Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Syrian rebel's video surfaces amid intensified pressure for action on Syria

The gruesome video shocked the international community. With concerns about arming the rebels, attention is turning to greater humanitarian aid as a way to help in the increasingly violent war. 

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his weapon as he takes position in Deir al-Zor, Syria, Monday.

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An unauthenticated video that appears to show a Syrian rebel severely abusing the body of a dead soldier has highlighted the increasingly dire situation in Syria, where war crimes and sectarian rhetoric in the two-year conflict appear to be on the rise.

"I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog," a man says on tape as he stands over the body of a soldier, referring to soldiers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The video is 27 seconds long, according to Time, and the man is believed to be a rebel commander named Khalid al-Hamad, also known as Abu Sakkar.

The video, in part, speaks to one challenge facing Western governments that have discussed arming rebels but have yet to take action: how to support rebels in a mismatch against the better-armed regime, while ensuring weapons don’t fall into the “wrong hands” and perpetuate an already gruesome conflict, as Time notes in its report:

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already providing the rebel forces with military aid, and the U.S. is helping with nonmilitary aid. There is an ongoing debate in Washington about whether the U.S. government should provide further aid to the rebels, possibly including weapons. Eating an enemy’s liver may be an extreme example of what appears to be a rebel atrocity, but there is enough documented evidence of extrajudicial killings, torture and desecration on the part of the rebels that it would be near impossible to know for certain who, exactly, are the “good” guys, says Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for the New York–based group Human Rights Watch.

“In this context, where different rebel groups are fighting alongside each other, and sharing weapons, it’s difficult to control where the weapons end up. It is very likely that some of the weapons will end up in the hands of the likes of Abu Sakkar.”

In the spring of 2011, Syrians joined regional pro-democracy uprisings, but the Assad government clamped down on protests. Many believed the violence would be contained and short-lived, but today upwards of 70,000 Syrians have died in the bloody civil war.

In what the United Nations envoy called “the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time," Russia and the US have agreed to host a conference on Syria at the end of the month or early June.

President Obama is under increasing pressure to take action in Syria. According to Voice of America, different stakeholders are clamoring for President Obama to create no-fly zones or execute targeted air strikes on the regime.

The pressure is coming from all directions – from Obama’s political rivals at home, the Syrian rebels themselves and powerful U.S. allies such as Britain, France, Israel and Turkey. All of them argue Syria has already crossed the so-called “red line” Obama himself drew nearly a year ago when he said use of chemical weapons against civilians would be a “game changer” requiring U.S. action in Syria.

Kori Schake from Foreign Policy argues there may be a way for the US to intervene without confronting the murky issue of arming rebels. Mr. Schake contends that emphasizing humanitarian need may present an opportunity to united disparate world players and help move Syria toward a peaceful resolution.

Focusing on refugees would be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration, and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in. The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to abandon Iranian objectives….

Such an approach would not prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.

According to FP, the violence in Syria has displaced more than 4 million people from their homes, and nearly 1.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Jonathan Kay from Canada’s National Post echoes the idea of a humanitarian-focused approach to the war.

Instead of focusing on “red lines” and the like, Western nations should be funding and organizing a proper aid response to a humanitarian disaster that some are describing as one of the most horrendous the world has witnessed since World War II. This effort will require not only money, but also a sustained diplomatic push in Ankara, Beirut, Amman and Baghdad to ensure that these nations permit aid to travel to the people who need it, and expand their own refugee-aid infrastructure.

“It’s really not very certain in international law what the legality of humanitarian intervention is,” Ian Hurd, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, told VOA. “You can use international law to justify a humanitarian intervention, as in Libya, but you can also use the fact of state sovereignty to argue against it.”

John Kampfner of the Guardian argues that Syria is proving to be the first conflict in a “post-superpower” world. Whereas in the past, the US would have intervened with or without global support, today, staying out of the melee has “proved attractive.”

The absence of leadership or strategy is palpable. On Assad's use of chemical weapons, which Obama said would mark a red line, it appears that the US bluff may have been called. In another sign of the west's weakness, both David Cameron and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, have gone cap in hand to Assad's chief supporter, Vladimir Putin – a few months ago the Americans and British were dismissive of the Russian position. In their meeting in Washington on Monday, Cameron said he and Obama – "whatever our differences" – had the same aim as Putin: "a stable, inclusive and peaceful Syria free from the scourge of extremists". That statement meant everything and nothing.

Twenty-five years of single-power dominance came crashing down with Iraq. Obama has been wise and politically brave to shed the hubris and self-delusion that had taken hold. Libya was a brief interlude, but the days of heavy-handed military intervention are over. It is Syria's tragedy, and will soon be others', that nothing has been put in its place.

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