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1. Actors of persecution or serious harm

Guidance note
Last updated: September 2020

Risks to which a population of a country or a section of the population is generally exposed do not normally create in themselves an individual threat, which would qualify as serious harm (Recital 35 QD). Generally, persecution or serious harm must take the form of conduct on the part of a third party (Article 6 QD).

According to Article 6 QD, actors of persecution or serious harm include:

Figure 2. Actors of persecution or serious harm.

This section includes the conclusions concerning some of the main actors of persecution or serious harm in Syria. The list is non-exhaustive.

Their reported areas of control, as of 31 March 2020, are presented on the map below:

Figure 3. © ISW, Control of terrain in Syria, 31 March 2020.



 The Syrian State actors include members of security forces and other authorities, such as local councils or other local officials, e.g. mukhtars. It should also be noted that the distinction between official State forces and non-State forces is not always clear. The Syrian State authorities, in particular the Syrian Armed Forces including the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the intelligence services and police force, have committed a wide range of grave human rights violations since the beginning of the conflict.



 A number of armed groups are associated with the Syrian State and operate alongside the regular armed forces. There are local militias and non-Syrian militias made up of foreign fighters and mainly backed by Iran.

The National Defence Forces (NDF) are a complex umbrella network, which was set up with Iran’s assistance and consists of many different militias (e.g. members of local communities, Shia and Alawite individuals, members of criminal gangs of Alawites linked with the Assad family, Sunnis from Damascus and Aleppo, etc.). They have become auxiliary security institutions and are operating their own prisons and investigation commissions.

Other examples of Syrian pro-government militias include the Tiger Forces serving as the army of the Air Force Intelligence and militias of wealthy and powerful Alawite businessmen with close links to the Assad government, such as the al-Bustan militias and Suquor al Sahara.

The Local Defence Forces (LDF), established by Iran, include local militias that operated outside of official military structures, but have been formally integrated in the Syrian Armed Forces in 2017.

Shia foreign fighters were mobilised by Iran and sent to fight on the side of the Assad government. The most prominent groups include the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Pakistan Zeinabiyoun Brigade, as well as various Iraqi Shia militias that are members of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, and fighters from Yemen.

Palestinian militias such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, the SAA-affiliated Palestinian Liberation Army and the Liwa al-Quds also supported the government military in the conflict.

Armed forces associated with the Syrian State are accused of committing a wide range of human right violations such as arbitrary detention and forced disappearances. They are also involved in a number of criminal activities such as extortion of companies, stealing, looting and smuggling of guns and drugs.



 The security apparatus of the Kurdish Northern and Eastern Autonomous administration is comprised of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led multi-ethnic force of Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups, with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as dominating faction and with its internal security forces (Asayish).

It is reported that members of the security apparatus have committed a wide range of human rights violations, such as arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture of political opponents and other individuals who refused to cooperate with Kurdish groups. In the course of fighting ISIL, SDF/YPG has reportedly arbitrarily detained and indiscriminately killed civilians. Arbitrary arrests, including unlawful detention under deplorable conditions in makeshift camps and forced disappearances of persons perceived to be affiliated with ISIL and/or armed opposition groups have also been reported.



  The Syrian National Army (SNA) is a Turkey-backed umbrella armed group. The SNA also incorporated the National Liberation Front (NLF), a Turkish-backed alliance of opposition-armed groups, formed and active in the Idlib area, into its ranks. The NLF uses the brand of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the umbrella armed group formed by the anti-government opposition in 2011. The union of SNA and NLF brought together more than 40 armed opposition groups which are reported to be under the ‘near-total control of Turkey’s Ministry of Defence and National Intelligence Organisation (MIT)’. The SNA were reportedly responsible for human rights violations, such as kidnappings, abductions, torture, extortion and assassinations of civilians. Looting, theft and expropriation of Kurdish properties by SNA factions in the aftermath of the capture of Afrin was also reported.



 Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant (HTS) is a coalition of Islamist Sunni anti-government armed groups, formed through the merger of Jabhat al-Nusra with other smaller factions. The HTS was reported to be the most powerful actor in the Idlib area. However, the GoS offensive in 2019 eroded the group’s military and political control. HTS frequently commits serious human rights abuses, such as forced conversions, assassinations, kidnapping, torture, harassment, as well as unlawful detention of civilians.



 The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is a Salafi jihadist militant group, designated by the UN and internationally sanctioned as a terrorist organisation. ISIL aims to establish a global, Islamic ‘caliphate’ and fosters violent conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. In March 2019, ISIL’s territorial control and governance in Syria ceased to exist completely. However, ISIL is reported to be forming cells across Syria and evolving into a covert network. The group has killed hundreds of civilians, carrying out public executions, beheadings and crucifixions. Religious minorities in Syria such as Shias, Ismailis, Alawites and Christians, as well as Sunni Muslims who did not adhere to ISIL’s religious laws, were specifically targeted. After ISIL lost its territorial control, they target SDF, Syrian government forces and affiliated armed groups, local governance officials, village elders, people perceived as informants against ISIL, as well as US-led coalition forces, and civilians. The attacks include roadside bombs, drive-by shootings and assassinations as well as larger scale attacks.



 In specific situations, other non-State actors of persecution or serious harm may include the family (e.g. in the case of LGBTI persons, ‘honour’ violence) or criminal gangs (e.g. kidnapping for ransom).