Syria: An unrecognized genocide

How did the United States, the global leader in international diplomacy, stand by for more than two years while the Arab Spring erupted from a village massacre to the worst known use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kurdish forces? President Obama announced on Tuesday that the United States will hold off on a military strike in Syria and endorsed a Russian proposal to take over Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, much to the relief of many Americans. Yet the remainder of his speech reflected how he has confronted the Syrian crisis during the past two years: the president gave no timeframe for Assad to hand over chemical weapons used to gas his own people and, more importantly, no clarification on how the UN could play a larger role.

The U.S.’s cautious leadership has stalled for far too long, and the violence in Syria has now escalated to the level of genocide, defined as committing any of the following acts with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group: (a) killing members of a group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm; (c) deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to cause a group’s physical destruction; (d) imposing measure intended to prevent births; and (e) forcibly transferring children. The Syrian regime and opposition forces are both guilty of at least three of these acts – killing members, causing serious bodily harm, and deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to cause a group’s destruction.

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The “intent to destroy” is often the most difficult to prove, but in Syria’s case, ample evidence suggests that the regime’s war crimes are “not only systematic, but implemented as part of a state policy,” according to Human Rights Watch. The Commission of Inquiry issued a similar statement, confirming that human rights violations “indicate the involvement…of the armed and security forces and the Government.” There is no question that the crisis in Syria has escalated to the level of genocide.

Former U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger recognized that, “the Arabs…can’t make peace without Syria,” and he is certainly correct in the current context. Bringing stability to Syria and ending the genocide are crucial for global security and upholding the value of human rights. Genocide has been described as “the ultimate crime and the gravest violation of human rights,” and in the 21st century, genocide carries an additional element of international security. Mass killings are no longer limited to the sphere of moral dilemmas; they must now be considered threats to global security.

Obama has the opportunity to reinstate U.S. credibility in the Middle East. To not cower behind past mistakes in Iraq, Cambodia, and Rwanda. The Syrian people, the international communities, and we as Americans look to Obama to lead the world in addressing the Syrian genocide and demanding effective intervention efforts. Not with a military strike and not with several rounds of bombing, no matter how “targeted” they would be. A Peace Accords document that articulates human rights standards, such as the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 in Bosnia and the Peace Accords of 1996 in Guatemala, can be a catalyst for the end of violence. The establishment of a truth commission such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia can hold Assad accountable for war crimes. Above all, President Obama should publicly acknowledge that what is occurring in Syria is genocide. Few Americans realize that if Obama were to acknowledge that genocide is underway in Syria, the United States is legally bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 intervene to stop the killing. And that would be the first step towards far more effective intervention efforts than humanitarian assistance and diplomatic efforts with Russia. 

Ko is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service. She served in the Peace Corps in Jordan and is currently studying International Development Economics.