Versione italiana | Search in site:

A great coalition for Syria, but Assad's role is the dilemma

Interview with Marcello Flores

Protest against the war in Syria

Protest against the war in Syria AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla

Over 4 million refugees hosted abroad and 6.5 million inner displaced are the outcome of the war started in Syria in the spring 2011. A massacre that the great powers have not yet stopped, despite the desperate appeals launched by the population. The summit between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the General Assembly of the United Nations, confirmed their different views. Obama is ready to cooperate with all the countries, including Russia and Iran, to intervene in Syria, but he views the removal of the the President Assad, who massacred his people, as a pre-condition. For Putin, however, it is a serious mistake not to cooperate with the Syrian government and its army, because they really fight the ISIS. Gariwo asked Marcello Flores, Professor of Comparative History and History of Human Rights at the University of Siena and director of the European Master in Human Rights and Genocide Studies, whether there are ways out of this impasse and whether it is still possible to impose the respect for human rights.

Why was there no intervention of an international force in Syria, as it happened during other conflicts in the world?

In recent decades actions or lack of action have not been the result of a decision based on abstract values or international laws, but are derived from geopolitical interests, political clashes and even opportunities. The case of Syria is especially significant because, when it was assumed to intervene, something terrible was already happening in that country: there were more than 200 thousand deaths and 2 million refugees and almost certainly the use by the Assad government of chemical weapons prohibited by the law and by international conventions and therefore sanctionable through an intervention. But previously there had been the failure of the mission in Libya. And if we go further back, the failure to prevent and stop the Rwandan genocide was the result of the failed intervention in Somalia.

So we have to remember these facts to understand why nothing has been done any more. From a certain point of view in Libya it could be reasonable to act to stop the massacre that Gaddafi's troops were doing in Benghazi, but the mission was totally unprepared, had no clear objective and no idea of what to do next, and therefore led to the situation we know. And it was feared that the same would happen in Syria. It’s hard hard to prove that, with an intervention that would have presumably ousted Assad, a more solid and democratic government could have been established and the rise of ISIS could have been prevented from the beginning. Certainly the presence of too many actors with different interests - the great powers United States and Russia, and the regional powers Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia - has led to huge difficulties in reconciling all parties.

Is it still possible to enforce respect the for human rights according to international conventions and who can do this?

Now it seems to me very difficult, in part because a possible UN intervention was at the time blocked by the Russian veto, motivated by the fear that Assad would have been destabilized or even dethroned. Perhaps if he had tried to involve Russia immediately in a project to stop Assad from the start, we could have achieved some results. Now it seems that the only solution to stop ISIS is an agreement between the West and Russia and Iran, who support Assad, thereby forgetting that he was the main responsible for the deaths and the violences that took place in Syria, many more than those committed by ISIS. The question is whether the goal of defeating ISIS is such an absolute priority to lead us to forget that we would have to fight on the side of the main enemies of human rights, like Assad and his men. This is a chiefly political dilemma, because almost all the actors, who use weapons in Syria, commit serious violations of human rights on a daily basis. The question is where to start to make a turnaround.

Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery said that “In the fight against the worst, the bad is an ally. To try to stop ISIS means supporting the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad is an abominable fellow, but he has kept Syria together, protected its many minorities”.

I would not say that Assad respected so much the minorities ... he respected some of them, but only for his own interest, at a given time for a specific reason. There is no doubt that the vast majority of victims of the conflict in Syria, say 90%, were caused by Assad. We need to understand whether Assad may temporarily serve to defeat ISIS, perhaps ensuring that he does not continue his violence. But I think the key issue is the agreement between the US and Russia, and then involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington presented days ago a project to predict the risk of genocide. But if there are signs of possible mass atrocities in a country, who can take the initiative to prevent them?

This is the real problem because we have discussed for a long time about indicators that can show us a possible future genocide and we have many different models. This is the latest and probably the most refined and updated than others, but the question is, once discovered these elements, how can we stop them? It seems to me that the work done in the last fifteen years on the issue of the responsibility to protect is ultimately failed. It was an ongoing discussion to see who could intervene, when, how. But these last wars, albeit local, beginning with Iraq and then Libya and Syria, have effectively cut off completely this discussion and have also made it clear that it is too abstract and not connected to real issues, which are: does the UN intervene as international law requires, and only the UN has the right to intervene, or in some cases is it possible and necessary a limited intervention by a number of players? And if so, must they also care about the immediate and also medium and long term effects that their action will have? This is a discussion that unfortunately, in the emergence of these terrible tragedies, hasn’t been deepened and must be resumed.

by Viviana Vestrucci

1 October 2015

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

Once a month you will receive articles and events selected by Gariwo Editorial Board. Please fill out the field below and click on subscribe.

Crimes of genocide and against the humankind

the denial of the individual's value

The first legal definition in the domain of mass persecution dates back to 1915 and concerns the massacres of the Armenian populations perpetrated by the Turks, which were followed by the trials of the perpetrators before the Martial Court. In the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 the Great Powers use the terms "crimes against civilization" and "crimes of lèse-humanity". In the aftermath of Second World War, face the Holocaust tragedy, the Military Tribunal of the Nurnberger Trials against Nazi officials started the proceeding by stating the crimes on which it was competent... On 9 December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously approved the Convention for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which is considered as the most heinous crime against Humanity. 

read more

Our interviews

Featured story

Massoud Benhoud

a journalist persecuted for his defence of freedom of information