Aleppo – Syria’s largest city, its commercial capital and an ancient heritage site – has been under relentless assault for close to a month.
The siege has followed what has been called “Assad’s pattern of depravity” – first, cutting off electricity, water, and the inhabitants’ food supply; second, intensifying indiscriminate bombardment through tank, artillery, helicopter gunships, and even fighter jets; third, warning inhabitants that Syrian forces would “purge” the city of its “armed terrorists” – the euphemism for Assad’s scorched earth policy – the whole as prologue to massacres foretold, as have happened so many times before.
In the words of Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, at the beginning of August: “The massacres that are happening in Aleppo and other places in Syria amount to war crimes that are punishable under international law.”
Indeed, the situation has only deteriorated since. More than 21,000 have been killed since the peaceful beginnings of the “dignity and freedom revolution” in Daara in March 2011. One important change: Syrians are no longer being killed as defenceless civilians – they have been fighting back.
I have been writing for close to a year now of the need to affirm and implement the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to help save Syrian civilians being massacred by the Assad regime. Yet, the riposte to these calls, by me and others, for a more proactive, protective, and interventionist approach has been to warn of “civil war;” of enhanced sectarian strife; of an influx of jihadists; of incessant killings – all of which have happened.
Indeed, everything that was predicted would happen as a result of international action has in fact resulted – but from international inaction.
What is so necessary now – if these dire warnings are not to assume the mantra of a self-fulfilling prophecy – is for the United States, in concert with the EU, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada, and other Friends of Syria – to move to implement the following measures with all deliberate speed:
â– First, protection against the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The disclosures that there are some 45 different chemical weapons facilities and tons of chemical weapons materials scattered throughout Syria, coupled with the declaration that the regime is prepared to use them against “external terrorist threats,” are fraught with dangers – particularly as the regime refers to the rebels as “terrorists” who have foreign backing, let alone the transfer of these weapons to Hezbollah or their seizure by jihadists.
â– Second, it is necessary to interdict and sanction the substantial Iranian and Hezbollah military assistance to the Syrian regime – particularly Iranian arms shipments and the training, financing, and arming of Syrian forces and militias – which are in standing violation of existing UN Security Council Resolutions. Simply put, countries, entities, groups, or individuals involved in such transactions and activities must be severely sanctioned and punished, while Hezbollah, given its complicity in international terror as well as atrocities in Syria, should be listed by the European Union as a terrorist entity.
â– Third, enhanced support for the besieged opposition. All the opposition forces, from the Syrian National Council to the Free Syrian Army, are united in their request for international intervention and support to “level the playing field” – including food, fuel, and medical supplies; defensive weaponry; command and control assistance; logistical and communications aid; training and other forms of support, which is only now, belatedly, beginning to be supplied. These efforts must be co-ordinated to ensure effectiveness – including the vetting of the recipients of such defensive weapons – and the establishment of a unified U.S.-Turkish task force for information sharing and operational planning is a welcome development.
â– Fourth, safe havens must be established. Aleppo is experiencing a humanitarian disaster. The combination of incessant and intensifying aerial bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods – already subjected to weeks of artillery, tank, and helicopter gunship bombardment, coupled with the absence of electricity, water, food, and medical assistance – have generated a frightening humanitarian storm. It is crucial that safe havens be established that serve as civilian protection zones, as refuge for the displaced and assaulted and as humanitarian corridors for the delivery of medical and humanitarian relief.
â– Fifth, such safe havens, which are necessary for Aleppo, are no less crucial for Syria as a whole. Indeed, I have been writing for close to a year of the need for civilian protection zones – or what Anne-Marie Slaughter called “no-kill zones” – particularly along Syria’s international borders with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. This would protect against the vulnerability of the assaulted Syrian neighbourhoods, while providing the desperately needed protection for displaced persons and refugees. Any Syrian assault on these civilian protection zones would authorize legitimate self-defence protection, including no-fly zones, which would protect against Syrian forces attacking these civilian areas.
â– Sixth, it is necessary that the United States, together with Arab, Turkish, and other allies, work to unify patchwork Syrian opposition – where the Free Syrian Army operates more as a network of militias than a unified command – and help plan an orderly transition in the wake of Assad’s demise as there will be the pressing challenge of rebuilding lives, rehabilitating the displaced, repatriating refugees, restarting the economy, restoring services and protecting human security. As well, there is the need to combat the hundreds of jihadist and al-Qaida fighters – particularly from Iraq – who are currently in Syria.
â– Seventh, the Syrian political and army leadership must be put on notice that they will be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that they will be brought to justice for crimes against humanity, which may lessen further Syrian criminality while encouraging more defections. It is now as timely as it is necessary to increase pressure on Assad, and those loyal to him, to seek exile lest they suffer the fate of a Moammar Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein. Indeed, military commanders and political leaders should be urged to defect, and should feel encouraged by recent high-level defections such as those of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, Brig.-Gen. Manaf Tlass, and senior diplomats – defections which have emboldened the opposition no less than they have jolted the Syrian regime.
â– Eighth, the international community must protect against the risk of rising sectarian violence – jihadist radicalization, reprisal and revenge killings – by securing firm commitments from Syrian opposition forces to address these phenomena seriously while protecting the rights of minorities. Assistance to rebel commanders should be conditioned on such undertaking.
â– Ninth, there needs to be the mandated deployment of a large, international, Arab-led peace protection force in Syria that will, inter alia, order troops and tanks back to barracks and bases, order and monitor compliance with the cessation of violence and help secure the peaceful transition to a post-Assad regime.
â– Tenth, there is a clear and compelling need for enhanced humanitarian assistance arising from the exponential increase in internally displaced people within Syria – which has doubled since March to number now more than 1.5 million persons displaced and more than one million in need of assistance – and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have flowed into Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, with the attending risk of the destabilization of these border regions. The announcements of increased humanitarian assistance by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are steps in the right direction which should be replicated by other “Friends of Syria.”
Again, as Ban Ki-moon and others have put it, “Loss of time means loss of lives.” The time to act is now, and it is long past. Every day, more Syrian civilians die, not because of the actions we have taken, but because of the actions we have not taken.
Irwin Cotler is a professor of law (emeritus) at McGill University and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is the co-editor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in our Time, a recent publication of Oxford University Press.