Inaction in the face of Assad’s war crimes not an option
One of the worst-kept secrets in the history of warfare was put into action in the early hours of Saturday morning, when the US, the UK and France launched a missile attack on several Syrian military installations. In the age of Donald Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, the Syrian intelligence services didn’t have to rack their brains too hard to know that a military attack was imminent. And, in case they don’t follow him on Twitter, all media outlets were telling them to brace for a barrage of missiles. The only remaining mystery was the exact timing, the location and, even more importantly, the scope and objectives of the attack.
When the nature and magnitude of the US and its allies’ response to the chemical attack on civilians by the Syrian regime became apparent, we learnt that it was a one-night operation, in which three Syrian military chemical research and storage installations were targeted by more than 100 missiles. More importantly, it was for everyone to realize that this was no more than a very limited and short-lived operation, rather than a game-changer that might alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
As horrific as the use of chemical weapons is, the vast majority of Syrians killed by the forces of Bashar Assad’s evil regime have been struck down by what are commonly known as conventional weapons. Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron expressed their collective satisfaction for doing what their predecessors did not do in response to the Syrian state’s use of chemical weapons. However, with the active support of Russia and Iran, the regime in Damascus is winning the war and will keep slaughtering whoever stands in its way until it completes its defeat all of the forces that have resisted for seven long years.
Throughout the years of the Syrian conflict, about 500,000 lives have been lost, most of them non-combatants — innocent civilians including children, women and the elderly. If the Syrian people had any hope left that the UN Security Council would yield a decision with any semblance of having their best interests at heart, they were once again left disillusioned by its most recent meeting. It was another window dressing exercise of scoring cheap points, especially between the permanent members, leaving the Syrian people as no more than collateral damage in their worldwide rivalry.
In Syria, Russia is playing the main spoiler by preventing any thorough investigation into the use of chemical weapons in the war raging there, and Moscow knows exactly why it doesn’t want such an independent inquiry. In the last five years, 35 chemical weapons attacks have been recorded in Syria, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry. But Russia is cynically using its veto power to block the UN from sanctioning an investigative mechanism that could work independently and impartially to uncover the perpetrators of these attacks.
No solution will be complete until Assad and his henchmen face the International Criminal Court at The Hague
This is exactly what took place in a farcical (though tragic) Security Council meeting a few days before the retaliatory missile attack was launched. This means that not only are the chemical weapons culprits free to deny their crimes, but it also allows them the freedom to continue using these horrifying attacks that are defined by international law as war crimes.
Vetoing an investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against his own people, while the entire world watches the shocking consequences of these assaults with consternation, makes this forum redundant. But, worse, it leaves the fate of the Syrian people in the hands of Assad’s brutality.
NATO countries’ experiences in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan have clearly discouraged them from becoming too involved, especially as they would prefer to distance themselves from any action that smacks of regime change. Admittedly, military intervention should never be the first course of action, as so many in recent history have ended with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, there are times when inaction in the face of war crimes and crimes against humanity makes those who sit on the sidelines complicit with those who commit atrocities. It is extremely difficult to intervene in Syria now, more so than it was at the beginning of the war in 2011, or even in 2013, when President Barack Obama established a red line for the Syrian regime against its using chemical weapons, but failed to act accordingly.
Under the current circumstances, in a small operational theater congested with conflicting regional and global forces, the danger of the situation spiralling out of control is all too real. Turning Syria into the trigger for a third world war serves nobody’s interests. Yet the international community, through the UN General Assembly, committed itself in 2005 to the principle of the “responsibility to protect” against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and to take any necessary steps to fulfill this commitment. Living up to this commitment without matters ending in a global conflagration is the enormous challenge world leaders are currently facing.
Restoring normalcy to Syria is a daunting challenge, and everyone needs to recognize that there are multiple domestic and international interests that must be reconciled. This should be done first and foremost through diplomatic negotiations and other non-military steps, but also at times by a flexing of military muscle. No solution, however, will be complete until Assad and his henchmen face the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and the Syrian people are allowed once again to take control of their own destiny without external forces using their country and their lives as a mere board game on which to play out their vested interests.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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