Tag Archive | "Syria"

ISIL fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria.

Uncertainty of U.S. Government Intervention over ISIS

One of the predominant issues in recent world news has been the current actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the tensions that the U.S. and Syria now face in response to those actions.  The issue is not new, especially since the ISIS group has prospered since U.S. troops left the Syria and Iraq region in 2011, but the conflict has been escalating this year to a breaking point.  This article will explain the origins of ISIS, detail the current state of affairs in Syria and Iraq, and explain the current political struggle the U.S. has in addressing this threat, including the legal implications of taking action against the group in Syria.

As background, the Islamic State in Iraq was created by Abu Ayybu al-Masri in 2006, and was originally a part of al-Queda.  The current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took over control after Abu Ayyub al-Masri was killed in 2010.  The group then absorbed another militant group in Syria in 2014 and changed their name to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in April 2013.  In February 2014, al-Queda renounced all association with ISIS in due to months of infighting, and because ISIS was considered too violent. In March, ISIS started its military campaign by first taking over the Syrian city of Raqqa, and now currently controls territory in both Iraq and Syria.  ISIS continues to terrorize parts of northern and western Iraq as well as parts of Syria.

ISIL fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows fighters from the al Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Image Source: ABC News, AP.

One of the unique tensions with ISIS is that many of their fundamental principles go beyond those held by other Muslims.  ISIS believes that all of the Muslims in the world should live under one Islamic state which shall ruled by sharia rule.  The goal for ISIS is to create its own Islamic State in the region between west and northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Their ruthless tactics have not only created tensions with Western States and Syria’s President Assad, but have also created tensions with other al-Queda jihadists groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra group who is now clashing with ISIS, and starting to fight against ISIS to slow down their progress.

Despite efforts by Jabhat al-Nursa to slow progress, ISIS has continued to expand into Iraq and Syria.  They have recently taken Mosul, Iraq’s second most populated city, as well as an oil field in Syria.  Although the ISIS’ movement across the land is of significant concern to President al-Assad, the concern that impacts the U.S. is the mass casualties and humanitarian violations that ISIS commits every time it conquers another region.  Some of the crimes included killing captured Syrian soldiers, killing Kurds in Iraq, and recently the beheading of American journalist, James Foley, which occurred in Syria.  UNICEF estimated that the ISIS in now responsible for the displacement of up to 25,000 Yazidis and the death of 40 children.  As a result of the tensions in Iraq, the U.S. has lunched airstrikes into Iraq to slow ISIS’s progress, but have yet to launch airstrikes into Syria because of the potential political and legal repercussions.

One of issues with the U.S. potentially deciding to launch airstrikes in Syria is the potential legal ramifications.  One of the issues is that Syria may not be able to fight the ISIS on their own, because their counter-attack is based only a mutual dislike of the ISIS by certain groups, like Jabhat al-Nursa.   At this point, the U.S. does not have a stated policy on how they will proceed, but some now believe that the U.S. may choose to use force for Syria.  One of the questions for an U.S. action may be whether there is a justification for use of force under international law.   Part of the justification may be that the U.S. is using the threat to come to the aid of Iraq.  Another justification would be to either use a Security Council Resolution or receive consent from Assad to use force.              Depending on the political ramifications, the U.S. may decide to use either justification.

At this point there situation appears to be at a standstill.  President Obama appears to be weighing the potential of expanding the airstrikes into Syria.  Part of the issue would be if the U.S. decides to strike that action could be considered an act of aggression against Syria.  On the other hand, if Obama decides to work with President Assad it may be considered an act of support of Assad, something which could be difficult considering the allegations the Assad has been turning a blind eye to al-Queda fighters using Syria as a base camp for training.  Regardless of what President Obama decides, this is an issue that will continue to be prevalent in world news until resolved.  The key will be resolving the issue in manner that both protects the citizens at risk and ensures that tensions between the U.S. between Syria do not rise more than that in a manner that is legally justifiable.

Katelin Wheeler is a 4L at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, and Business Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.


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demonstrations in syria in 2011

The Chemical Weapons Convention: Preventative Measures Against Horror (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third blog post in a series of three blog posts discussing how the Chemical Weapons Convention prevents the use of chemical weapons through proactive measures by prohibiting both the use of and the preparation to use chemical weapons.  The first blog post described key features of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  The second blog post compared the Chemical Weapons Convention to other sources of international law addressing chemical weapons.  This third and final blog post examines recent events in Syrian Arab Republic, as a case study, to illustrate the concepts discussed in the first and second blog posts.


Part III: Chemical Weapons and the Syrian Civil War

War is crushing the Syrian Arab Republic (“Syria”).  The Chemical Weapons Convention (“CWC”) cannot fix the all the problems in Syria, but hopefully it can fix the problem of chemical weapons.[i]  Removing such a destructive force from the arsenal of the government and preventing further use of chemical weapons on civilians would be no small achievement.  This final blog post describes the role of international law in addressing the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  First, this post summarizes the conflict in Syria to date.  Next, it describes the international reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013.  Finally, this post explains the importance of Syria’s adoption of the CWC, and examines potential obstacles from allegations of new chlorine gas attacks in Syria during April 2014.


A. Background on the Syrian Civil War

demonstrations in syria in 2011

Political demonstrations in Syria in 2011 (AFP/Ghetty Images)

The Syrian conflict started in March 2011, when government security forces fired live ammunition at protesters.  The pro-democracy protests started during the “Arab Spring,” with demonstrations against authoritarian law and corruption in the government led by president Bashar al-Assad.  By the end of 2011, a full-fledged civil war raged in Syria.  Generally, government forces are fighting to preserve the current Assad regime, and rebels are fighting to topple the Assad regime.  However, the opposition-rebel forces lack ideological cohesiveness, and “at this point, a revolt against a dictatorship has morphed into a sectarian conflict with diverse international sponsors.”[ii]  Russia and Iran support the government forces.

The rebels have various underwriters and various—sometimes incompatible—goals.  One 2013 report asserted that “the rebels” really consisted of 1,000 sub-groups, but those groups typically align themselves with one of the larger opposition groupsInfighting between rebel groups has fractured the opposition forces.  Many radicalized, non-Syrian, and sectarian motivated, fighters make up the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (“ISIS”); “al-Sham” refers to Syria, Greater Syria, or the Levant “in the context of global jihad.”   Most news sources describe ISIS as an al-Qaeda affiliate, but ISIS and al-Qaeda may have broken ties.  Reports attribute both sectarian and secular motives to the various homegrown groups of rebel fighters.  The Western-backed, Free Syrian Army (“FSA”) may provide some hope for Syrian stability, but the FSA faces challenges with fighting against al-Assad and against ISIS.  ISIS reportedly murdered an FSA commander last year.  The FSA itself is fractured.  Additionally, the Syrian National Coalition represents opposition interests during non-violent negotiations, such as the failed Geneva peace talks, and recently attempted to gain a seat in the Arab League.

The Syrian civil war includes some sectarian conflict between the ruling minority Alawites and the majority Sunni population.  Sunni Muslims make up 74% of the Syrian population, and the majority of rebel fighters.  Alawites make up just 12% of the Syrian population, but Alawites hold a disproportionate number of positions “in Syria’s security apparatus, government and military leadership” due to the Alawite al-Assad family’s control over Syria for the last forty years.  The Alawi faith shares some theological beliefs and roots with Shi’a Islam, but the Alawites broke from the Shi’ites 1,000 years ago.

Irrespective of the initial or current ideological basis for this war, its costs should not be underestimated.  More than 150,000 people have died, including 51,212 civilians.  Civilians comprise one-third of the casualties in the Syrian civil war.  According to the UNHCR, more than 2.5 million refugees fled Syria.  Humanitarian organizations and journalists accuse both the rebels and the government of various war crimes.[iii]  Some rebels—though most reports attribute this behavior to radicalized groups, such as ISIS—target civilians based on location and on religion.  Human Rights Watch reports that rebels kidnapped and murdered Alawite civilians.  ISIS also targets Christians, and in one city, reportedly charges Christian males seventeen grams of gold to guarantee their safety.  Rebels recently released two Spanish journalists after six months in captivity.

refugee camp in damascus

Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in Jan. 2014
(UNRWA—Getty Images)

The government regularly targets, kidnaps, tortures, and murders civilians.  Government forces kill women, children, and babies in  to intimidate and diminish support for the opposition.  They target airstrikes on civilians by dropping “barrel bombs” from helicopters on neighborhoods that support the rebels.  Barrel bombs—oil drums filled with shrapnel and explosives—are “devastating and indiscriminate weapons.”    More civilians than fighters have died in government airstrikes.  Government forces began blocking injured civilians from medical treatment and snatching the injured from hospital beds immediately after the protests broke out in 2011.[iv]  Government forces also kidnap, torture, and murder doctors who treat those injured within rebel held areas.  Clearly, the use of chemical weapons only represents one horror in this war.


B. International Reaction to Use of Chemical Weapons on Syrian Civilians

The international community’s response to the atrocities occurring in the Syrian civil war is generally divided.  For example, in July 2012, Russia and China vetoed a third United Nations’ (“U.N.”) measure designed to pressure al-Assad with sanctions.  Russia continues to block any measures that could result in military intervention against al-Assad.  Perhaps there is some truth to statements that social media is more useful to Syrians than the U.N. Security Council.

Similarly, the international community responded haphazardly to reports of the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians last year.  International law provided no option for preemptive measures to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  As discussed in the first post of this series, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (“OPCW”) investigators could not investigate the chemical weapons capabilities of Syria before it adopted the CWC.  As discussed in the second post of this series, no source of international law—other than the CWC—enables investigation or sanctions against a country for preparing to use chemical weapons.  Thus, until Syria ratified the CWC in 2013, under international law, nothing could be done about the reported chemical weapons stockpile held by the Syrian government since the 1970s.

After allegations of actual use of chemical weapons surfaced in Syria, the applicable international law changed.  International treaty law still provided no solution.  Syria acceded to the Geneva Protocol in 1968, but the Geneva Protocol could not protect civilians in Syria’s civil war because—as described in the second blog post of this series—the Geneva Protocol does not apply to non-international conflicts.  However, customary international law prohibits the use of chemical weapons in non-international conflict.  Under the Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, established in 1987, the U.N. Secretary-General can initiate investigations into alleged use of chemical weapons.[v]  Thus, the U.N. Secretary-General established theU.N. Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic (“U.N. Mission”) on March 21, 2013 in response to reports of chemical weapons use in Syria.[vi]  Upon request of the U.N., both the OPCW and the World Health Organization provided resources to assist the U.N. investigation.  Before the U.N. asked for the OPCW’s help, the OPCW put out this press release, which noted its concern about alleged chemical weapons use in Syria and its availability to the U.N. under the CWC’s terms.  Syria was not a party tothe CWC at that time, but the terms of the CWC require the OPCW to “put its resources at the disposal of the Secretary-General” upon a U.N. request for assistance regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons by a non-party to the CWC.[vii]

The U.N. Mission confirmed five instances of chemical weapons use in Syria in 2013 in the “Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013, [and] on a smaller scale in Jobar on 24 August 2013, Saraqeb on 29 April 2013, Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 and Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013.”[viii]  After confirming the use of chemical weapons, the U.N. initially took no position on which side used the weapons.  The final report from the U.N. Mission focused on the scientific proof for each site and the methodology used to confirm chemical weapons use. but other analysts suggested that the forensic evidence in the September 2013 report pointed to the al-Assad government.  However, in a report issued in March of 2014, U.N. investigators attributed at least some of the attacks to the government due to “the nature, quality and quantity of the agents.”

opcw inspectors in syria

OPCW inspectors in Syria (BBC)

On September 14, 2013, following the U.N. Mission’s report, a U.S.-Russian diplomatic intervention produced a chemical weapons disarmament settlement.  As part of the settlement, Syria agreed to adopt the CWC and submit to its extensive verification regime.  Presumably, the Syrian government only agreed to the disarmament to prevent unilateral U.S. military intervention, a distinct possibility before the settlement.  On September 19, 2013, the U.S. and Russia described the plan for Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament in a joint letter to the U.N.; the annex to that letter described the accelerated destruction plan for Syria and the actions the U.S. and Russia would take in the OPCW’s Executive Council to implement the plan.  Within a week, the Security Council unanimously adopted S.C. Resolution 2118, which enacted the plan and required accelerated OPCW action  to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.[ix]

If Syria fails to follow the requirements of the CWC and the OPCW, Resolution 2118 provides a clear path for U.N.-backed intervention.  If the U.N. never acts, as described in the first blog post, the CWC theoretically provides an alternative mechanism for collective action by State Parties for non-compliance with the CWC.


C. The OPCW and the CWC in Syria

The progress since Syria ratified the CWC is promising.  Syria is generally cooperating with the accelerated destruction schedule for its chemical weapons.  A team of U.N. and OPCW specialists is working together in Syria.  On October 24, 2013, Syria submitted formal initial declarations to the OPCW, in compliance with the timeline set by the Executive Council.[i]  The OPCW-U.N. team visited most of the sites declared in the initial declarations that followed Syria’s adoption of the CWC.  The team started destroying those sites with “low tech, quick and cheap” methods, including smashing equipment and filling it in with concrete.  The OPCW-U.N. Joint Mission reported the removal of half of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile in March, the removal of 72.3%, as of April 16, 2014, and the removal of 92.5%, as of April 24, 2014.  After months of progress towards the deadline for complete destruction by the end of June, recent reports call into question whether Syria will meet that deadline.

At the time of writing, the Syrian civil war rages on.  As part of the agreement in September, Syria agreed to attend peace talks with the opposition.  Unfortunately, those peace talks failed.  After Syria agreed to the disarmament deal in September 2013, many expressed concern that removing chemical weapons received too much focus.  Unfortunately, as a corollary to al-Assad’s agreeing to chemical weapons disarmament and ratification of the CWC, most serious pressure from the West has stopped.  As part of a plea for help from the West, one Syrian opposition leader said, “Assad has handed over the chemical weapons to save himself.”  France is pushing the Security Council for ICC prosecution of Syrian war crimes, despite the likely Russian veto.  Ban Ki-moon also criticizes the lack of access for aid to 9.3 million civilians.  Hopefully these issues will be addressed after Syria—again, hopefully—meets the upcoming chemical weapons disarmament deadline.


D. Conclusions and Future Concerns

Like any specialized legal system, the CWC cannot solve all the problems in this domestic conflict.  The CWC’s narrow purpose is to prevent the use and the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.  To this end, the OPCW already removed huge amounts of chemical weapons from Syria and destroyed its chemical weapons factories.  The al-Assad government agreed to intrusive OPCW monitoring.  Even if the Syrian civil war continues, the CWC provides strong, but imperfect, protection against one of the worst war atrocities.  The CWC and the OPCW will be tested by recent allegations that chemical weapons attacks occurred in Syria in April 2014.

Unfortunately, both the rebels and the government agree that at least one new chemical weapons attack recently occurred in Syria.  The rebels blame the government and the government blames the rebels for the attack, as initially occurred after the attacks in August 2013.  The rebels reportedly have pictures and a video of suggesting the government attacked a village with chlorine gas.  The government reported on state-run Syrian television that a rebel group called Nusra Front is responsible for the chlorine gas attack.

Harm from chlorine gas varies with the victim’s type of exposure to the choking agent, which was used in World War I.  Chlorine is a chemical with both prohibited and non-prohibited uses under the CWC.  Theoretically, such chemicals must be declared to the OPCW because they are subject to OPCW monitoring.  The OPCW noted that Syria made declarations about production of chemicals for non-prohibited purposes, as required by the CWC.  The OPCW has yet to make a statement about whether Syria identified the production of chlorine in any declarations.

Public statements by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., illustrate the problematic timing of these allegations.  When questioned about the new allegations, Ms. Power noted that the whole purpose of removing the chemical weapons from Syria was “to prevent further use.”  She refused to comment on U.S. reaction, but she casually mentioned “the credible threat of military force [is] on the table.”  After weeks of media reporting on the new attacks, the OPCW issued a press release on April 29, 2014, announcing the formation of a fact-finding team to investigate the new allegations.

The OPCW-U.N. team faces the possible breakdown of the disarmament plan.  The international reaction to these attacks must be carefully considered, to avoid undoing the progress made so far.  Interested observers should watch for statements from the OPCW, regarding their investigation into these attacks, and for any public statements from key players on the Security Council—primarily the U.S. and Russia—that could foreshadow U.N. action under Resolution 2118.  While there are options for military intervention, they will likely be unpopular in the war-weary U.S.  Moreover, eliminating a chemical like chlorine from an entire country seems impossible.  Chlorine poses a huge enforcement issue: can the OPCW rid Syria of a chemical used in homes throughout the world?  Probably not.  Despite the strengths of the CWC and the OPCW, the new attacks diminish the likelihood of complete chemical weapons disarmament in Syria.


Katharine York is a third year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a staff editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


[i] See Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons, opened for signature Jan. 13, 1993, S. Treaty Doc. No. 103-21, 1974 U.N.T.S. 45 [hereinafter CWC].

[ii] Ibrahim J. Gassama, The Incoherence and Functional Incompetence of International Law: Toward a New Paradigm of Human Relationship, 37 Fordham Int’l L.J. 53, 96-97.

[iii] See generally Human Rights Council, Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (2014) (describing torture and targeting of civilians by both the government and the rebels), available at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/OralUpdate18March2014.pdf.

[iv] Amnesty Int’l, Health Crisis: Syrian Government Targets the Wounded and Health Workers 4-6 (2011), available at http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/mde240592011en_22.pdf.

[v] G.A. Res. 42/37 C, U.N. Doc. A/RES/42/37 C (Nov. 30, 1987).

[vi] UNODA, Fact Sheet: United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic (2014), available at https://unoda-web.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/UN_Mission-Syria_Jan_2014.pdf.

[vii] CWC, supra note 1, Verification Annex, Part XI, para. 27.

[viii] UNODA, supra note 6.

[ix] S.C. Res. 2118, U.N. Doc. S/RES/2118 (Sept. 27, 2013), available at http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2118%282013%29.

[x] See the first blog post in this series for more information about the initial implementation of the CWC.

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Critical Analysis: Report that alleges systematic killing in Syria released days before the start of the Geneva II peace conference

A report released just days before the scheduled start of the Geneva II peace conference “is a smoking gun,” for a war crime prosecution of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime according to David Crane, one of the report’s authors. Copies of the report, which allege the systematic killing of detainees in Syrian jails, were sent to both CNN and The Guardian. The Guardian noted the release “appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference.”

Detained Syrian men, blindfolded and handcuffed, in Qusair, near Homs. Photograph: Sana/Reuters.

Detained Syrian men, blindfolded and handcuffed, in Qusair, near Homs. Photograph: Sana/Reuters.

Evidence in the report comes from a single, unidentified Syrian government defector who shared close to half of the 55,000 images – equating to approximately 11,000 victims – he smuggled on memory sticks out of the war-torn nation. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police, and claims the photos were used to prove execution orders had been carried out, and to allow for death certificates to be provided without the need to show family members the bodies. The death certificates listed the cause of death as a heart attack or breathing problems that occurred in the hospital.

“Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence – the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime’s killing machine,” according to Crane. Activists say an estimated 50,000 detainees are unaccounted for, while tens of thousands of Syrians have been held and released. Released prisoners have shared stories of widespread use of executions and torture.

The gruesome photos include a variety of injuries, including beatings, strangulation and other forms of torture according to the report. A majority of the victims were men, estimated between 20-40 years old. One of report’s authors, Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, told CNN the emaciated bodies were “reminiscent of the pictures of those [who] were found still alive in the Nazi death camps after World War II.”

Representatives from approximately 30 countries are scheduled to attend the Geneva II Conference in an attempt to implement the Geneva Communiqué. The communiqué is intended as a resolution to the civil war in Syria, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced 9.5 million. The two main protagonists in the conflict have irreconcilable objectives: namely the role current President Bashar al-Assad would play in the transitional governing body called for in the communiqué. The force of the talks will also be limited by the absence of several of the largest opposition groups including the Syrian National Council.

Caroline Marfitano is a 2L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Critical Analysis: Can We Abolish the United Nations Security Council Veto? Thoughts in Honor of the +100,000 People Dead So Far In Syria

In a previous article on this blog, I discussed a tradition particular to this school –that of Myres McDougal – a tradition I am proud to be a part of. Myres McDougal advocated for law to be a subtle mixture of positive rule and moral aspiration. He emphasized that “the global public order of human dignity” should undergird any legal system.

Thus, since my turn is up again to put some of my thoughts into words, I feel obliged to stir the pot a bit (who will read another article on UN Security Council reform and the veto?) and urge us to take the opportunity to circumvent, do away with, ignore what may be positive laws that protect the UNSC’s structure and veto, and to answer the call of moral aspiration.

The Michigan Stadium holds 100,000+ people. Image Source: Wikipedia

The Michigan Stadium holds 100,000+ people, a conservative estimate of those lost in Syria. Image Source: Wikipedia

Moral aspiration or moral obligation?

The image to the right represents 100,000 people, a conservative estimate of the number of people who have died in Syria to date. Each of them is a parent, a child, a brother or sister. I recognize that the current status of the debate on what to do about Syria is quite different from when I first became interested in exploring UNSC reform.  Reform first came to mind when China and Russia cast a double veto that blocked the Western and Arab League-backed resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown on citizen protests and calling for regime change. While calls are being made to circumvent the UNSC, perhaps by invoking the Responsibility to Protect, the international community does not yet seem comfortable with the legitimacy of the collective use of force for humanitarian purposes without UNSC approval.  Therefore, the UNSC veto is still a critical and relevant topic.

Moral aspiration should compel ordinary global citizens to pressure the international community to do what it has to in order to respond effectively to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, even if it means flexing, circumventing, or ignoring certain laws that lead to a UNSC stalemate. Too often, we resort to a pragmatic approach because we think that the Permanent 5 will not give up their power without bringing down the entire system, or that perhaps it will be impossible to get them to do so. Wouters and Ruys urge that one cannot afford to be overly pragmatic on this point. What is at stake is the very survival, legitimacy and efficiency of the collective security system in the 21st century. I think the individual lives at stake are just as important. Therefore at least a substantive debate on the veto power is needed.

However, one such argument is that the UNSC already has a moral obligation to do better. This obligation, put forward by the four sponsoring States when the UNSC was created 1945, was based on the need to guarantee peaceful relations among the world’s main powers –which needed the assurance of their support to make it sufficiently credible and vigorous. This goal, the Allied Powers argued, could only be achieved by introducing a mechanism to safeguard the vital national interests of the most important UN Member States. The reverse side was the responsibility of these privileged members to maintain international peace and security through the United Nations.[1]

The Veto As It Is Used Today

The Council has had successes, but its record is more distinguished by its repeated failure to reach agreement on how to adequately deal with threats to peace and security. A principal reason for this has been the refusal of one or another of the Permanent Members to set aside their own interests.[2] Additionally, the veto is often “used in order to protect countries with which [permanent members] have close cultural, economic and/or political ties,” most notoriously in situations of mass genocidal killings.[3]

Since the beginning of its work, there have been 265 vetoes cast in the Security Council. The U.S.S.R./Russia Federation has cast 126, the United States 82, the United Kingdom 32, France 18, and China 7. The vetoes cast by Russia and the United States were cast largely in the period of the Cold War, and by each of them in defense of their client states. For example, Russia would veto on behalf of Eastern European clients and the United States would often veto for Israel.[4]

Thus the great privilege and great responsibility given to the Permanent Five has come to be appropriated by them as a right. The P-5 have behaved and continue to behave in ways that suggest that they see the power that they hold as rightful and free, to be exercised by them in whatever manner they choose. The notion that this power was given to them, over strenuous objections, because of the good that it might do in preserving the peace, has been substantially replaced by the idea that they have a power that they can use to protect and extend their own individual national interests.[5]

The Veto As It Was Intended to Be Used

The veto power was intended as a means of preserving unanimity between the Great Powers at the time, and far from being a menace to the small powers, it was their essential safeguard. Without that unanimity, all countries, large and small, would fall victims to the establishment of gigantic rival blocs, and in fact, the whole system would be threatened by such a situation.[6] There was no way the Great Powers would agree to take on responsibility for global peace and security without some guarantee that they wouldn’t be ruined at some point in the future. Thus, included in the veto was the ability to use it to protect “matters of vital importance to a permanent member.”[7]

This was not an easily settled issue. There was much debate and the entire world was very nervous about giving the P-5 such an extraordinary power. Efforts to influence Security Council permanent members’ voting behavior began within months of the Security Council’s first meeting. To convey the message that the veto ought to be used sparingly, opponents of the veto sought to instill in the permanent members a sense that exercise of the veto power was a profound act of disruption that had a moral dimension.[8] At that time, then Australian delegate to the Security Council, Herbert Evatt, stated before the Council that the veto “puts a special responsibility upon those members of the Council whose single vote may veto the action of the rest,” and he implored the permanent members to give “very serious consideration” before they chose to exercise their veto power.[9] Evatt was seeking to challenge any understanding of the veto as a morally neutral act; he aimed to present it instead as a destructive power that imposed on its holder a responsibility to the rest of the world. To Evatt, the exercise of the veto constituted a moral act that should require deliberation and should risk consequences. Forcing the vetoing state to bear the harsh light of publicity was part of his campaign against it. He was part of the efforts that ultimately lead UNSC voting results to be publicly available.[10]

What are ways we can remind the UNSC of this moral obligation or enforce it otherwise?

Evatt’s efforts suggest one strategy for counteracting the veto, which may have been diluted during the information age – public shaming. In her article “Shame in the Security Council,” Saira Mohamed unwraps shame as a powerful tool that has been used in situations like these in the past.[11] In fact, our very own Myres McDougal was active on this issue at the time as well. Myres argued that in order to veto a resolution, a state must “risk the censure of world opinion.”[12]  He did not want an absence from the UNSC to be counted as an abstention. A permanent member should not be allowed to obstruct global action simply by hiding; the power to defeat an effort at international cooperation should “be exercised in a formal, open manner, for all the world to see and hear.” Implicit in the argument was the notion that vetoing a measure should not be too easy, too casual, lest a permanent member too freely use its power in violation of the will of the rest of the world.

Should the UN Security Council veto be abolished?

Several options have been proposed, among them the idea that the UN Security Council veto should be abolished.

This argument can be brought into the modern era by creating some legal requirement that states explain their use of the veto, and some legal standard (clear and convincing evidence) that they must meet in convincing the international community that their decision was based on reasoned concern for international peace and security. Part of this might be defining when a matter is a “vital national interest.”[13] Vetoing U.N. action against a state that is clearly in violation of international law and practice because that state is an ally should not be acceptable.

McDougal, however, went one step beyond Evatt.[14] He expressly asserted that a permanent member should be given the right of veto only if it was subject to the possibility of condemnation for exercising that right. If a state was going to veto a resolution, it should have to pay a price. This brings up another idea –why can’t we create some kind of adjudicatory body[15] that can hear claims that a state vetoed for reasons other than ultimate concern for international peace and security? Could the ICJ hear such claims?[16] Then we could create some form of punishment for states that do not uphold their highest of moral obligations.

One author suggests that the General Assembly should suggest that the Permanent Members be allowed to declare that they are casting a negative vote, without having such vote constitute a veto.[17] Professor Michael J. Kelly suggests a procedural veto (although this would be in conjunction with additional Permanent Member seats for underrepresented countries –another important issue). The procedural veto is one by which the permanent members for Latin America, Africa and Asia may veto an item just as one of the other permanent members may do with its substantive veto. However, when the procedural veto is cast, the matter is not automatically dead. Instead, it is referred to a special session of the General Assembly for consideration. A majority vote in the Assembly after brief debate, either for or against the matter without possibility of amendment, will then determine the matter’s future.

Proposals have been offered that limit the situations in which the veto can be used. One frequently recurring proposal consists in waiving the veto power in all proceedings arising under Chapter VI of the UN Charter on the peaceful settlement of disputes, or Chapter VII.[18] A variation on this idea is to establish a mechanism allowing for a veto to be overruled in the advent of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or large-scale massacres of civilians.[19]

A radical idea….

A majority of UN Member States support the abolition of the veto. Such a reform is being promoted by the African Union, the Arab League, the Group of Non- Aligned Nations, but also by numerous western countries. Apart from the P- 5 hardly any State explicitly supports the existing veto power (Poland, Australia, and Singapore figuring among the rare exceptions).[20]

A radical idea (that I like), suggested by Ambassador Richard Butler, is that the United States lead the way in modernization by declaring to the world that it will give up its veto. The United States could then seek to establish a two-thirds majority vote for the passage of any substantive decisions in the UNSC. The United States would then call upon all the P-5 members to do the same and make the fulfillment of its offer conditional upon the other four following suit.[21] Ambassador Butler calls this an act of leadership that would be “profound, imaginative, and graceful.” Quite in keeping with the tradition of Myres McDougal!

Call for further thoughts

I recognize that abolishing the veto is not the only answer to responding to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, nor is it necessarily the most effective one. I only wanted to take the time to find out what was being said about abolishing the veto for this post. I would love to hear any alternative suggestions you may have –as long as they are revolutionary! Of course, these are only my initial investigations. I welcome and invite comments, criticisms, and suggestions about abolishing or reforming the veto. Thank you!

For updates on UN Reform efforts, see http://www.centerforunreform.org/.


Jaime Menegus is a 3L and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


[1] Jan Wouters & Tom Ruys, Security Council Reform: A New Veto for a New Century? 29 (Academia Press 2005), available at http://www.egmontinstitute.be/paperegm/ep9.pdf.

[2] Richard Butler AC, Reform of the United Nations Security Council, 1 Penn St. J.L. & Int’l Aff. 23, 34 (2012), available at http://elibrary.law.psu.edu/jlia/vol1/iss1/2/.

[3] Brian Cox, United Nations Security Council Reform: Collected Proposals and Possible Consequences, 6 S.C.J. Int’l L. & Bus. 89, 119-20 (2009), available at http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=scjilb.

[4] Butler, supra note 2, at 31.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 29.

[7] Cox, supra note 3, at 121.

[8] Saira Mohamed, Shame in the Security Council, 90 Wash. U. L. Rev. 1191, 1214-15 (2013), available at http://digitalcommons.law.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6014&context=lawreview.

[9] Id. at 1216.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Myres S. McDougal & Richard N. Gardner, The Veto and the Charter: An Interpretation for Survival, 60 Yale L.J. 258, 286 (1951), available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3481&context=fss_papers.

[13] Butler, supra note 2, at 34; Wouters & Ruys, supra note 1, at 33.

[14] Mohamed, supra note 8, at 1218.

[15] Wouters & Ruys, supra note 1, at 37.

[16] Kamrul Hossain, The Challenge and Prospect of Security Council Reform, 7 Regent J. Int’l L. 299, 300 (2010).

[17] Amber Fitzgerald , Security Council Reform: Creating a More Representative Body of the Entire U.N.

Membership, 12 Pace Int’l L. Rev. 319, 353 (200), available at http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1231&context=pilr.

[18] Wouters & Ruys, supra note 1, at 25.

[19] Id. at 37.

[20] Id. at 25.

[21] Butler, supra note 2, at 39.

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Critical Analysis: Nobel Committee has a Strange View of “Peace”

On October 11, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a little-known watchdog organization based in The Hague, which has just begun work on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The announcement was greeted with surprise and some disappointment; the Prize had been widely expected to go to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani education activist who famously survived a Taliban assassination attempt. But the selection of OPCW is more concerning for other reasons – namely, it is effectively an endorsement of the international community’s gross inaction in response to Syria’s ongoing war, and follows a series of controversial decisions by the committee entrusted with what is supposed to be one of the world’s most prestigious awards.

The political influences of the Norwegian Parliament may be directing the recent choices by the Nobel Committee Peace Prize recipients. Source: PBS

The political influences of the Norwegian Parliament may be directing the recent choices by the Nobel Committee for Peace Prize recipients. Source: PBS

For all of its connotation as an august institution of elder statesmanship, the Peace Prize is not awarded by experts or experienced peacemakers but by politicians. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is a five-member body elected by the Norwegian Parliament, and its makeup usually reflects the political makeup of the Parliament. And in recent years, the Committee seems to be employing bizarre political judgments in its choice of prize recipients.

The 2009 award to President Barack Obama, less than a year after he took office, seemed oddly premature. Even Obama himself appeared perplexed by it. The 2012 choice of the European Union, in the midst of its profound mismanagement of the ongoing economic crises, came off to most observers as a bad joke. But the choice of OPCW risks not merely tarnishing the Prize’s prestige, but undermining the very causes of peace and human dignity it is meant to stand for.

OPCW was created in 1997 to oversee the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons and requires the dismantling of all stockpiles. The Nobel Committee cited the group’s “long-standing efforts to eliminate chemical weapons” worldwide, which have succeeded in dismantling 80% of declared stockpiles. This record might, in an ordinary year, put OPCW in worthy contention for the Peace Prize, which has often been awarded to disarmament organizations in the past. But the timing, in conjunction with the group’s work in Syria, was unmistakable. And the message it sends has tellingly provoked outrage among Syrians opposed to the murderous Assad regime.

The chances for success of OPCW’s mission in Syria are limited. And whatever its outcome, that mission is most certainly not bringing peace to Syria. The Russian-sponsored deal for Syria to dismantle its chemical arsenal contributes nothing to getting the Assad regime out of power or reaching any kind of settlement to end the conflict, nor was it meant to. It was fundamentally an effort by Assad’s Russian accomplices to lift the threat of American military action against the regime after it killed over 1,000 in August’s sarin gas attack in Damascus. And it succeeded in doing so, leaving Assad free to continue massacring Syrians with conventional weapons without fear of consequences. This is the deal that the Nobel Committee has now effectively granted its seal of approval. What kind of peace does the Committee think it is promoting? As usual, the Syrian town of Kafranbel, known for its poignant revolutionary artwork, makes the point clearest.


Scott Petiya is a 3LE law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a staff editor for the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy.

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Critical Analysis: The Deliberate Campaign Against Christians in Syria

Amidst a civil war and pervasive persecution, nuns gather for mass in the Catholic Patriarchate in Damascus in September. Source: Christian Post

Amidst a civil war and pervasive persecution, nuns gather for mass in the Catholic Patriarchate in Damascus in September. Source: Christian Post

News of human rights abuses in Syria, ranging from the plight of more than two million refugees to the use of chemical weapons against civilians, has filled international headlines over the last few months.  Conspicuously absent from any significant media coverage, however, is the persecution of the Christians remaining in Syria.  Though all religious communities have been devastated and suffered unthinkable harm, the Christian community in Syria faces an “existential threat.”

Prior to the current war, approximately seventy-four percent of the Syrian population was Sunni Muslim while thirteen percent were members of other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shi’a Islam, and Shi’as.  Members of the Druze sect accounted for approximately three percent of the population. And the ten percent of the country belonged to various Christian groups, including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic.  These religious communities enjoyed a “modicum of freedom of religion” under Assad’s authoritarian regime, tempered by government control of the selection of Sunni Muslim imams, occasional minor tensions between religious groups, and other restrictions.

As early as February 2012, whatever religious freedom existed in Syria had vanished.  Christian families expressed their fear of being trapped and targeted during the civil war.  Their fears have been confirmed. In early September 2013, Christians were forced to flee the ancient Christian town of Maaloula after extremist Islamists led an incursion into the town.  Maaloula is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria and is now nearly empty of inhabitants.  Due to the heavy shelling, one of the monastery was bombed, and more than thirty Christians went missing and six were killed. On September 21, rebels brutally beat a 26-year-old Assyrian Christian to death after they learned he was a Christian.  On September 26, 36 ulemas of Douma, a large suburb of Damascus, issued a fatwa justifying the confiscation of Christian homes and property to purchase weapons, to help orphans and the poor, and to provide for the families of martyrs. In October, Islamist militias began raiding Sednaya, another Christian village north of Damscus, killing and wounding some of the Christians who lived there.

These attacks are part of a pattern that some Syrian Christians believe is an attempt to eradicate them from the country.   As Nina Shea, a human rights activist and former commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, has explained that rebel groups have also targeted Christian leaders.  In June a Catholic Syrian priest was murdered, allegedly by beheading.  Priests and clergyman from various backgrounds were abducted, kidnapped, and killed during the summer.

In this context, it is naïve to think that the end of persecution will follow the end of the civil war.  The Christian population in Iraq has plummeted by fifty percent since 2003 due to religiously motivated acts of violence and intimidation.  In Egypt, the fall of Mubarak has led to a rise in attacks on Coptic Christians and their places of worship.  In fact, throughout the Middle East, sectarian bombings, murders, kidnappings, and threats have caused an exodus of Christians from the faith’s birthplace.  These precedents are ominous for Syrian Christians. The Apostle Paul visited the thriving church in Damascus in the first century, but if the suffering of Christians in Syria continues to be ignored, this millennia-old population, including some who even speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, could become extinct.  It is time for this possibility to rank equally with the other human rights violations in Syria.

Bryan Neihart is a third year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, a master’s candidate at the Korbel School of International Studies, and the Survey Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy. 

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Children of Syria

Lost Futures – The Children of Syria

As many, if not all of you, know, the conflict in Syria continues to rage on, affecting thousands in Syria and the surrounding areas. What started out as a desire to move towards democracy in a peaceful fashion has turned into a bloody and unrelenting war that only continues to get worse. In fact, the Syrian government has recently been accused of using chemical weapons in its attacks against rebels causing dire effects on the local population. However, amongst all the atrocities one tends to forget or overlook the most devastated victims of this two-year conflict: the Syrian children.

Children of Syria

The Children of Syria – In Dire Need of Help

During all times of war, children usually bear the brunt of the negative consequences. The conflict in Syria has been no exception. The Save the Children foundation recently released a report that claims nearly two million children in Syria are currently endangered by the ongoing conflict. More than 500,000 of those currently affected in Syria are under the age of 5. Access to basic healthcare and education has also been severely limited, threatening the futures of these children. Furthermore, dismal living conditions have led to widespread disease and hunger among these children without a steady source of help to turn to. With at least 1 of every 5 schools in Syria destroyed, homes in ruins, and shelters quickly filling to capacity, it is not hard to see that hope for these children and the situation in general is dwindling.

The consequences are not simply physical, either. The Save the Children report notes at least 3 in 4 children have experienced death of a close friend or relative, leading to startling psychological consequences, such as extreme withdrawn or aggressive behavior. Furthermore, these children are being forced to endure other atrocities such as sexual violence, torture, and forced recruitment into the armed forces. This is only antagonized by the fact that many of these children have been displaced from their homes, separated from their families, and forced to find refuge in neighboring countries. How can one expect these children to lead a decent, semi-normal life when they are constantly exposed to these horrors?

Many of the countries that are taking in these refugees are struggling with the task. Jordan, a refuge for more than a half million Syrians, has recently been forced to open up a second refugee camp in Mrajeeb al-Fhood as the influx of Syrian refugees into the country continues to grow everyday. This means it might be even more difficult for the refugees, especially children, to get access to basic resources. While Jordan is actually able to provide these refugees with shelter, other countries lack the resources to do so. Currently, there are no UN-funded refugee camps in Lebanon, where some 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled. Adding to their suffering, these refugees must fear for their relatives still living in Syria, as their act of leaving the war-torn country has put them at great risk of execution and torture by the government. Many children, who escaped to the safety of countries such as Egypt or Iraq, will most likely never see their families who are still trapped inside Syria again.

Not all hope is lost, however. The sobering realities described above have prompted generous action. Governments of various nations have pledged funds to help child refugees who have been forced into surrounding countries. Recently, the government of Japan contributed $1.5 million to the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to help the child refugees in Iraq. This money will go to basic sanitation, healthcare and education services. Also, the Mrajeeb al-Fhood refugee camp mentioned above is funded by the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, the UN itself has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that the Syrian child refugees receive basic amenities. The World Food Programme (WFP), a project recently launched by the UN, provides refugee children with meals that support good nutrition and health. Along with the meals, the WFP has also set up programs to encourage children to continue their education, though they are displaced and have suffered much hardship.

The aid currently being provided is a promising start to providing hope for these children. However, not enough is being done. While many countries are making valiant efforts to help these children, UNICEF warns that those currently trapped in Syria are in danger of becoming a “lost generation,” as there is a severe lack of funding. Key agencies and life-saving aid may have to be halted, leaving those children in and around Syria without any help. UNICEF notes that it might not be able to provide Syrian children and their families with clean drinking water in the near future. The conflict seems so far away in our minds; however, we must remember those who have lost their futures because of this senseless violence.

If you would like to donate to the cause of these children, please visit this link: http://www.unicef.org.uk/landing-pages/donate-syria/.

 Bailey Woods is a 2L and a Candidacy Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy

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Asma al-Assad

A Co-Conspirator or a Casualty? A Second Look at Asma, wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

She doesn’t have bruises. She adorns photos and televisions with a near-perfect, pearly-white smile and a haircut fit for a queen. She’s a first lady who’s chic and fashionable. She laughs and jokes with gusto—even stating once that she was the “real” dictator of the family, and not her husband.

But once a friendly face to the West, she’s mostly been in hiding since the start of the Syrian Uprising in March of 2011. Rumor has it that she’s now pregnant with Bashar al-Assad’s fourth child. Media around the world have speculated her silence, questioning why she, a native-born Briton with Syrian roots, continues to stand by a man of sheer tyranny. What’s more, she’s been heavily criticized for her online shopping sprees while EU and other international sanctions prevent her from visiting her favorite boutiques in person. Her brief, public cameo at a charity event supporting children of government soldiers killed in the conflict in March was a source of complete media uproar.

Asma al-Assad

Asma al-Assad: Victim or Villain?

It’s easy to see Asma al-Assad as a self-involved, pretentious woman who cares little for her Syrian people.  To some, she may even be even a co-conspirator in her husband’s criminal enterprise. Many first ladies are often seen this way when their husbands involve themselves in bloody uprisings–a great and recent example being Grace Mugabe, the wife of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. And perhaps there is nothing more to Asma than complicity in mass murder. But it is also possible that Asma, as well as other, lesser-known ladies like Ri Sol-ju (wife of Kim Jong-Un), are actually the world’s most transparent, and most tragic, victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence—also called domestic abuse, battering, or intimate partner violence—occurs between people in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence can take many forms, including emotional, sexual and physical abuse and threats of abuse. And although men are sometimes abused by partners, domestic violence is most often directed toward women. For women of Asma’s caliber, tell-tale signs of domestic abuse between herself and Bashar al-Assad won’t be so easily detectable because of her husband’s sheer level of power. Furthermore, Asma represents a country where a quarter of married women reported experiencing some level of physical abuse by their husbands. She is not only politically isolated, but also culturally and perhaps religiously.

Asma may, in fact, be a purloined letter in the eyes of the media, government officials, and also the average person following the Syrian crisis.

It’s no secret that Bashar is no peacekeeper. He is quite the opposite: United Nations investigations into his involvement in the commissions of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide are set for referral to the International Criminal Court—so it is not so far-fetched to consider that such a man would also be less-than-kind to his own wife. In this aptly political affair, Asma faces a different level of abuse. Given the notoriety of her husband and the current state of the Syrian government, much of the mental and psychological abuse would stem from fear of being killed should she align herself anywhere but behind her husband. He may not physically abuse her, but less-obvious types of abuse may be occurring behind closed doors and away from the eyes and ears of the media or state governments.

He is most certainly doing one of more of the following, either intentionally or by virtue of his power: monitoring her movements, preventing or discouraging her from seeing friends of family, controlling how she spends money, and instilling a sense of fear or authority over her simply through his prominent and voluntary involvement in the brutal oppression, torture, and killing of Syrian civilians–including children. He may also be doing any or all of the following behind closed doors: unfairly accusing her of being unfaithful, getting angry with her in a way that is frightening to her, threatening to hurt her or the people she cares about, or threatening to harm himself or herself when he is upset. In fact, shortly before the start of the Uprising, Asma admitted to Vogue that her husband never wears his wedding ring.

Asma’s seemingly cheerful and supportive image is not incompatible with signs of a woman in an abusive relationship. She may believe that an abusive relationship with her husband is normal and continue to support him out of denial. Given her unique situation as a first lady, she also may believe she has no outlets or ways to escape without certain death or injury to herself or her children. Asma is also surrounded by a network of family that is heavily entrenched in the political and social underpinnings of Syrian affairs. It is highly likely, if impossible, that she would not receive any sort of physical or moral support from family if she decided to leave Bashar.

It’s also impossible to know if a woman involved in such an intricate political network will ever have a chance to speak candidly about her relationship with her husband.

For now, we may only have e-mail exchanges between Asma and Bashar to understand their relationship—exchanges filled with fleeting bouts of flirtation and electronic laughter. But before the media jumps to conclusions that a first lady like Asma is nothing but the supportive wife of a tyrant, it is important to take a step back and realize that such a woman can also be a victim of the most abusive of partners.

Maha Kamal is a third year law student at the University of Denver and a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy. 

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Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria. (Fox News)

Critical Analysis: U.S. Formally Recognizes Syria’s Main Rebel Group

Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria. (Fox News)

Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria. (Fox News)

On Tuesday, President Obama announced that the newly formed Syrian Opposition Council is the only “legitimate representative” of its country’s people.  This was a big step as the international community has increased its efforts to end Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reign.  By recognizing the Syrian Opposition Council, the U.S. joins Britain, France, and other Arab allies to recognize the Syrian rebel group.  The U.S.’ recognition comes as the Syrian government appears to have backed off using chemical weapons against rebel forces and after it was reported in the U.S. last week that the Syrian government might do so.  With this upgraded status, the Syrian Opposition Council will now receive more humanitarian and non-lethal aid from the U.S.  The U.S. may add military support for the rebel group too.  President Obama commented how the recognition comes with responsibilities and that the Syrian Opposition Council must “organize themselves effectively” and make sure “that they are representative of all the parties” including women and minority groups.

Another cautious element to recognizing the rebel group is the link between many who oppose the Assad regime and al Qaeda in Iraq.  For the first time on Tuesday, the Obama administration recognized an al Qaeda terrorist organization, Jabhat al-Nursa, as being directly tied to a powerful Syrian rebel group.  The U.S. sanctioned the terrorist group, freezing any assets it may have in the U.S. and preventing Americans from conducting business with it, out of fear that the group is becoming stronger than other rebel groups and could potentially overtake Assad’s regime in Syria.  The U.S. Treasury also publicly identified two Jabhat leaders by name for the first time on Tuesday, sanctioning them for their ties to al Qaeda.

The U.S.’s recognition of the Syrian Opposition Council comes a day before an international conference in Morocco.  The focus of the conference is to bring together 80 nations to support Syrian opposition groups.  While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to attend the conference, she has since canceled her trip due to illness.   Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will attend in her place.

Some critics have argued that the U.S.’s formal recognition of the Syrian rebel groups may be too little too late.  For instance, the recognition does nothing to change the military equation inside Syria.  President Obama’s move also does not give the opposition the legal authority of a state—the rebel forces may not have access to Syrian government money, take over the Syrian embassies globally, or enter into binding diplomatic commitments.   While the fighting inside Syria has intensified, it is unclear how this formal recognition will influence the Syrian Civil War.  What is known is that the U.S.’s formal recognition of the Syrian Opposition Council is meant as a “political shot in the arm for the opposition.”  More will soon be evident as the international conference takes place in Morocco later this week and as the fighting intensifies with each passing day.  Reports indicate that over 40,000 people have died since fighting began back in March 2011.

Dan Warhola is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Executive Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.


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A mortar attack in Akcakale, Turkey, on the border with Syria, killed a woman, her three children and a relative. (NY Times)

Critical Analysis: The Role of the United States in Syria

A mortar attack in Akcakale, Turkey, on the border with Syria, killed a woman, her three children and a relative. (NY Times)

The Syrian crisis is a hot topic in the U.S. Presidential election.  Republican candidate Mitt Romney has criticized President Barack Obama’s policies in Syria and suggested that the United States should take a tougher stance on ensuring rebels receive the assistance they need.  So far, the Obama administration has limited its assistance to “non-lethal support,” such as providing communications equipment.  Amidst growing fears that the Syrian government’s crackdown on rebels may spark a regional war between Syria and Turkey, questions are rife in the U.S. political sector as to what role the United States should take in this conflict.

On Wednesday, October 3, the Syrian government shelled Akcakale, a Turkish town on the border of Syria and Turkey, resulting in five deaths.  The victims were all civilian women and children.  Turkey retaliated for two consecutive days, shelling a Syrian military position, and authorizing its troops to move beyond its borders.  The U.N. Security Council condemned Syria for the attack, and urged both countries to exercise restraint.  The Council President, Gert Rosenthal, the ambassador from Guatemala, stated “the members of the council demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated.”  The relationship between Turkey and Syria began deteriorating when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began cracking down on Syrian protestors, which sparked an 18-month civil war between the government and rebels fighting to oust the Syrian President.  Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations stated that Syria does not seek to fight with Turkey, however, the ambassador called on Turkey to cease allowing armed Syrian rebels to cross the border, as well as to cease allowing media coverage for opposition groups operating from Turkey.

Syria has not confirmed whether the incident in Turkey was a mistake or intentional, but one possible motive behind the shootings is that rebels have allegedly been using Turkey as a safe haven to regroup and rearm.  The rebels are “severely outmatched” and are improvising weaponry, such as taking guns off of Syrian tanks that they have commandeered and mounting them on civilian automobiles.  The increase in improvised weapons is an indication that, without outside assistance, the rebels may be unable to maintain adequate weapons and ammunition.

The Syrian government, on the other hand, has continued to receive arms shipments from Russia, despite calls to from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many others in the international community to stop the shipments.  However, the Russian state-controlled arms dealer, Rosoboronexport, stated, “No one can ever accuse Russia of violating the rules of armaments trade set by the international community.”  The dealer further stated that while it continues to supply Syria with mobile gun and missile air defense systems, the contract was signed “long ago,” and the armaments that it supplies to Syria are defensive arms, not attack weapons.

Additionally, Syria continues to receive small arms, infantry weapons, and personnel from Iran, using Iraqi airspace.  In a televised interview between al-Assad and Iran’s intelligence chief, Saeed Jalili, Jalili stated that the situation in Syria “is not an internal issue but a conflict between the axis of resistance on one hand and regional and global enemies of this axis on the other.”  During the same interview, al-Assad stated that it was “unacceptable” that some countries were “supporting terrorism” by arming the rebels in Syria.

If the United States does take a tougher stance on Syria and ensures that the rebels are armed, the implications could be far-reaching.  Iran could interpret U.S. assistance in arming the rebels as U.S. assistance in backing terrorism in Syria, thereby inviting terrorism in return.  Additionally, the possibility still exists that the United States, in arming Syrian rebels, may be arming those who may be terrorists in the future, as happened in Afghanistan.  Given the candidates’ differing stances, the result of upcoming U.S. Presidential election may alter the fate of Syria and the region.

Lisa Browning is a 2LE at the University of Denver School of Law and a Staff Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law