Belgium- Brussels : The Vienna Talks towards the end of last year ushered in a renewed sense of international optimism around the possibility for an end to the Syrian conflict. For Syrians there are many legitimate reasons to remain cautious. And we will remain so until three central issues have been addressed. Firstly, the urgent need for a guarantee on civilian protection. Secondly, the fate of Bashar Al-Assad – the man responsible for this bloody conflict, the death of over 300,000 people, and the primary obstacle to a political solution. And thirdly, accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes. Clarity and genuine commitments on these core issues are key to a political solution. However, in the absence of Syrian involvement in the Vienna process so far, these issues have been largely overlooked. For Syrians on the ground, an end to the conflict means an end to the killing of civilians; most of which takes place through the Assad regime’s indiscriminate aerial bombardments. Russia now shares this contemptible honour with the regime. The scale and intensity of these airstrikes have only increased over the course of this bloody conflict. So far this month, indiscriminate airstrikes by Assad and Russia were responsible for two thirds of all civilian deaths in Syria. And across the whole of the Syria conflict, more than 95% of all deaths caused by the Assad regime and Russia’s airstrikes have been civilians. In total more than 570 civilians have been killed as a result of Russian airstrikes in Syria, overwhelmingly in areas with little or no ISIS presence. It is shameful that the UN Security Council continues to fail to hold one of its own members to account for the deaths of so many innocent Syrian civilians. Furthermore, neither UN Security Council Resolution 2254 nor the Vienna agreement addressed this fundamental threat to civilian life in Syria which continues to fuel the refugee crisis and drive radicalisation.
A guarantee on civilian protection is critical to ending the crisis. Any political solution which allows Assad’s and Putin’s jets to continue indiscriminately bombing civilian areas is simply not viable. Recent aerial attacks such as those perpetrated last month by Russian air forces on a civilian marketplace in Idlib, killing more than 50 civilians, and the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs containing toxic gas in Mouadamiya, will only imperil the political process and make peace impossible.
There are various credible options for civilian protection in Syria – such as a no-bombing zone – a core demand of a vast array of Syrians both inside and outside Syria. Yet it is a demand that continues to be ignored in current diplomatic talks. Stopping the indiscriminate aerial bombardments would save thousands of lives, remove the core driver of the current exodus of Syrians from their homeland, and counter a core recruitment narrative used by extremist groups. It would also increase the viability of political talks; making clear to both Assad and Putin that the international community is prepared to take concrete action to bring the crisis to an end.
The reality for the vast majority of Syrians is that the Assad regime – not ISIS – is doing the majority of the killing inside Syria. It was Assad’s brutal intolerance towards demands for freedom and democracy which has led to so much bloodshed, and created the vacuum ISIS now exploits. The threat to Syrians and global security will not end as long as Assad remains in power. Equally, plans for a nationwide ceasefire will not be viable without the buy-in from moderate Syrian rebel groups – who are unanimous in demanding that Assad must go. The international community’s consensus on the need to defeat to ISIS is welcome by Syrians; the primary victims of the terrorist group’s barbarity. But ISIS will not be defeated as long as Assad remains in place, and his crimes unaccounted for. Ensuring accountability is essential if peace talks are to succeed and a democratic and free Syria is to be forged. Yet neither in Vienna nor in New York was accountability for systematic war crimes meaningfully discussed.
The evidence of war crimes committed by the Assad regime is clear and compelling. The use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate aerial bombardments, and systematic torture has been widely documented by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry, human rights organisations, and monitoring groups inside Syria.
The Caesar report, recently reaffirmed by Human Rights Watch, has comprehensively demonstrated the Assad regime’s systematic use of torture, and clearly indicates a chain of command of responsible parties in the torture and murder of more than 11,000 detainees. As a first step to genuine accountability, the Vienna process must guarantee justice for all Syrian victims of these heinous crimes. This includes the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court in parallel to national jurisdictions.
Accountability cannot be separated from diplomatic efforts.; the inclusion of war criminals in any transitional government will only serve to undermine its credibility and the legitimate needs of Syrians.
The current diplomatic momentum to end the conflict in Syria can only be maintained with the buy-in of Syrians themselves. The failure to include Syrians in the Vienna Talks has inevitably failed to produce international consensus on the core issues for Syrians: civilian protection; the fate of Assad; and accountability. The coming months will be a critical test of the international community’s resolve to enforce a political solution in Syria. But time is running out for Syrians. If a genuine political settlement is to be achieved, the international community must listen to Syrians, and take urgent steps to ensure their protection. The current diplomatic momentum to end the conflict in Syria can only be maintained with the buy-in of Syrians themselves. The failure to include Syrians in the Vienna Talks has inevitably failed to produce international consensus on the core issues for Syrians: civilian protection; the fate of Assad; and accountability. The coming months will be a critical test of the international community’s resolve to enforce a political solution in Syria. But time is running out for Syrians. If a genuine political settlement is to be achieved, the international community must listen to Syrians, and take urgent steps to ensure their protection.