It’s true – China, Russia, and Assad have quite the love affair. It’s no secret that Russia and China blocked the Arab League’s request to the United Nations Security Council for intervention in Syria because of their own national interests. Russia loves selling AK-47s to Bashar al-Assad. China enjoys a monopoly over Syria’s imports. But it looks like their “official” reason for vetoing the resolution turned out to be a good one: what makes anyone think that the Syrian rebels are any less guilty of war crimes than Assad? Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande want the rebels to take over Syria. Other states are not so convinced, and for good reason. To-date, all UN and Arab League attempts to monitor the gruesome conflict in Syria have failed. Without proper monitoring, it’s near impossible to figure out who’s behind every reported massacre, bombing, or other attack.
The current situation makes it extremely difficult to determine which belligerent is worse – especially now that reports claim that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is engaging in the same sort of widespread acts of torture, murder, and sexual violence as Assad’s regime. Why the sudden evening-out between warring factions? The United Nations speculates that the increase in Islamic radicalist membership in the FSA is pushing the group to extremist measures (i.e. the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IGRC) recently admitted that it was also operating in Syria).
So now what? Simply put, the world will collectively continue to do nothing. States with selfish national interests will fuel whichever warring belligerent satisfies their agendas. Or perhaps they won’t get involved at all. A regional organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could, in theory, make a case in favor of intervention by arguing that there is a threat to the peace of its member state Turkey, or that a humanitarian threat exists. But unlike Libya, Syria poses no economic or political threat to NATO and its allies. No oil, and no immediate threat to democracy, means Turkey, and civilian Syrians, will have to fend for themselves. And states, who for international humanitarian reasons, want to get involved, can’t, because it’s impossible to figure out which side is worse.
It’s also going to be difficult for “the sake of humanity” states to prosecute in the aftermath of this bloody tragedy. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), an arm of the United Nations, can’t get involved because it only accepts grievances between Member States of the United Nations. Non-state actors like the Free Syrian Army technically don’t count as a Member State. If anything, the ICJ could entertain Turkey’s complaints against Syria to make up for NATO’s lack of interest. The International Criminal Court (ICC), a product of the Rome Statute, is in the same boat as the ICJ: Syria is not a signatory to the Statute and the conflict is entirely internal. The Security Council remains tied by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, meaning that ad hoc tribunals like those setup for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia won’t be an option for Syria as long as the Permanent Members can’t agree to invoke their Chapter VII powers. And there is absolutely no chance that anyone could rely on Syria’s broken judiciary to take care of war criminals domestically.
It’s also possible that no international tribunal or international criminal case will come of this uprising at all. The world doesn’t seem to take interest in Syria the way that it did in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and East Timor. The current Syrian uprising is not the first of its kind in the country. An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people perished in February 1982 when then president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president Bashar al-Assad, launched a fierce twenty-seven-day assault on the central town to crush an Islamist revolt. Despite a bloody massacre that took over 10,000 lives within the span of a month (worse than the current uprising has in a year and a half), the international community failed to intervene on humanitarian grounds. Along with the ongoing uprising today, there now exist two counts of international nonintervention in Syria despite documented humanitarian crises.
Like father, like son? Either way, it looks to be that international law, at least in practice, just simply can’t help Syria.
Maha Kamal is a staff editor with the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy. She received her BA in International Affairs (specialization in European politics) from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2007. Maha has previously worked with numerous internationally-focused organizations, including World Denver and the Institute of International Education. She is currently enrolled in a practicum at DU Law which is working to create and finalize an evidentiary database for the Charles Taylor case at the International Criminal Court.