It’s been a while since we heard anything about the evils of the Syrian government. There is only so much media bandwidth for moral condemnation, and much of that has been taken up by Russia and ISIS (and in America, Iran). Although a lot of money has been spent vilifying Syria, usually in very discreet ways, it has slipped from the limelight as Washington becomes increasingly persuaded that the way to break-up Syria is to drop Assad as a casus belli and adopt ISIS instead.
The most official body charged with investigating Syrian war crimes is the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. That the UN feels the need to include the words ‘independent’ and ‘international’ in the Commissions’s formal title shows how sensitive it is to accusations of Western influence, but these fears cannot be allayed by nomenclature. It doesn’t help that of the five founding Commissioners one was a Turk who had completed a PhD in America (and who even spun her resignation into anti-Assad propaganda), another is an American whose employment history prior to joining the UN is unknown, while a third commissioner and the chairman have both held positions at American universities. Turkey and America, of course, are two long-standing belligerents in Syria’s proxy war.
The Commission itself was born out of a UN resolution, but not one derived from the Security Council or the General Assembly. It was a consequence of S-17/1, passed by the UN Human Rights Council, which currently counts amongst its rotating members Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two notorious systematic human rights abusers who also happen to be the two key backers of the Islamist paramilitaries inside Syria (and also Iraq, and also Yemen). This was not an auspicious start.
The resolution, and by obligation the Commission, took as read that there were “continued grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities, such as arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the killing and persecution of protesters and human rights defenders, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, [and the] torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including of children.” This followed on from an earlier fact-finding mission dispatched by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, a man who was previously Jordan’s Ambassador to the United States (Jordan being yet another opponent of the Syrian government). It’s worth pointing out the Human Rights Council could have made the same condemnation, almost word-for-word, as regards the US inside Iraq, or Saudi Arabia generally, of Qatar, or of Bahrain, of Israel, or any number of Western proxies. That it didn’t is another suggestion of institutional bias.
The Syrian Civil War is now in its fifth year, and the Commission has grown quiet. Its communications have been few. Nevertheless, its chair continues to present the crimes of the insurgents as lesser in scale, intent, and effect than that of the government, even going so far as to refute the idea that anti-government forces have any strategy to indiscriminately shell or bomb civilian areas. At the same time, the Commission has highlighted the use of “barrel bombs” by the Syrian Air Force. Barrel bombs are a crude aerial munition “increasingly employed… to reduce the cost of the protracted aerial campaigns while increasing its ability to extend them over more restive areas. It also allowed them to expand the fleet of aircraft used in assault operations to include transport helicopters.”
After Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was officially destroyed (as well as the architecture which housed them) barrel bombs were adopted by the opponents of the Syrian government as a new and media-friendly way to emphasise Assad’s immorality. All news outlets have carried the story (here’s the BBC). Yet while the Commission’s report accepts these weapons are the consequence of a shortage of materiel, its Chairman continues to maintain that Damascus retains a “proven ability to conduct information led and precise attacks on military objectives.” How, exactly? If Paulo Pinheiro is referring to ground operations, I would dearly like to know how keen he’d be to see his son pick up an assault rifle and storm an apartment block.
Whatever the aims of the Syrian Air Force, in the hands of the UN HRC (as with Amnesty International and countless other organisations) the barrel bomb was another attempt at a “red line” triggering Western intervention. Its opinion that “area bombardment is prohibited by international humanitarian law” is a gross simplification (see Protocol I of the Geneva Convention, added 1977), but even if it were not, it’s hopelessly one-sided to indict Syria while ignoring the historical and ongoing bombardments committed by other countries.
The only other comment recently offered by the Commission has been to welcome the release of three “human rights defenders”, Hussein Ghrer, Maen Darwish, and Hani Al-Zaytani, who worked for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus. They were arrested in February 2012 on charges of “publicizing terrorist attacks” and “promoting terrorist activities”. They were released this summer. I have no knowledge of the facts of the case, or of the provenance of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus, but it is worth pointing out the law in our own country (and many others) is even more draconian, as the number of putative jihadis inside HMP Belmarsh testifies. Again, this has not met with any interest from the UN Human Rights Council.
The Commission’s most significant communication this year was the 64-page report it delivered this February. The report was originally expected to deal with allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, allegations which Western media had reported as fact for a number of years, in broadcasts which sometimes resembled blatant propaganda. As regards these alleged CW attacks, most notably the attacks at Al Ghouta and Khan Al Assan, the Commission confined itself to two paragraphs and the following conclusion:
“The Commission’s evidentiary threshold was not met with regard to the perpetrator for these incidents.”
That was it. All those news reports, all those column inches, those hours of tv reportage and political debate, the rise from anonymity of bloggers like Brown Moses, have been swept under the carpet by a single sentence. Events, dear boy, events.
For those, like me, who believed the CW attacks were never anything more than anti-Syrian propaganda, the report is as close to vindication as we are ever likely to get, at least until the victims turn up in later life as unscathed survivors. I haven’t seen a UN chemical weapons report as deliberately equivocal since the Iran-Iraq War. If the Commission cannot bring itself to account for these incidents, at least its most neutral Commissioner has gone off-message to hint at the truth. For now, the villain de jour is ISIS, and ironically it is ISIS which the West has seized on to justify its long-awaited bombing of the Syrian army – which in turn is the chief opponent of the Islamic State. I haven’t seen foreign policy as perverse as this since the Cold War.