The following originally appeared on the Connect U.S. Fund blog.
The Russians will sell no new weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. This is a significant shift in Russia’s stance. The time is ripe to push even harder to end any provision of arms, by any government, to those forces in Syria committing human rights abuses.
By some estimates, over 17,000 people have died since the inception of violence in March 2011 – most innocent civilians, and a number of them children. Over the past sixteen months, the international community has attempted to find a path to implement its responsibility to protect civilian lives from the Assad government’s violent assaults. Governments have imposed harsh economic sanctions on Syria. The Arab League sent in a human rights observer mission. When that failed, the United Nations sent in a mission headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with the intention of monitoring a cease-fire and brokering peace. The cease-fire never occurred, sanctions were increased, a number of countries severed diplomatic relations, and a Friends of Syria group was established to coordinate an international response to the Syria crisis. Yet, large numbers of civilians continue to be killed – a few now by opposition fighters, but in far greater numbers at the hands of Assad’s forces.
Since the violence began sixteen months ago, United to End Genocide has advocated for the use of economic and diplomatic pressure on Syria. By restricting Assad’s access to international capital through the sanctioning of lucrative sectors such as oil and gas, we hoped to see both restrained capacity of the regime to arm and pay its soldiers, and the reduction of support for Assad from Syria’s business community. Over the past several months, we have also pushed for an end to Russian arms sales – in particular, targeting Russia’s state-owned weapons dealer Rosoboronexport. We have no illusions about the company’s morality, but guess that—between Assad’s diminished ability to pay lucrative contracts, and the threat of loss of sales elsewhere— pressure on the Russians may be working given the latest announcement.
Despite this victory, a protracted civil war in Syria now seems inevitable. This will undoubtedly lead to the loss of many more civilian lives and risks escalating delicate regional tensions even further. The ‘military option’ has been discussed with proposals for safe zones, no-kill zones and the direct arming of the Syrian opposition. At the other end of the spectrum, some human rights groups have called for a total arms embargo – both to stop the flow of weapons to the Assad regime, and to any opposition forces. Would any of these options really serve the need for civilian protection in the cities of Syria, where it is most needed?
In the midst of this, Annan has been clearly calling for a stronger UN mandate for the international mission. The current mandate will expire on July 20, and at this point it must be both renewed and strengthened. While Russia and China vetoed an earlier UN Security Council measure, perhaps Russia’s recent change of heart on new weapons sales suggests that stronger action is now possible.
In response to Annan’s call for ‘strong consequences’ for Syria’s intransigence, some Security Council members want to authorize a measure under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. This would enable, among other possible actions, an arms embargo on Syria. Now that the Russians have conceded the issues with selling weapons to Syria, can they be convinced to endorse a condition that military assistance will not be provided to forces known to have committed human rights violations (something similar to the Leahy provisions mandated in U.S. law)? Here, credible monitoring will be key, and could be the justification to insist that human rights monitors—in the form of an expanded, and protected, Annan mission—be given enough access and resources to determine which forces should be sequestered.
The world also needs to convince the opposition’s armed combatants that it will not serve their cause to target civilians. Some governments are now providing military and non-military support to the armed opposition. Regardless of whether this is something that should be encouraged or discouraged, it is happening. At a minimum, the necessity then becomes working to ensure that groups receiving arms do not turn around and target civilians. As a measure to ensure this, what if the provision of supplies to armed opposition groups was conditioned upon those groups adopting clear pledges to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law, and to allow international human rights monitors to work in close proximity to their operations to monitor that this pledge was being honored?
While it may be too late to succeed in bringing peace in the short term, the Annan mission can succeed in preventing further escalation and reducing the harm to civilians if it is backed by strong commitments and consequences for violations by the UN Security Council. The new mission should include an arms embargo, in particular applied to all forces known to have committed human rights violations, international monitors to verify that combatants adhere to the Geneva Conventions and other applicable international human rights and humanitarian laws, and consequences for those who do commit violations. This may not avert civil war, but perhaps this approach can rein in the human costs of conflict.