Syria: Civilians Pay the Price

Washington’s strategy to degrade and destroy the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria entails a significant contribution from Syrian civilians: their lives. As the most recent (June 23) “Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” puts it, “Indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas are committed across Syria by most, if not all, of the warring parties. The Government, with its superior firepower and control of the skies, inflicts the most damage in its indiscriminate attacks on cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods not under its control.” The impunity with which it does so is a product—unintended but inevitable—of a US strategy requiring fundamental change.

The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry indicts by name the Assad regime, ISIL, and the Nusra Front. Yet it clearly states that protecting civilians—a requirement of international law—rates not very high in the priorities of any of the actors.

Ideally, those under arms who oppose the Assad regime would not take the poisoned bait of collective punishment and sectarian targeting spread promiscuously by the regime over the past four years. But some have, thereby imposing on their external supporters and suppliers an obligation to secure immediate corrective action. ISIL, of course, is beyond the pale and is not in any event part of the Syrian Revolution. Yet those seeking to draw Nusra away from its murderous al-Qaeda origins might concentrate first on stopping its war crimes.

It is, however, the Assad regime that runs circles around “anti-Government armed groups” in terms of gross criminality. Consider some of the Commission’s more striking passages:

  • “ . . . the Government continues to direct attacks towards locations where civilians are likely to congregate, among them, bus stations, marketplaces, and bakeries.”
  • “In particular, the continuing use of barrel bombs in aerial campaigns against whole areas, rather than specific targets, is in violation of international humanitarian law and, as previously documented, amounts to the war crime of targeting civilians.”
  • “The larger strategy [of the regime] appears to be one of making life unbearable for civilians who remain inside armed-group controlled areas.”
  • “The previously documented pattern of attacks indicating that Government forces have deliberately targeted hospitals, medical units, and ambulances remains an entrenched feature of the conflict.”
  • “Government sieges are imposed in a coordinated manner . . . [I]n particular, Government forces have refused to allow aid deliveries of essential medicines and surgical supplies . . . [G]overnment authorities act in direct breach of binding international humanitarian law obligations to ensure that wounded and sick persons are collected and cared for, and to ensure the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief.”
  • “Everyday decisions—whether to go visit a neighbor, to send your child to school, to step out to buy bread—have become, potentially, decisions about life and death. Large numbers of children have been killed in bombardments of their homes, schools, and playgrounds.”

The Obama administration is operationally indifferent to all of this. This is not to say it is at a loss for words when describing the depredations of Bashar al-Assad, a person it stubbornly continues to recognize as the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Yet its strategy for degrading and destroying ISIL—notwithstanding effective military-humanitarian interventions at Mount Sinjar in Iraq and Kobane in Syria—is operationally silent on protecting Syrian civilians from the regime. This despite its intellectual acceptance that Assad’s program of mass homicide produces recruits for ISIL from around the world and convinces increasing numbers of Syrians that ISIL may be their best bet for protection against regime atrocities.

The administration also knows that Iran is the principal foreign facilitator of regime war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is the Iranian factor that accounts, in large measure, for the administration’s decision to leave Syrian civilians entirely at the mercy of Tehran’s Syrian client. The administration has other fish to fry with Tehran. So Syrian civilians get to pay the price.

One searches White House and State Department press conferences in vain for any systematic examination of this issue. Even though Russian leverage is as limited as its good intentions, one wonders how prominently civilian protection is featured in Secretary of State John Kerry’s periodic encounters with his Russian counterpart. Even though nuclear talks are important, one wonders if Tehran’s facilitation of Assad regime criminality arises at all in official US-Iranian exchanges. Has there been a systematic diplomatic campaign aimed at persuading Tehran and Moscow to oblige their client to respect pertinent United Nations Security Council resolutions? Is Iran being asked to force its client to stop barrel bombing and lift starvation sieges? The news media’s lack of curiosity is itself curious.

For years now, various commentators have called on the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone to prevent the mass murder of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime, whose sense of impunity permits it to resume chemical attacks on its own citizens. The administration has readily deployed talking points about why a no-fly zone is problematic, why anti-aircraft weaponry presents proliferation problems, and so forth. Those who mention specific methodologies are not trying to be tactically prescriptive. They want instead to persuade the President of the United States to give a damn about suffering, terrified human beings. They want him to throw sand into the gears of Assad’s murder machine. They are not obsessed with this or that methodology.

The indelible stain that can mark the Obama legacy forever on this issue is nothing compared to the terror and suffering that can be mitigated if the president elects to try. Whether the motivation to act springs from legacy concerns, degrading and destroying ISIL, or profound revulsion over what is happening to children and their parents, is unimportant. The Iranians can negotiate while facilitating mass murder. No doubt, they can do so if the greatest power on earth pushes back a bit. President Obama should act now to protect Syrian civilians.

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

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Image: Members of the independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic Vitit Muntarbhorn (L), Paulo Pinheiro (C) and Carla del Ponte adress the media during a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, June 23, 2015. (Reuters)