Personal Takes: Russian war crimes in Syria, appeasement, and disgust



Once in a while, The Observer reflects on his own personal involvement in world events. Today’s news triggered such a reflection.

The news this morning is that the U.S. will resume negotiations wiith Russia over Syria, with Secretary of State John Kerry traveling to Lausanne, Switzerland to meet with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others on Saturday, October 15.

This is personal.

As an international lawyer, I feel an obligation to observe what is going on in international politics and to contribute what little I can to bring my knowledge to bear. I want to help curtail the illegal use of force across international frontiers, and to hold countries to account for violations of fundamental human rights, particularly through the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a large scale.

Many other people, throughout the world, share these goals.

In bearing witness to current events, I read leading newspapers not only from the United States, but also from other countries with a vigorous free press and outstanding reporting on world affairs.

Having benefitted from great opportunities to study and teach and work in the international arena, I want to share my insights and analyses, which are the product of many years of training and experience.

But it is a deeply personal enterprise, which affects me in deeply personal ways, every day.

While I try to limit the time and emotional energy I commit each day to reading and writing about world affairs — like others, I have a personal life to live, and would like to enjoy life fully every day — the burden of what is going on in the world is one I and others cannot fully escape.

I am mindful of the words of Karl Jaspers, in his lectures to fellow Germans after World War II published in Germany as Die Schuldfrage (The Question of Guilt), and in English as The Question of German Guilt, that a people and individual citizens bear moral responsibility for the actions of their leaders and their governments. In Germany, it was moral responsibility for the actions of the German leaders and government from 1932-1945.


“The Question of German Guilt”, by the famous German philosopher Karl Jaspers. Jaspers, in a series of lectures at the University of Heidelberg in 1948, articulated with elegant distinctions the kinds of criminal, political, moral and existential guilt Germans might feel or be accused of, as the blinders came off about what Hitler and the Nazis had done in the Third Reich. His analysis is exceedingly pertinent to “The Question of American Guilt”.
–“What difference does it make if John Brennan is confirmed?” The Trenchant Observer, February 27, 2013.

Citizens in the United States and Europe and other countries now face this individual moral responsibility for the actions of their current (and potential future) leaders and governments, including Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Theresa May, and others. Russian citizens are also morally responsible for the actions of their leaders, including Vladimir Putin.

One cannot divorce the enterprise of following international affairs, when one gets one’s bearings from a vision of peace in which countries don’t invade each other or torture and massacre their citizens, from having an emotional response to current events.

I learned this as a young lawyer working at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS), in Washington, where every day I worked into the evening processing as many complaints from relatives of the tortured and disappeared (and sometimes the victims) as I could. I learned from direct experience that a diplomatic note from the Commission to the foreign minister of a given country would shift the locus of decision making in that country’s government (e.g., from a small navy detention and torture center to the foreign ministry), and would as a result increase the chances of physical survival of those who were still alive, while also building the demand for accountability regarding those who had been killed.

You need to compartmentalize, to establish professional distance, to do that kind of work effectively. But always there is some leakage, some emotional impact that seeps into your soul.

So, that is what drives The Trenchant Observer to continually read about torture and slaughter in different countries, and now particularly in Syria, and about the illegal use of force across international frontiers which inevitably leads to immense human suffering.

My Reaction to News of the Resumption of U.S.-Russian Negotiations over Syria

Today, I must report my emotional (and intellectual) reaction to the news that the U.S. will resume negotiations with Russia over Syria:

Disgust. Utter disgust.

After all that has happened in Syria, you can’t talk about such a development without feeling disgust, deep shame for your country, and apprehension about a world led by military aggressors and ruthless dictators, on the one hand, and by pacifists and appeasers, on the other.

This is a looming world where international law and institutions, the whole framework of international peace and security in the world since 1945, is deemed irrelevant.


Torsten Krauel (Kommentar), “Putin stellt die gesamte Weltordnung in Frage,” Die Welt, 11. Oktober 2016.

“The last international lawyer, or so it seemed,” The Trenchant Observer, September 27, 2015.

“2016: Fateful time for a conversation about international law,” The Trenchant Observer, January 17, 2016.

War Crimes and Appeasement

Barack Obama has decided how to respond to the Russian commission of war crimes in Aleppo and Syria, on a massive scale.

He has blocked all initiatives within the U.S. government to do anything effective to halt the Russian war crimes.

To be sure, he has allowed U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and Secretary of State John Kerry to denounce Russia for its commission of war crimes in Syria.

And then?

And then he decided to continue on his course of appeasement of Vladimir Putin and Russia.

As he has done so many times in the past, Obama also undercut one of America’s closest allies, in this case France. France sponsored the U.N. Security Council resolution vetoed by Russia on September 25, 2016, which called for holding those committing war crimes in Syria to account.


“At last they speak the truth: U.S., U.K., and France accuse Russia of war crimes in Syria (with links to Security Council meeting video and full transcript),” The Trenchant Observer, September 25, 2016.

The French president, François Hollande, recently provoked the cancellation of a long-planned upcoming visit by Putin by saying he would only talk to him about Syria, and that Putin could not attend the inauguration of a Russian Orthodox church in Paris, which was the original reason for his visit. Putin canceled.

So, the U.S., France and the U.K. accuse Russia of committing war crimes in Aleppo and Syria.

Russia continues, every day, to commit these same war crimes in Syria.

Would it not make sense after making these accusations, which describe realities on the ground, for the U.S. and the EU to stop meeting with and talking to Putin or Lavrov so long as Russia continues its wanton commission of war crimes in Aleppo?

The U.S., instead of leading the alliance, breaks ranks, and undercuts France by agreeing to negotiate with the war criminal Putin — while he is in the act of continuing to commit war crimes in Aleppo.

Putin knows that as long as he is “negotiating” with Western countries, the use of military force and even sanctions will be forestalled. This indeed is the lesson of the whole illusory U.N. peace process, from Kofi Annan in 2012 to Stafffan de Mistura in 2016.

Obama, the hybrid-pacifist, continues his policy of appeasement toward Russia. Ruling out any threat or use of force or even economic sanctions that might shape the playing field, Obama is left with no alternative but to beg Putin for a ceasefire.

See “Appeasing the Aggressor: (Hybrid-) Pacifists in U.S. and E.U. give Russia a slap on the wrist for aggression and military intervention in the Ukraine, The Trenchant Observer, March 18, 2014.

Disgusting. Craven. Nauseating, even.

What associations come to mind?

The Stockholm Syndrome?

Neville Chamberlain and Èdouard Daladier and the Munich Pact in 1938?

500,000 people have died in Syria since 2011. There is blood dripping from Russian and Iranian and Hesbollah’s hands.

Is there anyone else who shares responsibility for these deaths?

This is the foreign policy of the United States. The government is paralyzed by Obama’s obstinate refusal to resist the Russians in any way.

In response to Putin’s war crimes in Aleppo, the U.S. will not even impose further econommic sanctions on Putin and Russia for what it is doing in Syria.

Without U.S. Leadership, Germany and Europe Adrift

In Germany, in the absence of U.S. leadership of the Atlantic Alliance and other civilized countries, the leaders of the CDU and SPD governing coaliton have reached agreement that adopting further economic sanctions against Russia “is not the right approach”.


Markus Wehner, “Aleppo ist nur eine Etappe auf Putins Weg; Moskau kehrt mit Macht in den Nahen Osten zurück; Putins Strategie zu einer multipolaren Welt scheint aufzugehen; Kann Amerika dabei nur noch zuschauen?” Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11. Oktober 2016.

“In Berlin herrschte am selben Tag eine andere Stimmung. Der Vorsitzende des Auswärtigen Ausschusses im Bundestag, der CDU-Politiker Norbert Röttgen, forderte, neue Wirtschaftssanktionen gegen Russland zu verhängen. Denn der Kreml begehe im Kampf um die syrische Stadt Aleppo Kriegsverbrechen, die nicht ungesühnt bleiben dürften. Der Regierungssprecher wollte sich die Forderung nicht zu eigen machen. Der Koalitionsausschuss hatte am Donnerstagabend nach einem Vortrag von Außenminister Steinmeier über Syrien debattiert.

Die Spitzenpolitiker von Union und SPD waren sich einig, dass weitere Sanktionen gegen Moskau jetzt nicht das richtige Mittel wären. Auch die Bundeskanzlerin war dieser Ansicht. Was bleibt, sind moralische Appelle.”

The right approach, apparently, is pacifism and appeasement, and watching from the sidelines as thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Aleppo and elsewhere by the Russian and Syrian militaries committing horrendous crimes of war.

Civilization is in the balance, but doing anything about it, even adopting economic sanctions against Russia, “is not the right approach”.

Germany and the U.S. are on the same page. Continued pacifism and appeasement is the road that will be followed.


We should always look at what leaders and nations do, not just what they say. After all of the impassioned words at the U.N. Security Council meetings in the last two weeks, the actions are what counts.

They can be summed up in one word:


The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.