objects. Parties to the conflict must always distinguish between civilians and combatants/fighters and between military objectives and civilian objects. This rule applies to any attack, regardless of its method or means, including drones. When drones are used in hostilities, they must not be used to attack civilian individuals or objects.

Those in control of drone attacks must ensure that targets meet the necessary criteria for attacks against them to be considered legitimate under IHL. They must therefore be either regular combatant members of organized non-State armed groups involved in the conflict,[3] or civilians who directly participate in hostilities and for such time they take a direct part in hostilities.[4] In order to classify targeted individuals as regular members of an organized armed group within the meaning of Article 1(1) of Additional Protocol II, it must first be recalled that “[t]he term organized armed group, however, refers exclusively to the armed or military wing of a non-State party: its armed forces in a functional sense.”[5] The non-application of this distinction by the attacking party warrants the legitimization of attacks on any person solely for their political affiliation or non-hostile support of a non-State party during the non-international armed conflict. Accordingly, attacks must be exclusively initiated against those with established regular membership in an organized armed group. Membership, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is characterized by continuous combat function, which requires lasting integration into an organized armed group acting as the armed forces of a non-State party to an armed conflict.[6]

It is well known that the more organized, hierarchical, and responsible a non-State armed group is in terms of command, the more likely it is to have clear signs of regular membership, such as uniforms, distinctive insignia, quality of weapons, points of presence or deployment, well-known commanders, and other criteria that help tell these members with continuous combat function apart from other individuals who may not be targeted in accordance with the distinction principle of IHL. Upon meeting these membership criteria, IHL warrants targeting such members at any time, unlike other individuals, who may from time to time be directly involved in hostilities, and who might be targeted only during such participation. Thus, any individuals who perform non-combat roles, although reflecting an affiliation, inclination, or support of a general service for an organized armed group, may not be targeted, as this distinction is one of the pillars of the protection of civilians, which is at the core of IHL, and has been endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions in his study on “targeted killings”.[7]

 Therefore, drone attacks on AANES employees or any other civilians who do not meet the above classifications cannot be justified, and their killing may amount to a war crime.[8] Although the targeting of members of the SDF or other non-State armed groups may not be contrary to the principle of distinction, the attacking parties remain obliged to apply the principles of proportionality and precaution in each attack. It is not sufficient for the attack to be directed against these members; collateral damage to civilian objects and incidental civilian casualties must not exceed the anticipated specific and direct military advantage of the attack. Although there is no specific equation for calculating collateral damage in relation to the anticipated military advantage, the attacker must consider the immediate and long-term effects on civilians and take all precautions possible to minimize the damage. For instance, even though drones can be used to target SDF members in their vehicles, the attacking party must seek and evaluate alternative means or methods that provide the same military advantage with less damage to civilians, such as targeting the vehicles in less densely populated areas. Notably, the use of drones with advanced and complex technical capabilities may be interpreted as an indication of the available military and technological ability to collect credible information, monitor and evaluate the anticipated damage to civilians, and choose alternative and less harmful methods accordingly.[9]

State Sovereignty and Self-defense

Before addressing these two overlapping doctrines, it must be reiterated that they fall within the context of the jus ad bellum and that, therefore, none of their provisions should affect the operation of the jus in bello, which is primarily IHL, as mentioned above. The question of the legality of the targeting of individuals and objects by drones remains limited to the application of the provisions of the IHL.

Under Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, States are prohibited from using force on the territory of another State. In line with this rule, “targeted killings” on the territory of another State may not be considered a violation of its sovereignty if it so agrees or in the context whereby the attacking State is using this force as self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter if the State—on whose territory the attack is carried out—is responsible for a military attack against the attacking State or is unwilling or unable to stop a military attack against it.

Notwithstanding the controversy as to whether the right of a State to defend itself by force on the territory of another State applies in the case of a military attack by a non-State armed group,[10] it is well established that the invocation of this right needs to prove that the “military attack” has exceeded a high threshold of criteria, since sporadic and low-intensity attacks cannot be considered to be up to the threshold at which the State exposed to such attacks could violate the principle of non-use of force, which is a customary norm, by giving effect to the right to self-defense.[11] Accordingly, the preventive pretexts of national security do not amount to a legitimate justification for giving effect to the right to self-defense through the use of force on the territory of another State.[12]

In any event, the attacking State cannot use self-defense claims as justification to violate IHL during the attack. In its controversial advisory opinion,[13] the International Court of Justice considered that the threat or use of nuclear weapons generally violate IHL, but it could not determine the legality or illegality of such a threat or use in situations of extreme self-defense where the survival of a State is at stake.[14] Within the perspective of this view, any State’s appeal to this extremely limited exception in any circumstances in which it claims self-defence is tantamount to warranting negligence and renunciation of the IHL provisions. Self-defense measures are subject to the principle of proportionality, which requires States to use force only in a defensive manner and at the level necessary for defense purposes to counter the attack, for which the right to self-defense has been invoked.[15]

Conclusion

In parallel armed conflicts in Syria, IHL continues to be the primary legal system that must be adhered to by all parties, in addition to the provisions of international human rights law that must remain applicable even in armed conflicts. Therefore, the exercise of self-defense legal frameworks does not eliminate, replace, or authorize the violation of the law in effect during armed conflict. Moreover, allegations of safeguarding national security and preventive response to so-called “terrorism” are not considered a legal justification for the use of force on the territory of another State because they do not meet the level of danger and severity required to give effect to the right of self-defense and the use of force.

In view of the practices documented in the report, the emphasis must remain on the fact that the use of drones and other means and methods of war by Türkiye and Russia must be subject to the provisions of IHL, in particular the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution. The targeting of individuals on the basis of their political affiliation or civilian function for the benefit of a non-State actor is contrary to the essence of IHL, which is aimed at protecting civilians by distinguishing them from combatants. The targeting of civilian objects simply because they are suspected of being used for military purposes without the required standards of proportionality and precaution also exposes the entire doctrine of laws of war to the risk of violation by all parties and causes unnecessary harm and loss to civilians.

The full report (24 pages) is available here


[1] For further information on the classification of armed conflicts in Syria and the parties they involve, see:

Geneva Academy, RULAC, Syria (Available at: https://www.rulac.org/browse/conflicts/non-international-armed-conflicts-in-syria ; https://www.rulac.org/browse/conflicts/international-armed-conflict-in-syria ; https://www.rulac.org/browse/conflicts/military-occupation-of-syria ; https://www.rulac.org/browse/conflicts/military-occupaton-of-syria-by-israel ).

[2] For further details, see: Lindsay Moir, The Law of Internal Armed Conflict, Cambridge University Press (2002).

[3] See: International Institute of Humanitarian Law, The Manual on the Law of Non-International Armed Conflict, San Remo (2006), p. 4.

[4] For detailed analysis and guidelines on direct participation in hostilities, see:

Nils Melzer, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law, ICRC (2009) (Available at: https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/icrc-002-0990.pdf).

[5] Nils Melzer, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law, ICRC (2009), p. 32 (Available at: https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/icrc-002-0990.pdf).

[6] Ibid. p. 34.

[7] Human Rights Council, Report of the Special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Study on targeted killings, A/HRC/14/24/Add.6 (28 May 2010), p. 21.

[8] Rome Statute, Article 8.2(C)(I).

[9] Michael N. Schmitt, Precision Attack and International Humanitarian Law, 87 International Review of the Red Cross 445 (Sept. 2005).

[10] Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. reports 2004, p. 136, para. 139.

[11] Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 2005, p. 168, paras. 106-147.

[12] Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 2005, p. 168, para. 143.

[13] See, for example: Christopher Greenwood, The Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons and the Contribution of the International Court to International Humanitarian Law, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 316, p. 65 (1997).

[14] Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1996, p. 226, paras. 95-97.

[15] Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J, Dissenting Opinion of Judge Higgins, para. 5.

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