By: Yasmin Faruki, Columnist
Photo by: Reuters
The Assad government’s assault on Eastern Ghouta this month has produced some of the deadliest days of the Syrian Civil War since 2013. According to the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, between February 18 to February 23, a series of regime strikes killed more than 500 civilians, and wounded 2,500 more;[i] 400,000 people remain trapped.[ii] This is not the first time that international community has failed to intervene in a humanitarian crisis, and it likely will not be the last. The reality of our international system is that it is built to serve national strategic interests, not protect the lives of civilians.
When the bombings began, Ghouta was technically considered a “de-escalation zone” – a region in which all fighting forces would cease hostilities.[iii] This armistice was agreed upon by Russia, Iran, and Turkey during previous negotiations last July in Astana. But the Assad regime targeted Ghouta because it is one of the last remaining rebel-held regions east of Damascus. The area is controlled by three rebel groups: Jaysh al Islam, Failaq al-Rahman, and a small contingent of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al Nusra.[iv]
Assad’s sustained slaughter of Ghouta’s civilian population should come as no surprise. More than 60 years after the creation of the United Nations, there are more displaced persons around the world than ever before.[v] One of the primary purposes of the UN is to prevent global atrocities.[vi] Yet the institution has repeatedly failed or delayed to act on reports of genocides, such as in Srebrenica and Rwanda in the 1990s.[vii] Today, the world is still silent on similar crises, including the ongoing massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.[viii] In each of these humanitarian crisis, countries lacked sufficient political will to justify significant interventions.
Thus far, the international community’s response to the attacks in Ghouta has been lackluster. Some countries – including the United States, France, Peru, and Ethiopia – issued condemnations.[ix] UNICEF released a blank sheet of paper – a symbolic stunt to show that they “no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.”[x] The UN Security Council agreed to a 30-day ceasefire that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to the battered region. Yet even after the armistice was passed, reports emerged that the Syrian government not only continues to pummel Eastern Ghouta with air and ground assaults, but is also using chlorine gas – a clear act of defiance to the international community.[xi]
What can be done to stop the slaughter? Respect for state sovereignty makes it difficult for international institutions like the UN to respond to atrocities. But what about the role of individual nations, such as the United States? Some argue that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to respond to humanitarian crisis, because the country has long been considered the leader of the post-war liberal order. Yet these interventionists are quick to call for immediate action, but rarely present an adequate blueprint for how to ensure post-conflict, political stability. For example, in 2011, a NATO-led coalition responded to international calls to intervene in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi threatened to butcher civilians in Benghazi.[xii] Ultimately, however, this action only plunged the country into chaos, because the NATO coalition could not help establish an effective, post-war political process. President Obama faced a similar quandary in 2013 when he decided not to send American forces to Syria, even after the Assad regime crossed his infamous “red line” by using chemical weapons.[xiii] Though it is difficult to imagine a worse situation than the current state of Syria, it is unclear whether greater US involvement would have produced a better outcome – particularly given the lack of American public support, capable allies, and a viable post-conflict reconciliation plan.
The Trump administration is unlikely to veer from the same course of inaction taken by President Obama. Reactive, knee-jerk strikes like the one Trump ordered last April, following reports of a chemical attack in Syria, may have helped the president sleep better for one night, but they did not deter Assad from continuing to use chemical weapons.[xiv] The international taboo against unconventional weapons appears to be an arbitrary and useless distinction in the Syrian civil war. The excessive focus on chemical weapons as the appropriate standard for intervention ignores the fact that far more Syrian civilians have been killed by conventional weapons.[xv]
We should stop pretending that the international system is designed to protect civilians. As Robert Luttwak argues in “Give War A Chance,” his seminal article on humanitarian crises, multilateral institutions often impose armistices on lesser powers for “disinterested and frivolous motives, such as television audiences’ revulsion at harrowing scenes of war.[xvi]” Indeed, the UN brokered ceasefire in Ghouta was less intended to change the reality on the ground than it was to assuage the international community’s discomfort with mass killing. Absent strong political will and decisive military action, the Assad government will continue to massacre many more Syrians. Years from now, we will surely look back on the situation in Ghouta as yet another instance in a long history of failures by our international system to protect civilians.
[ii] “Eastern Ghouta: What is happening and why,” Al Jazeera, March 1st, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/eastern-ghouta-happening-180226110239822.html.
[iii] “Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ explained,” Al Jazeera, July 4, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/syria-de-escalation-zones-explained-170506050208636.html.
[iv] Aron Lund, “Understanding Eastern Ghouta in Syria,” IRIN, February 23, 2018, http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2018/02/23/understanding-eastern-ghouta-syria.
[v]Laura Tavares, “Text to Text: Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s With Syrian Refugees Today,” New York Times, January 4, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/learning/lesson-plans/text-to-text-comparing-jewish-refugees-of-the-1930s-with-syrian-refugees-today.html.
[vi] “United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect,” accessed February 28, 2018, http://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/prevention.html.
[viii] “The Rohingya refugee crisis is the worst in decades,” The Economist, September 21, 2017, https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/09/daily-chart-13.
[ix] “Despite Calls to End ‘Hell on Earth’, Security Council Divided over Course of Action for Halting Hostilities in Eastern Ghouta, Syria,” United Nations, February 22, 2018, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13219.doc.htm.
[x] Bethan McKernan, “UN issues blank sheet of paper as statement on Syria: ‘No words will do justice to the children killed,” The Independent, February 20, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-civil-war-east-ghouta-child-death-blank-statement-assad-air-stirkes-artillery-killed-a8219416.html.
[xi] “Syria war: Air strikes resume hours after UN approves ceasefire,” BBC News, February 26, 2018,
[xii] David Kirkpatrick, “Qaddafi Warns of Assault on Benghazi as U.N. Vote Nears,” New York Times, March 17, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/world/africa/18libya.html?pagewanted=all.
[xiii] Madeline Conway, “Timeline: U.S. approach to the Syrian civil war,” Politico, April 7 2017,
[xiv] Micah Zenko, “Trump’s Humanitarian Intervention in Syria Is Just Getting Started,” Foreign Policy, April 9 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/09/trumps-humanitarian-intervention-in-syria-is-just-getting-started/.
[xv]Paul Miller, “Chemical Weapons Aren’t the Real Problem in Syria,” Foreign Policy, April 19, 2017 http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/18/chemical-weapons-arent-the-real-problem-in-syria/.
[xvi] Robert Luttwak, “Give War A Chance,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1999, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1999-07-01/give-war-chance.