The international community’s failure on Syria limits its power to act against the even bigger bloodletting that’s likely to happen down the road.


Earlier this month, the United Nations announced its assessment that 59,648 people have died in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. That headline figure is grim, but U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay made a point of noting that the real number is almost certainly higher. The overwhelming majority of those people were civilians. Far too many of them were children.

Why do I say that? Because the fateful wheel of atrocity and reprisal, so familiar from past civil wars, is gathering momentum. It could hardly be any different, considering the scale of the killing so far. The Assad regime bears full responsibility for launching the carnage. But it does not bear sole responsibility for all the crimes that have been committed, and it will not bear sole responsibility for the crimes that are yet to come.

There can be little question that the complex ethnic and sectarian makeup of Syria is exacerbating the situation as the bloodshed goes on. Assad family rule in Syria over the past 40 years has rested primarily on the country’s ethnic and religious minorities: above all the Alawites (adherents of an offshoot of Shiite Islam), as well as some Kurds and Christians. Members of the Sunni majority have been largely excluded from power. As those who have borne the brunt of the regime’s injustices, they now form the largest force in the opposition.

Divides are deepening. Though it’s understandably hard to get precise reports, Human Rights Watch has recently documented attacks by opposition forces on a Shiite place of worship and two churches on the outskirts of the city of Latakia, the stronghold of Syria’s Alawite population. The rebels have been criticized in the past for committing abuses against prisoners taken from the pro-Assad armed forces or militias (the notorious shabiha). The growing prominence of jihadist groups among the rebel Free Syrian Army is another source of concern. The worry is that radicals in the opposition are now actively targeting civilians from the groups that have been allied with the government.

Let’s consider the potential scale of the problem: There are some two million Kurds in Syria, plus roughly the same number of Christians. There are two and a half million Alawites. They have been schooled by regime propaganda to believe that they will become the victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing should their side lose the war. That probably wasn’t true back when their fellow Syrians were peacefully demonstrating for change, but now it’s on the way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sunnis account for at least 12.6 million of the population. (They actually make up the bulk of the Syrian regular army’s soldiers, who are right now held at bay by Alawite officers and the shabiha.) As soon as the Assad regime loses the advantages of its air power and its heavy weapons, the Sunnis will be able to make their superior numbers count. Their enemies won’t stand a chance.

The desire for revenge is understandable: the instinct to repay killing with more killing is deeply embedded in the human psyche. But that doesn’t make it right. Retribution and justice are two different things. The first perpetuates the cycle of violence; the second offers at least the hope of wrongs righted in a way that benefits society. And the logic of collective punishment is always fatally flawed. Not everyone in a group behaves according to the instincts of the majority.

But that’s easy for me to say, right? My family hasn’t been shredded by a cluster bomb before my eyes. And you could hardly blame Syrian oppositionists for rolling their eyes when they hear a well-meaning Westerner plead the virtues of non-violence. After all, my government has done virtually nothing to help restrain Assad’s attack dogs. Where do I get off lecturing the Free Syrian Army about right and wrong?

This is, in some ways, just the problem. If the international community had found some way to undertake meaningful action against the Assad regime from early on, we would have far greater credibility with the opposition today, and we would be in a much better position to argue for de-escalation. As things stand now, indications are that the fighters of the Free Syrian Army and their supporters increasingly regard Western governments with contempt. Many see us as de facto allies of the Damascus regime. We should hardly be surprised.

I decided to ask Simon Adams about this. He’s the director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a New York-based organization founded in 2008 to combat genocide and mass human rights abuses around the world. Last year, he published a commentary in the New York Times arguing that the international community should bring constructive pressure to bear on the Syrian opposition to ensure that atrocities are not committed against groups or populations allied with the regime.

Some critics, as Adams puts it, “raised an eyebrow” at his article, suggesting that he was implying a false equivalence between aggressor and victim. He rejects this, insisting that his group has consistently regarded the Syrian government as the main perpetrator in the conflict, and has assailed its crimes accordingly. “But let’s be clear,” he says. “We’re not on the side of Assad and we’re not on the side of the rebels. We’re against mass atrocities.” And the past inaction of the U.N. Security Council — thanks above all to Russian and Chinese intransigence in opposing any efforts to sanction or condemn Assad’s regime — cannot serve as an excuse for continuing passivity on this score in the months to come.

Adams is not a supporter of military intervention, the consequences of which, he believes, could well end up outweighing the evil it is intended to cure. But he believes that there’s a great deal that can yet be done besides stepping into the fight. Above all else, the Americans, the Europeans, and their allies should start concerted action to establish a mechanism for investigating and punishing abuses once the war is over — applicable to everyone. “You can’t say, ‘War crimes are really bad when committed by our enemies.’ You have to say that they’re bad when committed by anyone. All perpetrators will be held accountable.”

Moreover, the Friends of Syria Group, as well as the countries that are directly aiding the rebels, should make a point of urging the opposition and its fighters toward full compliance with international humanitarian law (not least as a way of distinguishing the rebels favorably from the government). Adams notes that the Free Syrian Army has already created its own unit for war crimes investigations. So far the group has focused on abuses committed by the government, of course, but it could be expanded to provide accountability for the FSA’s own forces as well. Western countries, says Adams, should offer full assistance and support to such efforts, even while pushing for them to be broadened.

I really do wish him the best of luck with that. But it’s hard to be optimistic. As Adams himself points out, the original architects of the expanded international anti-genocide principles back in 2001 — known as the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P — foresaw that it would be extremely hard to against mass atrocities in cases where U.N. Security Council members were opposed to acting. That, of course, is exactly what’s now come to pass in the case of Syria.

In any case, it’s time to acknowledge that one consequence of the international community’s failure to press for stronger action in the past is that it leaves us ill-equipped to make the case for preventing the revenge killings that are likely to come. Let’s hope that the Syrian rebels have the wisdom to see the rationale for restraint as the war enters its next phase. They certainly have little cause to listen to our advice.