Syria out of control: Fruits of a monumental U.S. foreign policy failure (I)

Updated Feb. 21, 2018–Developing

What is going on in Syria is a continuation of the last seven years of policy failure by the West and the Arab countries.  The daily commission of war crimes by Russia and Syria, including the bombing of hospitals and civilians, continues.  Russia commmits these crimes or is actively complicit with Syria.  Yet the United States does not even call out the war crimes. No one does, as if war crimes no longer existed, as if the Nuremberg Charter were never drafted, as if the horrendous crimes of the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler  had never taken place.

But the crimes do exist, under both the Geneva Conventions of 1949 on humanitarian law (the Law of War), and the Statute of the International Criminal Court.  There can be little doubt that the main war crimes also form a part of customary international law.  They even violate the peremptory norms of jus cogens, from which no exceptions exist.  Still America, and the world, remain silent.

Today, the Russians and the Syrians continue their offensive against the rebel-held area of Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.  Readers may recall that Ghouta was the area in which Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, crossing Barack Obama’s “red line”.  Obama did nothing in response.


Raja Abdulrahim,”Syrian Forces Backed by Russia Bombard Hard-Hit Suburb of Capital; Airstrikes target hospitals, rescue centers in Eastern Ghouta, as rebel-held area appears ready to fall to Assad regime,” Wall Street Journal, February 20, 1018 (1:37 p.m. ET).

Abdulrahim reports the commission of war crimes by Russia in a straightforward manner:

Syrian regime forces backed by Russian warplanes pounded a rebel-held suburb of the capital, intensifying months of attacks in catastrophic scenes reminiscent of the scorched-earth campaign that flattened much of Aleppo.

On Tuesday morning, minarets across the area, which includes three cities and 14 towns, sounded a call not to prayer, but a warning to take shelter as warplanes and military helicopters flew overhead. The streets were nearly empty as people sought safety in basements and rudimentary tunnels, local residents said.

Airstrikes targeted at least seven hospitals and one rescue center over 48 hours, putting several out of service and further incapacitating local doctors trying to treat the scores of wounded with already dwindling medical supplies, local doctors and medical charities supporting hospitals in Eastern Ghouta said.

The slaughter in Ghouta which is underway is reminiscent of the Srebrenice slaughter of 800 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia in 1995.


(1) Simon Tisdall, “Eastern Ghouta is another Srebrenica, we are looking away again; The horror of the Bosnian Muslim massacre of 1995 is being repeated today, in Syria,” The Guardian, 20 Feb 2018 (07.06 EST).

In Srebrenica, about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in a few days. Between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people were subject to forcible displacement and abuse. The international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia later decreed that these crimes constituted genocide.

At the time, the world stood back and watched as Gen Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army and Scorpion paramilitaries closed in, overrunning Dutch peacekeepers. The international community knew full well what Mladic might do, that a massacre was imminent. It looked the other way.

The agony of eastern Ghouta, already infamous as the scene of a 2013 chemical weapons attack using sarin gas, is slower but similarly ignored. Once again civilians, including large numbers of children, are being killed. Once again, the western powers, with forces deployed in the country, refuse to intervene. Once again, the UN is helpless, the security council rendered impotent by Russian vetoes.
“This could be one of the worst attacks in Syrian history, even worse than the siege on Aleppo … To systematically target and kill civilians amounts to a war crime and the international community must act to stop it,” said Zaidoun al-Zoabi of the independent Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations.

(2) Peter Beaumont and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Aid agencies call for urgent ceasefire in besieged Syrian enclave; UN secretary-general demands suspension of fighting in eastern Ghouta, which he says is ‘hell on earth’,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018 (4:28 a.m. EST) .

(3) “Syrie : « La Ghouta orientale est un autre Srebrenica », « le massacre du XXIe siècle »; Alors que les bombardements du régime syrien et de son allié russe ont tué plus de 250 civils en deux jours dans l’enclave rebelle proche de Damas, la presse internationale dénonce l’absence de réponse de la communauté internationale, Le Monde, 21 Février 2018 (à 13h53).

« C’est un nouveau massacre, c’est pire qu’Alep », témoigne encore Raphaël Pitti, médecin de guerre qui s’est rendu de nombreuses fois en Syrie, au micro d’Europe 1 mercredi. En contact avec la population civile de la Ghouta, il atteste que « six hôpitaux ont été totalement détruits » au cours de la journée de mardi. « Ce ne sont pas des bavures. Les hôpitaux sont systématiquement détruits. On veut terroriser la population, l’obliger à fuir, à céder », dénonce-t-il :

« On est dans un état de siège déjà depuis plusieurs mois. La population est affamée, des enfants meurent. On est dans une situation épouvantable sur le plan humanitaire. »

M. Pitti se dit « effondré » par le silence de la communauté internationale, estimant qu’« on aurait dû prévenir cette situation, on la voyait arriver depuis plusieurs mois. Les convois de l’ONU ne pouvaient même pas rentrer à l’intérieur de la Ghouta pour approvisionner les populations ».

We cannot deal with the utter mess that Syria has become, with a half a million dead and counting, if we do not understand the history of the last seven years in Syria.

For an excellent overview of these developments, see

(1)  Lluís Bassets, “Los buitres se ciernen sobre Siria; El régimen de El Asad ha logrado sobrevivir sobre una montaña de cadáveres, un río de refugiados y un país cuarteado,” El País,
16 FEB 2018 (14:07 EST).

(2) Ben Hubbard and Jugal K. Patel, “Why Is the Syrian Civil War Still Raging?” New York Times, February 8, 2018.

(3) Richard Herzinger (Meinung), “In Syrien wird der Westen zum ohnmächtigen Zuschauer,” Die Welt, 21. Februar 2018.

(4) Carsten Luther (Kommentar), “Krieg in Syrien: Sie können nur noch auf das Sterben warten; Ostghuta ist der nächste Schritt im Vernichtungs- und Vertreibungskrieg des syrischen Assad-Regimes und seiner Waffenbrüder; Wie in Aleppo wird niemand das Töten stoppen,” Die Zeit, 21. Februar 2018 (18:29 Uhr).

{to be continued)

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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.