Inside the Sieges

Before we launch today’s program, I would like to draw your attention to the latest report of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry. Our subject today is sieges. But on February 3 the Commission of Inquiry submitted to the Human Rights Council a report entitled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

As is its custom the Commission of Inquiry spared no one: not ISIL, not the Nusra Front, not other armed groups. But the bulk of its report dealt with the policies and practices of a Syrian Arab Republic Government still recognized by the United States of America.

According to the report:

Detainees held by the Government were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture. Others perished as a consequence of inhumane living conditions. The Government has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts. Based on the same conduct, war crimes have also been committed.

Extermination: a word normally associated with the elimination of vermin. We are going to hear today about extermination, albeit in the form of open-air detention centers affecting—to our speakers—some one million Syrian civilians. Extermination is also inflicted in the form of aerial bombing, employing munitions that are both indiscriminate and precise. It is this form of extermination that the Russian Federation employs in its current campaign to eliminate all Syrian military and political alternatives to the Assad regime and ISIL.

Our subject today, however, is sieges. As the recently suspended Geneva peace negotiations were about to begin in late January, there was a flurry of activity and reports about the besieged town of Madaya. The images of emaciated children there shocked the world. With peace talks set to start, American officials reportedly assured the leaders of the Syrian opposition that progress in the protection of Syrian civilians was all but assured—that the opposition could come to Geneva secure in the knowledge that its constituents in Syria would be feeling a measure of relief. This led the opposition to believe that some sieges would be lifted or at least relaxed.

These hopes were, however, dashed. Whatever assurances Secretary of State John Kerry thought he had from his Russian counterpart, they proved empty. The sieges remained in place and Russia launched a major air offensive in the direction of Aleppo in support of Iranian-led militia forces and the Syrian army. Civilian losses associated with that campaign have been high. Refugees, fearing the encirclement of Aleppo by regime ground forces and the door-to-door atrocities sure to follow, have surged toward NATO’s southern flank: Turkey. The UN Special Envoy suspended the peace talks even before they had begun.

I think it is fair to say that there are senior people in the US government who are as disappointed as I have been with the American response to a campaign of extermination now about to enter its fifth year. And now, with the Russian air force helping Assad’s army seize additional populated areas, we can expect the toll among civilians to rise sharply.

When Samantha Power wrote her masterpiece, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, I do not believe her intent was to suggest that generic extermination gets a bye; that genocide is the only form—the only subset—of extermination that merits serious effort to protect innocent civilians.

When she said that American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference; that they spin themselves about the nature of the violence in question and the likely negative impact of an American intervention; that they insist that any proposed U.S. response would be futile, perhaps even doing more harm than good; that there will be no costs if the U.S. remains uninvolved but steep risks with engagement; when she listed all of the alibis and excuses for inaction, she may as well have been writing in 2002 about a future administration’s policy toward Syria. After nearly five years the administration has protected not a single Syrian person in Syria from an Assad regime using extermination as its primary tool for political survival.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: (Photo: A screenshot from a Russia Works' video (, for which a drone was used to make a video showing the destruction of Homs, Syria. The video was used in an Al Jazeera news piece.)