GENEVA — Reporting “new levels of brutality” in Syria’s more than two-year-old conflict, United Nations investigators said on Tuesday that they believed that chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing had been used in recent weeks and urged world powers to cut off supplies of weapons that could only result in more civilian casualties.
For the first time, the report cited the government’s use of thermobaric bombs, which scatter a cloud of explosive particles before detonating, sending a devastating blast of pressure and extreme heat that incinerates those caught in the blast and sucks the oxygen from the lungs of people in the vicinity.
“Syria is in free fall,” Paulo Pinheiro, the chairman of a commission of inquiry investigating the hostilities in Syria, told the United Nations Human Rights Council here in Geneva. “Crimes that shock the conscience have become a daily reality. Humanity has been the casualty of this war.”
The four-member panel said its report to the council “documents for the first time the systematic imposition of sieges, the use of chemical agents and forcible displacement.”
“War crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations continue apace,” it added, reporting 17 incidents that could be called massacres between mid-January and mid-May.
The findings played directly into the increasingly divisive debate in Europe and the United States about the possibility of supplying weapons to the rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. An estimated 80,000 people have died in the civil war.
Last month, Britain and France pressed their partners in the European Union to allow an embargo on arms supplies to Syria to lapse, potentially allowing European governments to arm the rebels they support politically and diplomatically. At the same time, Moscow has said it will supply government forces with advanced ground-to-air missiles.
The findings seemed to take tacit aim at the Russian decision while reinforcing arguments made by European opponents of weapons supplies.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, speaking at a televised news conference at the European Union-Russia summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia, said on Tuesday:
“I will remind you that Russian deliveries of weapons to Syria are completed on the basis of transparent, internationally recognized contracts. They do not violate any international regulations. And they are carried out strictly in the bounds of international law. With regard to the S-300, it is indeed one of the best antiaircraft complexes in the world, if not the best. It is a serious weapon, of course. We don’t want to disturb the balance in the region. The contract was signed several years ago. For the time being it has not been fulfilled.”
The report also provided a stark challenge for senior Russian and American officials who are to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss how to bring all the parties together for a peace conference.
In London, the British Foreign Office withheld immediate comment on the report, which recalled a warning by President Obama that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” even as the United States and Russia work toward convening the conference on Syria.
The United Nations panel, which is seen by diplomats as providing the most factual and authoritative record of developments in Syria, said, “There are reasonable grounds to believe limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used” in Aleppo and Damascus on March 19, in Aleppo again on April 13 and in Idlib on April 29. “Other incidents remain under investigation,” the panel reported.
They based their assertion on interviews with victims of attacks, refugees from Syria and some medical personnel, Mr. Pinheiro, the panel chairman, told reporters on Monday, but he refused to give further details. French authorities have agreed to share with the panel the results of an analysis they are conducting of samples received from casualties who had made their way to Turkey, he said.
Carla Del Ponte, one of the commission members, told Swiss-Italian television last month that testimony from victims pointed to the use of the nerve gas sarin by rebel groups, but other members of the commission quickly distanced themselves from her assertion and their report said they could not identify either the chemical agents used, the means of delivery or the people using them. Use of chemical weapons, they noted, would constitute a war crime.
The especially deadly thermobaric bombs were used in March in the fierce struggle for the strategic town of Qusayr, the panel reported. “If the use was indiscriminate, this could be a war crime,” Mr. Pinheiro said.
The panel cited increasing use of indiscriminate weapons, including cluster munitions, barrel bombs and surface-to-surface missiles as evidence of the government’s “flagrant disregard” for the distinction between combatants and civilians demanded by international law. “There is a strong element of retribution in the government’s approach, with civilians paying a price for ‘allowing’ armed groups to operate within their towns,” the report said.
Both sides have adopted siege tactics, trapping civilians in their homes and cutting off supplies of food, water, medicines and electricity, the report stated, in clear breach of international law. The panel also reported instances in which forces of both sides have used attacks or the threat of them to drive civilians out of particular areas, which is also a war crime.
Graphic descriptions of the toll on civilians caught in the recent siege of Qusayr in western Syria, on the Lebanese border, by government forces starkly illustrated the panel’s findings, with reports of women and children living in bunkers and foxholes to escape artillery and aerial bombardment. “We couldn’t leave the hole for a week,” a Syrian woman who managed to escape to Lebanon told the United Nations Refugee Agency. “We ate the little food we had brought with us. My children were crying constantly,”
Another woman told agency investigators, “You leave and you risk being killed by a bomb, or you stay and face a certainty of being killed.”
The conflict “is becoming more horrific every day,” Mr. Pinheiro said, listing abuses that included murder, torture, extrajudicial execution and the use of child soldiers under the age of 15.
Eighty-six children being used as combatants have been killed, half of them this year, the report said, evidence that the use of child soldiers was increasing. “This is a war crime that causes unspeakable harm to children and destroys families and entire communities, Mr. Pinheiro said.
There is a disparity between the abuses and crimes committed by government forces and militiamen and those conducted by rebel groups, he acknowledged, “but this is a disparity in intensity, it is not a disparity in the nature of the crimes.”
After more than two years of conflict, it is clear that a military stalemate now prevails, he said. “It’s an illusion that more weapons will tip the balance between the two parties,” Mr. Pinheiro said. “No one is winning.”
About the author: Nick Cumming-Bruce is a British journalist currently based in Bangkok where he has worked as a correspondent for the Guardian and the International Herald Tribune. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.