- Human rights violations have become a normal tactic in Syria
- As the Idlib offensive looms, more violations will occur
- The international community's contniously fails to design innovative measures to ensure human rights compliace
- Economic pressure and investigations could have been better deployed to save thousands of lives
By Ty Joplin
World leaders and human rights organizations are unanimous in their warning: the upcoming offensive to retake the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province will be a humanitarian catastrophe, worse yet than the myriad catastrophes to have befallen the country.
U.S. President Donald Trump urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to “recklessly attack” Idlib. The Kremlin shrugged off the tweet, calling Idlib a ‘nest of terrorism.’ The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, pleaded with Turkey and Russia to “look each other in the eyes,” and find ways to avoid a crisis in Idlib. Idlib is demarcated as a ‘de-escalation’ zone designed a kind of safezone according to the Asatana Agreements.
Its signatories, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria, are all gearing up for a protracted conflict, with massive military buildups on both sides.
Russia is currently pounding villages south of Idlib and reports of dead and wounded civilians and families trapped under collapsed buildings are surfacing thanks to double-tap strikes that target first responders after the first bomb lands.
In international leaders’ urgent calls to avoid civilian casualties, a deeper systemic failure is laundered and responsibility for actually protecting civilians is passed off to Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria; countries that have been shown to show little regard for respecting rights norms.
The ongoing war in Syria has contained specific violations of international human rights laws that exist recognizably separate from the war itself. War may not be totally regulated away, but conduct in warfare has been the object of countless international conventions and statutes; conventions and statues that have been violated with no consequences.
Here are specific human rights violations that could have been mitigated or prevented altogether without resorting to violence.
United Nations Convention against Torture, to which every warring party in Syria is a signatory, prohibits inflicting pain or suffering on prisoners or detainees. Yet tens of thousands have been tortured in Assad’s black sites around the country, and reports of cruel treatment of prisoners have become so commonplace that they aren’t interesting or newsworthy anymore.
Even the Kurdish militias supported by the U.S. have reportedly engaged in torture and ill-treatment of its prisoners. Since Assad relies utterly on Iran and Russia for support, as the Kurds do with the U.S., practices of torture could have been checked and stopped by these powers.
They continue unabated.
A barrel bomb in Syria (Bellingcat)
Assad began deploying barrel bombs early in the war, killing tens of thousands between 2011 and 2013. Since then, they have only evolved their use of barrel bombs as a means of terrorizing civilian populations. Despite the U.N. Security Resolution 2139 that mandated an end to the use of barrel bombs and was unanimously approved by member states, over 20,000 more barrel bombs have been dropped inside Syria, killing thousands more.
The UNSC, supposedly the only body in the U.N. capable of producing binding resolutions, has proven to be impotent in Syria.
A chemical weapon found in Syria (AFP/FILE)
Estimates of chemical weapons usage varies widely, but even the most conservative estimate puts the number of incidents at 86. Other sources put the number closer to 200. Deadly chemical weapon attacks with sarin and chlorine has continued despite Syria and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) working with the regime to eliminate the stockpile.
It’s still there, and Assad is using it strategically. Syria even acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 to appease those concerned about the continued use of gas. It turned out Syria’s accession of the Chemical Weapons Convention was less a promise to regulate its war conduct and more as a demonstration of the impotence of human rights norms in the war.
Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat and open-source analyst, told Al Bawaba that Assad is deploying chemical weapons for two reasons: to hasten the demise of faltering rebel groups, terrorizing them into surrender, and by bombing the villages where rebels are from in order to punish them for fighting against him and his regime.
They are being used a terror tactic on both sides, as rebels have reportedly used them as well. With the upcoming offensive, the U.S. and Russia are both claiming to have ‘intelligence’ saying the other side is preparing a chemical attack; neither side is publicly engaged in eliminating chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. That task has proven too gargantuan or infeasible, so chemical weapons are there to stay as a viable option to use against targets.
The Geneva Convention explicitly bans collective punishment, which includes pillaging and targeted reprisals against civilians and systemic seizing of property. Every side in the Syrian conflict has done this. Assad’s regime choked off aid access to critical areas under rebel-control, including Eastern Ghouta, as a means of punishing those who harbored pro-rebel sympathies. Turkish-backed militias in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) seized Kurdish property en masse after invading and occupying the majority-Kurdish Afrin region in northwest Syria.
There are even reports of the Syrian government destroying homes as a means of urban planning for once the war is over.
Children make a fire in formlery rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, Jan 2017 (AFP/FILE)
Medieval-style besigements that deprive entire populations have become a standard military tactic utilized by Syria, Iran and Russia. The U.N.’s envoy to Syria, Mistura, praised the passing of the Astana Agreements that established ‘de-escalation’ zones: “Today in Astana I think we have been able to witness an important, promising and positive step in the right direction in the process of de-escalation of the conflict,” he said while witnessing the signing.
However, as Al Bawaba reported, the establishment of four ‘de-escalation zones’ nominally meant to provide safe corridors for civilians, was actually a war strategy deployed to contain rebel threats and isolate resistance. It was a strategy of divide and conquer, in other words; the Astana Agreements codified four zones to be eventually besieged.
The brutal efficacy of this strategy came to light when Assad and Russia maintained a years-long siege on Eastern Ghouta, systemically starving hundreds of thousand of civilians of food, water and medical supplies. International pressure was only sparsely and lightly applied, mostly in the form of rhetorical condemnations that did not affect the situation on the ground.
One aid worker focusing on southern Syria, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al Bawaba that Assad’s forces confiscated critical aid including anesthetics from aid convoys; a practice facilitated by Astana Agreements and worries the regime will continue the practice for every piece of territory he takes back.
An oil fire left by ISIS in Iraq (AFP/FILE)
ISIS is responsible for genocide, ethnic cleansing, summary executions, enslaving minority groups and extortion to name just a few of its crimes. Its empire was also partially funded by its seizure and smuggling of Iraqi and Syrian oil. Turkey, Jordan and Iran all imported thousands of tons of ISIS oil. One report noted that about 3,000 tons of oil were going from ISIS-held land into Kurdistan before going into Iran and Turkey.
The import of oil gave ISIS another lifeline, lining its pockets and helping its extend its borders, pay its fighters and grease its bureaucracy. The Guardian reported that Jordanian border police accepted bribes from oil smugglers to allow them into the country.
What Could Have Been Done
1. Jordan, Iran and Turkey could have simply refused importing ISIS oil, or their energy partners globally could have refused imports from them. Corrupt border policing accepting bribes from ISIS smugglers could have been investigated, fired and replaced by border police that refused the oil at the border. This could have hampered ISIS' ability to operate or at least slowed down their advance and maintenance of the caliphate, saving thousands of lives in the process.
2. European countries and companies could have canceled economic partnerships or specific contracts from Middle Eastern countries engaging in the Syrian and Iraqi black market. Companies found profiting off of ISIS or other extremist groups’ enterprises could have been fined heavily. This happened occasionally; Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million for buying pillaged Iraqi artifacts. But it was not enough to dissuade companies from inadvertently financing terror groups and human rights violations.
3. International courts including the International Criminal Court (ICC) could thoroughly investigate war crimes in Syria and issue arrest warrants to both militia leaders and their benefactors.
4. In democracies like the U.S., U.K, Germany and France, civil society could have mobilized more effectively to make Syria a campaign issue and demand more concerted efforts to ensure human rights compliance or even pushed for boycotts of corporations found to be profiting off the war and its resultant black markets.
Instead, politicians and corporations feel little electoral pressure. U.S. State Senator Dick Black just toured through regime-held territory in Syria to congratulate Assad. Syrian state media used him as a puppet to show the U.S.’ support for Assad.
Virginia State Senator Dick Black on Syrian TV (Twitter)
5. China, in promising to distribute $20 billion in loans including billions to Syria and over $100 million to reconstruction in the Middle East, could condition the loans with the requirement that states conduct independent investigations of conduct during the war and ensure the re-integration of civilians who lived in rebel territory.
6. Russia and Iran could have cut back military shipments or tactical support after revelations that Assad’s forces were committing war crimes; or they could have trained troops on the ground to comply with human rights norms. Turkey could have threatened the funding of FSA brigades that began confiscating Kurdish property.
7. To prevent besiegements, functioning humanitarian corridors could have been created in Eastern Ghouta and still could be ensured in Idlib. Rebel groups that refused to let civilians through, as those in Eastern Ghouta did, could have been refused then reconciliation deal that has integrated them into regime units. Similarly, regime units that prevented the entry of refugees flowing from rebel-held areas could be investigated, demobilized and fined. Russia could have done this as the guarantor of the Ghouta 'de-escalation' zone. Instead, groups that prevented humanitarian access but surrendered to Assad are let off the hook as were the soldiers.
8. The Astana Agreements, which functioned more as war-room brainstorming sessions for how to contain rebel threats while giving Turkey, Russia and Iran a faux-legal pretext for long-term occupations of Syria, could have been condemned or investigated by the U.N. rather than praised outright.
Some of these, such as the refusal of oil or adding conditions to Chinese loans, are relatively straightforward.
Other suggestions are merely exercises in humanitarian fantasy, as they require allied sides to watch over each other to ensure civilians are protected, which requires a some functional international community that can exert pressure. The conventions and statutes are designed to be exactly these pressure points--platforms upon which rights violations can be pointed out as illegal.
One of the reasons why that has become functionally useless is because international powers have ruled out military intervention and those operating in Syria feel immune to any potential reprimand. In this sense, it may be too late to ensure compliance with international norms for Syria.
The Stunted Debate
The U.N. Security Council (AFP/FILE)
The international debate surrounding the humanitarian situation in Syria is stuck in a loop.
One side says more must be done. The other responds that, short of an invasion by European powers and the U.S., nothing can be done and an invasion will likely make the situation worse. The conversation orbits the polar opposites of hollow rhetoric and war, without exploring and pressuring for specific things that could have been done before to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of the war.
The isolated attempts to ensure compliance, such as Trump’s targeted strikes against Syrian bases after using chemical weapons, is one placed somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of rhetoric and war; they are not innovative enough to propel the conversation forward regarding rights protections nor are they forceful enough to intimidate Syria into compliance.
Localized, responsive actions could have been taken by respective sides without ever needing to threaten intervention or war.
As every side prepares for the Idlib offensive, more massive and systemic rights violations are likely to occur. When they do, the international community may feel alarmed but provide itself false comforts that they tried their best to minimize civilian risk.