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Syria: What Can or Should the World Do?

BU international law expert: action unlikely

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

Syria: What Can or Should the World Do? Syrian rebels in the embattled province of Homs, where the death toll is said to exceed 6,000. Photo courtesy of Flickr contributor Freedom House

As the news seeping out of a bitterly divided and blood-soaked Syria grows more alarming by the day, scholars as well as pundits, expatriates, and concerned citizens are asking what can be done. A logical step, a vote from the United Nations Security Council calling for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, was quashed early last month by a veto from council members Russia and China. While other pressures have been brought to bear, such as the United States firming up sanctions first put in place in 2011, al-Assad shows no sign of backing down.

For four decades, the Assads, members of the minority Alawite tribe, have ruled this nation the size of North Dakota. The Alawites represent just 12 percent of the mostly Sunni Muslim population of 22.5 million. There are fears al-Assad may be following in the footsteps of his father, Hafaz al-Assad, who ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Sunnis in the city of Hama in 1982. Many are questioning why the world, beyond issuing harsh words of warning, has stayed on the sidelines in a conflict increasingly characterized by summary executions, torture, and the shelling of unarmed civilians.

For some perspective, Bostonia spoke with David Nersessian (SMG’92, LAW’95) (below), a School of Law visiting assistant professor, who teaches courses in legal ethics and human rights law. Nersessian is the author of Genocide and Political Groups (Oxford University Press, 2010). His current scholarship centers on legal ethics and international law and human rights, with a particular focus on the role of corporate lawyers in human rights and corporate social responsibility.

Bostonia: Do you think the UN, the Friends of Syria, the League of Arab States, or any single nation will go beyond verbal condemnation to intervene in Syria?

Nersessian: Very unlikely. Unless a state is willing to go it alone, intervention requires serious political will and strong international consensus that no alternative exists, neither of which is present here. The violence hasn’t risen to a level that makes it politically unpalatable for Russia or China to veto tougher action on Syria in the UN Security Council. That could change if the violence spiked—something like the wholesale slaughter in Rwanda in 1994, with half a million killed in four months. But remember, there was massive resistance even then to labeling the atrocities in Rwanda genocide, let alone intervening to stop them.

Last May, the Security Council unanimously instituted a no-fly zone in Libya during the civil uprising. What’s different about Syria?

Several factors. With Libya, you saw early political recognition of the opposition forces, which were far better organized and identifiable than anything in Syria right now. States could say, this group of Libyans seems to be in charge of an organized opposition, so we’ll grant them political legitimacy and support. The rebels were outgunned in Libya and were losing the fight until the Western air support was provided, but I see no appetite for similar efforts in Syria at this point. Syria is a much more powerful and well-armed state that also has far greater capacity to suppress internal opposition quickly. The conflict appears concentrated in certain areas, and there’s a long history of Syria’s government using brutal methods to quickly and decisively reassert control. The death toll from the 1982 crackdown in Hama by President al-Assad’s father exceeded 20,000, compared to around 6,000 so far in this uprising. This is a serious violation of human rights, but not at the level of carnage you saw in Rwanda or even the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Do the al-Assad regime’s recent actions against the people of Homs amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity? What’s involved in pursuing these charges in international court?

They clearly involve crimes against humanity—murder and other serious violence as part of a widespread or systematic attack on Syria’s civilian population. They also constitute war crimes—executions, torture, failure to distinguish combatants from civilians, and the like in the context of an armed conflict. But right now there is no good way to prosecute the offenders in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Syria is not a state party to the ICC treaty, which means that a Security Council referral is required. That won’t happen because of the Russian and Chinese veto. Absent regime change, it’s always harder for the ICC to be effective when government actors perpetrate international crimes. You see this with Sudan—where Sudan’s president and other government officials have been indicted for genocide and other crimes in the ICC, but remain in power. There is little the ICC can do without political will in the international community to dislodge offenders and put them on trial.

What are the other options?

International law provides a whole range of options, which vary in effectiveness depending on the situation in question. You can have quiet or public diplomatic pressure, either between states or involving groups of states or UN bodies. This can work; for many reasons, governments really do care about how other states regard them, though clearly not as much as they care about remaining in power. You also can have unilateral sanctions, such as recent U.S. sanctions against Iran’s central bank, which puts other countries to a choice—do business with them or do business with us. Other means—short of direct boots on the ground or bombing raids—could include no-fly zones, blockades, and arms embargoes. But any of these can be a double-edged sword. Arms embargoes on the former Yugoslavia, for example, likely enabled atrocities by disarming one group at the expense of another.

What other factors might discourage foreign intervention in Syria?

Well, another factor is, intervention is very expensive, economically and politically. And many European states have huge debt problems. Even states that normally would be willing partners may decide to sit things out because of their domestic situations. I think you’ll see a deep breath and a pause; states saying, we have our own problems right now, and we need to focus on that.

How do you see this playing out?

I think you’ll continue to see a rapid clampdown in Syria, followed by rigid state control paired with token human rights responses, like the recent constitutional referendum that most saw as a complete farce. I don’t see al-Assad going down in the near term, absent a major development that tilts the playing field against him. And even if he does, it’s anyone’s guess what comes next. The Arab spring is a very recent development, and no one knows yet how democracy will play out in Egypt or Libya. Look at the election of Hamas in Gaza a few years back. As existing regimes fall, you could end up with authoritarian theocratic or even Taliban-like governments popularly elected by the people. Because the situation is changing so rapidly, many countries will want to hit the pause button as much as possible so they can sort out the changed dynamics and adopt their foreign policies to the new landscape.

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