On Sunday, November 11, Syrian opposition groups signed a draft agreement to form the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Opposition Forces. [BBC] Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who is considered a moderate and unifying force, was chosen to lead the new coalition. The Gulf Arab States have recognized the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. [BBC] On Tuesday, France became the first Western State to do the same, followed by Turkey on Thursday. [BBC; NYT] While the U.S. and the U.K. have stated their support for the coalition, they have yet to recognize it as a government-in-exile. [BBC; Reuters]
The formation of the coalition comes as the human rights situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. In early 2011, protests for economic and social change – which soon turned into calls for political reform and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad – were met with a violent crackdown from the Syrian government. The conflict has quickly escalated; according to UN estimates at least 20,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since March 2011. Others put the death toll at closer to 40,000. More than 2.5 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance and more than 380,000 refugees have fled Syria for nearby countries. [UN] As reported by The New York Times:
…as the rebels gained momentum, the government increasingly appeared to be adopting a more brutal policy in response. When rebels declare a town liberated, President Bashar al-Assad’s government no longer makes much effort to retake territory. Now, it sends overwhelming force with one objective — to destroy and level all that is left behind.
Application of International Humanitarian Law
In July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concluded that the situation in Syria constituted an internal armed conflict. Consequently, government and opposition forces are bound by the rules of international humanitarian law, which imposes limits on how the fighting may be conducted and provides special protections for civilian populations. The ICRC wrote:
As the situation has evolved, the ICRC has continued to monitor the conflict in the country. The ICRC concludes that there is currently a non-international (internal) armed conflict occurring in Syria opposing Government Forces and a number of organised armed opposition groups operating in several parts of the country (including, but not limited to, Homs, Idlib and Hama). Thus, hostilities between these parties wherever they may occur in Syria are subject to the rules of international humanitarian law. These rules impose limits on how the fighting can be conducted, with the aim of protecting the civilian population and persons not, or no longer, directly participating in the hostilities.
The international community, including through the UN General Assembly, UN Human Rights Council and Arab League, has condemned the government’s use of violence and arbitrary arrests. Despite these calls, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria “found reasonable grounds to believe that” government and paramilitary forces:
had committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property…
The commission confirms its previous finding that violations were committed pursuant to State policy. Large-scale operations conducted in different governorates, their similar modus operandi, their complexity and integrated military-security apparatus indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the Government. The Shabbiha [paramilitary] were identified as perpetrators of many of the crimes described in the present report. Although the nature, composition and hierarchy of the Shabbiha remains unclear, credible information led to the conclusion that they acted in concert with Government forces.
Previously, the Commission of Inquiry had found that government forces had committed human rights violations, including “the use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, the killing and persecution of protestors, human rights defenders and journalists, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence, and ill-treatment, including against children.” Although there is evidence that opposition forces have also committed human rights abuses, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry noted that these violations have not been “comparable in scale and organization to those carried out by the State.”
The Commission of Inquiry has provided the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with a list of names of those thought to be responsible for these crimes, leading to calls for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
International Action Awaited as Conditions on the Ground Worsen
However, in spite of the focus brought by the Human Rights Council and wealth of information on human rights violations compiled by the Independent Commission of Inquiry, the Security Council’s action has been limited to monitoring the situation. The Security Council has been criticized for being unable or unwilling to act decisively and it remains divided, as Russia and China have consistently vetoed resolutions pressuring President Assad to step down.
To date, diplomatic efforts to end the conflict have been largely ineffective. The Security Council Peace plans put forth by the UN and the Arab League have failed to end the violence as have several ceasefires, including the most recent brokered by the Joint Special Representative of the UN and League of Arab States for the crisis in Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
With the violence continuing, the crisis may only get worse. Humanitarian access within Syria remains a problem while UN officials have warned that the number of persons in need of humanitarian assistance may soon reach four million. The conflict has also threatened to spill over Syria’s borders, with clashes reported along the Turkish and Lebanese borders and, most recently, the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
UN Political Affairs Under Secretary Jeffrey Feltman recently stressed the need to move towards a Syria-led political process to end the conflict. In public remarks following his presentation to the Security Council, Feltman stated:
We continue to hope that the Security Council can come together and act in a unified fashion on Syria, as this would be critical to any peace effort… Without this, our chances for success are far more limited.
If the new National Coalition can establish credibility on the ground and abroad, such a process may move one step closer toward becoming a reality.