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The use of armed force in Syria: getting from bad to worse?

Submitted by on 15/04/2017 – 8:19 pm4 Comments

Background

* A lot of the background information used below is taken from the BBC Syria timeline profile. The post has been amended to portray better the cause for the beginning of the conflict in Syria.

A lot has been written about the armed conflict in Syria in international law blogs including Ejil:Talk, Opinio Juris and Just Security, especially after the US attack deploying 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian government military base. This military action was taken as a response against an alleged attack with chemical weapons by Syrian government forces against civilians at Khan Sheikhoun which killed 87 persons.

The conflict in Syria has entered its 7th year. According to UNOCHA, about 13,5 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, about 5 million have fled the country, and 6,3 million have been internally displaced because of the violence. Most recently, on 5 April 2017, the European Union, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, the United Kingdom and the United Nations co-chaired the Brussels Conference on ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region’ where 6 billion USD were pledged to support Syria and the region.  For more details see Brussels Conference April 2017.

In this short post I will deal briefly with three issues, first, who is using force in Syria, second, to what ends, and third, what are the consequences for the prospects of achieving peace in Syria.

Who is using force in Syria

Before the conflict began, many Syrians complained about high unemployment, widespread corruption, a lack of political freedom and State repression under President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000. Peaceful protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, was killed after having been brutally tortured (for more details see Aljazera). The Syrian government security forces shoot dead protestors in the southern city of Deraa, triggering violent unrest that steadily spread nationwide over the following months. President Assad announced conciliatory measures, releasing dozens of political prisoners, dismissing government, and lifting a 48-year-old state of emergency. However, things were to take a turn for worse, much worse. The conflict escalated, and by December 2012 the US, Britain, France, Turkey and Gulf States formally recognized the opposition National Coalition as the “legitimate representative” of Syrian people. In the course of 2013 there was a rise in power of Islamist groups and by June 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (referred to as ISIS, IS, or Daesh) declared a “caliphate” in territory stretching from Aleppo to eastern Iraqi province of Diyala (see among others How Isis came to be).

A number of Western and regional States have been providing military and other support to the Syrian opposition since 2011. Iran and the Hezbollah militia (Lebanon) have been supporting the Assad government throughout. Since September 2015 the Russian Federation has provided support to the Syrian government. From September 2014 the US (and five Arab countries) have launched air strikes against Islamic State around Aleppo and Raqqa. So, there are a number of conflicts going on in Syria (for a detailed discussion see Gill’s Classifying the Conflict in Syria). Simply put, there is a NIAC between the Syrian government armed forces, the Syrian opposition armed forces, and the IS armed forces; a NIAC between the US (and a number of other countries) and the IS armed forces; and an IAC between the US and Syria, after the recent attack by the US armed forces on the Syrian military base.

What is this conflict about?

Can this conflict be characterized, to borrow the words of former US State Secretary Condoleezza Rice (said in a different context), as ‘the birth pangs of a new Middle East’? Currently, the Middle East is plagued by high-intensity armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (see among others The War Report 2016). Is this another conflict that needed to be fought as the region readjusts the power-balance between the Shia and Sunni governments and the population in the different countries demands more freedoms and better governance? The first two special envoys of the UN Secretary-General entrusted with finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict have openly expressed their frustration at the lack of progress with the peace talks process in Geneva. Kofi Annan resigned in 2012 lamenting growing militarization and a lack of unity among world powers, and the UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi resigned in 2014. The current special UN envoy is Staffan de Mistura and despite several rounds of talks a solution still seems beyond reach.

Consequences for the end-game: achieving peace in Syria

I still remember quite vividly a colleague speaking at the joint ASIL-ILA conference in Washington DC in April 2014, stating that there might be no answers and no quick end to the conflict in Syria. At that time I was quite surprised to hear such a gloomy assessment, expecting that most likely Assad would be deposed soon. Three years after, with the conflict still going on and no real end in sight, it seems he was right. And, as long as the US and Russia have dug their heels in and insist on two different solutions, not much will change in the short run.

The US was in violation of the UN Charter and international law on the use of force when it launched an attack against the Syrian government military base. Despite its hefty price tag, whether this attack will dissuade the Syrian government forces, or non-State armed groups from using chemical weapons remains doubtful.

The insistence of the US administration and some other States on deposing Assad at all costs seems inexplicable and its moral foundation is also shaky, if one adopts a longer time perspective, and looks at US relations with authoritarian regimes in other States in the region and beyond. This is not to say that Assad does not carry his part of responsibility for the serious international crimes that have taken place in Syria and that he should be put on trial. That said, there is enough blame to go around for the catastrophic situation in which the Syrian people find themselves. In another post I will try to address the use of force in Syria, as an option to bring the conflict to an end.

Last 5 posts by Professor Gentian Zyberi