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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Analysis: UN Report on Syria lets Assad off easy

'filling our heads full of figures and angles and telling us stuff we already know'
-- Billy Joe Shaver
WARNING: The UN is about making peace between governments. It is not about protecting you from your government. That is the main take-away from this report on the Syrian conflict.

The United Nations Commission on Inquiry into the Syrian conflict issued a report on Tuesday that has been widely reported to blame both sides for the increasing brutality. This NY Times article is typical:
U.N. Panel Reports Increasing Brutality by Both Sides in Syria
Published: June 4, 2013
GENEVA — Reporting “new levels of brutality” in Syria’s more than two-year-old conflict, United Nations investigators said on Tuesday that they believed that chemical weapons and more indiscriminate bombing had been used in recent weeks and urged world powers to cut off supplies of weapons that could only result in more civilian casualties. More...
The 29 page UN Report doesn't consider that this is a war of choice for the regime and a war of necessity for the people. It considers both sides responsible for the conflict.

Certainly this report doesn't see a just side to this war, although the government of Syria has a certain amount of legitimacy because it is after all, the legally recognized government of Syria. This comes through clearly in their correspondence with the Assad regime in the appendix. This is how they consider what many might see as a war crime carried out in suppressing the uprising:
On 4 August, the house of the Elbaw family was hit around 6:00 by a "barrel bomb" dropped from a fighter jet, killing seven persons, including women and children. The commission was unable to ascertain whether the aerial bombardment of the Elbaw family house was excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage of attacking the nearby school, which was used by the FSA, and thus unable to find sufficient grounds that the attack was disproportionate.
So in the view of the UN Commission, the Assad regime has every "right" to carry on its war against the insurgency, and is even entitled to a certain amount of "collateral damage" while doing so.

This should be born in mind when considering their report. It has a strong bias in favor of the government, because after all, it is a government and the UN is an organization of governments. That being said, most of the report is about documenting the war crimes of the government because overwhelmingly, that is who is committing them. For example:
Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. Many of these crimes were perpetrated as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations and constitute crimes against humanity. War crimes and gross violations of international human rights law–including summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, unlawful attack, attacking protected objects, and pillaging and destruction of property–have also been committed. The tragedy of Syria’s 4.25 million internally displaced persons is compounded by recent incidents of IDPs being targeted and forcibly displaced.
But it also strives, in every category, to balance the scales by showing that Assad's opposition is also guilty of war crimes.
Anti-Government armed groups have also committed war crimes, including murder, sentencing and execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and pillage. They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas. The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.
Even though they acknowledge the government is the worst actor in the conflict, they oppose military, or frankly any support, for the people fighting him since their hands are also dirty.
There is a human cost to the increased availability of weapons. Transfers of arms heighten the risk of violations, leading to more civilian deaths and injuries.

A diplomatic surge is the only path to a political settlement. Negotiations must be inclusive, and must represent all facets of Syria’s cultural mosaic.
Nothing in this report is likely to slow the flow of weapons to the government of Syria, from Russia and Iran, or the flow of fighters from Hezbullah, but it may influence the "good" UN citizens not to supply arms to the Syrians in need of self-defense.

While the report does find the Assad regime guilty of horrendous war crimes, including mass murder, against the Syrian people, it seems to imply that Bashar al-Assad should be a part of any political settlement. This is how it sees the path forward:
Syria remains engulfed in an escalating civil war. The Syrian National Dialogue Forum, launched 24 March by the Government and the domestically-based opposition to promote national reconciliation, has not shifted the momentum toward a political solution.
What the UN commission is referring to as the "domestically-based opposition" is not the thousands of defectors from Assad's army but the phony government sanctioned opposition that could still operate openly and meet with the regime in Damascus. Amidst all this Assad created carnage, the UN commission is promoting these "company unions" as the basis for a "political solution!"

Their report continues:
Similarly, Presidential Decree 23 of 16 April 2013, hailed as the most comprehensive amnesty to date, has fallen short of achieving demobilisation of the Government’s opponents.
Are they actually proposing that this amnesty be believed? Even in the face of the lying, murdering ways they themselves document the Assad regime has been treating its people?

Here finally they reveal their end game - "demobilisation of the Government’s opponents" but not the demobilisation or disarming of the government.

But this whole thing began because the government started the wanton slaughter of people demanding a change in their government. So where does that leave people who want to overthrow a fascist government willing to use military power to suppress them?

The report does make it clear the Assad regime is doing that:
Brutal tactics adopted during military operations, particularly by Government forces, led to frequent massacres and destruction on an unprecedented scale.
And they continue:
In regions held by armed groups in northern and eastern governorates, Government forces resumed their brutal and often indiscriminate campaign of shelling, using a wide variety of weaponry. Besides the continuous use of aerial bombardments, they have fired strategic missiles, cluster and thermobaric bombs. This appears to be part of a broader strategy aimed at eroding civilian support for anti-Government armed groups and at damaging infrastructure. The majority of these attacks targeted towns and neighbourhoods controlled or infiltrated by armed groups, rather than targeting those groups’ military bases.

22 . Defections and casualties affected Government forces’ strength and cohesion. To generate combat power, the Government increasingly relied on militia recently transformed into the National Defence Army, a paramilitary force. Drawn mainly from pro-Government communities, these self-defence forces have been systematically engaged in combat operations alongside army units.

23. Recently, Hezbollah fighters are openly supporting the Syrian military during operations conducted near Al-Qusayr along the Lebanese border while members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine –General Command have done the same around Yarmouk camp in Damascus.
They oppose the introduction on new weapons to either side even though they acknowledge the extremely inequality in weaponry:
28 Armed groups are still equipped mainly with small arms and light weapons, but with an increase in anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, as well as indirect fire assets, provided predominantly by supporting countries and armed groups in the region.
How do they know that? The Syrian opposition receives weapons from abroad and they take weapons from Assad. Defecting soldiers also bring weapons. The FSA claims, and many observers believe, that the opposition gets most of their weapons from raiding government arsenals.

This report never mentions captured weapons and doesn't try to support its claim that the opposition is using weapons "provided predominantly by supporting countries and armed groups in the region," a conclusion which would draw no objection from the Assad regime as it fits their narrative.

While the commission report does spend the most time on the crimes of the Assad regime, it strives very hard to show both sides are guilty. It would appear that this report is driven by a philosophy similar to the one promoted by commission member Carla Del Ponte when she was with the ICTY and discussed in my blog here and here.

That philosophy sees all war as bad and both sides always in the wrong and so strives to attach blame to both sides. This has been the main take-away that the MSM has gotten from the report as we can see from the NY Times headline above.

This is a very convenient view for those in the West who would rather not get involved and just let the Syrian people and their well-armed fascist government fight it out. This is the view that this report strives to create, so rather than repeat what this report had to say about the horrendous crimes of the Assad regime, for the reminder of this blog post, I will focus on what the report considers the war crimes of Assad opposition because, in contrast to their verdict as to the fate of the poor Elbaw family, I think you will see a real striving to pin the badge of war criminal on Assad's opposition.

The UN Commission says that massacres were committed by both sides and of course they list Sanamayn, Baniyas, Abel village, Al-Burj, Tartous, Homs highway and Jdeidat Al-Fadel, all massacres in which the Assad regime, what the UN Commission still recognizes as the legitimate government of Syria, was implicated and all in which women and children were slaughtered. To balance the scales, they list one incident they consider to be a massacre perpetrated by Assad's opposition:
Dayr Al-Zawr
Eleven men appear to have executed by gunshot to the back of the head on an unknown date. A known Jabhat Al-Nusra leader from Saudi Arabia, Qassoura Al-Jazrawi, reportedly shot the men who were kneeling in front of him, hands tied and blindfolded. Al-Jazrawi claimed to be carrying out a sentence from the “Sharia Court for the Eastern Region in Dayr Al-Zawr.”
The UN has a very high standard of justice and while it would likely find the court marshal of Bradley Manning and the imprisonment of a large portion of the former slave population in the US perfectly legal, it is not likely to countenance any kind of justice made necessary by the practical requirements of revolutionary war.

Their definition of torture is certainly "inclusive" enough for them to say both sides use torture:
90. Severe ill-treatment for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, amounts to torture and is a violation of international humanitarian law. The war crime of torture and cruel treatment has been perpetrated by Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters and other anti-Government armed groups.
After documenting the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the Assad regime in detention, at checkpoints and during house searches, the UN commission attempts to balance the scales by documenting sexual violence from the opposition:
94. A limited number of interviews describe women being segregated during house searches in Aleppo city, in joint operations by armed groups, with an implication of possible sexual violence.

One interviewee stated she had been the victim of a sexual assault in Yarmouk, Damascus, in April.
They also document war crimes committed by Assad's opposition against children:
98. Children were killed in attacks by armed groups. In April, a two-year-old boy died after being shot by a sniper firing from an opposition neighbourhood while on a street in Sayda Zaynab, Damascus. A 12-year-old boy in Nubul, Aleppo, was killed during rocket attacks in April by armed groups besieging the town. Child malnutrition increased in Nubul.
This is all you got? Really? Because the Assad regime has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of children, wantonly and by the meanest methods, like slitting throats and shelling playgrounds.

While the deaths of even two children at the hands of those claiming to be fighting for them is a tragedy, accidents do happen, and it must be recognized that as surely as lives will be lost in the construction of bridges, once the decision is made to meet the state's armed suppression with the people's armed resistance, the possibility that children will die at the hands of revolutionaries must be taken on and weighed against the effects on the children of the triumph of the dictatorship.

The question at the heart of this UN Commission report is whether it is ever correct to meet the state's armed suppression with a people's armed resistance, given that "war crimes," as defined by this commission, will almost certainly be committed by the people in the course of the struggle.

One of the most widely circulated charges against Assad's opposition in the report has been their use of child soldiers:
101. Some armed groups recruit and use children for active participation in hostilities. A 14-year-old boy from Homs underwent training in use of weapons with the Abu Yusef Battalion, which then used him to keep track of soldiers’ movements in Al-Waar. Other groups reject underage volunteers. Commanders in Dayr Al-Zawr refused to accept a 15-year-old boy, calling his parents to collect him.
Well those Commanders in Dayr Al-Zawr have a higher standard than the US Marine Corp. The youngest US Marine killed in the Vietnam War was a 15-year-old boy. He was black, Surpise! Surprise! His name was Dan Bullock.
102. Casualty statistics indicate 86 children were killed in hostilities as combatants. Of those, nearly half died in 2013. These figures suggest the use of children in combat is increasing.
The problem is the Assad regime is killing children armed or not, and since the UN is not about to saddle up any little blue helmets and ride off to protect the children of Syria, I would be for arming any teenager that wanted to be armed. They have a right to self-defense too, especially when their parents are being pressed to the wall and the adults at the UN are refusing them a defense.
104. Government forces conduct their military operations in flagrant disregard of the distinction between civilians and persons directly participating in hostilities. Extensive aerial and artillery capabilities continue to be deployed. Increasingly even less precise weaponry such as surface-to-surface missiles, thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions are being used. There is a strong element of retribution in the Government’s approach, with civilians paying a price for “allowing” armed groups to operate within their towns.
They recognize "a strong element of retribution in the Government’s approach" and yet they are striving for a "demobilisation of the Government’s opponents." And then what? What is the UN willing to do to protect the disarmed population?

Is it possible that some of those civilians have actually been forming armed groups to defend themselves from the regime attacks, or did they all materialize from somewhere else and just set themselves up among civilians?
109. Armed groups continue to operate within civilian areas. This endangers the civilian population and violates international legal obligations to avoid positioning military objectives within or near densely populated areas. Some armed groups take precautions to safeguard the civilian population.
Its a Catch 22: Naturally civilians have the right to self-defense but once they take up arms, they cease to be civilians. Furthermore, the UN says that since by exercising their right to self-defense, they have made themselves "military objectives", they have an "international legal obligation" to vacant the very communities they are seeking to defend and must leave them defenseless before the state's assault. Nice.
133. In Yarmouk, Damascus, armed groups have either stolen cars and trucks, or coerced residents into giving them up. In Aleppo, groups at checkpoints steal from Alawite or Shi’a civilians.

134. The “Islamist Sharia Commission” in Aleppo and Jabhat Al-Nusra in Yarmouk and in Idlib have attempted to curb such theft, arresting or expelling members of some of the groups involved.
Sounds like Sharia courts and even the terrorist blacklisted al-Nursa have a silver lining.

It has been widely reported in the media that the report claims that chemical weapons have been used but a) they don't know who used them or b) they have been used by both sides. That's not quite what the report says:
137. The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons. The dangers extend beyond the use of the weapons by the Government itself to the control of such weapons in the event of either fractured command or of any of the affiliated forces gaining access.

138. It is possible that anti-Government armed groups may access and use chemical weapons. This includes nerve agents, though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems. (my emphasis)

139. Allegations have been received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by Government forces. In four attacks – on Khan Al-Asal, Aleppo, 19 March; Uteibah, Damascus, 19 March; Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood, Aleppo, 13 April; and Saraqib, Idlib, 29 April – there are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator. Other incidents also remain under investigation.
They apparently didn't interview any of the defectors from Assad's chemical weapons division that said his army had used them, or the French report on the sarin gas canisters dropped from a helicopter that was unquestionably delivered by the Assad regime.
159. We thus reiterate the following concerns. While the nature of the conflict is constantly changing, there remains no military solution. The conflict will end only through a comprehensive, inclusive political process. The international community must prioritise a de-escalation of the war and work within the framework of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué.
Fine, the UN should begin the de-escalation of the war by stopping Assad's Scuds from striking neighborhoods and his air force from bombing communities as those are definitely war crimes and cause tremendous civilian causalities, and since one UN Special Envoy after another has failed to talk Assad into stopping, it is high time he is made to stop. That requires the use of military power. There "remains no military solution" because there is no will in the international community to stop the slaughter, so the "political solution" proposed by this report is to let the slaughter roll into a third year while the UN schedules more conferences.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

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