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USIP’s Scott Lasensky and Lawrence Woocher discuss the growing concerns over crimes against humanity being committed in Syria.

July 25, 2011

Beginning in March, a popular uprising has swept through Syria, one of many political upheavals across the Arab world. The uprising is by far the most serious popular challenge to 50 years of authoritarian rule in Syria. On July 22, two senior U.N. advisers, Edward Luck and Francis Deng, announced that “the scale and gravity of the violations indicate a serious possibility that crimes against humanity may have been committed and continue to be committed in Syria.”

USIP experts Scott Lasensky and Lawrence Woocher take a closer look.

Have mass atrocities been committed in Syria? What’s the threat of even greater violence against civilians?

By all indications, the Syrian government has committed heinous acts of violence against unarmed protestors—including women, children and the elderly—since the outbreak of a popular uprising this spring. Incidents of violence and repression against children have had a particularly galvanizing effect on the popular protests.

It is widely believed that at least 1,500 Syrians have been killed and many more have been injured since the popular uprising began in mid-March. These acts of mass violence represent a systematic campaign by the state. There are also credible reports that dozens of Syrian security forces have been killed, though the circumstances surrounding these killings—in particular the deaths in the northern border town of Jisr al-Shughour remain murky. The government claims they were killed by armed protestors, though independent reports point to the possibility that the security forces themselves killed dozens of their own personnel who refused to fire on civilians.

The term “mass atrocities” is generally regarded as a class of crimes meriting special international attention, including genocide, crimes against humanity and certain war crimes. Although access to the country remains severely limited, there are sufficient number of credible reports to suggest that mass atrocities have been committed by the Syrian state against its own citizens.

It is not the first time such acts have occurred in Syria. In the early 1980s, responding to a serious challenge from Islamists, the Syrian regime—under Hafez al-Assad—launched a major crackdown involving mass arrests, widespread torture and an assault on the city of Hama that reportedly killed tens of thousands of Syrians. The scale of the killings this year have yet to reach those levels, but unlike 30 years ago, information is getting out in real time and the international community has begun to mobilize to stop the killings.

The threat of greater violence is real and imminent. The regime certainly has the capability to carry out further acts of mass violence and repression, and the actions of the past four months suggest that it has the will to do so. The hope is that through a mix of sanctions, concerted condemnations, and even the threat of international criminal proceedings the regime might be convinced to pull back its security forces and allow peaceful protests to continue—thus preventing further atrocities. Though this strategy carries risks as well and could lead the regime to escalate out of desperation.

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What has been the international response to the killings and violence in Syria?

The uprising in Syria and the government’s use of mass violence against largely unarmed civilians has galvanized some segments of the international community. In late April, the United States organized a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council at which the Syrian government was roundly condemned. The meeting, which the Syrian government had tried to undermine, also led to a majority vote in support of a follow-on investigation. The Syrian government initially refused to grant access to the U.N. investigators—in fact, the government refused entry to nearly all nongovernmental organizations and relief organizations, including the Red Cross, only recently relenting with an offer for limited access.

The investigation has moved slowly, largely due to the Syrian government’s repeated refusal to cooperate, though it has started its work by collecting testimonies and reports from the field. In June, a fact-finding team was sent to Turkey, where thousands of Syrians have fled and remain in several refugee camps along the border.

On their own, numerous countries have condemned the Syrian government and its leaders. Turkish leaders have called the Syrian government’s actions “savage,” though they have maintained a high-level dialogue through much of the crisis.

The United States has repeatedly condemned the killings. President Barack Obama has approved two rounds of targeted financial sanctions. Moreover, a recent visit by U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to Hama—where significant killings have taken place---appeared as an act of solidarity with Syrian protestors. The French ambassador made a similar visit, apparently prompting the regime to organize violent attacks against both countries’ embassies in Damascus.

The Europeans have also tried to organize action in the U.N. Security Council against Syria, but this move has been blocked by Russia and China (though Russia has sent mixed signals, including publicizing a recent meeting in Moscow with Syrian opposition figures). Not all governments condemn the violence. Iran, the Assad regime’s longtime regional ally, has reportedly offered advice and shared technical capabilities designed to put down the uprising.

International and Arab human rights organizations have universally and vehemently condemned the violence perpetrated by Syrian security forces. Human Rights Watch has said the violence in Deraa amounted to “crimes against humanity” and called on the “Syrian government (to) take immediate steps to halt the excessive use of lethal force by security forces” and the United Nations Security Council to “impose sanctions and press Syria for accountability and, if it doesn't respond adequately, refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” At a late May meeting of the UNHRC, a coalition of Arab human rights organizations called for greater international action in response to the Syrian government committing “gross and systematic violations against its population, with security forces using live ammunition to kill peaceful protestors.”

Washington and its allies seem to have ruled out more intensive intervention, including concerted military action, for fear that it would be counterproductive. Many Syrian human rights activists, although generally supportive of international efforts to date, continue to call for Bashar Assad to leave office and for the U.N. Security Council to take direct action against regime figures responsible for the atrocities.

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Madeleine Albright, who served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, has called for referring this case to the International Criminal Court (ICC). What would it take for that to happen---and are there other international or regional institutions that could play a role in ending the violence and bringing the perpetrators to justice?

Since Syria is not a state party to the ICC, the only way the ICC could gain jurisdiction is via referral by the U.N. Security Council. This is how the ICC became involved in the situations in Libya and Sudan, for example. In the Syria case, however, the Security Council has remained silent, failing to reach agreement on a draft resolution tabled by the Europeans that stops far short of a referral to the ICC. Unless something significant changes in the Council dynamics—specifically relating to China and Russia’s concerns about Council action against Syria—the chances of an ICC investigation are remote.

Regional organizations, such as the Arab League, could prove influential, though key Arab players are divided and in disarray due to the wider political tumult sweeping the region. The head of the Arab League, former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, disappointed many when he made statements recently defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against criticism from Washington that Assad had lost “legitimacy.”

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