Aleppo – Syria’s second-largest city, its commercial hub and an ancient heritage site – is under relentless assault. This siege follows what has been called “Assad’s pattern of depravity”: first, cutting off electricity, water, and the inhabitants’ food supply; second, intensifying indiscriminate bombardment through tank, artillery, helicopter gunships, and even fighter jets; third, warning inhabitants that Syrian forces would “purge” the city of its “armed terrorists” – the euphemism for Assad’s Scorched Earth policy – the whole as prologue to massacres foretold, as have happened so many times before.
In the words of Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, speaking one week ago: “The massacres that are happening in Aleppo and other places in Syria amount to war crimes that are punishable under international law.” Indeed, the situation has only deteriorated since, as some 1,000 have been killed in the last 10 days alone, and over 20,000 since the peaceful beginnings of the “dignity and freedom revolution” in Daara in March 2011.
I have been writing for close to a year now of the need to affirm and implement the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to help save Syrian civilians being massacred by the Assad regime. Yet, the riposte to these calls – by myself and others – for a more proactive, protective, and interventionist approach – has been to warn of “civil war”; of enhanced sectarian strife; of an influx of jihadists; of incessant killings – all of which have happened.
Indeed, everything that was predicted would happen as a result of international action has in fact resulted – but from international inaction.
What is so necessary now – if these dire warnings are not to assume the mantra of a self-fulfilling prophecy – is for the Untied States, in concert with the EU, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada, and other Friends of Syria – to move to implement the following measures with all deliberate speed:
First, protection against the threat of weapons of mass destruction: the disclosures that there are some 45 different chemical weapons facilities and tons of chemical weapons materials scattered throughout Syria – coupled with the declaration that the regime is prepared to use them against “external terrorist threats” are fraught with dangers, particularly as the regime refers to the rebels as “terrorists” who have foreign backing.
Second, it is necessary to interdict and sanction the substantial Iranian and Hezbollah military assistance to the Syrian regime – particularly Iranian arms shipments – which are in standing violation of existing UN Security Council Resolutions. Simply put, countries, entities, groups, or individuals involved in such transactions must be severely sanctioned and punished.
Third, enhanced support for the besieged opposition: all the opposition forces, from the Syrian National Council to the Free Syrian Army – are united in their request for international intervention and support to “level the playing field” – including defensive weaponry, support, command and control assistance, logistical and communications aid, training and other forms of support, which is only now, belatedly, beginning to be supplied. These efforts must be coordinated to ensure effectiveness, and so yesterday’s US-Turkish establishment of a unified task force for information sharing and operational planning is a welcome development.
Fourth, safe havens must be established. Aleppo is experiencing a humanitarian disaster. The combination of incessant and intensifying aerial bombardment of civilian neighborhoods – already subjected to weeks of artillery, tank, and helicopter gunship bombardment – coupled with the absence of electricity, water, food, and medical assistance – have generated a frightening humanitarian storm. It is crucial that safe havens be established that serve as civilian protection zones; as refuge for the displaced and assaulted; and as humanitarian corridors for the delivery of medical and humanitarian relief.
Fifth, such safe havens, which are necessary for Aleppo, are no less crucial for Syria as a whole. Indeed, I have been writing for close to a year of the need for civilian protection zones – or what Anne Marie Slaughter called “no-kill zones” – particularly along Syria’s international borders with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. This would protect against the vulnerability of the assaulted Syrian neighborhoods, while providing the desperately needed protection for displaced persons and refugees. Any Syrian assault on these civilian protection zones would authorize legitimate self-defense protection – including no-fly zones – which would target only Syrian forces attacking these civilian areas.
Sixth, it is necessary that the United States – together with Arab, Turkish, and other allies – inject urgency and energy into the task of upgrading the cohesion and message of the Syrian political opposition, so that there is a clear answer to the important question of what comes in the wake of Assad’s demise. Regime change cannot be left to chance. As well, there is the need to combat the hundreds of jihadist and Al-Qaeda fighters – particularly from Iraq – who are presently in Syria.
Seventh, the Syrian political and army leadership must be put on notice that they will be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that they will be brought to justice for crimes against humanity, which may lessen further Syrian criminality while encouraging more defections.
It is now as timely as it is necessary to increase pressure on Assad, and those loyal to him, to seek exile lest they suffer the fate of a Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. Indeed, military commanders should be urged to defect – as should high level political leaders – who should feel encouraged by recent high-level defections such as that of Syrian Prime Minister Ryad Hijab, Brigadier Generals such as Manaf Tlass, and senior diplomats – which has emboldened the opposition no less than it has jolted the Syrian regime.
Eighth, the international community must protect against the risk of rising sectarian violence – jihadist radicalization – reprisal and revenge killings -by securing firm commitments from Syrian opposition force to address these phenomena seriously while protecting the rights of minorities.
Ninth, there needs to be the mandated deployment of a large international Arab-led peace protection force in Syria that will, inter alia, order troops and tanks back to barracks and bases; order and monitor compliance with the cessation of violence; and help secure the peaceful transition to a post-Assad regime.
Tenth, there is a clear and compelling need for enhanced humanitarian assistance arising from the exponential increase in internally displaced people within Syria – now numbering over 1.5 million persons – and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have flowed into Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, with the attending risk of the destabilization of these border regions. The announcements this weekend of such increased humanitarian assistance by Foreign Minister John Baird and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are steps in the right direction which should be replicated by other “Friends of Syria”.
Again, as Ban Ki-moon and others have put it, “Loss of time means loss of lives.” The time to act is now – is long past – as every day, more Syrian civilians die, not because of the actions we have taken, but because of the actions we have not taken.
Irwin Cotler is a professor of law emeritus at McGill University and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is the co-editor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in our Time, a recent publication of Oxford University Press.