WASHINGTON, D.C. – March 15 marks the 6th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict. Since the conflict began, an estimated 400,000 people have been killed; about 4.9 million Syrian refugees have registered with the UN refugee agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; 6.6 million are internally displaced; and at least 13.5 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Syria’s religious communities have been targeted by many entities, including the al-Assad regime and about 100-armed opposition groups and U.S.-designated terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“Once a religiously and ethnically diverse country, the actions of the al-Assad regime and ISIS have made Syria a hostile place for all groups,” said USCIRF Chair Thomas J. Reese, S.J. “The al-Assad regime persecutes and commits crimes against humanity against Sunni Muslims and others, and ISIS carries out mass beheadings, rape, murder, and torture of civilians, including religious leaders and community members.”
The al-Assad regime continues to indiscriminately target and forcibly displace Sunni Muslims. In 2016 alone, the Syrian government forcibly displaced 125,000 Sunni Arab civilians from the Damascus suburbs, as well as another 250,000 from Eastern Aleppo. The Syrian government reportedly is repopulating these historically Sunni Arab population centers with Shi’a Muslims from Iraq and Lebanon and government sympathizers. In addition, the regime since 2011 has detained or killed prominent Christian civil rights activists, humanitarian workers, and religious leaders.
ISIS makes little distinction between sects and ethnicities as it seizes and seeks to control territory from which almost all religious minority groups have been forced to flee. ISIS has attacked, destroyed, and desecrated churches and non-Sunni mosques, including Sufi and Shi’a mosques. Since 2014, over 450 Christians have been kidnapped by the group, and 45 remain in captivity. In March 2016, the State Department proclaimed that groups including Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims in Syria (and Iraq) are victims of genocide by ISIS.
Along with recommending that Syria be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC), USCIRF recommends that the U.S. government call for or support a referral by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate ISIS violations in Syria (as well as in Iraq) against religious and ethnic minorities, and continue to call for an ICC investigation into crimes the al-Assad regime has committed.
For more information, see USCIRF’s 2016 Annual Report chapter on Syria. (Click here to see the Kurdish translation of the Chapter. Click here to view the Arabic translation of the chapter).
To interview a Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-786-3258.