In Syria, violations of international law and war crimes have become the norm. Yet, unfortunately, the ability of the international community to act has become more and more constrained. The human rights framework is necessary to protect the Syrian people, but its idealism often conflicts with reality.
Syria is no stranger to war crimes. The UN Reported in March of 2017 that in Aleppo alone, the Syrian government has dropped chlorine bombs on its own citizens, purposefully targeted hospitals, and deliberately attacked humanitarian aid groups. Moreover, the Syrian government has used siege warfare as a tactic to force citizens to surrender. Syrian troops surround cities, preventing the entry and exit of not only civilians but also crucial supplies, including food. In addition, the Syrian government has committed mass executions, up to 13,000 people, since the civil war’s beginning. Many of these acts of violence amount to war crimes under humanitarian law and clear violations of human rights. However, the United Nations (UN) is severely limited in the actions it can take. UN Security Council resolutions require unanimous approval by the 15 Security Council members. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s actions are vetoed time and time again by Russia. Russia is a key ally of Syria and has used its Security Council veto 11 times to prevent the Syrian government from being punished. Russia views the Syrian rebels opposing Assad as the cause of conflict and therefore refuses to support resolutions that solely blame the Syrian government. Similarly, China has also leveraged its veto power to prevent sanctions against the Syrian regime, citing its history of noninterference in other countries’ affairs. Due to vetos, the United Nations ended its investigation of Syrian chemical attacks and the Security Council was unable to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. These actions create a “dangerous stalemate” in Syria. The role and power of outside actors in the Syrian conflict make widespread calls for Syrian human rights difficult to achieve.
Aside from its veto power, Russia has aided the Syrian government in perpetuating war crimes. For instance, Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed dozens of civilians. Additionally, Russian troops have supported their Syrian counterparts on the ground to limit the entry of humanitarian groups to aid civilians in the area. In turn, citizens lack crucial access to medical care and food, lengthening the humanitarian crisis. Lama Fakih, deputy director at the Human Rights Watch, notes that “The world is silently looking on as Russia and Syria tighten the noose around the suffering population of Eastern Ghouta with unlawful strikes, widely-banned weapons, and a devastating siege.” Russia’s entrance into the conflict has only strengthened Syria’s resolved and weakened the international community’s ability to uphold human rights.
Yet, it would be remiss to ignore the United States’ failure to achieve human rights in Syria as well. Amnesty International elucidates that the United States has used white phosphorous munitions, an act that may be a war crime, killing at least 14 Syrian citizens. The United Nations reveals that in the first four months of President Trump’s presidency, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS has caused a “staggering loss of civilian life.” Yet, even when the United States urges restraint and limits action, humanitarian crises unfold. For instance, President Obama’s decision to not enforce the red line after Assad used chemical weapons is argued by many as a sign of U.S. weakness on human rights. Moreover, Human Rights Watch notes that U.S. failure to crack down on Assad has led to “brutality unleashed by the Syrian government [which] has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians”. Although the United States has not committed crimes to the severity of Assad or Putin in Syria, the U.S. certainly cannot wash its hands of guilt in worsening the Syrian conflict.
Beyond a focus on international institutions to enforce human rights in Syria, outside groups play a role in bringing attention to the crisis at hand. For instance, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability has over 750,000 Syrian government documents and others have smuggled 50,000 images of detainees within Syrian prisons. Kevin Jon Heller, a professor at the University of London, believes that this evidence capturing Syria’s crimes could be analogous to that used in Nuremberg trials following World War II. Similarly, Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor believes that as the world is actively working against Assad, he could potentially be removed from power. Yet, the gathering of data on the Syrian government is only truly effective when the government can be tried in international court. However, as the international community is more and more limited by Russia’s actions, it becomes imperative for individual nations to take unilateral action.
The United States is not limited to relying on the UN Security Council to make decisive Syrian policy; rather, the nation can take measures on its own to stand for basic human rights in Syria. For one, the United States should cease its deployment of strikes that carry chemical weapons. Maintaining those only makes the U.S. look hypocritical when critiquing Syria for failing to respect human rights. In addition, the U.S. Congress can take direct action. The Caesar Bill, which passed the House of Representatives, places individual and targeted sanctions on those who have provided support to the Syrian government and thus allowed for the war crimes to continue. As an example, sanctions would not only be applied to individuals who flew the plane that dropped chemical weapons on Syrian civilians but also those who sold the fuel that powered the plane. The bill also proposes that the U.S. establish no-fly and safe zones to protect Syrian civilians.
The cries of “Never Again” follow Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Holocaust, but the chants ring hollow as the Syrian crisis enters its seventh year. It is time for the United States, Russia, and the rest of the international community to act and ensure that human rights are truly preserved.