On Friday, July 13th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held an event titled, “Views from the Ground in Syria”. The main speaker of this event was Donatella Rovera, a senior investigator for Amnesty International, who spent months in Syria documenting the deteriorating situation. News and commentary on the struggle between the armed opposition and the Assad regime has focused mostly on the politics and the generalized bloodshed that is occurring across this nation. What seems to be missing from these conversations is the horrendous human rights violations that are still happening as we speak. The death toll has reached 18,000 people and still the international community appears at a stalemate, as we await a UN Security Council vote on the next steps in Syria. How many more deaths need to occur in order for the international community to take concrete action. In 10-20 years we do not want to look back and say, we should have done more – as has been the case with other mass killings and genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, and Germany. Ms. Rovera’s comments were important as they humanize the situation and bring to light the atrocities that are being committed. The key remains for the international community in one form or another to act effectively. Increasingly it seems that the outcome will be decided by brute force.
Donatella Rovera’s Comments:
Having viewed the crisis in Syria first hand, it is apparent that the killings have crossed the threshold and are now crimes against humanity. While in Syria, Ms. Rovera visited 23 different towns in the North.
Aleppo – Syria’s economic capital had not been affected by the armed conflict until recently, unlike other towns where demonstrations started 17 months ago. The actions by the Assad government against the people of Aleppo was the same as it was 17 months ago however. Small demonstrations were broken up by security forces who would fire live rounds those who were injured in the fire could not go to hospitals. 2 medical students in Aleppo tried to secretly help the injured. They were imprisoned by the military, tortured, shot, and then burned.
In the other 22 towns visited, the situation was quite different than that of Aleppo. The violence and armed conflict had been prevalent in those countries since the beginning of the revolution. Within these 22 villages, there were similar patterns of military dissent, demonstrating a calculated effort by the Assad regime to suppress the Syrian people. Typically, security forces would go into houses – take mostly young men/boys where they would commit brutal executions and then would burn down houses and villages.
Case Examples: Security Forces barged into a house at night, took the three sons who had not been involved in any armed conflict of the opposition, took them outside and shot them and then burned their bodies. In another town, a young man (who was not armed) went to pick up his 3 young cousins (all under the age of 11) – the army caught up to him and killed him along with the three children.
In these cases, the same modus operandi exists – quite clearly these actions of the security forces are state policy and are done with a level of premeditation.
The armed opposition was formed because peaceful demonstrators were being shot at by the Assad government. The opposition is becoming stronger, more organized, and gaining more ground. However, they too have begun to commit human rights abuses.
While there is obvious danger of a civil war – it has not come to that point yet because a monopoly of the violence has come from the arms of government forces.
The Role of the International Community: The question that was heard from the citizens of Syria was “why is the world doing nothing?”
The international community is paralyzed on the question of Syria. The key problem is that the only option discussed by the international community was whether or not to intervene militarily. In the case of Libya, the case was referred to the International Criminal Court right away. But in Syria, after 17 months of violence, the case has yet to be referred to the ICC. While the Kofi Annan’s UN Mission had the right idea, the plan was not at the right time, and was ultimately too little, too late. The Annan mission went in with the wrong mandate – as the end to cease fire was not an achievable or realistic goal.
Two useful things that should be done:
- The mandate of the UN Mission should be expanded to be given authority, human skills and capacity to look at war crimes.
- The Syrian case should be referred to the International Criminal Court – in order to send a signal to the Assad regime that time for impunity is over.