Recent reports of a sarin gas attack against the Syrian civilian population in the rebel-held province of Idlib has the world, rightfully, horrified. With political leaders around the world loudly condemning the targeting of civilians and the reliance on internationally proscribed weapons, the international debate echoes the tones of the aftermath of the brutal August 2013 sarin attack against the opposition-controlled Ghouta suburb, in the outskirts of Damascus.
In addition to eliciting international condemnation over the use of chemical weapons, these two episodes represent moments of collective outrage in a war where systematic and brutal violations of international humanitarian law have been met with reactions ranging from mild indifference to embarrassed resignation.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, the international community has gone through a number of these moments of indignation in response to atrocities committed against the civilian population. These include, among others, the expression of outrage over the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk—aptly described as the “deepest circle of hell;” the horror elicited by reports of mass executions and systematic torture in the Syrian regime’s prisons; and the more recent horror sparked by the enclosure of eastern Aleppo and the humanitarian crisis that ensued. These are all moments of collective outrage in Syria’s recurrent “cycles of horror:” gruesome atrocities that are met by collective shock; followed by a feeble international response; and then by prolonged times of relative silence, until news of the next large-scale atrocity breaks out.
But these high-profile, highly visible and horrifying violations of international humanitarian law should not be regarded or analyzed as exceptions, but rather understood as integral expressions of a long and brutal war that has often been deliberately waged against the civilian population. Many of these tactics have been adopted by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the context of a broader counterinsurgency strategy aimed at separating the insurgents from the civilian population and at simultaneously preventing the rise of an alternative political order. To do so, civilians and civilian infrastructure have time and time again been targeted—often through air power—forcing civilians to flee rebel-held areas and, in turn, leading to the forced displacement of millions of Syrians. In addition, the regime relies upon the tactic of laying siege on opposition-held areas to force rebel factions into surrendering, while punishing the civilian population. Mass-based repression of opponents, through systematic and mass-scale incarceration for example, has also been employed to further weaken the rebellion. Of course, the regime is not the sole culprit here: as the conflict evolved, the list of perpetrators grew and the deliberate targeting of civilians became more and more widespread. Still, in terms of number, scale, and degree of systematic targeting, it is clear that to understand the process of erosion of basic norms with respect to the protection of civilians in conflict, one must focus attention to the Syrian government.
So, while collective indignation over especially heinous atrocities, such as the recently reported chemical weapons attack, is appropriate. it cannot be separated from a broader understanding that deliberately punishing civilians and slowly bleeding them into submission has been a core strategy of the regime throughout the war. That strategy should be considered as worthy of outrage and condemnation as the individual atrocities committed within its framework.
In this context, it is then appropriate to wonder: is the selective attention of the international community even helpful to the protection of civilians in conflict?
On the one hand, the answer could be, sadly, negative: with the international community only focusing their condemnation on the most visible violations against the civilian population, it is possible to argue that a dangerous and de facto erosion of international humanitarian law is occurring globally, linked to the abysmal record emerging from Syria. For example, the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta led to the brokering of an American-Russian agreement culminating in UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which established provisions for Syria’s elimination of its chemical weapons arsenal. The agreement was welcomed at the international level, but within Syria, more than one observer shared the grim view that the international community had de facto sanctioned the targeting of civilians by most means, including deadly barrel bombs, but excluding chemical weapons.
On the other hand, selective international condemnation can still have an important effect: for example, preserving the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons in the context of armed conflict is important at both the regional and global level and failing to respond to identified chemical attacks would send a terrible message and further erode the laws of war. By that same token, if the response is halfhearted or feeble—from a vaguely worded UN resolution to a one-off military strike on a tactical military target—then it may fall short of both upholding basic international law principles at the global level as well as deterring real violations on the ground.
Simply put, the Syrian civil war has not just been terrible for the civilian population in the war-torn country, but it has also poked deep holes in basic principles of civilian protection from the prohibition of deliberate targeting of civilians to the need for the preservation of a humanitarian space where international humanitarian assistance can be delivered to those in need. If the international community decides that these principles and norms are worth upholding, then concerted, coherent, and credible responses are needed, beyond the “cycle of horror.”