The topic of the moment is still the ongoing tensions triggered by Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea following a hastily arranged referendum conducted under the close watch of pro-Russian militias. That crisis has diverted attention from the fact that the Syrian regime carries on using barrel bombs indiscriminately and continues to impede humanitarian access to civilians.
These ruthless actions could indicate that Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad and his close circle could not care less about international law—but their view of international norms is not as rudimentary as their brutal tactics might suggest.
The Syrian regime’s actions are contrary to UN Security Council resolution 2139 of February 22, which was toothless from the beginning thanks to Russian diplomacy and Western hesitance to become embroiled in the Syrian conflict. That resolution demanded a stop to the attacks against civilians “as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs,” which it described as “horrendous.”
The regime, as Human Rights Watch noted on Friday, continues to violate the international laws of war and to defy resolution 2139, which also demanded that “all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders.”
The Assad regime is willing to infringe every international norm and standard to hold on to power. There is the use of widespread and systematic torture, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the deployment of chemical weapons, the instrumentalization of aid as a weapon of war, and the manipulation of radicals who were once in Syria’s jails. The result is a country in ruins, the deaths of 150,000 people and counting, the world’s largest refugee crisis, an increasingly radicalized opposition, and the spillover of the war into neighboring countries. Last week’s report from the UN Secretary-General on the implementation of resolution 2139 gives a good idea of the scale of the unfolding tragedy.
Yet there seems to be an understanding within the Syrian regime about the need to combat its image as a pariah government through the language of international law. It is difficult to tell whether this understanding has been cultivated from inside the regime, or if it should be “credited” to its Russian and Iranian supporters.
Syrian foreign minister Walid Al-Mouallem’s October 2012 speech to the UN General Assembly criticized some “well-known” countries for, “under the pretext of humanitarian intervention,” interfering “in the domestic affairs of states” and imposing “unilateral economic sanctions that lack moral and legal basis.”
Russian officials have repeatedly used the rhetoric of international law to justify Russia’s positions on Syria and its support of Assad. In fact, according to Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, “Russia isn’t supporting President Bashar Al-Assad in the Syrian conflict, but only seeks adherence to international law.” These remarks are in line with the traditional Russian defense of a world order where state sovereignty is sacrosanct—a position that looks totally hypocritical after the unilateral annexation of Crimea.
In an interview with Fox News in September 2013, Assad praised Russia’s efficiency during “the last two and a half years of war” and highlighted how “they vetoed three times in the Security Council, so actually they protected Syria politically.”
Iranian officials have also alluded to international law in pro-Assad statements. Hojjatollah Souri, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, stated last year that the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria would be a blatant violation of international law.
As Assad and his supporters have referred to international law to counter and criticize the opposition’s regional and international backers, the struggling Syrian president’s instrumental manipulation of international norms has become all the more evident. Through sheer political opportunism, Assad has attempted to be recognized, even if implicitly, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
After using chemical weapons last summer, the Syrian regime struck a deal to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal to avoid the US’s threats of military retaliation. In doing so, it reversed the equation. This agreement, in which Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, played a key role, was signed under the guise of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and opened the door to “stringent verification.” In a UN statement, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed a letter from the Syrian government saying that Assad had signed a legislative decree providing for the accession of Syria to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction of 1992. The UN statement highlighted that Syrian authorities “have expressed their commitment to observe the obligations entailed by the Convention even before its entry into force for Syria.”
While the UN-sponsored Geneva II conference (part of the now-defunct Geneva process) unfolded, the death toll in Syria rose significantly as a result of the actions of pro-government forces. That did not stop Mouallem from claiming in Geneva that the Syrian war is nobody’s business but the Syrians’, ignoring the fact it has long since become a crisis of regional proportions that threatens international peace and security. Ridiculing the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012 that supported a peaceful resolution of the conflict through the formation of a transitional government, he proposed instead the regime’s own terms for a national unity government and a five-point plan that focused on the language of sovereignty and the rejection of foreign intervention on legal grounds.
During a negotiated, UN-sponsored humanitarian truce in the western Syrian city of Homs, government authorities detained more than 400 evacuees on suspicion of being linked to the rebels. It turned out that an exception had been made in the agreement for all men between the ages of 16 and 54, who could not go wherever they wished, as was the case with all other people being evacuated. Since then, the regime has only released about a hundred of them—the majority remain in custody.
The record of the Syrian regime’s meddling in Lebanon is a reminder that the Assad regime’s violations of international rules and norms with impunity is nothing new. Now, however, the regime is also discrediting international law by instrumentally exploiting every opportunity within reach to use it in its favor.