Syria: An agenda for action

Every day, Syrian civilians die, not because of the actions we have taken, but because of the actions we have not taken.

Syrian rebel with captured tank 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian rebel with captured tank 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The grisly reports of the latest Syrian mass atrocity in Darayya reflect the all too horrific Syrian depravity pattern: First, laying siege to the city – denying its inhabitants food, water, electricity, medical assistance and communications of any kind; second, launching a sustained, intensified and indiscriminate air, tank and artillery bombardment; third, maintaining the siege by surrounding and entering the city with tanks, troop carriers, heavy weapons, soldiers and militias – threatening to “cleanse” the city – while not allowing any of its inhabitants to leave; finally, shabiha – government killer militias – going house-to-house, engaging in wanton executions, killing whole families, even burning bodies so as to cover up the extent of the horror, only to exacerbate it.
It is a depravity that has been repeated many times since the “peace and dignity” march in Deraa in March 2011 – the largest single-day massacre with 400 murdered in one day in Darayya alone – while the killing continues in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib and other Syrian cities, with the magnitude of Syrian mass atrocities as yet unknown.
In Libya, the international community intervened when there was a threat of impending mass atrocity; in Syria, the international community has yet to intervene, despite the recurring mass atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In Libya, the UN Security Council authorized intervention to protect the threatened civilian community; in Syria, the Security Council has yet to adopt one resolution – even to implement the UN-Annan plan – despite the 18 months of killing fields, where more than 20,000 Syrians have now been murdered.
In Libya, the Security Council invoked the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine – the international law principle authorizing international collective action “to protect [a state’s] population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” if the state where these crimes are being committed is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens – or worse, as in the case of Syria, it is the author of such crimes. In Syria, it is as if this principle had never been adopted by the international community, let alone the obligation to implement it.
I have been writing for over a year now of the need to affirm and implement the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to help save Syrian civilians being massacred by the Assad regime, or to initiate the requisite protection action, even without invoking the R2P doctrine. Yet, the riposte to these calls – by myself and others – for a more proactive, protective and interventionist approach has been to warn of “civil war”; of enhanced sectarian strife; of an influx of jihadists; of incessant killings – all of which have happened.
Indeed, everything that was predicted would happen as a result of international action has in fact resulted – but from international inaction.
What is so necessary now – if these dire warnings are not to assume the mantra of a self-fulfilling prophecy – is for the United States, in concert with the EU, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada and other “Friends of Syria” to move to implement the following measures with all deliberate speed: First, protection against the threat of weapons of mass destruction; the disclosure that there are some 45 chemical weapons facilities and tons of chemical weapons materials scattered throughout Syria, coupled with the declaration that the regime is prepared to use them against “external terrorist threats” is fraught with dangers, particularly as the regime refers to the rebels as “terrorists” who have foreign backing, let alone the transfer of these weapons to Hezbollah or their seizure by jihadists. It is to be hoped that the US, Russia and others can at least cooperate in protecting against this deadly threat.
Second, it is necessary to interdict and sanction the substantial Iranian and Hezbollah military assistance to the Syrian regime – particularly Iranian arms shipments and Iranian training, financing and arming of Syrian forces and militias – which are in standing violation of existing UN Security Council resolutions. Simply put, countries, entities, groups and individuals involved in such transactions and activities must be severely sanctioned and punished, while Hezbollah – given its complicity in international terror as well as atrocities in Syria – should finally be listed by the European Union as a terrorist entity.
It should be noted that the just-released annual US State Department Country Reports on Terrorism again referred to Iran as the world’s “leading state sponsor of terrorism,” while adding that it “continues to undermine international efforts to promote peace and democracy and threatens stability” – as in Syria – and has “provided significant quantities of weaponry and funding to Hezbollah in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.”
Third, enhanced support for the besieged opposition: All the opposition forces, from the Syrian National Council to the Free Syrian Army, are united in their request for international intervention and support to help “level the playing field,” including food, fuel and medical supplies; defensive weaponry; command and control assistance; and logistical and communications aid, training and other forms of support, which is only now, belatedly, beginning to be supplied. These efforts must be coordinated to ensure effectiveness – including the vetting of the recipients of such defensive weapons to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, the establishment of a unified US-Turkish task force for information sharing and operational planning is a welcome development, while the just-announced French initiative may move us closer to this objective.
Fourth, safe havens must be established. Aleppo is experiencing a humanitarian disaster. The combination of incessant and intensifying aerial bombardment of civilian neighborhoods – already subjected to weeks of artillery, tank and helicopter gunship bombardment – coupled with the absence of electricity, water, food and medical assistance – has generated a frightening humanitarian storm. It is crucial that safe havens be established that serve as civilian protection zones; as refuge for the displaced and assaulted; and as humanitarian corridors for the delivery of medical and humanitarian relief.
Fifth, such safe havens, which are necessary for Aleppo, are no less crucial for Syria as a whole. Indeed, I have been writing for close to a year of the need for civilian protection zones – or what Anne-Marie Slaughter called “no-kill zones” – particularly along Syria’s borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This would protect against the vulnerability of the assaulted Syrian neighborhoods, while providing the desperately needed protection for displaced persons and refugees. Any Syrian assault on these civilian protection zones would authorize legitimate self-defense protection – including no-fly zones – which would protect against Syrian forces attacking these civilian areas.
Sixth, it is necessary that the United States – together with Arab, Turkish, European and other allies – works to unify the patchwork Syrian opposition, where the Free Syrian Army operates more as a network of militias than a unified command, and help plan an orderly transition on the road to, and in the wake of, Bashar Assad’s demise.
There will be the pressing challenge of rebuilding lives; rehabilitating the displaced; repatriating refugees; restarting the economy; restoring services; and protecting human security. As well, there is the need to combat the hundreds of jihadist and al-Qaida fighters – particularly from Iraq – who are in Syria.
Seventh, the Syrian political and army leadership must be put on notice that they will be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that they will be brought to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which may lessen further Syrian criminality while encouraging more defections.
It is now as timely as it is necessary to increase pressure on Assad, and those loyal to him, to seek exile lest they suffer the fate of a Muammar Gaddafi or a Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, military commanders should be urged to defect – as should high-level political leaders – who should feel encouraged by recent high-level defections such as that of Syrian Prime Minister Ryad Hijab, brigadier-generals such as Manaf Tlass, and senior diplomats, which has emboldened the opposition no less than it has jolted the Syrian regime.
Eighth, the international community must protect against the risk of rising sectarian violence, jihadist radicalization, and reprisal and revenge killings, by securing firm commitments from Syrian opposition forces to address these phenomena seriously while protecting the rights of minorities; assistance to rebel commanders should be conditioned on such undertakings.
Ninth, there needs to be the 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; order and monitor compliance with the cessation of violence; and help secure the peaceful transition to a post-Assad regime.
Tenth, there is a clear and compelling need for enhanced humanitarian assistance arising from the exponential increase in internally displaced people within Syria, which has doubled since March to now number more than 1.5 million persons displaced and over one million in need of assistance, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have flowed – and continue to flow – into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, with the attending risk of the destabilization of these border regions. The announcements of increased humanitarian assistance by Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are but steps in the right direction, which should be replicated by other “Friends of Syria.”
Again, as others have put it, “Loss of time means loss of lives.” The time to act is now, and it is long past. Every day, Syrian civilians die, not because of the actions we have taken, but because of the actions we have not taken.Irwin Cotler is a professor of law (emeritus) at McGill University and former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. He is the co-editor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in our Time, a recent publication of Oxford University Press.