The Problem with the Response to the Syrian Crisis

May 28, 2013     
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The Slaughter in Syria blights the international community’s legitimacy for responding to mass atrocities in the 21st Century. It demonstrates that we are still far from looking at international relations from the perspective of human security, and that in spite of the language of human rights and mass atrocity prevention some human lives are still worth less than others.

On the 15th of May, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the violence in Syria and demanding that all sides end the hostilities. According to the President of the General Assembly, the death toll of the conflict, which has been ongoing since March 2011, is at least 80,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure closer to 94,000 and claims it could be as high as 120,000.

The majority of these casualties have been civilians, who are victim to air strikes, mortar fire, targeted assassinations, massacres, suicide bombings, and now chemical weapon attacks. The numbers themselves are odious enough on their own, but the brutality of the killings adds another hellish dimension to what is occurring – families killed en masse, graves filled with children’s bodies, and the desecration of corpses that comes from only the most virulent hatred.

UN observers were sent to Syria at the onset of the violence. Kofi Annan was appointed as a special UN-Arab League envoy to Syria and a six-point peace plan was developed. The Arab League came together to voice their concern in the crisis and develop a regional solution. The violence continued unabated. Citing interference, the observers left. Unwilling to sit quietly at the centre of yet another massacre, Kofi Annan left as well. He was replaced by another eminent envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who would become the UN peace advisor to Syria. Still, the violence continues unabated.

How could this happen in the 21st Century, almost twenty years removed from the genocide in Rwanda? How could this happen after the acknowledgment in 2005 that sovereignty entails the responsibility of a state to protect its population from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing (mass atrocities)? More importantly, how could this happen after the recognition that it is the responsibility of the international community to assist states in fulfilling their primary responsibility to protect civilians and, should the state be unwilling or unable to fulfill its primary responsibility, to intervene to protect civilians from mass atrocities?

The unfortunate truth is that we have still not learnt the lessons of the 20th century. We still approach peace and security issues through a political lens, instead of approaching it from the perspective of the prevention and elimination of mass atrocities, human rights, and the rule of law. That is why the crisis in Syria has appeared so intractable. The major players, and many analysts as well, have been tying themselves in knots trying to argue in support of one side against the other. Should the Syrian opposition be supported or should the Assad Regime be supported. It is a fallacious choice.

The Assad regime proved that it does not have a popular mandate to rule, and that in the absence of such a mandate it is willing to use ruthless force to maintain its grip on power. The regime used disproportionate force in response to initially peaceful popular protests, beginning with the “Day of Rage” rally in Deraa. When isolated segments of the population took to arms the regime responded with disproportionate and murderous brutality, first in Jisr al-Shughour, then in Hama. In its hour of reckoning, the regime chose to prey on the very people it has a responsibility to protect.

The armed opposition, which includes radical groups such as Jabhat al Nusra, is questionable, and while they share in the civilian population’s antagonism towards the Assad regime, one’s enemy’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend. As the conflict has become more entrenched, members of the armed opposition have been accused of resorting to increasingly brutal tactics, including suicide bombings in civilian areas, unlawful executions, and most recently the use of chemical weapons. It is irrelevant if these means are being used to create a moral hazard for intervention, as a means to military victory, or out of desperation, that they equate to mass atrocities. In the end, the arguments for supporting either side are weak and unconvincing. Ironically, at the point when the international community should have been enacting its responsibility, those with the greatest means and therefore responsibility stood in the way.

While the crisis in Syria was winding up, another crisis was winding down. The international community was rallying together to respond to the imminent threat against civilians in Libya. With the support of regional bodies, the international community, through the north Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), intervened under the mandate of the UN Security Council. At the time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the NATO mission in Libya should maintain fidelity with its mandate to protect civilians. His concern was that the mandate the mission was given had been usurped for the sake of regime change. According to China, India, and Russia, this fear was realized when NATO ended the Libyan mission upon the death of Muammar Gaddafi. When discussion of Syria arose, China and Russia pointed to the Libyan precedent.

While they were dead wrong in practice, the treatment of the Syrian crisis is retroactively validating their claim. The focus by the United States, England, and France, on whether it is wise to arm the opposition suggests that the objective is not on stopping the massacres, which may entail putting a stop to the actions of the opposition in addition to the Assad regime, but simply on a change of regimes. The reverse is true in the case of Russia and China. While regime change is not included in the protection of civilians, it is unlikely that a dictator actively preying on his or her population can return to office once the crisis is over. Genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are not only trespasses against human dignity; they are international crimes that demand accountability. The focus on keeping Assad’s regime in power suggests that Russia and China are more concerned with supporting a regime that is guilty of mass atrocities than it is in stopping the mass atrocities in the first place. Both sides are damning human life and the rule of law for the sake of political ends.

There are certain occasions where political calculations need to be put aside. While there may be some debate over what situations lie on the periphery, the slaughter of 80,000 plus civilians is unambiguous. The international community must take robust action to end this crisis immediately. The road map is straightforward. A readily available starting point is the Kofi Annan six point peace plan. First, the parties must work on an inclusive political solution with UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Second, all offensive military movements must cease and armed elements must move out of civilian centres to permit a UN peacekeeping or stabilization mission. Third, humanitarian assistance to the affected areas should be facilitated. Fourth, arbitrarily detained political prisoners, especially vulnerable individuals and peaceful protesters, should be released. Fifth, freedom of movement for journalists should be instated. Sixth, respect should be given for the freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

Implementation of the six-point plan should occur immediately and should be enforced through international will. If the belligerents are unwilling to heed to their respective masters—a message that can be transmitted at the joint American and Russian conference being held in June—then an international force should immediately be assembled. This force could be made up of a coalition of international parties or a robust UN force, and should be focused on creating a safe zone, similar to that created in the North of Iraq following the First Gulf War, within which civilians can be protected. It is now too late for this force to intervene to quell the violence, as the country is too deeply ensnared, but there is still time to save the lives of civilians who are not engaged in hostilities. The safe zones, essentially secured IDP camps, would be sites where civilians could seek sanctuary without fear of targeting or recruitment, while the belligerents solved their differences through military or political means. Simply put, this will require international boots on the ground. Again, regardless of whether the solution to the conflict comes about by military or political means, the parties will have to be held accountable under international law.

Any and all intervention carries with it a measure of risk. These risks are born in both treasure and blood. This is why it is always wiser to act preventively. But where prevention has failed and mass atrocities are occurring the risk is outweighed by the need. If the international community, and particularly those with the capability to act effectively, are unwilling to take this risk, then the message is clear: the international community is as anarchic and lawless today as it was twenty years ago and the lives of Syrians are less valuable than the lives of civilians elsewhere.

* With contributions from Andrew Coleman, an advisor to Roméo Dallaire on human rights issues and genocide prevention.

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