Following excerpts adapted from the author’s new book, Syria Betrayed: Atrocities, War, and the Failure of International Diplomacy published by Columbia University Press.
Everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third, or not at all. — Lakhdar Brahimi, UN special envoy for Syria, August 31, 2015
In Early 2011 the world was stunned as the Arab Spring tore through Tunisia, then Egypt, and then Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and Jordan. Syria stood at the precipice. As diplomats at the United Nations argued about what to do in Libya and the deteriorating situation in Côte d’Ivoire, few understood that Syria was descending into a hell of civil war that would consume more than half a million lives, displace more than half the country’s population, host the brutally genocidal Islamic State, and draw in the militaries of Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, the United States, Turkey, and others. As Syria’s tragedy unfolded, not one foreign government consistently prioritized the protection of Syrians from atrocity crimes. Not only did they do little to alleviate suffering, much of what they did made matters worse. They betrayed Syria’s civilians by breaking the trust between peoples, states, and global institutions exemplified by the responsibility to protect.
It is difficult to convey the extent of the brutality inflicted on Syria’s tormented civilians since the uprising began in 2011, since raw numbers have a numbing effect. Syrians have been shot in the streets as they protested. Tens of thousands were hauled into prisons and tortured until dead. Tens of thousands more live on in those conditions. Barrel bombs packed with high explosives, nails, and other makeshift shrapnel have been hurled indiscriminately by the dozen into civilian neighborhoods. Men, women, and children have been gassed to death with sarin and chlorine. Civilians have been shot, knifed, beheaded, and even crucified. They have been denied food, water, and medicine to the point of malnutrition. Children have had their homes brought down on top of them and have been raped, shot, tortured, and forcibly recruited into armed groups. Women and girls have been kidnapped, trafficked, and sold as sex slaves. Schools have been systematically targeted and destroyed. Hospitals and medical centers suffered the same fate. The government and its allies were not responsible for all Syria’s atrocities, but they were responsible for the overwhelming majority. Syrian civilians found themselves trapped between ISIS extremism and its deranged ideology enforced by beheading, immolation, and slavery and the indiscriminate barrel bombs, artillery fire, rockets, missiles, and militia of the government and its allies. Yet even at the peak of ISIS’s power in Syria, jihadists killed Syrian civilians at a lower rate than the government. Different datasets record the number of civilians killed by the government and its allies in the decade between 2011 and 2021 as being between 175,000 and 207,000. In comparison, those same datasets record that ISIS was responsible for the deaths of between 5,000 and 6,500 Syrian civilians. The number of civilians killed by other opposition groups ranges between 6,000 and 11,000. Put another way, the Syrian government and its allies are likely responsible for between 86 and 94 percent of all civilian deaths directly caused by the war. These stark discrepancies show that while opposition groups certainly perpetrated atrocities, they did not do so on anything like the scale perpetrated by the government and its allies. There is no place for moral equivalency in the story of Syria’s war.
More than sixty years earlier, the newly established United Nations General Assembly adopted a convention to prohibit genocide and establish a legal duty to prevent it. Two years later the four Geneva Conventions established what we today call International Humanitarian Law. Additional protocols agreed to in 1977 stipulated that “the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited” (article 13, protocol II). The protocols required that any use of force be strictly confined to military goals and established the legal principle of discrimination—the rule that soldiers are obliged to discriminate between soldiers and civilians and should refrain from violence if they cannot tell the difference. Violations of these laws have become known as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” New laws restricted the use of “Certain Conventional Weapons” (1980, 1995, 1996, 2008). The Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 prohibited possession, manufacture, and use of chemical weapons, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was established to oversee it. In the same year, the Ottawa Treaty banned the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of antipersonnel land mines. In 2008 cluster munitions were also prohibited, by a treaty that garnered the support of more than a hundred states. The scope of legal obligations doesn’t end with the prohibition of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, however. States have legal obligations to prevent these crimes, protect their victims, and promote compliance with the law. These laws reshaped expectations about how war ought to be conducted and civilians protected from its worst ravages. They established legal limits to what a government can lawfully do to its people. They codified the notion that sovereignty entails legal responsibilities as well as rights.
But these laws always stood in tension with two harsh political realities: First, that in war power tends to matter more than justice, since when the fighting starts actors rarely yield to law and justice alone. Indeed, it is precisely because they disagree about what justice is and what it entails that they fight. Second, that for all the talk of the rights of individuals and groups to protection from atrocity crimes, governments have tended to privilege sovereignty—especially their own—over the protection of basic human rights. There is a good reason for that, for sovereignty and its attendant right to noninterference protects postcolonial and small states from the coercive interference of the powerful and helps maintain a basic condition of orderly conduct among states. The awkward juxtaposition of the humanitarian aspirations expressed in international humanitarian law and a sovereignty-based international order raised difficult practical and ethical questions about what to do when states themselves committed atrocities against sections of their own population. The result was an acute gap between what the law said about how states should behave and how they actually behaved. Genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity persisted, often untroubled by outside interference. This became a matter of global concern after the Cold War and high-profile failures to stem genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica; mass killing and ethnic cleansing in Angola, Bosnia, Burundi, Croatia, East Timor, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo; and state repression in Iraq. Time and again, international society proved unwilling or unable to uphold its own laws in the face of such disasters. The principle of the “responsibility to protect”—or R2P as it has become known—was devised as a way of navigating these dilemmas. Unanimously endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005, the principle meant that governments recognized they have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. They agreed to encourage and help one another fulfill their responsibility. They also pledged to use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to protect populations and decided that when a state is manifestly failing to protect its population from atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to take “timely and decisive action” to do so, using all necessary means through the United Nations Security Council. This commitment was made unanimously by the largest ever gathering of Heads of State and Government at the United Nations in 2005. It was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 2009 and 2021. At the time of this writing, R2P had featured in ninety-two UN Security Council resolutions and statements and fifty-eight resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council. All this counted for little in Syria.
This book explains how and why the world failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect Syrians. Ultimately, it is a story of priorities, of how other things came to be seen as being more important than protecting Syrians from their government. So-called realists might say that this is inevitable; that we live in a brutal and illiberal world where power matters more than justice and where even trying to stop atrocities in other countries invariably makes things worse. But this takes too much for granted. It ignores evidence that determined action can mitigate and end atrocities.1 And, like all structural theories, it absolves individuals of responsibility for their choices. As I will show, political leaders were presented time and again with choices, and almost every time they chose not to make alleviation of Syria’s suffering their priority. These choices had direct, sometimes immediate, consequences for the lives of Syrians, usually for the worse. Things could have been different. Steps could have been taken to save lives, perhaps even lots of lives. I will show how decision making was guided by shibboleths; false assumptions that were exposed one by one. Chief among them was the conviction that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could be persuaded to reform or agree to share power through a political settlement. Foreign actors clung to that belief despite its evident faults even as their peace processes zombified. There were other shibboleths too, about the impossibility of using force to good effect, about the opposition’s inherent extremism, and about Russian good faith.
There are innumerable ways of telling this tragic story, but however one tells it, the central point remains the same: that despite moral imperatives, legal obligations, and our knowledge of what happens when the world turns a blind eye to atrocities, governments and international organizations chose not to prioritize the protection of Syrians because they thought other things were more important. First, Syria’s civilians were betrayed by their own government. To Assad, killing civilians was always a price worth paying for regime survival. Then, they were betrayed by the government’s foreign allies who blocked any meaningful multilateral approach to the crisis. Almost from the start, Assad’s tottering government depended for its survival on foreign allies, principally Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, cheered on from the sidelines by China and to a lesser extent, at the beginning at least, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Then those who claimed to be the friends of Syria’s people, their most immediate neighbors, betrayed them. For all their posturing, Syria’s Arab neighbors also had other priorities and were often more concerned with their own survival and legitimacy and their regional competition for hegemony, status, and influence, than they were with the plight of Syrians. They competed against one another as much as with Damascus and fostered the fragmentation and radicalism that doomed Syria’s opposition. Turkey stayed the course longer than the others but mainly because it had a Kurdish problem and a refugee crisis to resolve. And then, those states most vociferous in their support for R2P and the principles of protection betrayed Syria’s civilians. The West stridently condemned the violence, demanded reform, and agonized over what to do. Admittedly, the actions of others presented concerned Westerners with few appealing options. But protecting Syria’s civilians was never their main priority either. For the United States at different times, priorities included military withdrawal from the Middle East, combatting Islamist terrorism, rapprochement with Iran, and protecting itself and its allies from the perceived threat posed by refugees fleeing for their lives. For Europeans, distracted by economic crisis and disunity, fear of terrorism and refugees always loomed larger than humanitarian concerns. Priorities shifted, but the protection of Syrian civilians was rarely even close to being at the top of the list. Even the United Nations—the institution entrusted to implement R2P—succumbed. As earnest efforts to negotiate peace crumbled, the organization propped up a zombie peace process that helped Assad while its humanitarian agencies funneled millions of dollars to the government and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid to government-controlled areas, despite that same government prohibiting the flow of aid to opposition areas it was besieging, bombarding, and starving. Thus did the United Nations aid and abet a government strategy based on atrocities.