Maeve McKeown: Who bears responsibility for the mass atrocities of Aleppo?

UK Parliament debates intervention in Syria in 2013
UK Parliament debates intervention in Syria in 2013

Who is responsible for the horrors of Aleppo? We know that Syrian and Russian government and military officials are morally and criminally responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as potentially are Iranian militias. But it will be a long time before these people are brought to face the international criminal court, if they ever are.

The more urgent question was (and still is) who bears the responsibility to protect civilians when their government is attacking them? The UN thought it had solved this problem in 2005, when it unanimously adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): a commitment to prevent mass atrocities wherever they occur. However, R2P requires UN Security Council clearance, and Russia has vetoed every attempt at UN intervention in Syria.

The next contender is the United States. But Obama refused to intervene on the grounds that intervention was unlikely to be effective and that there was no public will for it. He was also deterred by the 2013 vote in the UK parliament, which rejected military assistance to a US-led campaign.

In this week’s UK parliamentary debate, George Osborne argued that Britain shares responsibility for the crisis in Aleppo because of the failure to intervene in 2013, and asserted that the UK’s inaction paved the way for Russia to intervene instead.

However, the circumstances then were different. The government proposed an aerial bombing offensive in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. MPs wanted concrete evidence, so as not to be led into war under false pretences, as happened with Iraq. Moreover, would an aerial bombing campaign not simply have led to the deaths of more civilians? Russian military intervention was not yet on the cards.

Nevertheless, it was foreseeable in 2013 that Assad would commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, and there is now considerable evidence of such crimes. Romeo Dallaire, former head of the failed UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, argues that the key to preventing mass atrocities is ‘to garner domestic support’ (PDF) for intervention. Ordinary citizens have a responsibility to pressure their governments to prevent mass atrocities. The US and UK did not intervene because we didn’t want them to. Why not?

Some on the so-called ‘hard left’ reject intervention outright, claiming that the genocide in Aleppo is a fiction, or that the numbers have been exaggerated. Some argue that intervention is always a ruse to fund the global elite’s war machine. Others assert that the ‘rebel forces’ are really an assortment of Jihadists who are also committing war crimes, which are conveniently being ignored by the liberal Western media because they are funded by the US.

This contingent of the ‘hard left’ is peddling crude economic determinism. We know that many opposition groups are also committing war crimes, but we must remember that Assad wields the power of the state apparatus, as well as the support of the Russian military. Who has the capacity to murder, torture and detain more civilians: the state or a loose collection of dissident groups? When the state turns on its citizens, a uniquely terrifying kind of crime is unleashed.

Among another contingent of the left, the reluctance to intervene has two sources. First, they don’t want to get their hands dirty by discussing issues of war and military intervention. They do not want to discuss how the powerful can prevent mass atrocities. They think the left has ceded this territory entirely to liberals and conservatives. Second, they are still reeling from Iraq. The deep theoretical and experiential distrust of ‘humanitarian intervention’ prevented them from recognising the crossed line of chemical weapons attacks in 2013. At that time there were reasons for caution, but that distrust continued to stop them from pushing for action in Aleppo months ago, when we knew that war crimes had been committed and the threat of mass atrocity was clear. If we mean ‘never again’, it’s time for the left to have a serious conversation about what intervention means and when it might be necessary and justified.

Fundamentally, citizens’ responsibility is to pressure the powerful to act, whether militarily or otherwise, and in that we have so far failed. If we learn that more mass atrocities are imminent (as is very likely in Syria), we have to be ready with answers about whether we will seek some form of intervention. If the answer is yes, it means pressuring the government to act: writing to MPs and protesting parliament, as well as the Syrian and Russian embassies. For now, we must support humanitarian efforts and the reconstruction of Aleppo.

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