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On The Fourth Anniversary of the Syrian Civil War: A Case for Prevention

The fourth anniversary of the Syrian civil war is this week, and the statistics showing the human toll of the conflict are bleak. Nine children are killed in Syria every day. 6-percent of the population has been killed, maimed, or wounded. Life expectancy has fallen by 27-percent, from 75.9 years to 55.7 years. And 3.3 million Syrians have fled and are living as refugees in neighboring countries; 7.6 million people are internally displaced.

Between chemical weapons attacks, the use of indiscriminate barrel bombs, and targeted attacks on civilians and hospitalsatrocities have become a regular feature of the conflict. Furthermore, imagessmuggled out by a defector show the maimed bodies of political prisoners, men, women, and children. The majority of the atrocities are being perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with evidence mounting that orders to carry out these attacks come from the highest levels of the state.

It is not as if the world has forgotten what is happening in Syria; rather, the carnage, death, and mass killing have become the status quo. The UN stopped counting casualties in January 2014, and in their latest report, the United Nations Development Program and United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Syria said

“The people of Syria are now forced to live under a terrible state of exception, estrangement and alienation with a massive social, political and economic chasm dividing them from those involved in violence and the institutions of violence.”

In March 2011, the Syrian government’s repression of political protesters quickly prompted the onset of a full-fledged civil war. In the four years since, that war has spawned an international refugee crisis and has created fertile ground for the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State. While international governments and NGOs began to condemn the Syrian government’s violence en masse in the summer of 2011, policymakers have struggled, but failed to stop the killing. As Somini Sengupta observes in The New York Times, the UN Security Council’s failure in Syria has significantly damaged its reputation and credibility among both aid groups and the parties to Syria’s civil war:

“United Nations experts have painstakingly documented a litany of torture, rape and execution committed in Syria in the past four years. No one has been held accountable. The Security Council has authorized the delivery of food and medicines, but a year since it did, aid agencies say they continue to be stymied — with no reprisal from the world powers. As for a political solution to end the war, the third and latest United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has yet to persuade the warring sides to agree to a truce for even a few weeks in even a single city, let alone resume peace talks. On all three counts, the United Nations as a whole has been unable to offer a path out of a war that has dragged on for four years, left an estimated 220,000 dead, given rise to vicious jihadists and spread havoc across the region.”

While the Islamic State’s atrocities in Syria and Iraq have captured the world’s attention over the last few months, it is the Syrian government that continues to commit mass atrocities against its own citizens. In both cases, various solutions and arrangements to end the violence have been attempted or explored by individual states and multilateral institutions alike. Thus far these efforts have done little to halt the atrocities. The resounding conclusion has been that, in Syria, there are “no good options.”

At the Early Warning Project, we focus on providing early warning of the risk of mass atrocities. Our aim in doing so is to fill a gap identified in the 2008, Genocide Prevention Task Force, a high-level, bipartisan group of former U.S. policymakers, that called for a “reliable process for assessing risks and generating early warning of potential atrocities.” Indeed,

if signs of genocide and mass atrocities are only detected once violence has begun to escalate, decision makers are left with only costly and risky options. In contrast, if underlying risks and evolving dynamics can be recognized and described accurately in advance of or at the early stages of a crisis, the full panoply of policy options will be viable.

Looking ahead, we hope our work—statistical assessments of the risk of state-led mass killing complemented by aggregated experts forecasts—can help broaden the array of policy options available to prevent atrocities and in doing so, reduce the number of situations where action taken is too little or too late.