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Syria: The struggle for survival

Everything that was predicted would happen as a result from international action has in fact resulted from international inaction

As I write these words, Aleppo – Syria’s second-largest city, its commercial hub and an ancient heritage site – is under relentless assault. This siege follows what has been called “Assad’s pattern of depravity”: first, cutting off electricity, water, and the inhabitants’ food supply; second, intensifying indiscriminate bombardment through tank, artillery, helicopter gunships, and even fighter jets; third, warning inhabitants that Syrian forces would “purge” the city of its “armed terrorists” – the euphemism for Assad’s Scorched Earth policy – the whole as prologue to massacres foretold, as have happened so many times before.

In the words of Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, speaking one week ago: “The massacres that are happening in Aleppo and other places in Syria amount to war crimes that are punishable under international law.” Indeed, the situation has only deteriorated since, as some 1,000 have been killed in the last 10 days alone, and over 20,000 since the peaceful beginnings of the “dignity and freedom revolution” in Daara in March 2011.

Yet, the killing fields rewind is being resisted amid a confluence of new and developing dynamics including:

  • Civilian inhabitants are no longer defenseless targets; rather, they have been bolstered by rebel forces mounting counter-offensives;
  • Syrian Government morale and momentum have been diminished by the assassinations of four leading Syrian security leaders;
  • Large-scale defections and desertions of high-ranking military and political personnel have further undermined regime security and morale – including the recent defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, while Al-Jazeera and others have launched a “Defection Tracker” visualization illustrating the exodus from the regime;
  • The fraying of “minorities” loyalty to, and solidarity with, the Assad regime – Christians, Kurds, Druze, and even some amongst the Alawites themselves – have also weakened the regime;
  • The recent disclosure of a covert order made months ago by President Obama for the enhanced support of the Syrian opposition has helped strengthen their resolve, though it remains unclear what this support might entail. As well, the US Treasury Department has recently authorized financial, communications, and logistical support to the Free Syrian Army, with US officials indicating that they may further supply intelligence support, drone support, and eyes in the skies; and,
  • A sense that the Syrian end-game may be unfolding – that the question is no longer if Assad will go, but when – is emboldening the opposition while weakening the regime’s resolve.

These developments are not without their countervailing dynamics – “ominous trends” as the International Crisis Group (ICG) terms it – summarized in their recent report titled “Syria’s Mutating Conflict.” In particular:

  • The regime is “seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival,” in the ICG’s words, a particularly ominous dynamic given the Syrian regime’s possession of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The regime’s declaration that it would only use these weapons against “foreign terrorists” is not terribly encouraging as the Syrian regime regards the opposition as terrorists supported by foreigners. Paula DeSuttr, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation recently said that biological weapons were also a major concern, and that she would want the US and international community to secure, as well, any related nuclear-related equipment from the Al-Kibar reactor, destroyed by Israel in 2007.
  • An escalating regime brutality that has not only failed to quell popular protest, but has fueled it, with Syria’s opposition rediscovering, as the ICG put it, “a sense of solidarity, community, and national pride”;
  • At the same time, an opposition threatened, as the ICG put it, “by its own forms of radicalization… sectarianism, fundamentalism, jihadi, and foreign fighters… that a prolonged battle [also] was bound to unearth and attract, and that the regime did its best to exacerbate”; and
  • An increasingly militarized conflict presaging again, as the ICG put it, a “prolonged, ever-more polarized, destructive civil war”.

These ominous trends are only accentuated by the “external forces” – not the “terrorist” ones Assad rails against, but those forces that prop up and propel the Syrian regime, including Russia, which provides military assets, political support, and diplomatic cover. Indeed, Syria is Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East, harboring a Russian naval base and buying a huge amount of Russian arms.

Simply put, given the sustained Syrian assaults, killings and torture, Russia has emerged as one complicit in crimes against humanity, rather than simply as their enabler, however reprehensible that too has been.

Nor can one ignore the Iranian connection and complicity with the Syrian assault – with Iran providing arms, ammunition, training, troops, intelligence, and logistical support to the Assad regime. Indeed, Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, not only support Assad’s repression, but are complicit in the killing fields themselves.

A recent report by Al-Jazerra also tells of Iranian busses coming to Syria packed with soldiers assaulting, torturing, and killing Syrian civilians and prisoners. As well, Colonel Abdul-Jabar Mohammad Akidi, commander of rebel forces in Aleppo, was recently quoted in Al-Arabya saying that 3,000 Iranians had passed through Damascus in the last week alone to support the Assad regime.

It should be noted that Iran facilitated Syrian’s expansion of its chemical weapons arsenal, while Syria used front organizations – such as the Syrian Ministry of Industry – to cover the country’s chemical weapons program.

And so the perennial question, what can be done to accelerate the downfall of Assad – to protect the civilian population – to facilitate a post-Assad inclusive governmental transition – while preventing an explosion of sectarian violence? What can be done to implement the positive features of the failed UN/Arab League/Annan plan and the aborted UN proposals, themselves mocked and subsequently overtaken by the violent assaults, but whose basic principles remain valid: e.g sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms; timely provision of humanitarian assistance; intensification of the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons; freedom of movement for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them; respect for freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed; and a transition to a democratic pluralist political system.

It should not be forgotten that the Syrian regime began repudiating these agreed-upon undertakings as soon as they were announced, while at the same time, Russia and China were vetoing UN Security Council resolutions intended to implement these obligations. Through it all, the Syrian people remained defenseless sitting ducks to the relentless Syrian assaults.

I have been writing for close to a year now of the need to affirm and implement the Responsibility to Protect doctrine – pursuant to UN authority if possible, but without it if necessary; and to implement the UN-Arab League-Annan six-point plan as an expression of R2P – and where the Responsibility to Protect is not a formula for military intervention, but for a panoply of remedies to protect Syrian civilians on the ground, the longstanding targets of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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 from international action has in fact resulted 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 Untied 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 disclosures that there are some 45 different 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” – are fraught with dangers.

Indeed, the recent news that the regime is moving these chemical weapons has triggered a series of nightmare scenarios as follows:
A desperate regime – with its control deteriorating – might be tempted to use such weapons against rebel forces – the “terrorist agents of external aggression”; these weapons may be put at the disposal of – or seized by – an Alawaite rump regime mounting a defiant last stand; the weapons may be transferred to the terrorist proxy Hezbollah; they may fall into the hands of the Shabbiah “armed groups” roaming the countryside; they may be seized by Sunni extremists, or by any number of jihadi groups, including Al-Qaeda.

Any of these nightmare scenarios constitutes an unacceptable red line. Strategic preparation is as necessary as it is urgent. As Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, put it in his testimony before Congress last week, “The time to act is now, before disaster strikes.”

Second, it is necessary to interdict and sanction the enhanced Iranian and Lebanese military assistance to the Syrian regime – particularly Iranian arms shipments – which are in standing violation of existing UN Security Council Resolutions, and prohibiting the corresponding import or purchase of arms. Simply put, countries, entities, groups, or individuals involved in such transactions must be severely sanctioned and punished.

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 “level the playing field” – including enhanced military-to-military support, command and control assistance, logistical, communications, training, and other forms of support, which is only now, belatedly, beginning to be supplied, and whose efforts must be coordinated to assure effectiveness.

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 – have 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 international 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, which would target only Syrian forces attacking these civilian areas.

Indeed, a recent open letter to President Obama from a bipartisan group of 62 foreign policy experts and US Government officials urged the President to adopt a strategy to immediately “establish air patrolled safe zones” that would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence; that would provide the country’s opposition groups a place to train, be equipped and organize; and that would assist the US and the Friends of Syria in providing critical non-lethal aid, including secure communications technologies and field hospital equipment, as well as self-defense assistance to carefully vetted recipients.

With a regime increasingly intensifying its aerial bombardment, a no-fly zone would be an important symbolic and substantive act to interdict Syrian aerial assaults and affirm international resolve against it.

Sixth, as I and others have been arguing – best articulated in Robert Satloff’s excellent prescriptive piece as early as the June 17th edition of the New Republic – the best way to hasten Assad’s departure and to protect against a set of terrifying scenarios spinning out of control is “a clear display of resolve in support of the opposition… [including] unmanned drones to target key installations and weapons depots; airpower to establish and defend safe zones; and a manned element based in neighboring states to execute a train and equip mission to support rebel forces.”

Seventh, as Satloff also urges in a more recent piece, it is necessary that the United States – together with Arab, Turkish, and other allies – inject urgency and energy into the task of upgrading the cohesion and message of the Syrian political opposition, so that there is a clear answer to the important question of what comes in the wake of Assad’s demise. This should include, as Satloff has recommended:

  • The US administration convening leaders of the Syrian opposition (both civilian and military) and key “Friends of Syria” (e.g. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and major European powers) to discuss a blueprint for the end game, including the formation of an inclusive successor government.
  • At the same time, the administration should work with the Syrian opposition, the Arab League, and Turkey to provide specific commitments for the protection of Syrian minorities in a post-Assad end game, with specific reference to Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and Druze. As long as these minorities fear for their survival, they will not abandon Assad. They need credible guarantees of protection in a post-Assad Syria.

As well, there is the need to combat the hundreds of Al-Qaeda fighters – particularly from Iraq – who are presently in Syria.

Eighth, one cannot ignore the symbolism – and impact – of the recent defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, which has emboldened the opposition no less than it has jolted the Syrian regime. In the words of Samir Nachar, a leader of the Syrian National Council, “This is the momentum we needed to tell the political and military elite that it is time for them to jump off the sinking ship”.

Earlier, the defection of General Manaf Tlass – a member of the Republican Guard and Assad’s inner circle – and a friend of Assad’s since childhood – also dealt a blow to the Syrian regime.

As well, a brigadier general and deputy police chief of Latakya recently defected to Turkey with 11 other Syrian officers, at the same time as the Syrian charge d’affaires in the UK, Khaled Al-Ayoubi, left his diplomatic post saying that “he is no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people.”

Indeed, Prime Minister Hijab’s defection – together with ten prominent Sunni families – along with the ongoing defection of high- and mid-level military and political figures this past month (including, in recent days, the defection to Turkey of Ahmad Faris, Syria’s most famous astronaut), suggest that Assad is losing the loyalty of leading Sunni political and security officials; that the feared security apparatus is eroding – dramatized also by the assassination of the four senior members of Assad’s inner circle; and that it is increasingly vulnerable, as evidenced in the bombing this week of the government’s radio and television headquarters in Aleppo.

Most important – and revealing – are the damming words of Prime Minister Hijab extolling on the one hand “the freedom and dignity revolution,” which was the trademark expression of the first peaceful protest launched in Daara, in March 2011; and condemning, at the same time, the “war crimes” and “genocide” of the Syrian regime.

Ninth, 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 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 Saddam Hussein, while military commanders should be urged to defect, lest they be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Tenth, there is a clear and compelling need for enhanced humanitarian assistance arising from the exponential increase in internally displaced people within Syria – now numbering over 1.5 million persons – and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have flowed into Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, with the attending risk of the destabilization of these border regions.

Yet, while the humanitarian needs are dramatically increasing, the aid promised by the international community has itself not been forthcoming.

Eleventh, the international community – as the ICG suggests – must protect against rising sectarian violence – jihadist radicalization – reprisal and revenge killings by:

  • Securing firm commitments from the Syrian opposition – however difficult this may be given the immensity of the suffering – to address seriously the phenomena of retaliatory violence, sectarian killings, and creeping fundamentalism in their ranks;
  • Working with the opposition – building on work already done by international NGOs – in developing a post-Assad transition that seeks inclusive and plural representation; and
  • Developing forward-looking proposals on transitional justice, accountability, and amnesty.

Twelve, 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.

In conclusion, I remain haunted by UK foreign correspondent Marie Colvin’s cri de coeur the day before she was murdered five months ago. In a courageous and poignant final dispatch amidst the shelling in Homs she wrote, “No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen.” Indeed, her last words were no less powerful:

“In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can standby, and I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless.”

Again, as Ban Ki-moon and others have put it, “Loss of time means loss of lives.” The time to act is now – is long past – as every day, more Syrian children 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.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and emeritus professor of law at McGill University.