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New Study Warns of Potential for Genocidal Violence in Syria

WASHINGTON, DC—The longer the current conflict in Syria continues, the greater the danger becomes that mass sectarian violence against civilians could result in genocidal violence in certain areas. This is the conclusion drawn by noted Syrian expert Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in a study commissioned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

“In June 2012, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum expressed grave concern about the escalating violence in Syria and warned that the increasingly sectarian nature of that violence could, if unchecked, lead to genocide,” said Tom A. Bernstein, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. “Since that statement, the number of Syrians displaced or killed has increased nearly tenfold and civilians are being increasingly targeted because of their religion. This study by Ambassador Hof confirms that the horrors the Syrian people are already experiencing, which include crimes against humanity, could deteriorate into genocidal violence in certain areas. Swift and effective measures from the international community are required to avert Syria’s further descent into the abyss of genocide.”

In Sectarian Violence in Syria's Civil War: Causes, Consequences, and Recommendations for Mitigation (PDF), Ambassador Hof, who previously served at the US Department of State as special advisor for transition in Syria, examines the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence in Syria and its implications for the future. He warns that the longer the conflict lasts, the likelier the worst-case scenario becomes, in which both Alawite and Sunni forces could potentially subject civilians, based on their religion or ethnicity, to measures designed to eliminate them entirely from certain areas, including through forced deportations and mass murder.

“Genocide and mass atrocities are not just moral concerns for the American people; they also threaten our national security,” said Michael Chertoff, chairman of the Committee on Conscience, which guides the Museum’s genocide prevention program, and former secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security. “The violence in Syria is already having negative repercussions on security in the Middle East; these will increase exponentially and spread far beyond the region if the violence is allowed to reach genocidal proportions.”

While indicating that American “boots on the ground” are neither required nor desired by the Syrian people, Ambassador Hof lays out a range of policy options that the United States and its allies can take to mitigate the risks of a worst-case outcome for Syria. The Museum does not endorse these or any particular policy recommendations, but it hopes that the urgency conveyed in this study, and the discussions it will inevitably provoke, will help motivate the international community to move swiftly to protect the Syrian people from further sectarian mass atrocities.

Ambassador Hof’s key findings include:

  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of lethal violence against peaceful demonstrations by members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority sparked the current armed uprising against his regime.
  • Assad has intentionally fanned the flames of sectarianism in order to persuade Syria’s minorities—Kurds, Christians, Druze, and Shia, as well as Alawites—that only he can save them from massacre at the hands of Sunni extremists led by foreign terrorists.
  • Assad’s deployment of largely Alawite units, including criminal militia gangs, to inflict terror on Sunni communities deemed loyal to the opposition has caused many Syrians to view all Alawites as complicit in his regime’s crimes.
  • Assad’s sectarian tactics attracted well-armed foreign Sunni jihadists into Syria to support the opposition, and their success in combat has won admiration and greater receptivity to Islamist extremism.
  • Assad’s manipulation of sectarianism has thus created conditions for sectarian mass slaughter.

Ambassador Hof’s full report can be read here (PDF). More information on Syria and the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide can be found here.

Genocide is defined in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as certain acts committed with the intent to destroy, “in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” International courts have found that genocidal acts can take place in the context of a broader conflict, such as in Srebrenica in 1995.

A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Federal support guarantees the Museum’s permanent place on the National Mall, and its far-reaching educational programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors. For more information, visit ushmm.org.

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