It becomes critically important to demand that the International Criminal Court indict Assad for command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. There have been times when UN spokespeople have indicated that he has been responsible for both, yet at the same time other agencies of the UN have colluded with his regime in perpetrating war crimes like starving rebel-held areas. Nor do any of the foreign powers that have intervened in Syria have the slightest interest in pursuing a criminal case against Assad; indeed, his allies are guilty of complicity in his crimes. Therefore, only the widest possible popular campaign to demand his indictment can bring about a crucial step towards a political solution of the war in Syria.
September 21, 2016
It would be safe to say that without the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, ISIS would not have existed today. The invasion gave Al Qaeda its first opening to enter Iraq, even as it engendered a large number of embittered Baathists, thus providing the conditions for an unlikely alliance between Baathists and Al Qaeda in opposition to the US occupation. It was this that later mutated into ISIS.
Does it follow that we should see the Syrian civil war as a consequence of US imperialism? The answer is, ‘No’. The Syrian uprising of 2011 was one of several Arab uprisings against the devastation caused by the neo-liberalism of brutal authoritarian regimes throughout the region, the chain starting with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010. In Syria, as in other countries where the uprisings took place, neo-liberalism had enriched a small coterie around the ruling elite, while the vast majority of people were left to suffer plumetting living standards. The demonstrations started with demands for reform of the regime rather than its overthrow – an end to corruption, the release of political prisoners, repeal of the Emergency Law and so on – and were entirely peaceful. Assad’s response, however, was one of extreme violence.
The event that catalysed the Syrian protests of 2011 into a full-scale uprising took place in March of that year in the city of Deraa. Fifteen schoolboys, all below the age of 15, had plastered their school walls with the slogans they had heard chanted in Tunisia and Egypt, including the key slogan of the Arab uprisings, ‘al-Shaab yureed isqat al-nizam’ (‘The People Want the Downfall of the Regime’). The children were arrested and tortured in custody, their fingernails ripped out. Parents who pleaded with the local head of political security for their release were insulted and turned away. When several thousand family members and their supporters gathered to protest on March 18, security forces responded with water cannon and bullets, killing four. The next day, at their funeral, even more were killed, and wounded who went to the local hospital were detained or shot. The government’s savage response sparked protests throughout the country by outraged Syrians, but these too were met with violence. Gruesome methods of torture and sexual abuse of large numbers of men, women and children were used, not to extract information but to terrorise dissidents into quiescence.
However, in many cases the repression had the opposite effect on the families and friends of the victims. For example, after thirteen-year-old Hamza al-Khatieb was tortured to death in May 2011 for participating in an anti-regime demonstration, local children walked in procession with his photograph and a banner proclaiming that he died a martyr. Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) were set up around the country; local councils were formed to organize humanitarian aid and the provision of basic services like water, electricity, education and waste disposal in rebel areas; field hospitals were set up to care for the wounded.
The regime needed to fabricate an excuse to use military force to crush this unarmed civilian uprising, and it did so by systematically trying to turn it into a sectarian conflict. It visited collective punishment on Sunnis, while extending preferential treatment to Alawis, but this was not enough. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami describe in their amazing book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, which is based on myriad interviews,
“From March to October 2011, at the same time that it was targeting thousands of non-violent, non-sectarian revolutionaries for death-by-torture, the regime released up to 1,500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists from its prisons… According to a defected intelligence officer, ‘The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades… The regime wanted to tell the world it was fighting al-Qaida but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. It was a specific, deliberate plan and it was easy to carry out’. Many leaders of key Islamist militias – Zahran Alloush of the army of Islam, for instance, or Hassan Aboud of Ahrar al-Sham, as well as founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra, and Abu Athir al-Absi and Awad al-Makhlaf, important figures in ISIS – were beneficiaries of Assad’s ‘amnesty’” (pp. 120-121).
Assad then proceeded to try and wipe out not the Islamists that he himself had unleashed but the democratic opposition, using every conceivable means including barrel bombs, poison gas and the starvation sieges of entire neighbourhoods. The LCCs called on the opposition to continue their non-violent struggle, arguing that armed struggle would marginalise the civilian opposition and in any case would be out-gunned by the incomparably better-armed regime. But in the face of sustained mass slaughter it was impossible to prevent the emergence of an armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army. The FSA consisted of tens of thousands of army defectors who were revolted by the atrocities they were ordered to carry out, as well as civilians who took up arms to defend their families and neighbourhoods. It was not a unified force either ideologically or even operationally, but unlike the Islamists, they stood for the establishment of a democratic state and used the anti-sectarian slogan, ‘One, One, One, the Syrian People are One’.
As a result of mass defections and of young Syrians fleeing to avoid conscription, Assad’s forces faced serious problems despite their massively greater fire-power. The Islamist regime in Iran stepped into the breach, first sending in the Lebanese Hezbollah, then bringing in Shia militias from Iraq and other countries, all under the command of its international jihadi Quds Force commanded by Qassem Soleimani. When even these combined forces failed to inflict a decisive defeat on the democratic opposition, the Russian military stepped in with its shock-and-awe air campaigns in September 2015, finally tilting the balance in favour of the Assad regime. The blitzkrieg against both the armed and civilian opposition (except for ISIS) continued, with human rights groups estimating that the regime was responsible for well over 90% of civilian deaths.
Of course the Syrian, Iranian and Russian state media and their propagandists have a very different account of the struggle. According to them, the US supports ISIS and Al Qaeda in their struggle against Assad, and Assad’s enemies are all “terrorists”. There are indeed valid criticisms of the US role in the Syrian civil war, but they are the very opposite of the ones made by the Assadists. Obama’s overwhelming concern has been the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda since these groups had declared war on the US. The need to ensure international protection of Syrians from Assad’s war crimes and crimes against humanity have come a distant second, despite Obama’s saying ‘Assad must go’ and despite drawing a vanishing red line against the dictator’s chemical warfare. As for Assad’s enemies, who they really are was highlighted in the wake of a Syrian and Russian bombing campaign in Aleppo when rescue workers pulled dazed and bloodied five-year-old Omran Daqneesh out of the rubble of an apartment building razed by the airstrikes. This little boy is the real face of the dreaded “terrorists” Assad and his allies are trying to exterminate.
With over 400,000 dead and counting, almost half the population of Syria driven out of their homes, the UN complaining that the regime violated the latest ceasefire by blocking aid deliveries to starving rebel-held areas, humanitarian aid trucks to rebel-held areas of Aleppo bombed and no end to the war in sight, is there anything we can do to try and end the suffering?
One thing we can do is try to discover and tell the truth. Relying on Assad and his allies and supporters for information about the war is as stupid as it would have been stupid to rely on Bush and Blair for information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or on Netanyahu to tell us what is happening in Palestine. On the other hand, when Doctors Without Borders, who have roundly condemned US airstrikes on a hospital in Kunduz (Afghanistan) and Saudi airstrikes on hospitals in Yemen, tell us that Syrian government forces are deliberately targeting doctors and hospitals, we have no reason to disbelieve them.
We could also sign on to The Syria Campaign, an independent advocacy group campaigning for a peaceful and democratic future for Syria, to find out more about what is happening in Syria and take action to stop the dreadful mass rapes, torture and murder: https://thesyriacampaign.org/
Ending the war depends on arriving at a political solution which includes at least four elements:
1) An agreement on the need for a new constitution that guarantees secularism, equality, and democratic rights and freedoms to all citizens.
2) Addressing the issue of Kurdish self-determination. This will require discussion among Kurds themselves, since not all Kurdish groups have the same definition of self-determination. Some demand an end to discrimination and persecution, equal citizenship (for example, that the country be renamed ‘the Republic of Syria’ rather than ‘the Syrian Arab Republic,’ since the latter implies that non-Arabs are at best second-class citizens), and a full recognition of their linguistic and cultural rights (for example, the right to communicate with the state and educate their children in their own language). No one who wants a democratic Syria could object to any of these demands. The deeper questions arise when some groups demand autonomy or independence. While regional and local self-government would certainly promote democracy, the experience from numerous other countries (Sri Lanka where I am from is one) suggests that leaders of an ethnic nationalist movement even of an oppressed minority community can easily become oppressive towards local minorities and authoritarian towards members of their own community who disagree with them. Thus the meaning of ‘self-determination’ for all Kurds and all local minorities living in Kurdish-majority regions has to be clarified.
3) It should be obvious that Assad cannot play any role in a democratic government, and that he will do his best to block the transition to one. At the same time, it is clear that he cannot be removed by military means. This is why it becomes critically important to demand that the International Criminal Court indict Assad for command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. There have been times when UN spokespeople have indicated that he has been responsible for both, yet at the same time other agencies of the UN have colluded with his regime in perpetrating war crimes like starving rebel-held areas. Nor do any of the foreign powers that have intervened in Syria have the slightest interest in pursuing a criminal case against Assad; indeed, his allies are guilty of complicity in his crimes. Therefore, only the widest possible popular campaign to demand his indictment can bring about a crucial step towards a political solution of the war in Syria.
4) Withdrawal of all foreign military forces from Syria. Without foreign military intervention, starting with that of the Iranian regime and its proxies, the war would have ended by now, and it cannot be ended until all foreign forces withdraw (except, perhaps, armed UN peacekeepers charged with protecting humanitarian aid delivery).
Rohini Hensman is a writer, independent scholar, and social activist based in India. She is the author of Workers, Unions and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India (2011) and is currently working on a book entitled Global Democracy and the Crisis of Anti-Imperialism for Haymarket. An earlier version of this article appeared in Sabrang.