North Africa, West Asia

The utter failure of the international community to protect civilians in Syria

The Syrian people need an immediate no-fly zone, and for the alternatives to IS/Da'esh and Assad to be taken seriously.

Josepha Ivanka Wessels
26 June 2015

A water collection point in Atmeh refugee camp, Syria. Image: J.I.Wessels. All rights reserved.

On 14 June, thousands of panicking Syrian civilians pushed themselves through a narrow fence opening at the northern Syrian border crossing of Tel Abyad-Akcakale, fleeing the heavy fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish YPG on one side and the Islamic State (IS or Da’esh) on the other. The town of Tel Abyad is strategically located; it is the closest border crossing to Raqqa, a rural city that is an IS/Da’esh stronghold and self-appointed central city of the so-called Islamic State.

These Syrian civilians were wedged between this and the Turkish border, which was initially kept tightly closed by the Turkish authorities and IS/Da’esh. These people had absolutely nowhere to go. After a while, IS/Da’esh jihadists arrived at the border fence to push the Syrian refugees back to Tel Abyad. Knowing that it would mean death if someone tried to flee the Islamic State, naturally people started to panic.

The Turkish award winning photojournalist, Bulent Kilic, wrote a deeply impressive report on what happened afterwards and his exceptional photographs show the deep fear and sheer desperation on the faces of Syrians fleeing war and repression. Bulent said that in the four years he has been photographing refugees on the Syria-Turkey border, he had never seen anything like this.

The Tel Abyad border crossing is now again under the control of the Syrian secular opposition. The Kurdish and Free Syrian Army flags are both flying in the town. It is a small but significant victory for those fighting IS/Da’esh and the Assad regime, but the end of the Syrian war is nowhere near. Indeed, the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest of our time and the international community keeps failing to protect Syrian civilians.

The 7th of April this year was a global day of solidarity with Syria. #PlanetSyria, an initiative by a group of non-violent Syrian activists, gathered an outpouring of solidarity messages from around the world. I added my bit by posting a clip from the footage that I recorded in 2014, during my trip through Aleppo province, when I saw for myself the aftermath of the Assad regime’s indiscriminate aerial bombardments on civilian areas.

The initiative #PlanetSyria aims to gather support to create a no-fly zone and give Syrians a sense that they are not alone. Nowadays, Syrian activists feel very much abandoned by the international community, and that it has utterly failed to protect civilians in Syria. According to the United Nations, four years into the Syrian uprising, at least 220,000 people have been killed, over 8 million made refugees and more than 14 million children directly affected. That is the situation today.

In 2012, I wrote in my blog that “Bab el Hara 2.0″, the famous Syrian Ramadan soap series about the uprising against French colonialism, would be made real, with real blood and real bodies, and the world has both watched this happen and turned its back on the Syrians. With many others back then, I argued for no-fly zone protection and many more UN observers than the lousy 300 unarmed observers that were sent on a charade of a mission.

None of that has happened. The deadlock due to UNSC veto strategies protracted the conflict and the voids were filled with jihadists from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Libya, Iraq and Europe—but also Syrian jihadists who happen to have been released by the Assad regime from Saidnaya prison in 2011. Jihadists have kidnapped many civil society activists, like peace activist Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and human rights defender Razan Zeitounah, founder of the Syrian Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which monitors human rights abuses.

I watch the Syrian war unfold almost daily; I have a growing group of Syrian friends arriving now here in Sweden; I communicate with friends in Syria from Aleppo, Damascus, Raqqa, friends who live either under the control of the FSA, the Kurds, IS/Da’esh or the Assad regime. Last year, I went back to Aleppo province, a place where I had spent five years of my life as an anthropologist. I saw that Syrians maintain their strength and warmth, but the people and country are deeply traumatised and broken.

I visited Atmeh refugee camp and there I realised this humanitarian disaster has become worse than Darfur. It hurt to leave Syria again and realise there is no end in sight for them. We have shipped hundreds of kilos of clothes and fluffy toys from Sweden to Syrian refugees over the past years, and have helped several Syrians to come to Sweden. I get weekly WhatsApp messages, Viber and Skype updates from friends inside Syria about barrel bombs, kidnappings, air raids, shellings, water and electricity cuts. The war has almost become “normal” for them…and for me. Friendships have been strained or broken. Families are divided. It is utterly unsettling. But I will not lose hope that someday, it will become better.

Assad still in his seat

The Assad regime is still in place and the international community has failed to protect Syrian civilians. The FSA controls parts of Syria, Kurdish areas are under attack, IS/Da’esh jihadists and extremist groups like Jabhat al Nusra have filled the voids to Assad’s advantage, controlling around one-third of the country. Assad uses them to justify the regime’s mass-murder campaigns in other parts of Syria. Yes, these jihadists are brutal murderers and should be fought, but the biggest perpetrator of murder and war crimes inside Syria however is still the Assad regime.

This is illustrated by Syria Campaign’s infographic comparing numbers of civilians killed by rebels, ISIS, and the regime, which was a reply to Bashar al-Assad’s brazen reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, saying, “we are against the killing of innocent people everywhere”. If any of these war criminals in Syria ever arrive at the ICC, this is going to be the trial of the century.

The UN in New York recently opened an exhibition of graphic pictures taken by a defected mystery officer called “Caesar”. These atrocities still happen in the dark dungeons of Assad, in dungeons that IS/Da’esh jihadists took over from the regime. The human suffering they both inflict on Syrian civilians is the same; brutal violence, torture and mass murder.

The air raids stop when Assad wants them to stop; until then he has crossed the red lines and received the green light to do whatever he wants to keep his seat and kill the Syrian people—as long as it’s not with the chemical weapons that were originally meant for Israel. The chemical weapons deal with the Assad regime has now emerged and has the support of the United States, Russia and unsurprisingly, Israel, according to the book Ally by Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.

“Bashar or we will burn the country” has been Assad supporters’ slogan from the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Critics say that the opposition failed to win over urban businessmen and engage them in the Syrian uprising. Winning over the merchants of Aleppo would have been nice, but early on, Assad made sure that the merchants in Damascus and Aleppo were in fear of losing their business. Then, he accused Turkey of instigating the violence and of moving factories from Aleppo to Turkey.

Some politicians and critics say Iran should be involved in a political solution. But with its active participation in the atrocities in Syria, with boots on the ground and with a general like Qassem Suleymani in charge of their military interventions in Syria and Iraq, there is no realistic option for Iran to play a stabilising role —it has already proven to have a destabilising role.

The Syrian war will not stop as long as Assad is in power; moreover, if Assad goes, Abu Bakr Baghdadi would fade away, being unable to sell oil and sustain ISIS. Both the Assad regime and IS/Da’esh have been in a rather strange, mutually beneficial financial relationship, with the latter selling oil to the Assad regime and making black market deals. But as long as the UNSC board is still split and veto rights are being used to further the strategic interests of the world’s most powerful weapon-dealing countries, people will have to choose between “Pax Putin” or “Pax Obama”.

Likewise, we cannot expect any sizeable assistance or constructive diplomacy from dictatorial Gulf countries. To show their commitment to and solidarity with the Syrian people, wealthy Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have taken none of the four million Syrian refugees since 2011. It is utterly shameful that these warmongering countries together with Iran have no empathy whatsoever towards Syrians, and that the rest of the world watches these countries destroy the region with their proxy wars in Iraq, Syria or Yemen.


Atmeh refugee camp, Syria. Image: J.I. Wessels. All rights reserved.

To reiterate: the only hope for Syrians is for European countries to take a strong political stand and demand an immediate no-fly zone over the country so civilians can finally have some sense of peace and security. However, with the American-led international coalition regularly bombing IS/Da’esh areas inside Syria, this is not on the horizon.

This means that the Assad regime can continue bombing opposition areas with countless civilian casualties. And with the latest nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom and Germany), there will be no strong political will to actively protect Syrian civilians by calling for an immediate no-fly zone.

Syria is Iran’s playground now. If sanctions are completely lifted, Iran’s nuclear deal opens up the country to the global energy markets, with crude oil being responsible for 72 percent of its total export, and US and European companies lining up to make some good oil and gas deals with Iran. In 2013, Iran's oil minister wanted companies such as Shell, Statoil, Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips to develop its oil and gas field. There is no reason for this wish not to be fulfilled if the sanctions are lifted completely.

With Iran satisfied to be ‘back in business’, and IS/Da’esh as an ideal common enemy in the global war on terror, uniting the US and Iran gains priority over protecting Syrian civilians from Assad’s war. Hence a no-fly zone would not be of major concern for the US.

The US would prefer to continue the coalition bombings in seeming coordination with the Assad regime. Funding to the Syrian opposition and transitional government in Turkey has also been cut over the past months. The fact that US-backed Saudi-Arabian bombing campaigns in Yemen has created tensions between Iran and the US, it does not seem to have any effect on their bombing campaigns in Syria.

Bombing campaigns seem to be the trend in the Middle East, whether it is Israel bombing Gaza, Saudi-Arabia bombing Yemen or Assad dropping barrel bombs, which he conveniently denies having in his latest television interview with CBS News. First he states that his government is not killing civilians: "This is not realistic and this is against our interests as a government to kill the people. What do we get? What is the benefit of killing people?" Later in the interview he denies having barrel bombs but does admit to having bombs: "No, no. There’s no such a thing called barrel bombs. We have bombs. And any bomb is about killing". Spot the paradox.

All bombing campaigns, whether by the Syrian regime, Israel, Saudi-Arabia, Iran, the US or Islamic jihadists create civilian casualties. It is quite simple: bombing the hell out of people does not bring peace. It oppresses, brings fear, the silence of death, grief and destruction. How difficult is that to understand?

Syria is not a dichotomy

Critics say the opposition has not yet offered a proper alternative to the Assad regime. Indeed the opposition is fragmented but Syrian revolutionaries, activists, intellectuals, filmmakers and scholars in Syria are still active and are building institutions in the liberated areas where there is no Assad regime and no IS/Da’esh. The FSA together with the Kurdish YPG are fighting both IS/Da’esh and the Assad regime. The military successes this Syrian coalition had in Afrin and Aleppo province, and the latest capture of Tel Abyad, prove they can defeat IS/Da’esh together very effectively on the ground.

Revolutions are rarely orderly, otherwise they would not be revolutions; they need a major paradigm shift and those naturally come with chaos. Syria is not a dichotomy with either Jabhat al Nusra or IS/Da’esh on one side and the Assad regime on the other. Both are oppressors and the Assadists are the worst—that is a fact.

It is far too simplistic and absolutely unfair to equate the secular and diverse opposition with JN/Da’esh or Sunni sectarianism and then call the opposition genocidal with a binary approach that only works to Assad’s advantage. There is a third way that is constantly overlooked: to quote Desmond Tutu, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressors”.

There are many Syrian opposition members and groups who have distanced themselves completely from jihadi brutality and any kind of sectarian kidnappings and killings. The question is, who is going to convince the likes of Assad, jihadi extremists, IS/Da’esh, Hassan Nasrallah, Qassem Suleimani that the gun will not solve this? The regime has made perfectly clear that it will not accept being entangled in a transition of power. It certainly will not be willing to be steered away from the Baath.

IS/Da’esh is entrenching itself day-by-day, brainwashing Syrian children. Religious messianism is the most challenging security threat to the wider Middle East, in the form of a self-fullfilling prophecy that sustains a perpetual state of war. As Hezbollah, ISIS/Da’esh and the Assad regime regularly justify their war crimes and brutal violence as a fight against US imperialism and Zionism, I fail to see how their acts of killing, and bombing, the slaughtering of Syrian and Palestinian civilians inside Syria on an industrial scale, will help them reach these objectives.

Assad’s killing dungeons

In my current postdoc research at Copenhagen University, I work with non-violent Syrian video activists from Aleppo and Raqqa and I also to investigate how video can help in collecting evidence that could be used in future tribunals against war crimes. The 55,000 pictures brought to the US by ‘Caesar’ are an incredibly rich body of evidence.

In the pictures that are now under investigation in the US, they find Syrians from all backgrounds, including Alawite, Armenians, Christians, Palestinians. The Assad regime is not selective in who it kills—anyone who is against the regime and does not support Assad. I suspect minorities got the harshest treatment.

Most of the torture techniques used by the Assad regime are the brainchild of the notorious Nazi, Alois Brunner, who died in Syria. Alois Brunner lived an undisturbed life under the wings of Assad, using the pseudonym Georg Fischer. European fascists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis adore Assad.

Because of the on-going atrocities in Assad’s dark dungeons, his barrel bombs, his responsibility for the majority of killings, for the current humanitarian situation in Syria, because he nurtured jihadists in his jails and contributed to the rise of Da’esh and now sustains their income by buying oil from them, it is important we do not keep quiet and let him off the hook.

Global solidarity with Syrians

At the end of March this year there was a surge in global solidarity with Syrians, when ISIS terrorists took over the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, but the misery of Yarmouk was not something new. There have been 2875 documented Palestinian deaths in Syria since 2011, the Assad regime is denying entry to aid workers, attacking Yarmouk with regular aerial bombardments. People are fleeing, and the violence and starvation caused by the Syrian Army’s long-term siege has shrunk the population from the 150,000 Palestinians that lived in Yarmouk before 2011 to 20,000 over the last three years.


Displaced Syrian children inside Syria. Image: J.I.Wessels. All rights reserved.

These Palestinians have been trapped for three years, starved and bombed; yet only now when ISIS attacks Yarmouk people suddenly begin to express “solidarity” with them. Where were these “concerned” people before? It now emerges that the Assad regime practically led the hundreds of IS/Da’esh fighters through the holes in the siege maze to enter Yarmouk, as Lina Khatib claims in her latest op-ed. The 20,000 remaining residents of Yarmouk are still utterly trapped between Assad forces and IS/Da’esh jihadists, beheadings have already been carried out, and dozens of barrel bombs have been dropped on the camp. Yarmouk needs a corridor now and Syria an immediate countrywide no-fly zone.

The most recent developments on the Tel Abyad-Akcakale border remind us again of the utter entrapment of Syrian civilians, the overwhelming humanitarian disaster in Syria and the need for global solidarity and immediate direct action to stop the violence and install a no-fly zone.

Occasionally, there is a glimpse of some kind of global solidarity with Syria. The capture last month by IS/Da’esh of the ancient city of Palmyra, a favourite tourist attraction in the Syrian desert, caused a global media outcry for the protection of “our universal heritage”. However instead of the ancient ruins, the first thing that IS/Da’esh destroyed in Palmyra was the notorious Tadmor prison, explosives and all. No traces or evidence has been left in Tadmor to indict Assad and the Syrian regime of crimes against humanity here. How very smart.

This week, several aerial bombardments by the Syrian regime’s army have severely damaged a wall near the Temple of Bel in the ancient city of Palmyra—there has been no global outcry yet.

Today, it is crystal clear that the international community has utterly failed Syria and the Syrians. The international community should act now to prevent a slide into the ever-deeper abyss in which Syria finds itself. Freedom and safety for the Syrians is freedom and safety for all of us. It is my deepest hope that the beautiful Syrian children I met on my Syria trip last year will grow up safely, one day in a free Syria without repression. They deserve it.

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