The United Nations’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry has recently raised allegations against the Syrian government, stating that “The mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination as a crime against humanity,” says Commission head Paulo Pinheiro. To make matters worse, the Security Council has fallen short of its obligation to keep the peace and ensure the safety of innocent Syrian lives. This failure has caused the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) to attempt to de-escalate the conflict and supply humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.
From this finding, UN reporters trolled Syrian jails and detention centers in Damascus, looking to uncover compelling evidence that would confirm their suspicions. Allegations of “extermination” is derived from “material evidence as well as interviews with 621 witnesses and survivors.”
Survivors reported having been “routinely tortured and beaten”, and knew of other prisoners who “died from…severely overcrowded and unhygienic cells and [lack of] food and clean water, with many prisoners for instance forced to use their toilet as a source of drinking water.” What is most appalling about these accounts is the fact that it is the government that has murdered the majority of its detainees. Men, women, and children have been left to perish from malnutrition, forced to engage in animalistic behaviors and endure severe violence.
The report states that “survivors had detailed how their cellmates were beaten to death during interrogation or in their cell, left to die of severe injuries sustained from torture, or from unattended medical conditions.”
The rate of murder, rape, disappearances, torture, brutalization, and other egregious acts of violence and inhumane treatment of Syrians currently trapped within the borders of their home country has risen steadily since the anti-government protests in 2011, with no end in sight. According to the report, the war alone has “claimed an estimated 250,000 lives so far” while “about 4.6 million people have fled Syria” to seek resettlement, refuge, and asylum in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and European Union countries such as Germany, Greece, and Austria.
The international attention paid to the 13.5 million Syrians trapped inside Syria, awaiting aid pales in comparison to the amount of coverage and aid directed towards the refugee crisis outside of Syria. Those stuck in Syria have not received the degree of urgent assistance, human compassion, and justice they so desperately deserve.
The UN report finds that the brutal conflict in Syria is only getting darker, deadlier, and more incriminating. “Investigators suspect tens of thousands of people are detained by Syria’s government at any one time.”
The Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, and his loyal supporters, including “prison officials, their superiors throughout the hierarchy, high-ranking officials in military hospitals, and the military police corps” have subjected Syrian civilians to this inhumane treatment, and are fully aware of the massive death toll in their detention facilities. Whether they are personally responsible for the murders of Syrian civilians in their custody, or are silently complicit heads of an oppressive, inhumane, and unlawful government facility, “(they) did not take action to prevent abuse, investigate allegations, or prosecute those responsible,” the report states. What power does a leader have when there is no one left to govern? What is the end goal in a war that is on track to leave no one behind in its wake?
UN investigators request that Syria be tried for its violent actions, which violate both international human rights and humanitarian law, in the International Criminal Court; however, it is up to the five permanent members of the Security Council to hold Syria accountable.
What has brought the Security Council’s actions to a stalemate is that Russia, a permanent member to the council, is an ally to the Syrian government. They launched unexpected air strikes that, they claim, were aimed at infrastructure sites, defense facilities, and areas with a high concentration of manpower and weaponry in order to attack ISIS and terrorist targets in Syria. However, the rebel groups have accused them of occupying Syria with civilians as their target, and the United States believes that Russia is targeting non-ISIS rebels who are backed by American weaponry and training. Suppressing ISIS in Syria is of mutual interest to Russia and the United States.
The scope of Russia’s agenda is far wider than ISIS. Russia and Syria are allies because Russia wants to preserve Syria’s integrity, maintain a friendly relationship with Syria in order to keep their naval base and weapons supply, and solidify their position as a global player. The United States holds only a tactical approach to the Syrian War, while Russia is thinking tactically and strategically. Russia’s tactical strategy is to keep Bashar al-Asaad in office, test new weapons, and reduce international isolation of their country. Every stakeholder in this war has a mission they are unwilling to surrender. Russia’s actions have proven that they value the protection of personal interests within the Syrian state more than they value their responsibility toward protecting the welfare of Syrian citizens. Both Russia and China have used their power to veto the past four resolution plans the Security Council has proposed since 2011.
China has joined Russia in their efforts to veto resolutions in Syria because their general interest in supporting Russia’s actions in Syria can work to their benefit in the future. If they support Russia’s involvement in Syria now, then Russia will return the favor with other international issues in the future. Both China and Russia do not agree with the United States’ military interventions that are committed to the goal of regime change. While China sympathizes with and understands Russia’s reasons for an increased presence in Syria, they do not support the use of air strikes against the U.S. China wants political action, not military.
A China representative and Russia’s ambassador both claim that they vetoed Security Council propositions because they feel that international interference would only escalate the conflict and that the warring parties should come to some kind of peace before anyone can be held accountable.
Syrian peace talks have been underway since October of 2015. Leaders from the twenty countries within the ISSG were present at the peace talk held in Munich on February 11th and 12th. The goal of the ISSG is to stop fights within Syria in order to send in humanitarian aid. The United States is committed to putting troops on the ground in Syria to fight against ISIS, but will only do so if Saudi Arabia offers the same amount of their own troops to fight alongside the Americans. The United States believes that Russia escalated the war in Syria with air strikes that hit Syrian civilians and non-IS rebel groups, rather than ISIS members and terrorist groups.
Russia argues that putting troops on the ground in Syria could turn this civil war into a world war. Russia proposes that they develop a method to force all participant groups to negotiate. Russian leaders claim that they are committed to de-escalating conflict in Syria; however, the United States and Britain are using Russia’s ability to persuade the Syrian government to agree to the proposed cease fire plan as a test of their commitment to a de-escalation effort.
ISSG countries are willing to contribute to a cease-fire plan in Syria through air strikes, training for local police forces, and disrupting the Islamic State’s finances. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, stated that they will attempt to get better supplies to Syrian citizens inside the country, in order to reduce violence. Rebel groups refuse to work with these countries until they are assured that their citizens’ living conditions and quality of life will be improved. In order for a cease fire to work, everyone, including Assad, will need to agree to the plan.
The Security Council’s purpose is to maintain international peace and security. International humanitarian law states clear obligations for warring parties and the treatment of civilians involved. “Detainees must be treated humanely and protected from violence or life-threatening conditions, including from any form of torture or ill treatment. Medical care and sufficient food are to be provided.” While the Security Council has yet to achieve peace amongst opposing parties, the Syrian peace talks hope to make concrete improvements toward the living conditions for people within Syria, and to end the war.
The goal of the Syrian peace talks, held in February, is to solidify a cease fire in order to bring in humanitarian aid, which includes food, healthcare, and other supplies necessary for the survival of the Syrian people locked inside the country. The ISSG’s efforts to end the war by putting troops on the ground to fight ISIS and remove President Bashar al-Assad from power could help to free detainees from inhospitable and inhumane detention facilities.
Melissa Rodriguez studies English at the University of Connecticut.