The dramatic disclosure on Wednesday that over 100,000 have been killed in Syria
– including as a result of crimes against humanity committed daily that, as the
UN International Commission of Inquiry put it, must “shock” and “sear” the
international conscience – seems neither to have shocked nor seared the
international community, nor moved it to act to implement its responsibility to
In a mocking rejoinder at the same time, US and Russian
officials decided that a prospective international Geneva II peace conference
would not take place, thereby confirming the banality of mass atrocity – and the
Just over two years ago in the Syrian city of Deraa,
thousands of demonstrators chanted “peaceful, peaceful” in protest against the
arrest and subsequent torture of 20 youths who had written graffiti expressing
their desire for freedom and reform.
The response of Bashar Assad’s
regime to those initial “peace and dignity” protests has been murder, mayhem and
First, gunfire was directed at the demonstrators; then
came widespread and indiscriminate artillery and tank assaults against civilian
neighborhoods; this was followed by the brutal rape, torture and murder of their
inhabitants, many of whom were women and children.
Next was the
indiscriminate bombing, targeting schools, hospitals and bakeries; then the
firing of Scud missiles into cities; the use of cluster munitions and
thermobaric weapons; and finally – and now confirmed – the deployment of weapons
of mass destruction – chemical weapons.
The intensification and scale of
the death, destruction and devastation – as documented in the recent report of
the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry – finds
expression in that, one year after the peaceful protests began in April 2012,
Syrian deaths were estimated at 7,000; now, 6,000 are murdered
In February 2012, amidst the then unfolding horror, British
journalist Marie Colvin summed it up in one final poignant and painful dispatch
before she herself was murdered in the assault on Homs: “In Baba
Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by... Feeling
helpless... No one here can understand how the international community can let
This plaintive cry holds true more than ever. With the
conflict in its third year, more than 100,000 have been killed, hundreds of
thousands have been detained and disappeared, 4.5 million are internally
displaced, and 1.7 million have fled the country as refugees. Even more
tragically, UNICEF and Save the Children reported recently that over 2 million
children have been brutalized and victimized while women have been the targets
of sexual violence and related honor killings.
At the same time, the
humanitarian situation continues to degenerate so rapidly that it is, in the
words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, “dramatic
Indeed, thousands of refugees, half of them
children, are pouring out of Syria every day. Compounding this immense suffering
is a gap in aid funding: while the UN recently issued an unprecedented $4.4
billion appeal, even the $1.5b. originally pledged by international donors has
yet to materialize, making it impossible for international relief agencies to
keep up with demand. What is worse, Guterres predicts that, within months, there
may be two or three times more refugees than there are now.
magnitude of this unthinkable horror, the international community has largely
been a bystander, as it was with the mass atrocity and attending international
inaction that so shamefully marked the genocides in the former Yugoslavia,
Rwanda and Darfur – all of which helped give rise to the Responsibility to
Protect (R2P) doctrine.
One is reminded of President Barack Obama’s
moving speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in April 2012 when he evoked
the “never again” imperative five times, declaring that “too often the world has
failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a mass scale.” Of particular
relevance to Syria, he added that “awareness without action changes nothing,”
and he affirmed that “we have to do everything we can.”
Yet, as we have
learned, the president overruled his entire national security team as early as a
year ago, which then recommended, inter alia, supplying weapons to the rebels.
Indeed, American inaction emboldened the Assad regime to intensify the assaults
precisely as a strategy to ward off any intervention.
everything that we were told would happen as a result of international action –
more killing, sectarian strife and jihadist involvement – has happened because
of international inaction.
The fact is that our expressions of outrage
and condemnation have long been pitifully futile. What is necessary now, as it
has been for the better part of two years, is for the United States – in concert
with the EU, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada and other “Friends of Syria” – to
act upon the following initiatives: First, it is important to reaffirm and
reassert the moral imperative of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Given
the daily crimes against humanity that shock the conscience, acting upon R2P is
more urgent than ever.
Second, there is clear evidence that chemical
weapons have been used by the Assad regime – the crossing of a “red line” that
was to entail serious consequences – and this has occurred without any
consequences at all. This might well embolden the Syrian regime to use them
again, or encourage their transfer to Hezbollah. The weapons could also be
seized by al- Qaida elements and transferred abroad. Accordingly, it is crucial
to protect against the threat and use of these weapons, and to ensure that any
deployment will in fact result in serious consequences.
enough, the warning that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that must not
be crossed has allowed many other dangerous weapons to be used with impunity.
Scud missiles, cluster bombs, and thermobaric bombs may well seem benign by
comparison, but they are all part of the daily death, destruction and
Fourth, we must establish safe havens in Syria to serve as
civilian protection zones, as refuge for the 4.5 million internally displaced
and assaulted, and as corridors for the delivery of medical and humanitarian
relief. These are particularly needed along Syria’s international borders with
Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Any Syrian government assault on these zones would
authorize legitimate self-defense measures, including no-fly zones, which are
needed now more than ever given Assad’s intensified aerial attacks on
Fifth, one must also factor into the daily assaults the
intensified military involvement of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. It
is no longer just a question of Iran arming, training and financing the Syrian
regime; rather, Iran has become an inextricable part of the Syrian killing
machine, and Syria is increasingly emerging as a Revolutionary Guard
protectorate. The thousands of Hezbollah fighters battling alongside Syrian
government forces, together with increased Iranian involvement, and an
emboldened Russian complicity, have significantly tipped the scales in favor of
the Assad regime.
It is now more critical than ever that Europe finally
recognize Hezbollah as the terrorist organization it is.
underscores the need to also provide the rebels with defensive aid – such as
anti-aircraft, antitank and defensive weapons – not only to offset the offensive
assaults, but to help protect civilians against indiscriminate bombardment.
Admittedly such defensive assistance would have been much easier – and effective
– 18 months ago, before the Iranian-Hezbollah strategic intervention, before the
use of weapons of mass destruction with impunity, before Russia consolidated its
military involvement, and before the jihadist infiltration of rebel
Seventh, efforts to establish command and control structures
within the rebel forces must be expanded and expedited, as some of the
opposition militia groups – including thousands of foreign jihadist and
al-Qaidalinked fighters – continue to operate independently and, on occasion,
criminally. According to a recent UN report, some rebels are themselves guilty
of revenge killings, rape, torture, forced disappearances and recruiting child
soldiers into their ranks. We must hold these individuals accountable and
condition our support to rebel commanders upon firm commitments that civilians,
particularly minorities, will be protected.
Eighth, there is a growing
need to reinforce security around Syria’s borders, particularly in the Golan
Heights. As was widely reported, 21 UN peacekeepers patrolling the area were
kidnapped in March by rebel fighters and subsequently released. Subsequently,
many participating countries, such as Austria, Croatia, Japan and Canada,
decided to withdraw their troops from the UNDOF peacekeeping mission. Moreover,
rebels, including foreign extremists, have begun targeting Syrian government
outposts around the Golan. Indeed, what was for decades Israel’s most dormant
frontier is now potentially its most dangerous, which has important implications
for the Middle East as a whole.
Ninth, we must urge international donors
to follow through on their humanitarian aid commitments, of which only 20
percent has been delivered. Moreover, much of the aid already supplied has
inadvertently gone through the regime, which regulates the activity of relief
organizations operating inside the country. Thus, aid often does not reach the
rebel-controlled areas and civilians who need it most.
international community needs to support the Syrian National Coalition in its
transition toward becoming an interim government, ensuring that it is
representative of the whole of Syrian society.
It will be necessary to
help the Coalition secure a strong foothold within rebel-controlled areas to
offset the splintering of rebel militias and the increased leverage of
Eleventh, Assad and his inner circle – and Hezbollah
commanders – should be brought before the International Criminal Court for their
grave violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against
humanity. This might have the added effect of lessening further Syrian
criminality while encouraging more defections from the regime. Countries that
have yet to support the Swiss initiative in this regard should do so
Twelfth, there needs to be a mandated deployment of a large
international Arab-led peace protection force in Syria that will, inter alia,
order troops and tanks back to barracks and bases, restore order and monitor
compliance with the cessation of violence, and help secure the peaceful
transition towards a post-Assad regime.
Thirteenth, the recent G8
communique conveyed neither the scale of the Syrian tragedy nor the necessary
sense of urgency about what must be done. It gave the impression of an
international community going through the motions as a bystander community
rather than a protective one.
Finally, yet again, as UN Secretary-General
Ban Kimoon and others have put it, “Loss of time means loss of lives.” Every
day, more Syrian civilians die, not because of what we have done, but because of
what we have not done.Irwin Cotler is a member of the Canadian
Parliament, and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of
An emeritus professor of law at McGill University, he is coeditor
The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our
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