Syria’s Civil War Has Become a Genocide

By Chip Carey

An attack on Syrian military sites to punish the al-Assad regime for using chemical weapons may be motivated by an attempt to preserve the credibility of various parties, including the United States, its president, the rule of international law and the international community. However, the United States does not abide by that very same treaty it is imposing, which not only forbids the use of chemical weapons, but also the stockpiling of said weapons. Syria’s abominable use of chemical weapons violates international law and cultural norms, placing many Middle East countries in precarious states.

Putting aside palpable U.S. double standards on the issue, it is imperative to consider how exactly the international community defines the Syrian crisis. In close analysis, it becomes clear the crisis in Syria is not solely about the use of chemical weapons, but how the targeted use of these weapons falls under the category of genocide. 

In July 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria estimated that 100,000 have died in the Syrian war over the past two years, with the number of deaths rising since armed resistance against the Bashar Al-Assad regime began. While one could point to the fact that the opposition is now arguably led by al-Qaida-linked forces, the armed opposition, both pro- and anti-U.S. forces, have largely targeted Syrian soldiers.

By contrast, the regime has killed about half of those who have died, the vast majority of them non-combatant civilians. This is not just a civil war, this is genocide because non-combatants comprising the ethno-religious Sunni majority, are being systematically killed. Genocide is not a numbers game, but a crime of intent. The regime is attempting, through state terror, to eliminate a part of the Sunni population, rather than primarily fighting the armed rebels.

The Commission of Inquiry concluded, 

“Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. Many of these crimes were perpetrated as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations and constitute crimes against humanity. War crimes and gross violations of international human rights law – including summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, unlawful attack, attacking protected objects, and pillaging and destruction of property – have also been committed…The violations and abuses committed by anti-government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia… Government forces consistently transgressed the fundamental principle of the laws of war that they must, at all times, distinguish between civilian and military objectives.”

The report concluded that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity as well as war crimes. However, the facts in this and other reports speak to an even worse crime, genocide.

While the definition of genocide can be debated technically, politically and legally, the Genocide Convention makes clear that the crimes committed in Syria are in fact considered genocide. Under Article Two of the Convention, “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group;(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” 

Certainly, the chemical weapons attack alone constitutes an act of genocide, as defined by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia court decisions. The Sunnis have been deliberately targeted and destroyed by the Alawite dictatorship, an offshoot of the Shi’a sect of Islam. As such, a Shi’a oriented minority is mass murdering another group. Destroying a religious group is genocide unless they are combatants. The regime is fighting the rebels to be sure, but, as in most known genocides, killing civilians in much larger numbers.

According to the Journal of Genocide Research, most known genocides have occurred during war, often as part of counter-insurgencies. (The Holocaust is unique in not fitting this pattern).  This is not to excuse genocide, but to explain that under cover of war and many combatant deaths, one can miss what is happening until it is too late.

Many interviews in recent weeks argue for U.S. non-intervention. In a recent interview on PBS Newshour, Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson argued against any armed intervention citing that it is not the responsibility of the U.S.; it is costly, unpredictable, and diverts attention from pressing budgetary deadlines that could “bring down” the U.S. government.

When asked, “Is there ever a case where you could make the case for military action by the U.S.?” Congressman Grayson replied, “Yes, genocide. And in that case, there would be enormous international reaction and enormous international support.”

The interview went on as if that answer was self-evident, that if indeed Syria was in the midst of genocide, military action would be required. The only problem with this logic is that Syria’s regime has in fact committed the crime of genocide for at least a year. The regime has the intent to destroy a part its population, its Sunni civilian population. It is not the number of Sunnis killed, but the targeting of civilians in opposition strongholds so that the population cannot support the rebels and is terrorized into submission.

Nearly 100,000 Sunnis have been destroyed by the Assad regime to date. There is no magic number of deaths to categorize genocide. The intent behind the Syrian genocide is manifested not only by the act itself, deliberate destruction of Sunni non-combatant civilians.  

The current genocide in Syria is comparable to those of Bosnia and Rwanda approximately two decades ago, or East Pakistan, East Timor or Armenia. In fact, it is comparable to all the cases that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, wrote about in her book, A Problem from Hell, which described U.S. inaction in all of these cases.  Upwards of 50,000 Sunni civilians is indeed a large percentage of the Syrian population of 22 million, and the UN estimates that 5,000 Syrians are dying each month now. The point is that if there is a moral claim in the Syrian crisis, whether genocide or not, action to stop the mass killing is required. 

Avoiding use of the “G-Word” is a calculated decision that can prove to be a detrimental one. Just as her predecessor Susan Rice urged President Clinton to avoid the “G-Word” when speaking of Rwanda in 1994, it appears Ambassador Power can be instructed to avoid the term as well. The fact that the Clinton administration never recognized, legally or politically, the Bosnian or Rwandan as genocide was no accident. The U.S. did not see preventing genocide as a U.S. national interest at the time, particularly after the “Blackhawk Down” incident in Somalia in October 1993, when 18 U.S. servicemen were killed. This led to the so-called “CNN effect,” where the U.S. decided to withdraw quickly and cancel the U.S.-Canadian peacekeeping mission in Haiti a week later.

There is no getting around the fact that President Clinton presided over two genocides, of which Rwanda,he admitted in his autobiography, was the greatest mistake of his presidency.  During the genocide in Bosnia, about 200,000 died, the large majority of which were Bosnian Muslims. Clinton almost presided over a third genocide, in Kosovo, against Kosovar Albanian Muslims and Christians. Under remarkably  similar circumstances, Clinton decided to ignore a veto-deadlocked Security Council and attacked the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia).  

While predictable, the international community’s failure to prevent the Bosnian genocide was not morally or legally justified.  In fact, it violated international law. Various cases from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (such as the Krstić, and Popović et al.) established that criminal acts of genocide occurred in Bosnia, most famously at Screbrenica. The judgment of the International Court of Justice (Bosnia v. Serbia, 2007) also established that genocide occurred in Bosnia, with Serbia guilty of failing to prevent the genocide (though not guilty of direct collaboration). 

Since the 1948 Genocide Convention, there have been recognized genocides probably with fewer deaths absolutely or relatively than in Syria: Indonesia in East Timor and Aceh, West Pakistan in East Pakistan, Burundi, Uganda, Nigeria in Biafra, Iraq in Iranian Kurdistan, Sudan in Darfur, to name a few.  Even if most genocides have been recognized as “requiring” half a million deaths, one can always argue that a concept should not be defined by real world discourse, which reflects certain biases. The crux of the legal definition of genocide is "a part of a people." 

Even if Syria were not called a genocide, so that legally and politically, the intervention would not be mandated, framing an intervention in terms of stopping mass killing means that there is an established legal basis for humanitarian intervention. The Genocide Convention, which the U.S. and Syria have ratified, requires state parties to act towards “preventing and punishing genocide.”

There is no equivalent authorization for action necessary to stop violations in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has not signed and is not bound to follow, nor in the earlier.1925 Geneva Convention, which Syria has ratified. As a practical matter, moreover, it means that any U.S. attack on Syria needs to prevent genocide, as opposed to the much lower standard of punishing Syria for the use of chemical weapons. If the Security Council is deadlocked in veto, there still exists the legal and moral justification for the use of force to halt genocide. 

President Obama has incorrectly framed the conflict. President Obama has focused on the use of chemical weapons when other conventional "weapons of mass destruction" have been deliberately targeted against the religious majority. That is genocide. If the U.S. is going to intervene, it should not be based on the grounds of counter-terrorism, which has dominated U.S. foreign policy in recent years. A U.S. attack or series of attacks needs to be focused instead on figuring out how to halt mass tyranny, which will require “boots on the ground.” 

Moreover, the current diplomatic opening with Russia should focus on ending the civil war, which would also end the genocide. The Assad regime resorted to the heinous chemical weapons because of the military stalemate. If that regime cooperates on chemical weapons and US bombing is avoided, that will not stop the genocide. The negotiations over chemical weapons needs to coupled with a cease-fire to indicate good faith negotiations. Any short-term US bombing because Syria refuses initially to identify its chemical weapons risks making the genocide worse. 

Bombing a few munitions sites is not going to halt the humanitarian crises in Syria. Conversely, it could strengthen al-Qaida elements in the armed opposition in a gross misconstrual of U.S. goals as imperial intervention. The UN has hinted that the rebels, as well as the al-Bashar military have both used chemical weapons. So, bombing to stop chemical weapons might have the opposite of its intended effect. Bombing alone has almost never worked in history. The U.S. should either do nothing or fully commit to stopping the genocide, which is the real tragedy and danger not just to the Syrians, but to regional peace. 

Moreover, if important legal and cultural standards warrant action, then certainly the crime of all crimes should warrant as much, if not more, action. 



Henry (Chip) Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. He is co-author of the forthcoming book International Law in Moot Courts: Genocide, Torture, Habeas Corpus, Chemical Weapons and the Responsibility to Protect (Lexington Books).

[Photo courtesy of Freedom House]

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