Ending the ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unspeakable’ in Syria

If, as Obama put it, ‘awareness without action changes nothing,’ what is to be done? And will Obama and the US take the lead in acting upon our responsibility to save the innocent?

Dead bodies following the assault on Houla, Syria, in May (photo credit: AP/Shaam News Network. AP cannot independently verify this photo)
Dead bodies following the assault on Houla, Syria, in May (photo credit: AP/Shaam News Network. AP cannot independently verify this photo)

Unacceptable,” “unconscionable,” “grotesque, “unspeakable.” These are but a few of the latest set of condemnations following a week of the Assad regime’s massive atrocity crimes, which resulted in the suspension of the UN mission, targeted even the monitors themselves, and included the following:

  • The widespread and systematic siege, bombardment, and assault of civilian neighborhoods across Syria, followed by brutal and barbaric torture and murder of their inhabitants, many of whom were women and children. The massacre in Houla in late May was but prologue to the series of massacres since, the whole constitutive of crimes against humanity in international law. In the words of UK Foreign Minister William Hague, “Each day reports emerge of ‘savage crimes’ – the Syrian military are surrounding and bombarding towns with heavy weaponry, and then unleashing militia groups to terrorize and then murder civilians in their homes. These deliberate military tactics are horrifyingly reminiscent of the Balkans in the 1990s.”
  • The disclosure by the United Nations Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, of “horrific evidence” of deliberate detention, torture, maiming and murder of children, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and the use of children as human shields – itself a war crime – by putting them on tanks so as to prevent attacks by opposition forces.
  • “The dangerous intensification of armed violence across Syria” – in the words of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – “from Idlib in the north to Daraa in the south.” As the Secretary-General put it, “The Syrian Government’s intensive military operations – including the shelling…of population centers…as well firing from helicopters…are resulting in heavy civilian casualties and human rights violations.”
  • The “scorched-earth campaign”, as in the town of Rastan, which hitherto had not received much mention in news reports, but whose horror was graphically conveyed by Walid Mohammad Abeid to the UK Daily Telegraph: “All our houses are destroyed by the bombing from the air, and heavy guns and cannon. We ask everyone outside to look in their hearts and help us … please, please please, we are being killed every day”.
  • The warning by Special Envoy Kofi Annan, joined in by the US State Department, of a massacre foretold in Haffa, in Latakia Province, where UN military observers were denied access. “We are calling this out now in the hope that we can stop what could be a potential massacre”, said US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, adding, “People will be held accountable.” The massacre foretold occurred. The monitors were admitted after the massacre, mayhem, and murder; no one has been held accountable.
  • The dangerous risk posed by Syria’s weapons of mass destruction, including the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world – now the subject of emergent concern as the situation unravels – and with Israel saying that it would regard a transfer of such chemical weapons to Hezbollah as tantamount to a declaration of war.
  • The dangerous escalation in the weaponry employed – particularly attack helicopters targeting civilians – and the ongoing influx of weaponry from both Russia and Iran. Indeed, Iran has emerged, along with Russia, as Syria’s main arms supplier, accounting, in part, for the fact that a UN Security Council statement – not even a resolution – had to eliminate the calls for an arms embargo to secure Russian support.
  • But what is no less “unacceptable,” “unconscionable,” and “unspeakable” is the international inaction in the face of this barbarism and slaughter of the innocents. One is reminded of President Obama’s moving speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in April where he invoked the “never again” imperative five times, declaring that “too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale,” adding – and this is of particular relevance to Syria – that “awareness without action changes nothing,”and, as if recognizing the connection to Syria, affirming that “we have to do everything we can.”
Syrian children hold a poster that reads, "Give us a childhood give us peace, and that's all," during a demonstration in Idlib. (photo credit: Local Coordination Committees in Syria/AP)
Syrian children hold a poster that reads, "Give us a childhood give us peace, and that's all," during a demonstration in Idlib. (photo credit: Local Coordination Committees in Syria/AP)

Pairing awareness and action

In listening to President Obama and other western leaders – then and since – I remain haunted by the poignant and painful final words of UK-based correspondent Marie Colvin before she herself was murdered: “In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by, and I should be hardened by now. Watch a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless…nobody can understand how the international community can let this happen.”

That was from some four months ago.

But if, as Obama put it, “awareness without action changes nothing,” what is to be done? And will Obama and the US take the lead in acting upon our Responsibility to Protect to save the innocent in Syria?

Admittedly, as Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, put it, “There are ‘consequences’ for action” (just as there consequences for inaction); and, as many have noted, such “consequences” may well make matters worse, conjuring up nightmare scenarios resulting precisely from such action, so that that non-intervention, or allowing the conflict to act itself out on its own, have been regarded as preferable options.

Indeed, suggestions of such nightmare scenarios include:

  • Hastening the advent of civil war, held out as a destructive scenario that would be worse than what Syria is now enduring.
  • The Syrian regime loses control of its weapons of mass destruction, with the attending risk of these WMDs ending up with Alawite vigilantes, Hezbollah terrorists, or other radical Jihadists.
  • The conflict becomes increasingly sectarian, with reciprocal acts of sectarian cleansing,and increasingly regionalized, engaging Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
  • The jihadization of the conflict, with Syria becoming a failed – and dangerous – state, not only for its own people but for the Middle East as a whole.

Indeed, it is these very nightmare scenarios – coupled with the reluctance of the United States to engage in an any intervention during the electoral season – that paralyze any inclination for action, let alone American leadership, while the inaction serves to embolden the Assad regime to intensify the conflict, precisely as a strategy to ward off any intervention. The result, paradoxically enough, as Robert Satloff put it in a brilliant analysis, “The Syrian regime begins to expand the conflict to ward off an intervention they may fear is coming, while increasing number of Jihadists flock to wage the fight that other outsiders refuse to wage.”

The responsibility to protect

All of this leads to the question, which I have been penning, and plaintively asking for close to a year: What, then, is to be done?

The preferred option – and the one I have been advocating for some time now – is the adoption of a binding UN Security Council Resolution invoking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, anchored in Chapter 7 of the United Nations’ authority, that would, at a minimum, mandate the six-point Annan Peace Plan. including:

  • Sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms, and withdrawal of troops and tanks to barracks
  • The timely provision necessary of humanitarian assistance
  • Intensifying the pace and scale of the release of arbitrarily detained persons
  • Ensuring entry and freedom of movement for journalists
  • Respecting freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully
  • Transitioning to a democratic, pluralist political system to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people
Amateur footage purportedly of the Houla massacre in Syria in May (photo credit: AP)
Amateur footage purportedly of the Houla massacre in Syria in May (photo credit: AP)

Since each of these six components of the Annan plan have been violated in every particular – such that the peace plan has itself unraveled – a binding UN resolution would have to include also the following components to both ensure the implementation of the Annan plan and secure protection for the Syrian people:

First, the mandated deployment of an Arab-led peace protection force in Syria to implement and maintain the ceasefire. The suspension of the UN mission – and the withdrawal of the monitors – makes a peace protection force even more necessary.

Second, the establishment of civilian protection zones – or what Anne-Marie Slaughter has referred to as “no-kill zones,” particularly along Syria’s international borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to protect against the vulnerability of the assaulted Syrian neighborhoods, and to provide protection for displaced persons and refugees. Any Syrian assault on these civilian protection zones would be countered by legitimate defensive protection, which would only target Syrian forces that attack these designated civilian areas.

Third, to establish humanitarian corridors so as to provide unfettered access to the sick and wounded for the humanitarian agencies. Indeed, nothing has changed since Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross Committee, said four months ago (and it has only gotten worse since), “It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help.” People continue to die from hunger as by bullets, by neglect as by artillery.

Fourth, the UN Resolution, again, pursuant to its implementation of the Annan peace plan, must mandate media access, both as a means of providing independent verification of violations of the plan, and to help deter these violations to begin with.

Fifth, the adoption of expanded and enhanced global sanctions, resulting in a total quarantine of Syria: global travel bans and asset freezes; utter diplomatic isolation and condemnation; the expulsion of Syrian diplomats; and the treatment of the Syrian government as the pariah it has become, devoid of any legitimacy.

Sixth, putting the Syrian political and army leadership on notice that they will be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that they will be brought to justice for crimes against humanity.

Seventh, and a crucial component: the UN resolution must order – and implement a means for verifying – a complete arms embargo.

Eighth, the resolution should mandate an inclusive political dialogue and political transition, with a view to President Assad stepping down as part of this process.

What to do with Russia?

Clearly, however, given Russia’s position against any UN resolution, it can be expected to veto such a resolution, yet again, such that this preferred option does not appear to be a viable one – unless Russia can somehow be leveraged, if not shamed, to support it, given these horrific and daily atrocity crimes.

A second option would be to secure an international consensus through an international conference such as has been proposed — or through the upcoming meeting of the G20 — where the same outcome can be achieved without the UN Security Council resolution that Russia and China have said they would veto, but where the international community would join together in such an international consensus.

The third option, in the absence of any Russian agreement, is one the has not been sufficiently explored: a variation of the Kosovo option. Here, the United States, in concert with the European Union and the Arab League, can move to implement the six points of the Annan plan, buttressed by the above eight corollary requirements to implement it.

Clearly the conflict is going to be a protracted one, and a peaceful, inclusive, democratic Syria remains a distant hope. But what is so urgent now, as Obama recognized, is that awareness without action changes noting. But, if there is to be action, it will require American leadership, a sense of urgency, and an appreciation by Obama of Elie Wiesel’s dictum that neutrality in the face of evil always means coming down on the side of the aggressor, never on the side of the victim.

*      *      *

Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament, Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University, and the 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.

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