If war crimes occurred in Syria, the West must hold Russia accountable

If war crimes occurred in Syria, the West must hold Russia accountable
© Getty Images

The Syrian conflict is about to enter its eighth year. On March 6, the world’s supervillain, Russia, was accused of committing war crimes in Syria. A new report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria makes adverse findings against Russia. Although the commission is not a judicial tribunal, its report carries significant weight. It was established under the aegis of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and charged with making authoritative findings of fact based on evidence.

Crucially, the commission identified a party as a violator only if there was evidence that the legal standard of proof was met. In other words, there was “a reliable body of information to conclude that there were reasonable grounds” for belief that Russia may have committed war crimes. The solidity of the commission’s methodology and investigatory processes will make it hard for Russia to dismiss this as a political attack.

So, amid the many horrific crimes in Syria, why single out Russia — and why does it matter? To be sure, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ISIL, and the many criminal elements operating in Syria have committed war crimes.


Theirs is not a question of guilt but of an inability to bring to justice — these actors operate outside the civilized world order. Russia is different; as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a state that professes to participate in peaceful international relations, it is very much within the reach of the law. Therefore, a finding of fact that Russia may be guilty of war crimes matters — for the Russians, and for any other state with a claim to taking international law seriously.

The specific finding against Russia pertains to air strikes on Nov. 13, 2017, against a market and houses in Atarib, in which more than 60 people died and scores of people were injured. The strikes apparently targeted a densely populated civilian area with schools, houses and shops. The commission found that “the strikes were conducted by a Russian fixed-wing aircraft using unguided weapons, including blast weapons.” Because it was reasonably obvious that the use of such weapons in a civilian area would result in a substantial number of civilian deaths or injuries, the commission made a finding that “the use of unguided bombs, including blast weapons, in a densely civilian populated area may amount to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death and injury to civilians.”

In Eastern Ghutah, the commission made chilling findings against the Assad government about the “use of prohibited chemical weapons and cluster munitions.” The regime deployed these weapons against civilians and protected targets such as schools and hospitals.

Indeed, the targeting of such facilities seems to be common: in Idlib and Eastern Ghutah, the commission found that the regime “deliberately” hit hospitals “as part of their war strategy, which constitutes the war crime of intentionally targeting protected objects.” Hospital staff and ambulances were also deliberately targeted, again constituting war crimes. The regime also indiscriminately used cluster munitions on civilian targets in violation of international law.

As of 2016, the Syrian conflict had killed nearly a half-million people. An estimated 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced, about half of them children. The conflict represents the absolute nadir for the U.N. system — criminally embarrassing impotence amid barbaric killings of innocent civilians for no fault other than the misfortune of geography.

Realistically, the United Nations and countries such as the United States possess very little leverage against Assad to do anything meaningful in the short term. The Security Council resolution of Feb. 24, 2018, “demanding” a ceasefire, has been shown to be otiose verbiage by Assad. The United Nations has been reduced to pleading with Assad for its implementation — quite the opposite of a demand. Even the delivery of the most necessary humanitarian assistance to 400,000 people trapped in Ghouta depends upon his mercy. There are reports that air strikes now are stymieing the aid convoy, which had been unable to deliver desperately-needed food and supplies because of violence.

Is everything lost for the U.N. system? As the list of failed states continues to grow — Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and at least 30 other countries — the United Nations finds itself bereft of leverage and ability to do the very thing for which it was established.

Against this gloom, the Commission of Inquiry’s finding against Russia in Syria offers a rare opportunity for leverage — a potential prosecution for war crimes against a mainstream, non-failed state that depends on other states. No matter Russia’s true disdain for international law, it must at least pretend to be law-abiding to achieve its rational self-interest. Hence, Russia’s pious pronouncements at various international fora — and the opportunity for other states to make those words count. Talk is usually cheap in international relations, except when a state is accused of war crimes.

Now is the time for the United Kingdom, United States, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE in particular, to act on the basis of the U.N. commission’s authoritative finding to hold Russia accountable. At a minimum, as with other commissions of inquiry, the finding must result in the imposition of sanctions against Russia.

If the United States, United Kingdom and Western states were to impose sanctions, it would achieve at least two things: impose economic pain that Russia can ill afford, and undermine Russia’s ability to back Assad with impunity. It also would chill further misadventures in Syria. Ideally, leverage over Russia would translate into pressure on Assad.

Admittedly, the prospects of influencing Russia and Assad are slim. But when faced with impossible odds, even the smallest advantage must be pressed. As the Russians know from their involvement in the Battle of Narva in 1700, brute force alone does not always guarantee victory. This could be a Narva moment.

Sandeep Gopalan is the pro vice chancellor for academic innovation and a professor of law at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.