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What to do in Syria?


The debate about how to respond to the horrendous chemical weapons attacks that took place in a suburb of Damascus on August 21 seems to be taking the usual course. It is a debate about military intervention versus diplomacy. Military intervention, assumed to be air strikes, is considered risky; it will not knock out the chemical weapons facilities, it will inevitably kill some civilians as collateral damage, and it could escalate the war. Talks would treat Assad, the person responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria whether or not he was directly responsible for the chemical attacks, as a legitimate political actor. So are there no good options?

The problem with this debate is that it is conducted entirely in geo-political terms. The war is viewed through a very traditional lens – it is a war with sides which can only be brought to an end through victory of one side or through a political agreement. What it totally misses is the humanitarian dimension, which is enshrined in international law. Imagine if a criminal had poisoned someone in the United States or Britain. Would we debate whether to kill him (or her) or whether to talk to him (or her)? Rather our concern would be how to protect the public from future poisonings and how to arrest the criminal and bring him (or her) before a court of law. It is through this lens that we ought to be viewing the conflict in Syria. Our primary concern should be how to protect the victims of this ongoing and brutal violence and to uphold the norms of international law.


The war in Syria is illegal. It violates both International Humanitarian Law (the Laws of War) and Human Rights law. The Assad regime has bombed protestors, shelled civilian areas, used its Shabiya militia to carry out atrocities against civilians including systematic rape, as well as cutting off basic services and salaries to rebel held areas. The rebels are fragmented and divided and many of them have also inflicted massive violations of human rights. The flow of displaced people within Syria and beyond seems unstoppable. The latest estimate from UNHCR is that there are now more than 2 million refugees and there are as well hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. Around 100,000 people have died, probably 1-2000 in the latest chemical weapons attacks.


In particular, the use of chemical weapons is illegal. The Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the rare disarmament treaties in the world aimed at the elimination of a complete category of weapons (although Syria is one of the few countries that has not signed the Convention). The use of chemical weapons is not only a violation of human rights and international humanitarian law, it is also explicitly mentioned as a war crime in the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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