Saving Syria

If Russia and China remain steadfast and opposed, the 13 remaining members of the UN Security Council, the Arab League and the European Union should use their preponderant majority to end the Syrian regime’s killing fields

One year ago, Syria’s dignity revolution began in Deraa, triggered by the arrest of youth whose only crime was anti-regime graffiti. Syrian protesters took to the streets – olive branches in their hands – proclaiming “peaceful, peaceful.” The march was to herald – however belatedly – the blossoming of the Syrian Arab Spring, after Tunisia and Tahrir Square.

One year later, the Syrian government’s slaughter of the innocents has already claimed more than 10,000 lives with “merciless disregard for their humanity,” as UK foreign correspondent Marie Colvin put it the day before she was murdered as well.

This past week was, yet again, a microscopic snapshot of the Syrian regime’s merciless cruelty.

As UN-Arab League Peace Envoy Kofi Annan was leaving Damascus last Monday – with Syria rebuffing any agreement to stop the bloodshed – inhabitants of Homs discovered 45 bodies — 26 children and 21 women — their throats slit, with many victims showing signs of having been mutilated and raped.

Indeed, each passing day has brought reports of more senseless slaughter. In a repeat of the horror in Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported last Wednesday that 23 bodies with marks of extreme torture were discovered just west of Idlib.

This past week was, yet again, a microscopic snapshot of the Syrian regime’s merciless cruelty.

The massacres in Homs and Idlib then precipitated a veritable refugee crisis with one thousand Syrians having fled towards the Turkish border on Thursday last week, and the Syrian Red Crescent warning that upwards of 500,000 Syrians will seek refuge in Turkey in the weeks ahead.

On Thursday, the anniversary of the Deraa Peace March a year ago, Assad turned his murderous killing machine from the cleansing of Idlib in the north to the beginning of the cleansing of Deraa in the south – while the weekend witnessed further scenes of car bombs, death and destruction.

And so as we enter the second year of the Syrian regime’s murderous assault that shows no sign of abating, the courageous and poignant final dispatch of Marie Colvin, amidst the shelling in Homs, bears posthumous recall:

“In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can standby, 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….No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen.”

Simply put, Marie Colvin wanted to sound the alarm on the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Assad regime against the Syrian people — the classic rationale for the invocation of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. Indeed, one might ask, what happened to the hallowed R2P doctrine?

An immoral, indefensible insult

Tragically, we have known of Syria’s crimes for close to a year now. Last April in a front page headline, The Economist spoke of “Savagery In Syria” with some 400 already murdered and thousands more beaten and imprisoned. Regrettably, the international community continued to dither and delay, while the savagery in Syria continued unabated.

When it finally sought to invoke R2P in a UN Security Council resolution last month, Assad’s enablers, Russia and China, vetoed even what was a watered-down resolution. Scandalously, even the most modest of UN agency sanctions against Syria – its removal from the governing body of the United Nations Educational, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) – has proven to be too ambitious a gesture for many UN member states. For UN members to allow Bashar al-Assad to remain on a human rights committee while his regime viciously murders its people is – to borrow the words of Hillel Neuer of UN Watch — “immoral, indefensible and an insult to Syria’s victims.”

While Annan dispatched representatives to Syria this past weekend in order to negotiate an international observer mission – yet again – two car bombs rocked the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, killing 30 people. It should be recalled that during an earlier Arab League observer mission last December, the then monitors ended up being bystanders to murder and mayhem – including car bombs — unable to prevent the killing and the cruelty. The chaos now ushering in this latest group of international observers equally does not bode well for their ability to prevent and deter further violence.

What is more, even among the coalition of concerned states known as the “Friends of Syria,” a consensus regarding appropriate future measures remains somewhat elusive. When the group met in Tunisia last month, they debated the action to be taken — what form of humanitarian corridors should be established — while forswearing any armed intervention or even the arming of the rebels. The Saudis and Qataris consequently left the conference deploring the lack of military action, while Syrian opposition activists deplored the seeming lack of resolve in not providing them with the arms to defend themselves against the relentless Syrian onslaught.

The chaos now ushering in this latest group of international observers equally does not bode well for their ability to prevent and deter further violence.

And so the plaintive plea captured in the headline of the Sunday Telegraph in the immediate aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting — echoing the cries of the Syrian people caught up in the inferno of Assad’s assault: “Can Anyone Stop The Syrian Slaughter?” Indeed, in the aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting the Syrians unleashed the most ferocious assault yet, as tanks, troops, and columns of armor advanced toward the rebellious cities not just of Homs, but also in Hama, Deraa, and Idlib. The assaults used the latest generation of Russian-supplied heavy duty mortars, more lethal and indiscriminate in their destruction than anything seen before, and launched multiple rocket launchers targeting civilian neighbourhoods that were reduced to rubble.

Moreover, there was the brooding omnipresence that this was but a fraction of the force that Assad can exercise in this slow motion slaughter of innocents. And there was the lurking reminder that the slaughter in Homs began — not fortuitously, one suspects — on the 30th anniversary of the mass murder of 20,000 Syrians in Hama by Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, just as the assault on Deraa began on the first anniversary of the hoped for Syrian Arab Spring.

Humanitarian corridors

And so the question, what must be done?

First, the International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent must finally be given secure access to tend to the sick and wounded, evacuate those requiring immediate relief, and provide for a decent burial. It is simply scandalous that Syrian forces can continue to block the necessary humanitarian relief as of the time of this writing, agreeing only to allow a limited and controlled visit by UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos — who was permitted to observe in her words, “Baba Amr reduced to rubble” — but not the allowance of any humanitarian relief. As Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross Committee, put it: “It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help.” While Rupert Colville, a spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva that the agency had received reports of a “particularly grizzly set of summary executions in Baba Amr.”

Second, humanitarian corridors must be established to secure the necessary access and provide the needed humanitarian relief and assistance including the provision of food, goods, and medical relief. People are dying of hunger as by bullets — by neglect as by artillery. As the Sunday Times reported three weeks ago – and nothing has changed since — “The government’s inhumanity persists, while the injured and sick, deprived of the necessary medical care, continue to die.”

Third, the international community needs to leverage Russia and China, the Syrian enablers, to bring about a ceasefire. Let there be no doubt about it. In vetoing UN Security Council resolutions, calling for an end to the violence, Russia and China emboldened Assad with a license to kill. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes: “It is just despicable, and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting, President Obama added: “It is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government”… “[it is] absolutely imperative for the international community to rally and send a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition. It is time for that regime to move on.” For Syrian activists, words are not enough and the rhetoric has yet to be matched by concrete deeds.

Let there be no doubt about it. In vetoing UN Security Council resolutions, calling for an end to the violence, Russia and China emboldened Assad with a license to kill.

Fourth, in the aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia one month ago, European Union foreign ministers adopted new sanctions against Syria, including sanctioning its Central Bank, travel bans against seven cabinet ministers, prohibiting trade in gold and other precious metals with Syrian state institutions, and a ban on cargo flights in Syria by the country’s carriers. The decisions followed the oil embargo imposed last September, and extended the list of sanctioned individuals already facing asset freezes and visa bans, together with the banning of business with some 40 Syrian companies and institutions.

Yet the EU’s action was met with more shelling, more execution-style killings, and what Syrians in Baba Amr called a “scorched-earth campaign.” Indeed, there have been some 100 Syrians killed per day, both before and after the EU sanctions, while the Syrian army announced – and then carried out – its intention to “cleanse the city of Homs,” and specifically the Baba Amr neighborhood. It then moved on last week to “cleanse the city of Deraa.” Clearly, however, while the European sanctions were welcome, they were not enough even as sanctions go. What is needed, in the matter of sanctions, is a total quarantine of Syria — global travel bans and asset freezes, a complete arms embargo, and utter diplomatic isolation and condemnation.

As British photographer Paul Conroy, who escaped from Baba Amr put it, the Syrian onslaught was, “absolutely indiscriminate.” He added: “There are remnants of people waiting to die… a systematic slaughter of the civilian population… in the years to come, we are going to sit and we are going to ask, how did we let this happen under our nose?” He concluded: “There are no military targets in Baba Amr, it is a pure and systematic slaughter of a civilian population. What is true of Bab Amr, is no less true of Deraa.”

Fifth, on a daily basis, the Syrian Government violates the most basic principles of international law. One need only look at the chilling accounts of torture released by Amnesty International this past week. Indeed, Amnesty has catalogued the widespread and systematic use of beatings, sexual violence, electrocution, crucifixion, as well as 27 other forms of torture and severe mistreatment of prisoners, all of which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Moreover, there is detailed documentary evidence that these crimes are being routinely carried out by every layer of the Assad regime’s military, intelligence and security apparatus, including Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence and the Political Security Force. The Syrian political and army leadership should be put on notice that they would be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that that their future is in the docket of the accused.

The Syrian political and army leadership should be put on notice that they would be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that that their future is in the docket of the accused.

Sixth, the Syrian National Council – in the course of the Friends of Syria meeting – finally, belatedly, was recognized as an “important interlocutor” on behalf of the Syrian people. Admittedly, the Council’s internal divisions have kept Western and Arab governments from providing it with the recognition that was accorded the Libyan National Council, and the opposition remains, as The New York Times reported: “a fractious collection of political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, all deeply divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines.” But Western and Arab governments, as they did with the nascent Libyan National Council, need to work with the Syrian National Council to provide them with the necessary training, logistical support, communications, and overall assistance that will allow them to evolve into a more cohesive and representative opposition body.

Establish no-kill zones

Seventh, the massive refugee flow toward Syria’s Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders should provide an impetus for the immediate establishment of civilian protection zones, or what Anne-Marie Slaughter has referred to as “no-kill zones,” along Syria’s international borders.  Any international military intervention in the no-kill zones would be defensive in nature and would only be targeted at Syrian forces that attack the designated civilian protection areas. Turkey is already considering the establishment of a “security zone” within Syria along its border, though it has indicated that the creation of such a buffer will require international agreement.

Eighth, what is so necessary now is to revert to the original Arab League plan – now morphed somewhat into the Kofi Annan Mission — for a cessation of Syrian government violence, the deployment of a peace protection force in Syria, the withdrawal of troops and tanks to barracks and the establishment of humanitarian corridors. Clearly,  the initial deployment of Arab League monitors ended up with the monitors being observers to the killing rather than a protection force to prevent the killing to begin with. The question is whether Russia, which was initially opposed to the Arab League Plan, might now find it more palatable if it is framed in the context of the Kofi Annan Mission with its reference, albeit regrettably, to the hitherto unsatisfactory provision of “monitors.”

Ninth, in its first statement on Syria in seven months, the UN Security Council finally adopted a statement a month ago deploring the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and calling on the Syrian government to grant UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos “immediate and unhindered access,” which had previously been refused. In particular, the Security Council cited “the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in areas affected by fighting and violence in Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib,” and called on Syrian authorities to “allow immediate full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all populations in need of assistance in accordance with international law and the guiding principles of humanitarian assistance.” Regrettably, what Valerie Amos received was limited and temporary access with no capacity to discharge her purported mandate. And the desperately needed humanitarian relief is still not forthcoming.

Admittedly, the UN Security Council’s decision was only a statement and not a resolution, had no binding authority, was limited only to the provision of humanitarian relief, and did not relate to the overall killing fields. But its significance lay in the fact that it secured the agreement of all 15 Council members including Russia and China, who had already vetoed, as discussed, two earlier UN Security Council resolutions concerning the Syrian government assaults, and had even objected to a similar UN Human Rights Council resolution.

As of this writing, yet another draft of a prospective UN Security Council statement – this one endorsing the Kofi Annan Mission with its as-yet-undisclosed objectives – but presumably including a ceasefire, cessation of government violence, humanitarian mission, and political dialogue — is being prepared for consideration. But while the Kofi Annan Mission objectives are more inclusive than that of humanitarian relief alone – and resemble the initial Arab League proposal which was rejected – its implementation, even if approved, remains questionable.

Tenth, the international objective should still be not simply a Security Council statement, but a UN Security Council resolution. It is true that, given Russia’s behavior to date, a statement endorsing the Kofi Annan Mission may be the best we can obtain, but there are some signs that the opportunity to adopt such a resolution, may perhaps now be possible. Russia appears to be increasingly disapproving of its Syrian ally — indeed, now denies that it has any “special relationship” with Syria — recently criticized its “disproportionate” use of force and lack of government reform- and has indicated, albeit ambiguously,  that it might be open, for the first time, to a UN Security Council resolution.

Russia needs to appreciate that, as the Syrian assaults, killings and torture continue, it becomes more complicit in crimes against humanity.

Such a resolution, may simply replicate the Security Council’s initial statement, and be one organized principally around the imperative of humanitarian access and assistance, which while necessary, is nowhere near enough. But the US, European and Arab members of the Security Council may yet prevail upon Russia and China to go beyond the humanitarian relief imperatives and provide for a ceasefire, the end of violence, release of political prisoners and political dialogue.

Indeed, Russia needs to appreciate that, as the Syrian assaults, killings and torture continue, it becomes more complicit in crimes against humanity, rather than simply as their enabler, however reprehensible that too has been; and that a country like Russia which is concerned with its international legitimacy as a super-power – and seeks to be a major player in the Middle East – cannot forego both its legitimacy as well as its standing with the Arab League.

Simply put, it is in Russia’s national interest to support such a UN Security Council resolution, apart from it being the right thing to do, and the international community should seek to leverage it on these grounds.

Finally, if Russia and China remain steadfast and opposed, the 13 remaining members of the UN Security Council – including the United States, the Arab League and the European Union – acting along the lines of the Kosovo precedent – should use their preponderant majority to adopt the Kofi Annan – Arab League proposal and mandate the end of the Syrian regime’s killing fields.

Again, as I have said many times before, quoting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “Loss of time means more loss of lives.” We need a protective UN Security Council resolution now.


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.

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