Time for Russia and Putin to Face a Reckoning on Syria

The indiscriminate attacks by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies that are wounding and killing great numbers of civilians in Idlib Province probably could not come at a worse time. After nine years of horrifying carnage in Syria in which more than half a million civilians have been killed, it is not easy to mobilize much of an international reaction.

Neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have absorbed between 6 million and 7 million refugees from Syria. It is difficult to blame these countries when they say they cannot take any more. Also, of course, much of the world is preoccupied with the coronavirus, and does not want to hear additional bad news. In the case of the United States, which has never done much for Syrian refugees, public attention is also focused on the struggle within the Democratic Party to see who will stand for election against Donald Trump.

What is now taking place in Syria is a catastrophe. Yet in the current global circumstances, there seems virtually no prospect that anyone will do anything significant to try to mitigate the disaster. A Commission of Inquiry on Syria established by the United Nations at the outset of the conflict has comprehensively documented the disaster. Its efforts have been complemented by the reporting of intrepid non-governmental human rights investigators and by brave journalists. Some of them, like the late Marie Colvin, have paid dearly for their efforts. Many others like the physicians, nurses, and other humanitarian workers from Syria and from international relief agencies, have performed heroically in Syria. All too often, they themselves have suffered injuries and deaths.

Is there anything that can be done?

One step that could be taken now, and that might have some value in helping to prevent future calamities of this sort, would be for other governments and international institutions to adopt a punitive boycott against Russia for aiding and abetting violations committed by the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and for Russia’s own crimes against the civilian population of Syria. Such action could range from shutting President Vladimir Putin and top cronies out of major international events and institutions to imposing economic sanctions that go even beyond those that the United States and the European Union have imposed and repeatedly extended since his invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Successful Boycotts of the Past

In the 1980s, an international sports boycott of South Africa had a significant impact. When the United States Congress adopted economic sanctions in 1986 over President Ronald Reagan’s veto, that added to the pressure. It was not only that the sanctions had an impact on the South African economy. They also fostered a sense of isolation and national humiliation. The total effect helped lead to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the subsequent elections that ended apartheid.

Another case in the same era in which economic sanctions had a dramatic impact involved Poland. In that instance, the Reagan administration adopted unilateral sanctions after the government in Warsaw imposed martial law in December 1981 in an effort to crush Solidarity. Over a period of a few years, during which the sanctions were loosened and tightened in response to developments in Poland, the sanctions helped to force the Polish government into negotiations with Solidarity that brought an end to communist rule.

From the early days of the Syrian conflict, Russia under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership has provided Assad’s forces with military equipment and directly intervened in the conflict. One reason for Putin’s popularity in Russia is that his macho role in international affairs, including his backing of the Assad regime in Syria, has revived the sense that Russia is a great power.

But the evidence of Russia’s complicity in the crimes committed in the conflict is documented in the reports of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry and those of leading non-governmental human rights organizations. In its most recent report, published this month, the commission focused on events from July 1999 to January 2020 that drove another 700,000 civilians from their homes. It described a “double tap” attack on a market: after the first bombing, a second bombing when rescue workers were at the scene killed 43 civilians. Russian planes took part in that atrocity, as they did in another bombing that killed 20 civilians in a shelter. These were not military targets. Russia is as much a culprit in the crimes committed in Syria as the Assad government.

Russia also has prevented efforts to hold Syrian government forces and its own forces accountable for their crimes by using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to prevent referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A Bleak Anniversary Impending

We are now approaching the 10th anniversary of the calamitous conflict in Syria that began in 2011. Before we reach that anniversary, other governments should resolve to exclude Russia from international gatherings. Putin should not enjoy photo opportunities with other world leaders at venues such as the White House or the Elysee Palace. He should be persona non grata.

Such a boycott should be sustained until Russia allows accountability for the crimes in Syria, either by referral to the ICC or by establishment of an ad hoc U.N. tribunal along the lines of the courts the United Nations established in the 1990s to deal with the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. An ad hoc tribunal is probably a preferable approach, because dealing with the great number of crimes committed in Syria requires a concentrated effort, and because the United States has made clear its hostility to the ICC, whereas it was strongly supportive of the ad hoc tribunals which, for the most part, performed admirably. The crimes committed by all parties to the conflict should be adjudicated.

Russia made possible much of the slaughter in Syria and itself continues to commit a substantial share of the appalling crimes that take place there. It is high time for Russia to face a reckoning.

IMAGE: A picture taken on March 7, 2020 shows destruction in the village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometres southeast of the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.  (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Aryeh Neier

President Emeritus of Open Society Foundations, founder and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and former Executive Director of the ACLU.