Obama’s red line : between urban myth and reality : a (quite) definite explanation

All observers of the Syrian war (2011 – ) agree that it was the lack of international pressure that led to a feeling of impunity on the battle field, which in turn inflamed the atrocities. Syrian opposition members, almost unanimously, blame Obama’s red line (August 2012) as one of the main reasons for opening the gates to all sorts of war crimes in Syria.

Because this is simply wrong, I have been criticizing this Obama-bashing from the very beginning. Making wrong analyzes leads to fighting the wrong foes (see the later part of this article). Maybe that is the intention of some, but it is against Islam and doesn’t serve the Syrian democracy movement.

Much of the “confusion” stems from a wrong contextualization. To understand this, let’s find out what Obama’s red line was all about.

For a historical flash back, I warmly advise the excellent Washington Post article “President Obama and the ‘red line’ on Syria’s chemical weapons”, that you can find here : https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2013/09/06/president-obama-and-the-red-line-on-syrias-chemical-weapons/?utm_term=.da439e0e8338 .

An Unilateral Military Intervention as an Act of Self-Defense

It is clear that the August 20,2012 interviewer, who triggered the whole debate, was talking about an unilateral military action from the US. According to the UN-charter, this is only allowed in cases of self-defense, and Obama’s answer followed that line.

The US maintains quite a large definition of self-defense, and interprets it as the right to the use of military force whenever its core national interests are threatened.

As such the US already defined in 2003 Assad’s chemical weapons as a threat to its national security interests. Obama reiterated this in his impressive September 23,2013 speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He stated that (quote) “we consider the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a threat to our own national security” and that (quote) “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.”

Obama could never have unilaterally intervened in the Syrian war for reasons of self-defense beyond the scope of what the US had defined as being its core interest. By definition would any military intervention have been limited to in one or other way the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile or limited reprisal attacks.

From the other side, strictly taken, did Obama never publicly preclude a military intervention within a broader coalition like the one that was undertaken during the Libyan civil war (2011), with United Nations Security Council approval.

Neither did he publicly preclude a humanitarian military intervention like the one that was undertaken during the Kosovo war (1999), without United Nations Security Council approval.

Obama’s Isolation

It is just that there was absolutely no international support for this kind of interventions.

France and the UK, who were the driving forces behind the 2011 Libyan intervention, time and again publicly stressed that they would not take any action in Syria without the United Nations Security Council approval.

Practically all UN Security Council resolutions that were designed to put more pressure on the Assad regime (none of which foresaw military pressure), were vetoed by Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.

When Obama tried to gather support for his limited military intervention against Assad’s chemical stock piles (2013), without Security Council approval, it was only France that was willing to go along. The UK-government did not get any go-ahead from its parliament, there was no support from the Arab League and there was no NATO-support. Any humanitarian military intervention would have met the same wall of silence.

In his September 23,2013 UN speech, Obama’s isolation became very obvious. He stated (quote) “I have made it clear that even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights. But we cannot and should not bear that burden alone.”

So those who blame the lack of military threat as the main cause for giving “the regime and its allies full immunity to kill the rebellious Syrians with other weapons.” (quote of Yassine Al-Haj Saleh from his October 06,2017 interview to alaraby.co.uk), should stop citing Obama’s red line as the principal cause. As an act of self-defense, it had absolutely nothing to do with it. The only way to put meaningful military pressure would have been the threat of a humanitarian military intervention or a military intervention within the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. These actions though bare little to no international support.

But by focusing on only military means, Obama’s Red Line criticizers draw away the attention from the circumstance that even the non-military means to put pressure on the warring parties were by far not exhausted. And those should always have priority. Military force should always be a last means of resort.

Wrong Analyzes Lead to Fighting Wrong Foes

And here I am coming back to what I said at the beginning : wrong analyzes lead to fighting wrong foes. Because where there might be some ambiguity about military intervention, there is no ambiguity about the use of peaceful means of pressure. And there where Obama will never be sued for any wrongdoing with his red line, because there was none, he and his European counterparts bear very well criminal liability for their deeds of omission, and might be obliged to pay reparations to the victims of these omissions.

The Crime of Omission

Let me explain.

International Humanitarian Law imposes that countries react to breaches of the treaties and take timely and commensurate measures to make them stop. Not taking those measures is a crime of omission, which is a very serious accusation. In international humanitarian law omission is equivalent to action and if omission can be attributed to a state, it will have to pay reparations to the victims.

It was already in early 2014 that the international diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, then United Nations special envoy to Syria, accused the international community of crime of omission in relation to the Syrian war. As a diplomat he could not call out names. We can.

In what sense Obama and his European counterparts committed crimes of omission ?

The Laws of State Responsibility

It started with their refusal to apply the laws of state responsibility to the Syrian war. Those laws stipulate that countries who finance and arm regimes that commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, share responsibility for those crimes. This means that any action aiming at stopping those crimes has also to encompass those countries.

Within the Syrian war context, we have to point at the devastating role that Putin’s Russia and Chamenei’s Iran play. They finance, arm and fight alongside a regime that is responsible for 90 % of the one to two million deaths the Syrian war has caused. A regime that committed war crimes from the very beginning of the conflict, and which already by December 2013 the UN accused of having a character of crimes against humanity. Without their support, the Assadian regime would have collapsed economically by 2012/2013 or there would have been a political solution to the conflict.

Under normal application of the laws of state responsibility, Putin’s Russia and Chamenei’s Iran should have been subjected to the same crippling economic sanctions like the ones that were imposed on the Assadian regime. But none of this happened. Europe and the US obstinately refused to take any measures against those two war crimes committing countries.

Europe and the USA Might One Day Have to Compensate the Syrian Victims

In an TV interview October 2016, on the eve of the assault on East-Aleppo, and after a year of under Russian leadership committed unbearable crimes which observers called a “spit in the face of the international community”, the German minister for foreign affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier had the guts to declare that sanctions against Putin’s Russia would not save Aleppo. Well, if the laws of state responsibility would have been applied, and timely and commensurate measures taken, the question about saving East-Aleppo would have never been posed.

Notwithstanding such brazen attempts to fool public opinion, year after year, with every publication of another devastating report about the multiple crimes committed by the Putin-Chamenei-Assad-coalition, and followed by another deathly silence from European and American leaders, the case for a crime of omission committed by those same leaders, and as such their states, has only been growing stronger. Time will tell if one day the victims will start suing them and will finally get reparations for their sufferings.

So far the criminal responsibility of American and European leaders.

The Other Foes

Honesty and completeness in the discussion of the real foes of the Syrian war, though without claiming to really have explained everything or named everybody, obliges us to cite some more names and clarify one more circumstance.

The Main Cause for the Deterioration of the Syrian War

First we have to mention Xi’s China. Together with Putin’s Russia it systematically vetoed all UN Security Council Resolutions that attempted to find a political solution, to investigate war crimes or to force respect for international humanitarian law. None of those resolutions foresaw a military intervention. This was an abuse of the veto-right and was the main cause for the deterioration of the Syrian war into a genocidal massacre.

A Crime Against International Humanitarian Law = A Crime Against Islam

Secondly we have to mention Saudi-Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. They kept on financing and arming rebel groups that did nor respect international humanitarian law. Knowing that international humanitarian law is simply a translation into treaties of the basic principles of Islam, it is remarkable that governments that pretend to protect Islam, violate the principles of Islam in such a gross way. The same counts of course for the Iranian government.

Financing and Arming War Criminals Is Illegal

Thirdly we have to clarify the assertion of Putin’s Russia and Chamenei’s Iran that their aid to the Assadian regime was legal. It was not. In international humanitarian law, and thus according to the principles of Islam, it is not allowed to arm, finance or fight alongside a warring party that systematically commits war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Beno Klee
October 20, 2017

Could European leaders be guilty of crimes against humanity in Syria ?

Since the start of the 2011 Syrian revolution, indiscriminate bombing and systematic destruction of medical care facilities led to the dead of approximately one million Syrian citizens. A man-made disaster of truly genocidal character.

Crimes against humanity , like the murdering and torturing of thousands of opposition members, the systematic bombing of schools, hospitals, bakeries, marketplaces, water stations…happened from the very onset of the conflict and were well documented. The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, are considered to be responsible for approximately 90 % of them.

But why may European leaders also be guilty to those crimes ?

To understand the full extent of this question, we first have to take a step back, and have a look at the foundations of our civilization.

One of these foundations is the obligation to help somebody in danger. It is a moral principal enshrined in Islam, Christianity and almost every major religion or philosophy on earth. The only circumstance in which you were allowed not to help somebody in danger is, when your own live or physical integrity might be in jeopardy.

Everywhere in the world this principal found its translation into criminal law.

Intentionally harming somebody or intentionally failing to act knowing that this failure would cause the relevant harm to happen, are both treated as criminal acts in courts throughout the world. They call the latter a crime of omission.

International Humanitarian Law, which deals with questions like crimes against humanity, is based on those same principles.

Article 2 of the Additional Protocol of the the Geneva Conventions, one of the main sources of International Humanitarian Law, explains that the principles of international law derive their authority from “(…)the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.

As a consequence, Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions provides that the parties to the convention “undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances. It is generally accepted that this principle requires that States do all in their power to ensure that International Humanitarian Law is respected universally.

And just like in criminal law, in cases of crimes against humanity and genocide, the failure to act knowing that this failure would cause the harm to happen, is considered a crime of omission.

The following five conditions have to be fulfilled in order to be recognized as such :

1. the accused must have had a legal duty to act

2. the accused must have had the ability to act

3. the accused must have had an elevated degree of concrete influence

4. the accused failed to act, (…)with awareness and consent that the consequences would occur; and

5. the failure to act resulted in the commission of the crime

Now let’s take a step forward, apply this to what happened in Syria in recent years, and investigate in how far European leaders probably may be considered as criminals against humanity for reason of omission.

1. The accused must have had a legal duty to act : check !

As we have discussed, the Geneva Conventions, which were ratified by most European countries, require that States do all in their power to ensure that International Humanitarian Law is respected.

The failure of international organizations like the United Nations or the European Union to act, does not exempt the individual countries from their obligations.

2. the accused must have had the ability to act : check !

States have several tools at their disposal to fulfill the duty “to do all in their power” in a peaceful way : among others (i) diplomatic protest, (ii) taking measures like : imposing sanctions, (iii) in case of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions : vest universal jurisdiction in their courts in order to search for and trial persons who committed those grave breaches or ordered them to be committed…

The European leaders had absolutely the ability to use those tools.

3. the accused must have had an elevated degree of concrete influence : check !

As a matter of fact, Assad’s war machine, and thus the crimes against humanity committed by it, was largely, though indirectly, financed with European money.

Through it’s oil-and gas trade with Russia, untouched by the sanctions imposed in the wake of the Crimean occupation by Putin’s special forces, Europe finances approximately 35 % of the Russian federal budget.

Without this money, or even with only part of this money, it is unimaginable how Putin could have kept on financing and arming the Assad regime. And as all international observers agree, Putin’s support was key to the continuation of the armed conflict.

Europe had with other words, like no other power, through its oil and gas trade with Russia, truly the greatest degree of potential concrete influence on the Syrian armed conflict.

4. the accused failed to act, (…)with awareness and consent that the consequences would occur : check !

Failed to act” pertains not only to the question if there were any measures taken at all. It also pertains to the question if those measures were commensurate to the graveness of the breaches and taken in a timely manner.

Particularly in relation to grave breaches, parties to the Geneva Conventions have the obligation to investigate and eventually prosecute perpetrators, even if they don’t reside in their own country and the crimes were not committed on their territory.

And many of the war crimes documented in Syria were grave breaches : the systematic bombing of hospitals, the bombing of bakeries and marketplaces, the use of indiscriminate weapons like chemical weapons, mass torture and killing of members of the political opposition, attacking of relieve convoys and facilities, double-tap attacks,…

Unfortunately, none of the member states of the European Union lived up to their obligations. They did not order their courts to investigate the grave breaches and they only imposed sanctions on the weakest party to the conflict, the Assad regime, and spared completely those arming, financing and participating in those crimes : Russia and Iran.

European Union’s member states did this in full awareness of the consequences. Since the conflict is lasting for almost five years, they were fully aware that the lack of appropriate and timely pressure would lead to the continuation of the atrocities.

The element of “consent” can be derived from diplomatic custom. In diplomacy, sticking to appeals during years in the face of repeated crimes against humanity, equals to a free check for the perpetrators.

5. the failure to act resulted in the commission of the crime : check !

The refusal to take appropriate measures against the main parties to the conflict, Russia and Iran, led to a sense of impunity and inflamed the cruelties.

That became very obvious from September 2015 onwards, when Putin decided to engage his army more. It heralded an unprecedented intensity in air bombardments and crimes against humanity committed in their wake.

Especially the months August and September of 2016 were particularly brutal.

Observers described the committed acts as “worse than a butchery”, “a bloodbath”, “barbaric”, “abomination”, “spit in the face of international humanitarian law”.

On October 17, 2016 the European Secretaries of State and Ministers of Foreign Affairs had a meeting to discuss European foreign policy. Since there was no doubt about the direct Russian involvement, and some politicians had declared in interviews that they were considering sanctions against Russia, many observers expected that finally sanctions might be taken.

But none of that happened. Not one European member state had officially introduced a request of that kind.

The statement the European Foreign Affairs Council released after the meeting was full of empty appeals, not of the nature to make a big impression on Putin or Assad.

Since what had happened before was already “unbearable”, everybody knew that what was going to come was going to be “hell”.

Within a week after the European foreign affairs meeting, helicopters dropped leaflets above Aleppo that read : “You know that all have abandoned you and left you by yourselves to face your destiny and they won’t provide you with any help.”

On November 15,2016 after a three weeks lull, started the worst air bombing campaign and breaches of international humanitarian law the Eurasian region has witnessed since the Second World War.

Can there be any clearer link ?

All this leads us to the conclusion that European leaders could be guilty to crimes against humanity in Syria for reason of omission. It seems that they intentionally failed to act knowing that this failure would cause the relevant harm to happen. Doing so, they sinned against the principles of humanity out of which international humanitarian law has grown and took a very big risk. As opposed to the other parties to the armed conflict, most European countries signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols. They were even some of their main promoters. The irony of history could now be that at the long end they might be the only leaders to be trialled for crimes against humanity committed in Syria.