Criminal Responsibility for the COVID-19 Pandemic in Syria

27 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2020

See all articles by Roger Lu Phillips

Roger Lu Phillips

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre; Catholic University of America (CUA) - Columbus School of Law

Layla Abi-Falah

William & Mary Law School

Date Written: July 30, 2020


Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Syrian government has bombed healthcare facilities, attacked healthcare workers, and diverted humanitarian medical aid. These attacks not only decimated hospitals and led to numerous fatalities, but also crippled Syrian healthcare capacity leaving it entirely unprepared to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially denying that COVID-19 had affected the country, the Syrian government has since acknowledged its existence and accepted international humanitarian aid. However, it has renewed its approach to punish and suppress opponents by diverting medical aid away from parts of the country at highest risk of infection, namely current and former opposition-held areas such as Idlib, impeding healthcare’s ability to respond to COVID-19 in such areas. Health experts now estimate that an unmitigated outbreak in Idlib, the last redoubt of the opposition, could result in the deaths of up to 100,000 persons due to this illness – a situation that would not have arisen but for the Syrian government’s campaign of violence against healthcare.

It is one of the foundational principles of international humanitarian law that the intentional targeting of health facilities constitutes a war crime. The Syrian Government’s attacks on such facilities have been well-documented and condemned in a series of reports issued by UN entities, journalists and non-governmental organizations. But the death and suffering caused by these attacks is not fully encompassed by reference to direct casualties alone. Thousands of Syrians have been deprived of routine medical treatment for acute illnesses as well as communicable diseases as a result of a deliberate strategy of eradicating access to healthcare. This article examines whether individual criminal responsibility may obtain for the Syrian government’s campaign of violence against healthcare which has led to the deaths and suffering through injuries and illness including due to COVID-19. By examining the concept of dolus eventualis, it concludes that the Syrian government’s acts and omissions in furtherance of a policy to attack healthcare as an institution constitutes murder and extermination as crimes against humanity and war crimes. It also concludes that by focusing the ire of the military on specific groups of civilians and intentionally causing their suffering, government and military officials may be guilty of the crimes against humanity of persecution, other inhumane acts, and torture.

Keywords: syria, COVID-19, coronavirus, war crimes, crimes against humanity, healthcare, weaponization, dolus eventualis

Suggested Citation

Phillips, Roger Lu and Abi-Falah, Layla, Criminal Responsibility for the COVID-19 Pandemic in Syria (July 30, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Roger Lu Phillips (Contact Author)

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre ( email )

1612 K St NW, Ste 400
Washington, DC 20006
United States

Catholic University of America (CUA) - Columbus School of Law ( email )

3600 John McCormack Rd., NE
Washington, DC 20064
United States

Layla Abi-Falah

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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