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Syria: What Chance to Stop the Slaughter?

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Yousef Homs/Reuters
Members of the Abu Mussa al-Ashaari brigade riding horses during a graduation ceremony for new recruits to the Free Syrian Army, eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, October 10, 2013

A negotiated peace may well be the best way to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state. Mindful of the disastrous precedent of Iraq, even many die-hard Assad opponents hope the basic structure of the state will remain intact, though without Assad and his senior lieutenants. A negotiated peace also would provide a chance of ensuring the security of all Syrians, without regard to the sectarian animosities now dividing the country.

But few believe a negotiated peace is anywhere near. Civilian deaths continue, making it urgent to find some way to curtail the slaughter in the interim. Most paths for doing so go through Moscow. The chemical weapons deal shows that when Russian President Vladimir Putin tells Assad to do something, he does it. In view of the rapidity of Lavrov’s acceptance of Kerry’s outline of a chemical deal, there seems to have been little if any negotiation with Damascus. Moscow simply set the terms. But if Moscow has the power to stop the killing by chemical weapons, why not also stop the slaughter of civilians by conventional means? Why not insist on a new “red line” against the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of civilians? Even if the fighting continues, why not force Assad to concentrate on limiting civilian casualties—to attack only the fish and leave the sea alone?

Russia has not given a remotely adequate answer. Conversations on the subject tend to turn to atrocities committed by the rebels and to the growing numbers of extreme Islamist groups in rebel ranks. These are serious concerns, particularly in light of Russian fears that Syria has become a magnet for disgruntled young men from the former Soviet Union who might eventually attack their home governments. But they cannot justify Syrian government atrocities.

Russia’s response to the August 21 chemical attacks—falsely blaming the rebels—illustrates the lengths to which it will go to avoid even criticizing Assad’s government. As Human Rights Watch showed, one type of rocket used, specially configured to deliver sarin, had never been seen before the Syrian conflict and had been filmed only in government, not rebel, hands. The estimated fifty-five liters of sarin in each rocket—amounting to a total of hundreds of liters being used—were well beyond the quantity that anyone claimed the rebels might possess. And the trajectory that could be traced for two of the rockets suggested a launching pad at a government military base adjacent to Assad’s presidential palace.

Rather than contend with the powerful evidence of government responsibility, Russia cited opposing claims made on fringe conspiracy websites and by a nun who is not an expert, was nowhere near the attack, and is a known apologist for Assad. The Russian arguments could be dismissed as ridiculous if the consequences were not so deadly. If Russia would stop preventing the UN Security Council from addressing Assad’s indiscriminate tactics, it would go a long way toward reducing the civilian toll.

Another way to deter further atrocities would be to enlist the International Criminal Court. Because Syria has not joined the court, it can be brought under the court’s jurisdiction only by action of the Security Council, where the threatened Russian veto stands in the way. The ICC would answer Russia’s concerns about rebel atrocities because it could prosecute serious crimes by all parties to the conflict, but that has not persuaded Russia, which called the suggestion “ill-timed and counterproductive.”

In this case, Moscow’s intransigence has been made easier by Washington’s own reluctance to press for involvement of the ICC, which the US has not joined. An early draft of the resolution on the chemical weapons deal included a reference to the ICC, but at US insistence it was removed before even being presented to the Russians, who then didn’t have to take responsibility for opposing it. Instead the Obama administration has been promoting a new tribunal devoted only to the crisis in Syria; this would presumably be established once the war ends, despite the considerable cost and complexity of creating such a tribunal and the loss of the deterrent effect of having a tribunal examining Syria now, as the killing proceeds.

This proposed alternative to the ICC might be attractive to Washington because it means ongoing prosecutions would not complicate prospective negotiations. Yet the experience of various countries is that prosecutions tend to force aside the most abusive figures, easing the path to peace; the Dayton accord for Bosnia provides one example. While Assad would undoubtedly not sign any deal that sends him to prison, many assume he will flee Syria anyway, taking refuge in a country like Russia or Iran that is not an ICC member and is likely to shield him from prosecution.

Another publicly unstated reason for the Obama administration’s lukewarm attitude toward the ICC is Israel—or more to the point, Israel’s settlements in the Golan Heights. A Security Council referral of Syria to the ICC would presumptively apply to its entire territory, including the Golan, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The ICC is empowered to prosecute the war crimes of an occupier that transfers its population to occupied territory. Israel would be vulnerable to such prosecution for its growing West Bank settlements, where it continues to move its population. That is among the reasons why Israel has been desperate to prevent Palestinian authorities from using their upgraded UN status to invoke ICC jurisdiction.

But the thirty-three Golan settlements for which the ICC might be given jurisdiction as part of a Syria referral have had little if any population growth among the 20,000 settlers there in the past two-and-a-half years. The prospect that the ICC prosecutor would pursue Israelis for having settled the Golan while her hands are full addressing mass atrocities in Syria is remote at best. But that sliver of a possibility is apparently the tail wagging the dog of US policy toward the ICC for Syria. The urgent need to deter more slaughter of Syrian civilians should not be subordinated to Israel’s most unlikely fears.

What then might be done to convince Russia to end its defense of Assad’s atrocities and to continue down the constructive path suggested by the chemical weapons deal at the UN and the statement in favor of humanitarian relief? One reason Moscow has been able to continue its intransigence for so long is that it has paid little price for it. For example, Russia supplies Assad’s killing machine through its official arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. One obvious way of pressuring Moscow to assume a more constructive role on Syria would be for the US and other countries to boycott Rosoboronexport. Despite a law prohibiting US purchases from the company, the Pentagon cited national security in March to waive this restriction. It purchased Russian helicopters for delivery to Afghanistan, because one legacy of the Soviet occupation is that Afghan forces are more familiar with Russian models. The British and French governments, for their part, continue to let Rosoboronexport advertise its wares at arms fairs outside London and Paris. In short, for the company and the government that controls it, it’s been business as usual.

Nor has the West used for Syria the kind of paralyzing banking sanctions that have been so effective in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Prohibiting further financial relations with any bank—Russian or otherwise—that helped to finance arms for Syria would limit those purchases by forcing the Syrian government to rely on cash payments and barter. Similar sanctions could be used to put pressure on rebel groups that are responsible for widespread atrocities.

Western governments have failed to use public diplomacy to expose Russia’s support of Assad’s slaughter. There have been too few public condemnations of Moscow by Western leaders—nothing like the repeated denunciations and rebukes that Russia deserves and that might make a difference. Part of the problem is that Washington now depends on Moscow to help carry out the chemical weapons deal. The Obama administration evidently does not want to revive the difficult issue of enforcing the “red line” by disturbing its working relationship with Moscow. But the ongoing killing in Syria by conventional means should rule out complacency as an acceptable option.

The emerging non-Western powers also have an important part to play. Russia and China allowed the Security Council to move more aggressively to stop what many predicted would have been mass slaughter in Libya because they were politically isolated, both from the major Western powers and from the most important non-Western ones on the Security Council at the time: Brazil, India, and South Africa.

Yet the controversy surrounding the military intervention in Libya, where NATO was widely seen to have abused a mandate to protect civilians in order to accomplish regime change that was not a specified goal, has made non-Western governments reluctant to speak out about Syria. Several African governments, for example, complain incessantly that the ICC is too focused on Africa, but none of them has pressed to change that by advocating ICC involvement in Syria. The G20 summit of the world’s leading economies met in Russia in September without any non-Western power making a real effort to address the Syrian catastrophe.

As for the Arab League—the principal regional body—it has lately been too divided to be effective. It tends to operate by consensus, but the same sectarian divisions that inflame the Syrian conflict undermine collective action. While predominantly Sunni Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia funnel funds and arms to the rebels, predominantly Shia Iraq sides with Assad’s Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Meanwhile, repressive Arab countries from Sudan to Algeria are wary of any international action to curtail a dictator’s abuses. Other countries such as Egypt are too preoccupied with political turmoil at home to have much influence—or they are too small or weak to make a difference. The result is little pressure on Russia to change its ways.

As bad as things are in Syria, they could get worse. The conflict could become even more destructive than Lebanon’s in the 1980s, with the prospect of a decade or more of killing, displacement, and suffering. The longer the atrocities continue, the harder it will be to rebuild a highly diverse society. And more Syrians will be drawn to the brutality of the Islamic extremists who are in ascendancy among the rebels.

Russia may be indispensable for reining in Assad, but the rest of the world is essential for convincing Russia to do so. The chemical weapons deal represents the best opportunity since the war began to forge a unified international front to stop the slaughter in Syria. But that will happen only with a much more focused and consistent international effort—by both the West and others—to press Russia to live up to its responsibility to protect the people of Syria.

—October 23, 2013

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