Heinous, barbaric, horrific and an affront to humanity are the adjectives used by world leaders in reaction to the news of Tuesday’s chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. At least 70 civilians were killed and hundreds injured in the attack. Whilst the perpetrators are yet to be identified, Amnesty International has gathered evidence that a nerve agent, possibly sarin, was deployed from the air.
This attack has galvanised strong international condemnation, but for Syrians this is the norm. While it remains to be seen if the world will take action this time, the reaction by Syrians enduring a prolonged conflict is that of continued disappointment and delusion with international inaction.
Civilians in Syria have suffered seven years of violence and have little hope that the graphic images of lifeless children lying on the ground will change their lives. ‘’We don’t have trust in anybody given our previous experience,’’ Talal Katouf a Syrian refugee from Idlib, residing in Turkey, told me – signalling the international dithering in the past.
The use of gas as a weapon is what has shocked the world this time, but the consistency and frequency of heavy explosives of many varieties are what have terrorised Syrian civilians for years now.
Indeed, the recent atrocities in eastern Aleppo is a case in point. As the Syrian regime retook eastern Aleppo, thousands of civilians were under siege, bombarded by the Syrian regime and with Russian air power in December. Trapped civilians desperately pleaded for protection but were eventually forcibly displaced.
What shocks victims and those affected by the violence is what is perceived as a license to attack civilians through chemical or conventional weapons. It is protection, not “strong rhetoric” that civilians at this stage expect to see.
If no action is taken, this massacre will constitute, yet, a new setback to the UN Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in the 21st century.
In 2005, the UN General Assembly agreed to adopt the R2P to safeguard the lives of innocent civilians. In fact, the R2P came into existence largely in response to the Rwandan genocide. In 1994 Hutu militiamen slaughtered some 800,000 Rwandans. Most of the victims were minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate or sympathetic Hutus. The world was shocked and pledged to never allow atrocities at such a scale to happen again.
The R2P proposed that when a state fails to protect its people or is the perpetrator of ‘’crimes’’, the responsibility of protecting the population of a given state shifts to the broader international community. In order to activate the doctrine, the violence should be categorized as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. The chemical massacre in Khan Shaykhun amounts to a war crime.
Focused on fighting Daesh in both Iraq and Syria, Western powers have done little, beyond deploying empty rhetoric, to save civilians in Syria. Even though taking action carries risk specifically in the complex Syrian conflict, inaction in the face of human rights violations creates a culture of impunity for dictators and legitimises further violence. The use of chemicals again in Syria enforces the cycle of impunity and the risk that inaction carries.
The continuing lack of any international action in Syria to stem the steady flow of atrocities has led to more carnage and violence over the course of the conflict. Indeed, the lack of response to the chemical attack in eastern Damascus which left some 1400 dead, only encouraged the Syrian regime to use toxic chemicals in assaults in Aleppo according to UN investigators. In addition, the emboldened Syrian regime forces and Iranian paramilitary have carried out a campaign of violence and forced demographic change in multiple rebel-held areas across the country.
The protection of civilians is a collective international responsibility and meeting this responsibility is vital for peace.
Protecting civilians from state-inflicted violence in Syria will empower the youth and democratic voices in the country. The youth are the corner stone of the nascent Syrian civil society which has key role in ensuring stability and peacebuilding. However, faced with extreme violence, the youth are left with very limited options: turn to violence or migrate to Europe.
The inaction has ensued in more violence in Syria with serious implications on international security. The refugee crisis that has had an impact on European social cohesion is just one consequence.
Failing to uphold the R2P in Syria has given rise to not only violence, but also to a proliferation of armed non-state actors that justify the use of violence in Syria and beyond.