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International Law

Revolutions and rebellions and Syria’s paths to war and peace

Revolutions and rebellions and Syria’s paths to war and peace

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Another massacre in Syria: click  on image to view video


In less than a month, peaceful Tunisian and Egyptian protesters ousted two of the most authoritarian rulers of the Arab world. The human and economic costs: a total of about 1100 people dead (300 in Tunisia and 800 in Egypt) and some decline in economic growth. These were the dignity revolutions. In contrast, the Syrian peaceful uprising quickly turning into armed rebellion is now 22 months old with over 60,000 people (civilians, rebels, security and military officers, women and children) dead, more than 4,000,000 persons displaced from their homes, and destruction estimated at $70 billion. This is now, without doubt, an ideological/sectarian civil war. Short of a genocidal outcome, the only path to peace is that which relies on reconciliation and dialogue. There can be no preconditions because all sides have blood on their hands at this point. This reality, and the staggering numbers cataloging death and destruction might, forces all sides to reassess their previously held positions. Ideologues who wanted to bend the path of a legitimate peaceful revolution to meet their narrow political and sectarian ends can no longer ignore this reality and the state of the country. The fast emerging developments support these hypotheses.


Earlier this week, the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the National Coalition), Mouaz al-Khatib, announced that he is ready to talk directly with representatives of the Syrian regime. He insisted however, that the regime releases 160,000 detainees and renew or extend expired passports for Syrians living outside the country. Meeting on Wednesday in Cairo, some members of the National Coalition slammed al-Khatib, accusing him of straying from the Doha agreement, a document on the basis of which the National Coalition was formed.

In the light of the disagreements, one must ask: why did al-Khatib offer to hold direct talks with representatives of the regime? For answers, we must look at the recent events related to the Syrian crisis. I will highlight some of these events that could reconstitute the National Coalition or force the resignation of its current president.


1. Immediately after the formation of the National Coalition, the U.S. administration placed one of the main Syrian armed groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, on the list of terrorist organizations. The measure created a filter that limited the flow of arms into Syria. The legal implications of the label of terrorism split the opposition and tempered Saudi and Qatari enthusiasm for arming it. The categorization of the opposition into terrorist and non-terrorist groups was further enhanced by France’s intervention in Mali and the French media’s accusation of Qatar of supporting extremist groups in the Maghreb.

2. Three weeks ago, Assad gave a speech in which he called for reconciliation talks that excluded opponents he called “terrorists.” Syrian officials said this week that political opposition figures could return to Damascus for “national dialogue” and that any charges against them would be dropped. In the same speech, Assad announced plans for a reconciliation conference with opposition figures “who have not betrayed Syria.” He totally ignored plans by the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who, according to some observers, was close to bridging the gap between Russian and American plan for solving the Syrian crisis. Assad’s speech practically rendered Brahimi’s efforts irrelevant.

3. This week (on Thursday), EU foreign ministers agreed to keep in place the ban on exporting arms to the Syrian opposition. This decision was a upset to efforts by some leaders of the National Coalition who met earlier in the week (Monday and Tuesday) to ask for $500 million and arms. The meeting, which al-Khatib did not attend, failed to provide the National Coalition with any tangible support. Moreover, early last week, France’s foreign minister acknowledged that there is no indication whatsoever that Assad is about to be overthrown and he communicated this new assessment to the so-called “Friends of Syria” when representatives of about 50 countries and organizations met in Paris. Initially, the National Coalition planned to announce the formation of a government in exile during this meeting. But the lack of enthusiasm “delayed” the announcement.

4. Compared to the failed meetings in Paris and Cairo, several other international gatherings about Syria were held around the world and have produced actual results that could help the Syrian people mitigate the economic and political problems they face. One of such meetings was held in Kuwait to raise money for Syrian refugees and displaced civilians. This meeting was not political and perhaps because it was not political it was very successful. More than $1.6 billion was raised in two days. Importantly, the meeting, which was attended by representatives of many countries, including Russia and Iran, highlighted the extent of human suffering and the horror of war. Although the Syrian government was not represented, its authority was nonetheless preserved since the money that is intended to be used to help displaced Syrians inside and outside Syria will be managed by a UN agency, which will coordinate parts of its activities with the Syrian government. This fact could explain al-Khatib’s comment about expired passports. Apparently, he realized that despite France’s (and a handful of other countries’) recognition of the National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, Assad’s regime is still the only legitimate government in Syria. A second gathering was held in Geneva and it brought together about 300 representatives of the so-called “civil opposition” and international NGOs. The participants issued a declaration calling on the world community to take steps to end the violence in Syria on the basis of the International Geneva Agreement. Specifically, the participants agreed to “negotiations between the opposition and the regime to implement the International Geneva Agreement, for issuing a constitutional declaration to create a Government with full power to administrate this stage, and work to bring about fair legislature and presidential elections, under international supervision.”

5. This week, too, more shocking images of horror emerged: 80 bodies of Syrian civilians were pulled out of a river near Aleppo. The images showed more victims of summary executions. The Syrian government accused “terrorists” of kidnapping and executing civilians living in neighborhoods known for their support to Assad. The opposition groups accused the regime of the brutal killings. Only an independent investigation could determine the identity of the victims and the perpetrators. Nonetheless, regardless of the identity of those who committed this horrible crime, the images remain shocking. The horrific scene of bodies scattered along the river bank made more people realize that the agony of the Syrians is indescribable.

6. Adding to these crucial developments, a spokesperson for the National Coalition announced today (Friday) that “Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib will meet U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.” Reacting to this announcement, Lavrov’s deputy Gennady Gatilov tweeted, “Media reports about the upcoming Munich meeting… are not true.” It is not surprising that Russia would hesitate in granting al-Khatib a high profile meeting given that the latter, when he was selected to head the National Coalition, demanded that “Russia apologizes to the Syrian people.” Russian officials are unlikely to agree to a multilateral high profile meeting that includes a figure they characterized, then, as “amateur.” In other words, this proposed meeting might turn into a series of one-on-one conversations to assess the situation and suggest a path forward. It is unlikely that such a meeting, even if it were to happen, will result in a breakthrough given the gap between Russia and U.S. positions on Syria and the disagreements within the National Coalition.

Notwithstanding this public dissent, and in the light of all these important developments, it is likely that some leaders on both sides are now convinced that there must be an end to the bloodshed, suffering, and destruction. Al-Khatib might be one of them. After all, and despite being attacked by his colleagues from the National Coalition, al-Khatib appeared on an Arab television after the Cairo meeting and declared that he is master of his own decision. He said that he stands by his statement on talks with the regime. He also said that he was not pressured or enticed by anyone or any country but his stand is based on his personal concern for the lives and welfare of the Syrian people. When asked if he is acting in contravention of consensus among the leaders of the Coalition, he replied, “the Coalition members have agreed always to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Syrian people.”

Indeed, al-Khatib’s new position might be dictated by his realization that Syria could not and should not endure this horror for another 22 months. It is also possible that he finally realized that the support promised by the sponsors of the National Coalition may never materialize. In a sense, his about-face regarding talks with the regime to which he previously vowed not to talk is either an act of political maneuvering or a cry of despair. Perhaps, now, the Syrians can trust each other and rely on one another and put an end to an unwinnable civil war. Relying on the regional and world powers has proven to be a costly participation in a proxy war that is devastating the country and further pushing Syrians to the brink of sectarian and ideological war that will certainly fragment the Syrian society and destabilize the entire region.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of a number of books and articles. Opinion herein are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Free Syrian Army may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity

Free Syrian Army may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Armed opposition groups operating inside Syria may have violated international humanitarian law by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Arguably, some members of the Syrian troops may also have committed similar violations. However, the self-incriminating evidence released by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups is simply overwhelming. The evidence used in this research note is gathered from documents, images, and videos released by both parties (the FSA and the Syrian government) and not independently collected from the field.


The materials examined show deliberate acts that contravene the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and other treaties and customary laws (including classical Islamic law). The evidence is based on 12 months of monitoring websites and social media used by the Syrian warring parties. Thousands of video clips and hundreds of articles and images were examined leading to these disturbing and alarming conclusions.

Some groups affiliated with the FSA have conducted frequent raids on security forces check points and military outposts and captured soldiers and then executed them. In a number of videos, unarmed soldiers are shown with their hands tied behind their backs, gagged, and blindfolded, then shot dead execution style. Other videos show corpses of soldiers piled in trash dumps. A video released on October 3rd by the FSA group called Jabhat al-nusrah (communiqué 95) shows the bodies of 20 soldiers on the side of the road. The group identified them as “20 infidels from the troops of Assad captured and killed in Aleppo.”
      

Other videos depict armed opposition groups interrogating civilians (who bear signs of torture on their faces and bodies), accusing them of being members of the shabbihah (government supporters), and then executing them in public. These are serious violations, and are war crimes (under the Geneva Conventions, and the ICC Treaty) since they endanger protected persons (prisoners of war and the wounded and sick).


While Article 17 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that the “parties to the conflict shall endeavor to conclude local agreements for the removal [of noncombatants] from besieged or encircled areas,” overwhelming evidence emerged showing that armed groups placed civilians in harm’s way. Numerous documents show that armed groups, many of whom are from outside the city (and from other countries), have occupied residential neighborhoods in Aleppo and are endangering the lives of civilians. Some of the FSA groups laid siege to towns and bombarded them simply because in the majority of residents belonged to Shiite sects or were of Kurdish ethnicity. Armed groups occupied residential homes, and snipers used them to attack security forces. All these acts are known to cause harm to civilians and their property and can be classified as “deliberately endangering noncombatants,” which is also an egregious violation of the laws of war.

Some of the armed groups affiliated with the FSA use language that express contempt for other religious and ethnic groups, and express intent to “cleanse” Syria of non-Sunni Muslims. This basis for war violates international norms for the protection of minorities and the prohibitions on genocide.

  

It may be the case that the FSA leadership does not support such acts, but there was no evidence whatsoever that the FSA leadership or their foreign supporters intervened to stop these practices. In fact, as the New York Times reported, most of the financial and military support provided by foreign countries ends up making its way to the kind of groups that are suspected of committing these violations.


Given recent developments in the body of humanitarian laws, countries involved in support of groups involved in such activities could be liable for these crimes. The ICC Treaty for instance, holds the perpetrators as well as the enablers responsible for the same crime. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have provided financial and military aid to the FSA. If these reports are true, these states are complicit in the crimes committed by the FSA.

It is in the interest of peace and in the interest of the Syrian civilians that these unconscionable and abhorrent criminal acts stop and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. It cannot be the Syrian people’s wish or aspiration to replace a brutal authoritarian regime with a criminal, genocidal one.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Israel will not bomb Iran this year

Israel will not bomb Iran this year

I recognize that it is injudicious to make emphatic predictions like this one and it is especially impolitic to do so without access to all information. In this case however, all critical information is publicly available. The only important piece of information that we don’t know is whether or not Iran has or is close to having a nuclear bomb. But all those who are supposed to know don’t really know. The most recent estimate suggests that Iran could have the capacity, the knowledge, and the material to produce several crude nuclear bombs within one year. Similar claims were made at least five other times in the past 25 years.

Increasingly, talking about Iran as a nuclear threat is becoming an exclusive hobby for politicians. Although some of the Arab regimes feel equally threatened by a nuclear Iran, only Israel seems to emerge as the subject of this threat. Israeli leaders have made it clear that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat and that they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate that threat, including a preemptive military attack. Unexpectedly, some U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, went as far as setting a time for such an Israeli military strike: this spring. Nonetheless, here are several reasons why, in my opinion, Israel will not attack Iran this year.

ONE: If past behavior is a predictor of future actions, we know that Israel attacks other countries without announcing its intentions. Israel attacked its neighbors’ nuclear installations twice before but it never announced it beforehand. In 1981, Israel destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor without warning. In 2007, Israel was thought to have demolished a nuclear facility in the early stages of construction in an airstrike on Syria. Regarding the second attack, Israel is yet to officially take credit for the bombing. Israel has a habit of responding to any real or perceived threat by taking it out without warning as it did in 1986 when its airplanes bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunisia, again without warning. In all cases, Israel did not announce its intention let alone a timetable.


TWO: When Israel attacked the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors, the strikes did not ignite a full scale war because neither country retaliated militarily. Israel knows that attacking Iran will unleash retaliatory strikes if not a full scale war. Indeed, Israel may have the control over when to start this conflict but it does not have the ability to control when the ensuing conflict ends. This in and of itself makes an attack on Iran like no other attack and Israeli leaders cannot risk a prolonged war that could force many Jews to leave the country.

THREE: To attack Iran, Israel must fly over at least one other country before reaching Iranian airspace. Israel must prove that an attack on Iran is necessary for it to even start a conversation with Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and/or Iraq for permission to use their airspace. Out of all these four countries, Saudi Arabia is the country most eager to see Iran weakened but it is unlikely that the regime there will consent to an Israeli attack on Iran via Saudi Arabian airspace for internal political reasons.



FOUR: Without a UNSC resolution authorizing military intervention against Iran, an attack on Iran will be illegal. The events at the UNSC of last week show that China and Russia will not allow such a resolution. One of the reasons Israel did not take credits for attacking the Syrian site and the assassination of Iranian scientists is the legality of such acts. Once a precedent is established whereby countries can simply attack other sovereign nations based on perceived—not imminent—threats, the trend could easily spiral out of control and Israel will find itself victim of a practice it had started. In this particular case, Iran could invoke a strategic agreement they signed with the Syrians and use that country, Lebanon, and Iraq to retaliate with ground war, not just via long range missiles. In other words, Israel may have the initiative of starting an attack but Iran will be able to decide on launching a war and control how long such a war would last.


FIVE: Generally, only authoritarian regimes may undertake irrational acts without calculating the full ramifications. Indeed, Netanyahu, who espouses extremist views, is a person who could take such rash decisions, too. However, Israel is a state with divested powers and decisions are generally made in consultation with heads of the various governing institutions. The risks of an attack on Iran are too great to overlook by all the decision makers in Israel.


SIX: Most western leaders argue that the military solution (assuming that it is actually a solution) should be a last resort. China and Russia favor diplomatic compromise. U.S. and some European leaders favor economic sanctions. Israel wants assurances that Iran is not allowed to become a military nuclear power. Western sanctions against Iran are now at unprecedented levels and that suggests that Israel may have promised some western leaders that it would not carry a military attack as long as they keep pressuring and isolating Iran. A Military strike would not isolate Iran; it may provide it with many sympathizers.

SEVEN: Publicly at least, the only reason Iran sees Israel as an enemy is because of the latter’s unsettled dispute with the Palestinians. If the Israelis and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement, Iran will have no claim over Israel and the nuclear issue will be moot. The Arab Spring is imposing a new reality and one of the consequences of this new reality is the pressure on Palestinians to seek the input of the people and live by the results of that input. Just this week, the main Palestinian factions reached a new agreement to form a unity government. The new government will be tasked with overseeing the elections and these elections will determine the next generation of Palestinian leaders. Israel will then have an opportunity to settle the dispute with an elected Palestinian leadership or face more isolation. The Gaza War destroyed its alliance with Turkey; rejecting the new Palestinian leadership will alienate more of its discrete Arab friends such as Qatar. This is not likely scenario though unless a fair elections actually take place.

The widely accepted assumption is that a nuclear Iran will–not could or may–attack Israel. The reality is different. First, there is the nature of the weapon that renders it useless since, once a nuclear weapon explodes in that narrow strip of land, it will not discriminate between a Jew and a Muslim. Given that Shiite Muslims are a stone’s throw away from Israel’s northern border, Iran is unlikely to use such a weapon. Second, the Iranian hostility towards Israel is rooted in the same premise of Muslims’ hostility towards Israel and that is the dispute over Palestinian statehood. So there is no special case that makes Iran more hostile than the Saudis for example. So the problem is more about geopolitics and less about ideology or religion. In the end, the Iran-Israel conflict is not any different from the regional conflict originating from the colonial era. In that context, Israel’s problems will not be solved with the elimination of the so-called Iranian threat. It must deal with the problem in its regional and global dimensions. The fact remains that, after loosing Turkey and Egypt and possibly soon Jordan as friendly nations, Israel is more isolated that Iran in the region. Will it bomb all these unfriendly nations to submission one after another, too, after bombing Iran and surviving the aftermath? 
For these and many other reasons, the world will continue to resist Israel’s call to attack Iran without actual progress in solving the Palestinian matter.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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