Is the Assad regime worse than ISIS

Archive for the category: What's next in Syria?


The advance of the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Iraq and the air strikes by the USA and its allies against the Islamist extremists dominate the coverage of the Middle East. The civil war in Syria, which has been going on for years, and its victims are disappearing from the public eye. In view of the systematic atrocities of the Assad regime, it would be short-sighted and dangerous to reduce Western Syria policy to the fight against ISIS alone. What is needed is a more comprehensive approach that places greater emphasis on protecting the civilian population in particular. Based on expert interviews, this Policy Brief outlines specific measures that could be used to reduce the suffering of the Syrian population. The full interviews are attached to this Policy Brief as documentation.

War in Syria and the emergence of the so-called Islamic State

With more than 191,000 dead and 9.5 million displaced, the civil war in Syria has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe that is now destabilizing the entire Middle East. Earlier decisive intervention by the international community could not only have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, but also prevented the increasing radicalization and brutalization of the conflicting parties. However, due to the Russian and Chinese blockade of the UN Security Council, the United Nations did not fulfill its task of maintaining world peace and protecting the civilian population. In the meantime, as a result of the escalation of the civil war by the Assad regime and the support of Islamist donors outside Syria, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has grown into one of the main actors in the now cross-border conflict in Syria.

However, the unwillingness of the West to prevent a further escalation of the Syrian civil war by any means necessary has also contributed to the emergence of the breeding ground for ISIS. A decisive reaction to the systematic human rights violations committed by the Assad regime at the beginning of the conflict would probably have prevented an escalation such as can be observed today and undermined groups like ISIS. It is now up to the international community to correct the consequences of its own inaction by turning a blind eye to the ongoing mass crimes.

No narrowing of Syria policy to ISIS

The international fight against the advance of ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria has pushed the dramatic humanitarian situation of the civilian population into the background. The current trend to view the civil war in Syria only through the lens of a struggle against Islamist groups such as ISIS or Al-Nusra is, however, a dangerous narrowing. The civilian population suffering from the conflict must be better protected from violence and moderate forces strengthened if Syria is not to become irrevocably a failed state like Somalia. As long as innocent civilians are the victims of systematic massacres, a diplomatic solution remains illusory.

Due to the military actions currently taking place, the conflict in Syria is again attracting more attention from the international public. However, this attention and momentum should also be used by the political side to make the protection of the civilian population in all of Syria a priority of international engagement, beyond the fight against ISIS. The following options for action should be examined:

1) Expand diplomatic efforts

Despite the failure of all previous peace efforts, new threads of conversation should be spun between the conflicting parties. The supporters of the regime - above all Russia and Iran - as well as the supporters of the various rebel groups - Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA - must also be included. The currently negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran and the indirect cooperation between the USA and Iran in the conflict with ISIS could represent an opportunity for negotiations on the future of Syria. At the same time, negotiations should be held with Russia and China to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court in order to deter the conflicting parties from further atrocities. Not only in view of the credible evidence available to the UN Security Council that tens of thousands of members of the opposition were tortured to death on the orders of the Assad regime, an amnesty or even cooperation with Assad is ruled out.

2) Stop air strikes on civilians

The civilian population of Syria has suffered greatly from air attacks. A particularly cruel means of warfare that does not distinguish between civilians and combatants is the use of gasoline and chlorine gas bombs by the Syrian regime against rebel-held residential areas. The international community should not allow the Syrian Air Force to continually and with impunity break fundamental norms of international law. If the government in Damascus continues to conduct such attacks, which are clearly in violation of international law, a way should be found to use the air forces already fighting against ISIS to stop further attacks on the civilian population.

In addition, Germany should use its international reputation in the field of arms control to get gasoline and chlorine gas bombs outlawed. The weapons mentioned must be included in the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to destroy Syrian chemical weapons.

3) Support local reconstruction

In the areas liberated by moderate rebels from the Free Syrian Army, economic reconstruction must be given greater support. After all, one motivation for fighters to join extreme Islamists is also financial. ISIS in particular has substantial financial resources. In this way, the group can pay their fighters a comparatively high wage and, in the event of death, also promise to provide for the family they left behind. Aid for reconstruction in areas in which there is no longer any fighting would be of great help to enable the population to obtain supplies from their own resources and outside of warfare on the part of the Islamists. For reconstruction, attention should also be paid to promoting local ceasefire agreements. Dialogue forums, such as those promoted by the Geneva Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, can bring representatives of different ethnic, religious, political and social groups together and reduce the potential for acts of revenge and ethnic conflicts.

4) Strengthening aid for refugees and residents

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid puts the necessary funds for humanitarian aid in Syria and neighboring countries at a total of six billion US dollars for 2014. So far, only 2.4 billion US dollars have been made available; 60% of the necessary financial resources are still missing. The UN must therefore cut food rations in the meantime. It is true that Germany has so far agreed to take in 25,500 Syrians and to provide financial support for humanitarian aid measures in Syria.

However, there is no doubt that aid to Syria and neighboring countries needs to be expanded urgently. This is not only about classic humanitarian aid, but also about support for the stabilization of neighboring countries. There have already been violent incidents in Lebanon. In Turkey, too, the local population is increasingly skeptical of the sheer mass of refugees. Lebanon has now closed the border to more refugees. These are warning signs to which one should react now, before skepticism turns into open - and much more difficult to manage - conflicts.

Against this background, the neighboring countries should be supported in providing humanitarian aid and in creating a peaceful environment around the refugee camps. In addition, the health and education sector in the host countries needs more support if one wants to prevent the current generation of children and adolescents from growing up without any prospects due to inadequate education and poor care. Responsible precautionary measures can help dampen the long-term negative consequences that the civil war will undoubtedly have in the coming decades. The EU should therefore take in significantly more refugees than has been the case so far.

The international community's responsibility to protect

In 2005, all member states of the United Nations committed themselves to protecting their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing by adopting the Responsibility to Protect. Should any government be unwilling or unable to protect civilians, the international community has a responsibility to protect the population. In view of the grave and systematic human rights violations in Syria, it is time for the world community to follow its words with deeds and hold those responsible to account. The longer the international community watches further brutalization, the more difficult and expensive it will be to rebuild later. A perspective for Syria can only arise if the fight against ISIS goes hand in hand with more effective protection of the civilian population everywhere in Syria and if systematic human rights crimes are punished.

Authors: Gregor Hofmann, Dr. Robert Schütte

Download: Download the Policy Brief “Despite the fight against ISIS: Don't forget to protect the Syrian population!” As a PDF.

Continue reading: To the expert interviews on Syria.