It’s war, says Assad, and indeed the conflict in Syria is more and more beginning to resemble a full-blown armed conflict.
Yesterday’s fighting in the suburbs of Damascus seems to have been particularly bloody, with reports of “dozens” of fighters killed on both pro- and anti-government sides.
Apart from maybe arms manufacturers, not many people actively “like” wars, yet even human rights types like me will not necessarily criticise the conduct of combatants if they “play by the rules”. It almost never happens though (always never?).
Ever since the crackdown on the protests began in Syria last spring, the behaviour of various wings of the Syrian authorities has been to act with absolute contempt for basic human rights laws. Ditto humanitarian law and the laws governing armed conflict. The charge sheet is massive: indiscriminate firing at unarmed protesters; shelling civilians in their homes; arrests without warrants; beating people upon arrest; holding thousands in secret, unacknowledged detentions; systematic torture (at least 31 types of cruelty have been counted); threats to dissidents; plain, old-fashioned targeted killings, and on and on ….
One particularly terrible aspect of the tidal wave of human rights abuse unleashed by Assad’s government has been the way that doctors and other medical personnel have apparently been targeted. Amnesty has just reported on the discovery of the charred, mutilated bodies of three young medics a week after they were arrested in Aleppo. See the - gruesome - details here. This was three students (one an English literature student, something I once was). Their “crime”? Apparently it was to offer medical help to wounded protesters in an improvised “field hospital”. (Given that many people in Syria now refuse to go to a government-run hospital for fear of being mis-treated there, the situation could hardly be more grim).
Meanwhile, today’s update from the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria paints a no less grim picture. One growing concern is the human rights abuses being carried out by armed opposition groups - the torture and killing of captured soldiers and shabiha, kidnappings and killing of people known to or suspected of working with the government, etc. This morning’s attack on the pro-government Ikhbariya TV station may well be another instance of the growing “abusiveness” of some anti-Assad groups. Ikhbariya is undoubtedly a near-mouthpiece for the government line in Syria but, as Amnesty’s Ann Harrison points out, even a propagandising media organisation is still a civilian one and totally off-limits to belligerents engaged in a conflict.
So the key question is still: how can all this be stopped? There are no easy answers, but a beefed-up UN monitoring mission (lots of observers, lots of human rights experts in all parts of the country) and genuine pressure on the Assad government from Russia would be a start (Russia could also help by ensuring that no more of its arms end up in Syria). Meanwhile, I predict, the UN Security Council will eventually have to recognise how serious this situation is and refer it to the International Criminal Court (yes, I know, predictions like this are dangerous, but still … ). There are undoubtedly torturers and killers on both “sides” of this war. They need to be stopped and brought to justice.
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