For the first time in the course of the six-year conflict, the United States launched strikes on a military air field in Syria in retaliation to a sarin gas attack that killed at least 100 civilians in Idlib province.
The unilateral move, which came at the direct order of President Donald Trump without approval of the US Congress or the United Nations Security Council, raises questions about the legality of the attack. Trump had flip flopped from his long-held position, saying the horrific images changed his views on Bashar al Assad, the regime leader who has presided over a war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Some Syrians have welcomed the strikes as potentially putting a stop to the Syrian regime’s continual targeting of civilians. But can military strikes lead to peace?
The Responsibility to Protect – R2P – is a framework of international law endorsed by the United Nations in 2005, to commit to preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
An Agency spoke with Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, about the implications of the attack, and what may happen next.
What is R2P?
Simon Adams: The “responsibility to protect” is an outcome of two of the biggest failures in the UN’s history – the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. It was supposed be a mobilising principle to make sure the international community actually lives up the promise of “never again” that was after the Holocaust. It acts to protect people wherever or whenever mass atrocities, genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes happen in the world.
How do the US strikes in Syria fit into the framework of international law?
SA: What we do know is that the Syrian regime has operated in a climate of absolute impunity. Every time that the Security Council has failed to act, and hold them accountable because of partisan vetoes, they have felt emboldened to go further. To use fighter jets against their own people. To use helicopters and barrel bombs against their people. To besiege and starve their people. And to use chemical weapons against their people.
So even though these air strike are outside of international law, and it’s a deeply regrettable situation, and I’m very scared about what it means for the Syrian conflict, I must imagine that there are people within the Syrian regime who are getting up this morning and wondering if that climate of impunity will still exist for them.
And that’s why we need real accountability under international law. The people who gas children, who behead civilians, the people who bomb civilian populations, all belong in handcuffs at The Hague. They don’t belong in palaces, or in governments, or holding themselves up as representatives of the Syrian people.
We need the international community to hold the Syrian regime, and each and every perpetrator of atrocities in Syria, accountable under international law.
How might the US strikes change the dynamics of the conflict on the ground?
SA: There may be many people looking at this. Over the last six years there’s just been a fundamental failure by the UN Security Council to deal with the situation in Syria, that is largely because of the vetoes of Russia and China and it has just been absolutely devastating. We now have 480,000 people killed, millions of refugees displaced, and all kinds of crimes that we’ve seen.
So I’m sure there will be many people looking at these air strikes on the base where we believe that the chemical attack was deployed from, and feel a kind of sense of gratification. But I think it’s not clear if this was a short-term, one-off strike by the US president, and what really concerns me is that it is outside of international law, it has gone around the UN Security Council. What we need are lasting solutions and real accountability for all perpetrators of atrocities in Syria.
What is likely to happen next?
SA: Where we’re at now in Syria, there are no good and easy options to end the mess. We have outside states, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and now the United States now actively involved. We need a Syrian solution to what is fundamentally a Syrian problem. And after six years of failure by the UN Security Council, it’s hard to see anything that’s going to easily fix the situation.
But what we need is very clear – we need real and inclusive peace negotiation about how to end this conflict. We need unhindered humanitarian access, so we can stop the besiegement of civilian populations, including not just by the regime but by some rebel groups as well. Most atrocities are of course committed by the regime.
So, hopefully, this is a moment not just for them, but for the entire international community to figure out how we get ourselves out of this mess, and how we end atrocities once and for all.