Deliberate killing of civilians by ISIS in Syria: HRW
July 5, New York: Armed militants believed to be members of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, deliberately targeted people they knew were civilians in a June 25, 2015, attack in and around the northern Syrian city of Kobani. Syrian Kurdish authorities and local human rights groups said that 233 to 262 civilians were killed and at least 273 wounded.
Fifteen witnesses, including eight of the wounded, described to Human Rights Watch the deliberate killing of civilians by attackers whom local authorities and residents identified as ISIS. The witnesses said that to dupe civilians and gain their confidence, the attackers wore uniforms resembling those of the groups that have been battling ISIS in Kobani, `Ayn al-`Arab in Arabic. The attackers killed civilians with weapons that included assault rifles, machineguns, and in some cases knives and grenades, witnesses and local authorities said.
“Survivors describe an ISIS killing rampage whose main objective was apparently to terrorize local residents,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By all accounts, this was a planned attack on the civilian population of this area.”
The attack began around 4 a.m. on June 25 when fighters set off three suicide car bombs on the perimeter of Kobani, then cruised the city in white cars or by foot, shooting civilians as they fled down streets or tried to drive to safety. Some attackers followed civilians into homes to kill large numbers of family members, the witnesses, local activists, and relatives of the dead said.
The attackers were disguised in uniforms resembling those of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are the forces controlling Kobani, and of the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group that has in recent months fought ISIS alongside the YPG.
Snipers also fired on civilians from rooftops, shot civilians trying to retrieve the dead and wounded, and took dozens of civilians hostage, the witnesses, as well as more than a dozen relatives of the dead, and six local activists told Human Rights Watch. Most civilians were killed between 4 a.m. and mid-morning on June 25, they said. Kobani’s population is predominantly Kurdish, and witnesses said most if not all those killed were Kurds.
Fighting between Kurdish forces and the alleged ISIS forces broke out soon after and continued until the Kurdish forces regained control of the city on June 27.
Authorities from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the main political party in the area – as well as the YPG said 233 civilians died in the attack, including 23 from the village of Barkh Botan on the southern edge of Kobani district. Two survivors from Barkh Botan told Human Rights Watch the armed militants killed many in their village with knives and identified eight children among the dead.
The Syrian Violations Documentation Center, a monitoring group, released the names of 262 dead that it said were civilians, including 12 children and 67 women. A Syrian Kurdish group, the Rojava Human Rights Organization, released a partial list of 118 dead civilians that included 14 children and 18 elderly, including a 71-year-old man whose cause of the death was listed as a slit throat.
While Human Rights Watch cannot independently confirm the overall civilian death toll, witnesses and relatives gave it the names of 60 of those killed, and said all were civilians. Those interviewed gave credible statements that the armed militants attacked these civilians, even when no Kurdish fighters or other military objects were nearby. Their statements strongly suggest that the attackers’ primary aim was to kill civilians and spread terror among the local population.
Although ISIS surrounded the Defense Ministry offices of the Kobani administration and attacked checkpoints, it did not target the many other military installations inside the city, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces, Redur Xelil, told Human Rights Watch. A YPG statement on June 28 said 21 of its fighters in the city and surrounding countryside were killed, along with 14 members of the Kurdish police force. The statement said all of the attackers were killed except seven who escaped into Turkey, without giving a casualty figure.
The Kurdish authorities also took one ISIS militant, an Egyptian, into custody, Xelil told Human Rights Watch. Witnesses said most of the attackers were Syrian Arabs but that some spoke with foreign accents and that they thought others were Kurds, based on their fluent Kurdish. One witness said a fighter detaining her and other relatives said he was Moroccan.
“They shot at us intentionally – we were not fighters, we were just trying to get to the hospital,” said Fatima, 33, who was driving to a Kobani hospital with her husband early on the morning of the attack to recover the body of her father, who had died the previous night from an illness. Speaking from a hospital in the southern Turkish city of Şanliurfa, Fatima said ISIS killed her husband, Mustafa, 34, along with one of his friends, and shot her twice in the leg and once in the arm:
We saw two cars full of men and women in YPG uniforms. We thought they were YPG fighters so we did not think there was a problem. They aimed at us and started shooting. They killed my husband and his friend. My husband was shot in the head and his blood was all over the car.
Then real YPG forces arrived and fighting broke out. The fighters were shouting bad words at the YPG and calling them “infidels.” I could hear bullets and explosions all around me. I was trapped in the car, bleeding, from 5:30 in the morning until midday until YPG members rescued me.
Fatima had been nine months pregnant and told Human Rights Watch that doctors delivered her baby later that day while also treating her bullet wounds. Local human rights monitors said the surgery was performed in Turkey. Human Rights Watch is not using full names of witnesses to shield them from possible reprisal.
Many witnesses told Human Rights Watch that when they first heard gunshots before dawn, they assumed Kurdish forces were celebrating a wedding or a victory over ISIS in another area.
“When I heard shooting I went to the door and saw four clean-shaven guys in YPG uniforms,” said Hammoudi, 28, who was wounded in the attack. “I said to my father, ‘They are not Daesh [ISIS],’ but at that moment they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is Great] and shot me in the leg and groin.” Hammoud said he retreated to his house and, with a makeshift tourniquet around his thigh, helped relatives bash holes in the walls of three adjacent homes to escape.
All warring parties, including non-state groups, are prohibited from conducting attacks that deliberately target civilians, that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, or that cause civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military gain. Planning, ordering, or carrying out unlawful attacks with criminal intent is a war crime.
The independent international Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic should investigate and promptly report on the Kobani attack, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court so that incidents such as the June 25 massacre in Kobani, as well as violations by all other parties to the Syrian conflict, may be fully investigated and those responsible brought to justice.
In August 2014, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2170, which imposed sanctions on ISIS and called on countries to take measures to fight recruitment and financing for ISIS.
“The deliberate attacks on civilians in Kobani are an urgent reminder that all countries should strengthen measures to weaken armed militant groups like ISIS,” Tayler said. “It is equally important for all measures they take to be lawful so they don’t perpetuate the cycles of violence.”
The Oslo Times/Human Rights Watch