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Threat of Mass Violence Against Civilians in Syria

Today, Syria is a country whose civilians are at risk of violence, with an estimated 1,000 people killed since mid-March, and countless others detained or missing. It is also a country whose regime allows little international access by foreign journalists, human rights groups, and aid groups and that offers few response options for those interested in stemming the potential for mass atrocities. As such, it provides a serious challenge for thinking about the limits and needs of a developing international civilian protection paradigm.

This spring, governments across the Middle East have reacted with varying degrees of violence and oppression to popular protests in their countries. While there are no signs that the violence constitutes genocide, the mounting death toll in Syria marks it as one of the bloodiest responses yet seen. The current uprising gained momentum in mid-March as Syrians demonstrated for swift and comprehensive political reform. In response, the Syrian army, headed by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and other government-sponsored security forces have attempted to crush the uprising.

Reports from those who have gained access describe the indiscriminate shooting of protestors by security forces, a widespread intimidation campaign involving the detention of relatives and neighbors of government critics, and the prevention of injured individuals from receiving critical medical treatment. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Syrian security forces are conducting a “nationwide campaign of arbitrary arrests and intimidation against political and human rights activists, holding them incommunicado, forcing them to sign undertakings to stop protesting, and in some cases torturing them.”

Syria has been under Emergency Law since the Baath party took power in 1963 in a violent coup. It also has a precedent for the current violence: the February 1982 massacre of Sunni Muslims who opposed the government’s policies. This assault was orchestrated by then-leader and the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Estimated deaths vary, with lower figures citing at least 10,000 killed.

Under the current emergency law, security forces have broad powers to arrest and detain civilians. Protestors want that law lifted, as well as significant political reform that would include a multi-party democratic process, eased restrictions on media, more stringent and enforced anti-corruption laws, and increased civil liberties and political freedom.

What responses are possible in this case? Sanctions, so far, have been the primary response. On May 18 the United States government announced it would impose sanctions against President Assad and six other senior officials in response to human rights abuses against their own civilians. The European Union, which had already imposed sanctions on 13 Syrian leaders, added President Assad on May 23.

Despite pronouncements that the assaults have ended, the Syrian government appears to be continuing to target protestors or anyone associated with them, leaving civilians at grave risk of mass violence and human rights violations. For more information from a range of sources, visit Relief Web’s Syria resource page.