Dr Muhammad Khan
United Nations General Assembly passed its Resolution 60/1 in 2005, adopting the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P was the consequence of the World Summit Outcome Document achieved through universal inter-governmental agreement, following the genocide in Rawanda-1994 and massacre in Serbinica-1995. R2P adopts preventive measures, emphasizing to stem the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity, before their occurrences. As per R2P, the use of force will be the last resort, once all other non-coercive options have exhausted and that too after UN approval. In case of Syria, neither the Government nor international community made use of this UN mandated principle of R2P, primarily because, both the Syrian Government as well as the major powers is involved in the war crimes in Syria.
In March 2011, once civil war started in Syria, no one thought that it will prolong for such a long time (entered into eighth now). It was considered like Arab spring, which gradually disappeared in some countries of the Middle East but, devastated Syria, Yemen and even Libya. According to an estimate, the death toll in Syria has exceeded 465,000 people and over 12 million people have been displaced so far from their houses. Millions of Syrians have left their motherland as refugees in neighbouring countries and even to Europe under fear of being killed. Over 13.1 million Syrians remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with 3 million people in inaccessible areas; some are besieged by Government forces and rebels.
Towards the beginning of Syrian domestic crisis, it was just a movement for the removal of President Bashir Al Assad by opposing factions, who were unhappy with his form of governance. Seeing this as an apt moment, Syrian neighbours, vying for their domination over the larger Arab world, jumped in to this very domestic affair of the Syria. Their entrance into Syria transformed the domestic nature of crisis into a regional conflict; enunciating the ideological basis as its most dominant aspect. Two regional countries started supporting their favourites (Assad regime and the rebels) by all means; weapons, finances and even trained manpower to fight each other.
While, the regional countries were using Syria for their proxy wars, the major powers (US and Russia) entered into this conflict zone, transforming its regional character into major power’s battle zone. Initially, United States attacked some of the Government held areas, which provoked Russia to react strongly. The growing US and European support for the rebels was frozen temporarily, however, involvement of major powers, further complicated the nature of Syrian conflict. Today, there is a simultaneous engagement in Syria between; rebels and Assad Government, regional actors’ and major powers, all are trying to win over their rivals and prove their supremacy.
According to Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect (R2P), there have been unprecedented human rights violations in Syria. These violations and war crimes have been committed by both; the Syrian state forces as well as the rebels including the ISIS people. Even the ‘Human Rights Council’ (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry has ascertained that, “government forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Numerous armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes and violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL).”
In this war of power politics, there is a massive use of all types of weapons, including chemical weapons and new inventions of Russian armoury, as revealed recently. In all this entire conflict, Syrians have suffered; killed, injured, besieged, displaced and migrated. This has happened irrespective of their caste, creed, sect or religion. It is worth mentioning that, the above quoted figures of deaths and displacements are those, reported in media, but, there are thousands of casualties, which have not been reported, owing to inaccessibility.
Very recently hundreds of innocents have been killed at the hands of Assad regime supported by Russian war planes in Eastern Ghouta district. It is to be noted that, approximately 400,000 civilians were held in this area since 2013, since this district has been besiege by the Government forces, owing to presence of rebels in the area. There have been extreme shortages of basic nutritional requirements since last few years. The region was to be de-escalated as agreed between Russia, Turkey and Iran. Despite agreement, it was attacked on February 19, 2018 ‘Syrian forces backed by Russian warplanes escalated the offensive on Eastern Ghouta with a relentless bombing that killed hundreds of people within days.
These attacks continued till March 1, 2018 in which children remained the major target. As per Amnesty International, these attacks and killing of hundreds of thousand can be clearly categorized as the war crimes. This has been done despite a UNSC resolution of February 24, 2018, calling for a ceasefire. Over 700 civilians have been killed in Eastern Ghouta in last two weeks. Over 200 children and 109 women were killed in last few months. There have been reports that, Russian and Syrian forces have used Chlorine gas in besieged areas, which both denied.
Under the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the primary responsibility lies with the Syrian Government to protect its citizens, but, since Assad Regime itself is involved in the war crimes and genocide of its masses, therefore, the international community has the consequent responsibility to protect the masses of this war-torn country. Despite a fear that U.S and Russia may use veto power against any extreme step in the form of use of force under Chapter VII of UN Charter, the civilized international community must evoke the principle of R2P at UN. Amnesty international has already declared it as the war crimes, thus necessitating the extreme measures against those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Syrians through crimes against humanity. The Assad Regime must step down immediately, allowing a broader Government and the regional countries, should stop their involvement, allowing Syrians to decide their future themselves. This would constrain the space for major powers involvement in Syria.
— The writer, Professor of Politics and International Relations, is based in Islamabad.