Resurrect This Bill: Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2014

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This article is part of “Resurrect This Bill!”, a series of articles highlighting bills that have “died in a previous Congress.” These bills, if passed, would enable America to make great progress in the fight against global poverty and help ensure American national security.

WASHINGTON — The Syrian civil war is resistant to facile dichotomies of good and evil. As civilians are being massacred, homes are being destroyed and survivors are being displaced and scattered across Syria’s neighboring countries, the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and at least 13 different opposition groups fight over Syria’s future.

Throw into the mix foreign nations cynically pursuing their own geopolitical goals, and it is easy to see why the Syrian civil war has been conducive to chaos and bloodshed.

Despite the devastation the war has wrought in the past four years, “Syria is in the early stages of its conflict,” Barbara F. Walter, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, said in a memo for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference. In the same memo, Walter suggested the Syrian civil war would last at least 10 years.

The Syrian government’s current strategy consists of “seemingly irrational military acts” meant to undermine the opposition’s ability “to build legitimate alternative governance structures,” said Marc Lynch, the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.

To show the opposition cannot provide civilians with basic services and security, the Assad regime has resorted to “indiscriminate rocket fire [and the]denial of humanitarian aid.”

All too aware of Assad’s strategy, the members of the fragmented opposition have very little incentive to be merciful to the Syrian government and its allies both during the civil war and especially after it.

“[T]here is a valid concern that Alawites [the Muslim sect to which Assad belongs]and other minorities would be massacred in revenge violence and repression, [if the Assad regime were to fall],” James D. Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University, said.

As a response to the horror of the Syrian civil war, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2014 on April 3, 2014.

The bill “require[s]a report on accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.” It recognizes that all parties involved in the Syrian civil war have committed atrocities, and must be held to account.

The Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act condemns the Syrian government’s “systematic gross human rights violations” and denounces “violent extremist groups” who have indulged in “murder and torture.”

In the bill, Sen. Cardin urges U.S. President Barack Obama to support international efforts and efforts of those in Syria to document the crimes committed. In particular, Sen. Cardin demands that the United Nations Security Council investigate the various violations of human rights, violations of “internationally accepted rules of war” and the use and location of unconventional weapons.

Unconventional weapons include chemical weapons such as sarin gas, which is 25 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, and mustard gas, which killed more people than any other chemical agent in World War I.

Aside from playing an ancillary rule, America is called upon to be a leader in this time of crisis. The bill requires the Secretary of State submit a report describing the “initiatives that the United States Government has undertaken to train investigators in Syria on how to document, investigate, and develop findings of war crimes.” The report must also include a “strategy and implementation efforts” that ideally will lead to the creation of a tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes committed during the Syrian civil war.

Despite its impassioned pleas for peace and justice, the bill still cannot hide its qualified optimism. It implicitly acknowledges the civil war will continue and that many more innocents will die, often horribly.

However, for those who have died and will have died before this bill becomes law, the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act seeks to obtain the justice they had been denied in life.

Additionally, it seeks to secure justice for the living. Though the bill uses the vague phrase “other combatants,” it still recognizes that even supposedly moderate opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army have harmed the ones whom they claim to fight for. It does not excuse their actions simply because they oppose the Assad regime, and it will work to hold these groups accountable.

Accountability is sorely needed in light of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s plans to “train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.” Carter is right when he says America needs to “have a plan that leads to success.” He only needs to add that America and the world should not pay for success with their consciences.

Dean Delasalas

Sources: U.S. Dept. of Defense, GovTrack, Nuclear Threat Initiative 1, Nuclear Threat Initiative 2, OPCW, Project on Middle East Political Science 1,Project on Middle East Political Science 2, Time, Institute for the Study of War
Photo: NPR

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