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Syria’s mass hangings get little response

By Nina Agrawal Los Angeles Times From Arkansas online

The Syrian government commits an atrocity, and the United States and the United Nations denounce it. Then nothing else happens.

Experts say the pattern will likely continue with the revelation last week that, since 2011, officials at a military prison in Syria have summarily executed as many as 13,000 people by hanging.

A U.N. spokesman called the executions “horrifying.” Amnesty International, which documented the killings, concluded that they were part of a systematic government policy, and constituted crimes against humanity. The group called on the U.N. to investigate the prison and other detention centers, and to act immediately to end the crimes.

“Inaction would be unconscionable,” its report said.

Yet inaction has been the norm.

In 2012, President Barack Obama warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that using chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that justified U.S. military action. But when Assad crossed that line a year later, Obama balked.

As the Syrian government barrel-bombed civilians, conducted airstrikes on hospitals and laid siege to the city of Aleppo, the U.S. issued more denunciations, increased economic sanctions and even armed a small number of rebels. But neither the U.S. nor its allies ever launched a military campaign in Syria. Part of the problem is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a staunch ally of Assad.

Nor has the international community taken serious action toward prosecuting war crimes committed there.

The U.N. has several options, said Alex Whiting, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former war crimes and genocide prosecutor.

The Security Council could refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, as it did with Libya just weeks after fighting began there in 2011.

It could create a war tribunal, as it did after reports of war crimes emerged in the former Yugoslavia in 1993.

Or if a peace deal were imminent, the U.N. could ensure that its terms included a tribunal, as was agreed to in South Sudan in 2015.

“Where there is political will and political agreement, the Security Council can act very quickly,” Whiting said. “The problem is that the five permanent members of the Security Council have to agree.”

On Syria, they have not, which explains why the U.N.’s action has been so limited.

The U.N. established a commission to investigate human-rights violations and war crimes in Syria and concluded that the Syrian government slaughtered detainees en masse.

In 2014, the Security Council considered a resolution to refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court, but Russia and China vetoed it. Other resolutions to condemn human-rights abuses in Syria, impose diplomatic or economic sanctions and demand cease-fires have similarly failed.

In December, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish an investigative team to gather and analyze evidence of human-rights violations and crimes in Syria. Its members have yet to be chosen, and unlike the International Criminal Court or a war tribunal, the team cannot legally compel Syria to cooperate.

Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution research group, said the only way to stop Assad would have been through military action.

“If your objective is to stop horror, you need to do it with force,” he said.

Wieseltier said he understood Obama’s reluctance to become entangled in another war in the Middle East, but he argued that Obama could have taken narrow, targeted actions, such as grounding Assad’s air force.

“There was a moral emergency and a strategic emergency, and we didn’t do anything,” he said. “And what happened as a consequence of our opening this vacuum is that Putin rushed to fill it.”

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