Professor Paul Williams. Photo courtesy of Washington College of Law.
Professor Paul Williams. Photo courtesy of Washington College of Law.

The following is based on a discussion with Professor Paul Williams concerning the current conflict in Syria. Professor Williams teaches at the American University School of International Service and the Washington College of Law, and also directs the joint JD/MA program in International Relations. Professor Williams is co-founder of the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), a global pro bono law firm, which provides free legal assistance to states and governments involved in peace negotiations, post-conflict constitution drafting, and war crimes prosecutions.

It is in the best interest of the United States (U.S.) and the international community for Syria to find peace. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. There is no neutral ground when crimes against humanity are committed unhindered. During his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Eli Weisel said: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” In the decentralized world of international relations, politics, and law, it is difficult at times for nation-states to act out of conscience. Democratic nation-states seek a balance between self-interest and humanitarian interest. It is possible that the two coincide at the same time. Foundational to international human rights law is the recognition that all people have certain inalienable rights simply because they are human. The question is: whose role and responsibility is it to protect and enforce such rights? Pursuant to the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, nation-states must protect those who cannot protect themselves. Promoting peace in Syria may require humanitarian intervention from the international community, which, by definition, must exclude nation-states that would control the peace process in Syria for their own benefit. Syrian-on-Syrian dialogue must be facilitated in order for the country and its people to find future accountability and, ultimately, peace. It is in the United States’ interest to at least partake in the peace process moving forward.

Russia and Iran have self-serving interests in controlling the Syrian ceasefire talks. On December 30, 2016, Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire among the parties to the Syrian conflict and had them agree to continued tentative ceasefire talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.  In Astana, the Russians, Iranians, and Turks are hosting ceasefire negotiations, while in Geneva the U.N. is hosting political negotiations. In both of these discussions, the U.S.has come to play an auxiliary role. Without the direct involvement of the U.S. and the the ceasefire negotiations, there is less accountability for President al-Assad’s regime, and humanitarian interests and the interests of the Syrian opposition are not well represented. It is troubling that Russia is acting as guarantor of the peace talks in Astana, in part because it has perpetuated the unauthorized use of force in the Syrian conflict, in support of its client, President Bashar al-Assad. Russia – along with Iran – has persistently discouraged meaningful Security Council action against the Syrian government and continued to provide the Syrian government with military assistance. Moreover, Russia has benefitted from the Syrian conflict by establishing a naval base in Tartus, Syria and air base at Hmeimin, near Latakia, with future plans for the bases’ improvement and expansion. Russia has stayed loyal to President al-Assad and created permanent strategic interests in the Middle East, thereby ensuring greater stability for Russia.

It is Iran’s top priority to keep the current Syrian government in power. Iran has had a growing and increasingly visible presence in Syria since the Arab Spring in 2011; its interests are religious, political, and economic. What began as technical assistance and encouragement to the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah has gradually evolved into thousands of Iranian combatants crossing the border into Syria to fight in a religious war.

Turkey has consistently supported the Syrian opposition, but they have shifted their demands that President al-Assad step down in order to focus on limiting Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria. Of course, President al-Assad and the Syrian government have every interest in staying in power, in part, to avoid retribution from the international community for the war crimes and crimes against humanity they have committed.

Russia’s goal was to help Syrian forces retake Aleppo so that Russia could pursue a political settlement on stronger terms. In February 2017, the rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo fell to pro­-government troops backed by Russian air power. From Russia’s perspective, its investment has provided good returns and it is now time to promote a peace agreement while the terms are in President al-Assad’s favor.

The Syrian government and its allies have committed egregious human rights violations during Syria’s six-year civil war. In 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) generated a report capturing such abuses in detail. The Syrian government has made deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including women and children. Isolated detention and torture practices are rampant. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, have targeted civilians for kidnappings, and execution. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent Syrian research organization, the death toll in Syria reached 470,000 by February 2016. There are at least 6.1 million internally displaced people within Syria and 4.8 million Syrians seeking refuge abroad, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs. Non-state armed groups opposing the government have also carried out serious abuses, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, using child soldiers, kidnapping, torture, and blocking humanitarian aid. The Joint Investigative Mechanism between the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the U.N. concluded that Syrian government forces used chemicals in an attack in Idlib in March 2015. HRW recently documented Syrian government helicopters targeting residential areas in Aleppo, dropping chlorine on at least eight occasions between November 17 and December 13, 2016. These attacks have injured around 200 people and killed at least nine civilians, including four children. These are just a few of the recorded human rights violations.

The Syrian Arab Republic has ratified and is therefore obligated by the following provisions in these international treaties:

  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
    • Article 2 Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction. 2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
    • “PART III Article 6 Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
  • International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
    • “Article 5 Nothing in the present Covenant may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights or freedoms recognized herein, or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the present Covenant. 2. No restriction upon or derogation from any of the fundamental human rights recognized or existing in any country in virtue of law, conventions, regulations or custom shall be admitted on the pretext that the present Covenant does not recognize such rights or that it recognizes them to a lesser extent.”
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict
    • Article 3 States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.”
  • Geneva Conventions
    • Convention I:This Convention protects wounded and infirm soldiers and medical personnel, who are not taking active part in hostility against a Party, ensuring humane treatment without adverse distinctions founded on race, color, sex, religion or faith, birth or wealth, etc.  To that end, the Convention prohibits execution without judgment, torture, and assaults upon personal dignity (Article 3). It also grants them the right to proper medical treatment and care.”
    • Convention IV:Under this Convention, civilians are afforded the protections from inhumane treatment and attack afforded in the first Convention to sick and wounded soldiers. Furthermore, additional regulations regarding the treatment of civilians were introduced. Specifically, it prohibits attacks on civilian hospitals, medical transports, etc. It also specifies the right of internees, and those who commit acts of sabotage. Finally, it discusses how occupiers are to treat an occupied populace.”

The Syrian government has repeatedly violated Security Council resolutions demanding safe and unhindered humanitarian access. All parties must cease “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs.” The practices of arbitrary detention, disappearance, and abductions must end. In October 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which calls for an end to aerial bombardments, affirms the need for humanitarian access, and highlights the need for accountability. It also mandates the Syria Commission of Inquiry to conduct a “comprehensive, independent special inquiry into the events in Aleppo,” identifying perpetrators of alleged violations and abuses, and reporting to the Council no later than March 2017.

It is never too late for humanitarian intervention. Pain and suffering of the innocent is never justified, and the perpetuation of such abuses incriminates nation-states that stand by and watch. The end of conflict in Syria will promote global stability in the face of the war on terror and the international community – including the U.S. – must hold the Syrian government accountable. A new Syrian government must expel ISIS and other terrorist groups from the country. Such groups have taken advantage of the Syrian conflict to grow in strength and numbers. Nation-states that stand by are at risk because ineffective action has allowed ISIS, its supporters, and the Syrian government to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity around the world.

It is in the United States’ interest to hold Russia accountable for the war crimes its military has committed. It is in the United States’ interest, too, to contain Iran and to reaffirm relations with Turkey. Needless to say, it is in the interest of the U.S. and all allies that oppose ISIS to assist Syria in short-term conflict resolution and finding long-term peace.

The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine outlines issues that have growing international support:

“(1) sovereignty entails the inherent responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes, the prohibition of which is fundamental to the international system; (2) the protection of populations from mass atrocities is primarily the responsibility of the state; (3) when a state is unable to prevent atrocity crimes from occurring, the international community should encourage and help that state to meet its sovereign obligations; (4) when a state manifestly fails to protect its population, the international community should first attempt to protect populations through peaceful means; and (5) once peaceful measures have been exhausted, the international community has the right to use force to bring an end to mass atrocities.”

The Syrian government has failed to protect its citizens; in fact, it is the main perpetrator of violence against Syrian citizens. The international community has encouraged the al-Assad regime to reform but to no avail. The international community has supported numerous failed Syrian peace talks over the years. International humanitarian aid has been withheld from citizens in crisis. Peaceful measures have been exhausted. It is the right and responsibility of the international community to end mass atrocities occurring in Syria. As a powerful member of the international community, the U.S. has the responsibility to protect Syrians, and to secure peace, accountability, and transparency in Syria.

Sustainable peace is only possible through a dialogue between the Syrian government and the Opposition. There will be no long-term peace agreement without it. Self-serving nation-states will not adequately facilitate reconciliation. A ceasefire will not be maintained without true commitment on both sides. There will not be restoration unless the dialogue is mutual, free flowing, and open. The consequences are great: if peace talks continue to fail, war will continue for years. There is a responsibility for the international community to intervene when all other options have been exhausted, and it is in the United States’ interest to be a part of that community effort.