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Syria: What Can or Should the World Do?

BU international law expert: action unlikely

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, BU Today 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.

David Nersessian author Genocide and Political groups book

BU Today: 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.


21 Comments on Syria: What Can or Should the World Do?

  • Brendan Murphy on 03.13.2012 at 9:33 am

    Nothing should be done. Why is it always OUR responsibility to sort out the world’s problems? There’s rampant human rights violations in North Korea and China too. Do we purport to solve their problems too? And how exactly do we go about doing that? Sending aid in the form of food/medical supplies didn’t help in Somalia in 1993. Farrah Aideed confiscated all of the supplies amidst a famine, essentially aiding his side. Similarly, sending arms will only fuel further bloodshed, delegitimize any effort to oust Assad by lending credibility to his ‘outside interference’ claims, and foster a prolonged civil war. Sending airstrikes has a high probability of killing civilians, and putting boots on the ground will put us in another Middle Eastern quagmire with an already over-extended military. Not to mention the massive drain on resources a war is.

    How about we let this play out the way it is. It’s tough to watch, but the world’s problems do not rest squarely on our shoulders. The money spent on arms/airstrikes on foreign countries can be better spent domestically to A) reduce our federal deficit B) Fix our crumbling infrastructure. Much like Joseph Kony or any of the other countless warlords who will undoubtedly fill his space when he is ousted (most likely through military intervention, not a Facebook campaign).

    • Abram on 03.13.2012 at 11:14 am

      Would it be your responsibility to help if you personally were in earshot of a rape, torture, or murder in progress? What if you were armed, in a group, and called by name? That is more analogous to the current situation.

      Dig beneath the domestic media coverage and you will find a desperate people calling to Americans directly because of what this country, miraculously, still represents to them—not the world police, but a people who, at least at one time, had both courage and conscience to call evil by its name and stop it. The human rights violators you name are the ones blocking multilateral action, which is why it rests more squarely on the shoulders of those whose have not made violations de rigueur.

      “Let ‘it’ play out” you say?! Like some sort of pit fight between a puppy and a python? This is pitiless Social Darwinism. Is that what you’d like to hear if the situation were reversed? Armchair geopolitical commentators need to sharpen their judgment: “human rights violations” come in actionable and merely regrettable varieties.

      What the world has been witness to FOR OVER ONE YEAR is the systematic, indiscriminate killing of civilians. Torture of adolescents. Snipers shooting women and children. Tanks shelling neighborhoods followed by execution-stryle murders. And, as reported today, refugee corridors being mined. As leaked intercepted emails reveal, the Syrian government is counting on your continued smug cynicism, poor historical analogies, and quibbling over what number makes an atrocity to provide cover to their terror.

      • Brendan Murphy on 03.14.2012 at 9:38 am

        How is Syria different than Congo…China…North Korea…Saudi Arabia…Bahrain…Yemen…Algeria…Iran…where does it end with you people? Americans first and foremost. Then we can think about the others. Last time we took your kind of mentality, Abram, we were told we’d be welcomed as liberators in Iraq. 11 years later we just pulled out of there and are still in Afghanistan. Get real.

        “This is pitiless Social Darwinism.” Yup. You’re right. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Darfur played out and is now pretty much over. Syria, like so many African nations, are the most ancient ‘civilizations’ in the world. We’re relative newcomers here in North America. But we don’t slaughter our own people like animals. Let it play out, because if we intervene, you know they’ll just be doing it again next week, month, year, etc.

        I pay taxes in the US for the betterment of my country. Not to help Syrians.

        • C on 03.16.2012 at 5:54 pm

          Sounds like a slippery slope dude, once you start drawing lines in the sand where do you stop? Why stop at the US border? What about only caring about those in your state? County? Neighborhood? Street? House?

          If you agree that is wrong to care about the well-being of nobody but yourself, then what difference does it make if the person in need is one mile away or one hundred? How far does someone need to be away from you before his or her life doesn’t matter anymore? I think it might have been Paul Farmer who said, “the only true nation is humanity.”

          I think/have heard the golden rule of morality shared by virtually all cultures and religions is to, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. If you were in great need, if you or your family were in danger, and someone was aware of your plight, able to prevent it, and then chose not do so, chose instead to stand aside and let your family die, I think you would be justified in being a little upset about that.

          I think you’re absolutely right to point out how widespread human rights abuses are in the world and to question how to best go about addressing them. After all, bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions. However, just because a problem is incredibly difficult to solve doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to solve it. Since I’m already quoting stuff, why not through in some MLK Jr, “The greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed but the vast majority who sat idly by.”

          And you’re also right that it’s not only our job to help in these situations, but like Uncle Ben told Spiderman—With great power comes great responsibility.

          I’m not saying I agree with all of our country’s overseas activities as of late, but I think it’s wrong to dismiss all humanitarian foreign policy out of hand.

    • Steve on 03.20.2012 at 11:00 am

      Both moral obligation and practicality should be taken into consideration. Isn’t this always the case, for any human being who is both moral and sensible? Clearly, a rational person would weigh several factors. No one is asking for military intervention in China, because it would clearly fail, and might start a world war. Publicity is the best avenue for helping the severely oppressed working people of China. But the people of Syria have asked for international help to stop an active massacre going on there. The whole protest movement in Syria started over the torture death of an adolescent, and now they’re massacring whole neighborhoods. But of course, we need to look before we leap, and plan and coordinate any intervention.

  • redditor on 03.13.2012 at 9:55 am

    we shouldn’t do anything. we are NOT the world police!

  • Nathan on 03.13.2012 at 11:35 am

    I favor an internal national ban on selling weapons and ammunition to americans when you are selling weapons to non-ally governments. If you sell or manufacture weapons in the USA, you can’t sell to enemy countries.

    The USA has a HUGE international presence in small arms sales. An american boycott would matter.

  • Scott on 03.13.2012 at 3:27 pm

    I’m glad this topic is getting a bit of attention. If Al-Assad were to be tried, I believe he would definitely be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is extremely unfortunate that Russia and China sustain their stance on opposing action in Syria. However, they have stated that their main reason for doing so is their belief that it would only further escalate the violence and bloodshed in Syria. They definitely have a valid point, however the violence will only continue to escalate on its own if no external action is taken. I do not think Al-Assad will respond to diplomatic action. He remains to say that he is fighting the violent opposition forces in his country, and fails to acknowledge the alarming amount of civilians being killed and put in harms way. In my opinion, Russia and China should retract their veto, and the UN should step in and help to remove Al-Assad from power.

    • Brendan Murphy on 03.14.2012 at 9:42 am

      Why should I care? I’m not even talking about expending resources and money into a small, poor country in the middle east with little or nothing to gain. Simply, why should I care? Anywhere there is state sponsored killing we should go in? Somalia is pretty bad too. Sudan. Congo. Yemen. Where does this nonsense stop?

      • Human on 09.03.2012 at 6:03 am

        I’m sorry but who are you? Do you know what suffering means? You sound like a monster

  • yarah on 03.13.2012 at 6:25 pm

    To the ones who think that the US is the world police,rest assured it is not. It’s the world’s most selfish state. Going to Syria is like opening a fire front of chaos on the borders of Israel plus there is no oil to steal.
    To the writer, if “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.”, I wonder what’s the point of having international laws if we always have to wait for a genocide to happen before we look back and say we should’ve or we could’ve.

    • Brendan Murphy on 03.14.2012 at 9:43 am


    • Alex on 06.03.2013 at 4:08 pm

      Actually the death toll is around 94,000 I thought. Just clearing it up

  • Steve on 03.13.2012 at 7:08 pm

    I have no moral qualms about intervening against this class of murderers (it’s not just one guy, but a police state), but I think we need to weigh whether it is likely to be a successful intervention. It worked in Libya. It would take comparable or even greater levels of intervention to work in Syria. Regardless of our decision, we should severely criticize Russia and China for their support of massacres. Russia has been Syria’s main backer for decades, and China was the main support for the Khmer Rouge and for the monstrous regime in Burma.

    • Brendan Murphy on 03.14.2012 at 9:44 am

      “It worked in Libya.”

      Yeah! Right on! Except those innocent civilians getting murdered by rogue airstrikes and stuff! And like $2B we could’ve used on domestic infrastructure. And Libya is BEAUTIFUL now! I think they sing kumbaya with the former gaddafi loyalists at night before bed too right?

      Get real.

  • Chase on 03.14.2012 at 12:02 am

    Where quasi-democratic movements emerge on their own initiative in the middle east, the US should move to give them material support, as was done for Libya. The costs for this conflict may well be higher given Assad’s military power, but those losses could serve to unite anti-Assad fighters once they are emboldened with US weaponry and air strikes. The short term economic cost may be great, but if our nation stands behind indigenous democratic movements at their conception we stand to gain new allies in a vital but largely hostile region. By no means should we commit troops, however.

  • Pinky on 03.14.2012 at 5:12 am

    Where is the love?
    I don’t watch the news or read the papers purely because it is overwhelming the amount of hate in our world. We need to do something I don’t know what, but we can’t stand back and ‘let it play out”! I know this is an idealistic view but I wish that we could all stop hating and start loving each other more.

    • Brendan Murphy on 03.14.2012 at 9:55 am

      So go join Peace Corps and dig a well for Africans. There’s plenty of starving kids here at home that need ‘love’ too. Your priorities are out of line.

      • C on 03.16.2012 at 6:04 pm

        You’re right to point out that there are those in need everywhere and all deserve to be helped. However, the burden of need in many international settings is orders of magnitude greater than what we have here. Do you not know this?

  • kafantaris on 03.16.2012 at 3:23 am

    Sarkozy is right, Assad is a murderer. What else would you call him after he killed hundreds of people with snipers on rooftops?
    Indeed, Assad and his henchmen have so much blood on their hands that they are no longer concerned with saving Syria, but with saving their own hide.
    As a world community governed by universal principals of fairness and empathy for our fellow men we cannot avert our eyes from the crimes against humanity these monsters are committing. Assad has gone beyond the point of any return to civilized governance. He knows it, and we know it.
    It is time, therefore, that we deal with him as the criminal he has become.
    We had acted with resolve against a similar criminal in Libya and we should act with resolve against this one in Syria now. Russia and China would be prudent to again stay out of the way.
    Enough is enough.
    Once more, the world has to do what simply needs to be done.

  • TIM ADAMS on 03.11.2013 at 6:18 am

    TO AVOID THE SHAME TO DO NOTHING…ASSAD MUST BE STOPPED FROM THE MAD DESTRUCTION OF LIFE… WHY THE HESITATION ..such a hateful world and full of delusion..how can we really respect others or ourselves if we allow murder and allow fear to paralyse noble thought & action ?

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