The meaning of war crimes in Syria, as the U.S. and others look away


The government of Bashir al-Assad continues its wanton commission of war crimes in Syria, as the U.S. and the world look away.

The U.S. no longer considers it important and necessary to denounce the commission of war crimes in Syria by the al-Assad government, or by the Russians.

Or by anyone, or anywhere else.


Waitman Wade Beorn, ”I led a platoon in Iraq. Trump is wrong to pardon war criminals,” Washington Post, May 9, 2019.

Violations of international law are no longer noticed in America, under a President who has little respect for law in general, and even less for international law itself.

As in the case of global warming, the implications of failing to act—here to uphold basic tenets international law—are not considered, either by he administration or by the media.

The latter, in the absence of a government which listens to outside analysis and advice, focuses instead on the “breaking news” stories which capture their readers’ and viewers’ attention. When respected columnists and other opinion writers do speak out, their advice and opinions are scattered to the wind or lost in the ether.

To be sure, some critics of Trump who are part of the old foreign policy elite (an interest is the only charge of admission) take due note, and if they themselves are ever listened to again, this body of opinion and advice could one day inform future decisions.

Six years after al-Assad’s forces committed monstrous war crimes in the battle for Aleppo, these crimes continue, often at the hands of the Russians.

See “The Olympic Games, and the Battle for Aleppo, Begin—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #70,” The Trenchant Observer, July 28, 2012.

The U.S. has essentially accepted defeat of its earlier allies against al-Assad, and ceded Syria to the Russians, except for intermittent efforts to protect its Kurdish militia allies from attacks by Turkey.

What difference does it make that war crimes are now accepted without comment by the United States?

We now live in an age in which at home we are fully engaged in defending against assaults on the rule of law and the U.S. constitutional order.

Until those assaults are effectively countered, we cannot expect the government, currently that of a tyrant and would-be dictator, to speak out against the commission of war crimes in Syria.

Nonetheless, those nations still led by leaders devoted to the rule of law should and must speak out and denounce the commission of war crimes in Syria, and other violations of international law.

If we survive the current authoritarian onslaught, and don’t enter into a new dark age of authoritarianism buttressed by all the tools of oppression which modern technology can offer, these actions may bear important fruit in the future.

We need to constantly bear in mind the preamble and provisions of the United Nations Charter, which represents a constitution for governance of the world and all humanity, and the main guarantee against war and descent into international anarchy.


“A Powerful Vision of International Peace: The United Nations Charter,” The Trenchant Observer, March 28, 2013.

Other subsidiary institutions established under the authority of the U.N. Charter must also be respected and upheld, including the World Trade Organization and its fundamental principles governing international trade, human rights conventions including the Rome Statute of the ICC, and numerous other global institutions and their charters.

But laws and constitutions, whether domestic or international, do not apply themselves. Their continued force depends, in each and every instance, on the forceful intervention of individuals who believe in the values and purposes they serve.

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.