March 14, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC—On the third anniversary of the conflict in Syria, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum urgently calls on the international community to take immediate steps to protect Syria’s defenseless civilians, relieve the desperate conditions they are facing, and prevent the growing danger of genocide.
The conflict in Syria is not simply a civil war between opposing armed forces. What started as a democratic uprising has now become an overtly sectarian conflict in which civilians are targeted for atrocities based upon their religious and ethnic identity. Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority are bearing the brunt of the Syrian government’s massive campaign of crimes against humanity and war crimes, while some of the forces opposing the regime have committed abuses and atrocities against members of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities.
The uprising’s transformation into a sectarian conflict has seen a dramatic rise in the civilian death toll: more than one-third of the estimated 140,000 killed have been civilians—including over 11,000 children. As sectarian violence becomes more widespread and systematic, there is increasing danger that it could escalate to genocide.
The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. Every day Syrian men, women, and children are falling victim to the constant bombardment of their neighborhoods, schools, markets, and hospitals; to starvation, exposure, preventable diseases, and lack of medical care; and to torture, rape, and killings. The rapidly rising number of Syrian refugees now exceeds 2.5 million, and another 6.5 million are internally displaced.
The UN projects that 75% of the population will soon require food aid, but the fighting has cut off more than 3 million Syrians from the reach of international humanitarian aid agencies. Some areas have been inaccessible for more than a year, victims of the Syrian regime’s strategy of starving the populace into submission. Residents there have resorted to eating grass to survive.
“Syria is the worst humanitarian disaster of our times and, if not addressed, could lead to enormous instability, and possibly even genocide, in a region already prone to sectarian violence,” said Tom Bernstein, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Syrian people are not the only ones endangered by the conflict. The sectarianization of the fighting is exacerbating tensions throughout the region. These tensions, combined with the burden of caring for millions of refugees, threaten to destabilize neighboring countries and lead to wider war. The plight of the Syrian people thus has grave implications for security and interests throughout the world.
“In 2005, the nations of the world agreed that they have the responsibility to protect all peoples from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing,” said Michael Chertoff, chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience, which guides the Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “Fulfilling this responsibility toward the Syrian people is both a moral obligation and a national security interest of the United States.”
For more about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s concerns about Syria, visit ushmm.org/confront-genocide/cases/syria.
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The Evolution of the Syrian Conflict
Syria’s population—22.5 million before the conflict—is ethnically and religiously diverse. Approximately three quarters are Sunni Muslims, including the Syrian Kurds, who make up about 9% of the population. An estimated 12% of Syrians belong to the Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam. Historically subjected to severe persecution, they now count among their members Syria’s current and previous president, and they dominate the Syrian security forces and army officer corps. Christians, Druze, and Ismaili and Twelver Shia make up the other principal religious minorities.
Beginning in March 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, Syrians staged mass demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad. The regime reacted with lethal violence, which provoked an armed response, and by mid-2012 the country was in the midst of a full-scale civil war.
Although the opposition was majority Sunni, the uprising was originally nonsectarian and featured calls for a pluralistic democracy that would protect the rights of all Syrians. It has since taken on sectarian dimensions, and civilians have been targeted for atrocities based upon their religious affiliation. President Assad intentionally sought this transformation to justify his continued hold on power by playing to the religious minorities’ fear of persecution should the Sunni majority take power.
Claiming that the rebels were Sunni Islamist terrorists, President Assad deployed largely Alawite elements of the security forces to rain terror on Sunni neighborhoods and civilians. He recruited and armed local Alawite militias, which have subjected their Sunni neighbors to kidnapping, torture, sexual violence, and massacres. These atrocities radicalized many in the Sunni rebel forces and exacerbated the hostility of Syria’s Sunnis not only toward the Alawites but also toward the other religious minorities, whose failure to side with the rebels was viewed as support for the regime.
The conflict also attracted an estimated 10,000 Sunni Islamist jihadis to fight against the Assad regime, as well as foreign Shia militiamen from Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan to fight alongside it. The presence of the former—highlighted in reports by both the international and state-run media—seems to confirm for Syria’s religious minorities Assad’s warning that a far worse fate awaits them if he is overthrown.
The conflict’s toll has not been limited to armed actors but is falling increasingly on unarmed civilians. The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has accumulated “massive evidence” of widespread crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against civilians by Syrian government and pro-government forces, while also documenting the role of anti-government forces in war crimes and gross violations of human rights.
The Failure of International Policies
The Syrian authorities and the international community have failed to protect civilians in Syria. In fact, the efforts of foreign governments to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict have contributed to the escalation and increasingly sectarian nature of the violence. Unwavering support by Russia and Iran for an Assad victory has enabled him to wage his campaign of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Syrian civilians. At the same time, governments in the region, hoping to curtail Iranian influence in the Middle East through regime change in Iran’s most important client state, have permitted or supported the arming and funding of extremist jihadi groups and their infiltration into Syria.
Although many Western nations—including the United States—supported the original aim of the uprising to achieve a pluralistic democracy in Syria, they have not taken effective action to make it a reality, handicapped by the Syrian opposition’s failure to present a united front. With the UN Security Council unable to agree on actions to protect Syrian civilians or to hold accountable those perpetrating international crimes in Syria, the UN’s efforts have focused on negotiating a resolution of the conflict, a policy that has failed to halt or curtail the fighting.
The Syrian conflict now endangers interests and security throughout the region and the world. Extremist forces fighting in Syria are acquiring arms and experience that enable them to carry jihad to even farther places, including Russia and Europe; to take on Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah; and to threaten United States interests. The atrocities being committed by both sides of the conflict are fanning the flames of sectarian hatred in the Middle East, North Africa, and even farther. The conflict is already metastasizing to Iraq and Lebanon and may soon infect other regions of the Middle East, possibly leading to wider war, state collapse, and the proliferation of terrorism.
Putting Civilians First
For the past three years, the international community has viewed a negotiated resolution of the conflict as being the way to protect Syria’s civilians. It is now clear that, even if the suspended Geneva II negotiations resume and eventually lead to some sort of agreement, at least some of the hundreds of different forces involved in the conflict will continue to fight, and sectarian and revenge killings will still occur. The reality is that Syrian civilians will continue to be at risk for some time to come.
On February 22, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2139, calling on all parties to the conflict to allow immediate humanitarian access to civilians and to cease all attacks on civilians and violations of international law. The resolution does not provide for sanctions, although it indicates the Security Council may take further action if the parties have not complied within 30 days of the resolution.
Concerted efforts by the international community—and particularly by those nations with influence over the parties fighting in Syria—could have real impact on relieving the suffering of civilians there. Resolution 2139 sets out many of the types of measures that should be taken to aid and protect civilians within Syria. It is imperative that the resolution be implemented.
Potential measures for aiding and protecting Syrian civilians include:
- Ensuring unimpeded and protected access by humanitarian aid agencies and organizations to provide relief to those affected by the conflict, particularly in areas that have been under siege or otherwise cut off from assistance by the fighting. Some measures that have already been tried on a small scale and could be expanded include:
- Designating specific areas to receive aid and arranging humanitarian pauses for aid delivery to those areas;
- Establishing humanitarian hubs from which aid can be quickly delivered as new needs arise.
One obstacle humanitarian aid organizations face in accessing civilians in need is the time-consuming, difficult, and unpredictable process to obtain the necessary recognition and permissions. The international community could work to create streamlined procedures to allow humanitarian supplies and assistance to reach civilian areas, including via cross-border routes.
- Protecting civilians in conflict areas, such as by pressuring the warring parties to:
- Evacuate civilians from areas under siege;
- Demilitarize and protect medical facilities, schools, and water stations;
- Release children, women, and medical personnel from detention;
- Refrain from bombing and shelling civilian neighborhoods and sites and from using indiscriminate weaponry such as cluster and barrel bombs.
- Containing the conflict through international efforts to limit the flow of fighters, arms, and funding into Syria and to help Syria’s neighbors secure their borders.
- Restraining fighting forces from war crimes, crimes against humanity, and gross violations of human rights, and holding accountable those who commit such acts. All countries with ties to any of the forces fighting in Syria could bring pressure upon those forces to exercise restraint and professional discipline in their treatment of civilian populations, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. The international community could also support collection and preservation of evidence of international crimes committed in Syria and work to ensure that perpetrators will be held accountable.
At the same time, there is also a critical need for assistance to Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries—a number projected to exceed four million by the end of 2014. Some 80% are women and children, many suffering physical or psychological trauma. More than two-thirds of Syrian refugee children are unable to attend school, often because they are performing long, arduous, and even dangerous labor to support their families. The conditions they must cope with make them vulnerable to forced prostitution, human trafficking, and recruitment to engage in combat, terrorism, or criminal activities.
Significant assistance is being delivered to Syrian refugees by the United Nations, especially the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the host governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. However, the international community must step up its efforts to provide adequate and well-coordinated assistance that will enable refugees to lead healthy, peaceful, and productive lives. This might include aid not only for direct support of refugees but also to help host countries deal with the enormous strains they are experiencing on their economy, infrastructure, and security. It might also include providing resettlement opportunities for refugees.
Today, the world looks back in sorrow and shame on the genocide the international community allowed to happen in Rwanda twenty years ago through its indifference and inaction. Meanwhile, a similar tragedy is unfolding in Syria and, if it is not stopped, its consequences could haunt us all.View All Museum News Releases