For more than 4000 years Palmyra/Tadmur has been a central place in Syrian society and identity.  Now it is at the brink of destruction by Islamic State. Not only the physical ruins, but with it also the Syrian history, culture, society and identity. And the Syrian people. Since the civil war in Syria started in 2011 an estimated 310,000 people have lost their lives. And millions of people have fled from the conflict, leaving their homes and lives behind.

And what does the international community do? Too little.

Should the international community consider a humanitarian intervention? Yes.

Crimes against Humanity & War Crimes

In August 2013 it became clear that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The use of chemical weapons is a Crime against Humanity, a grave violation of human rights, a reason for humanitarian intervention. The president of the United States had made it clear before that if chemical weapons would be used in the Syrian civil war, a red line would be crossed. It turned out to be a rhetorical red line, since there were no real repercussions. However, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention later that same year, agreeing on the destruction of its chemical weapon arsenal. But last week international inspectors of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found a production site for chemical used in weapons, such as sarin, which was not declared to the OPCW as production site by the Syrian government.

A report by Amnesty, with the all-saying title ‘Death Everywhere’, suggests that government forces and many of the rebel/opposition groups commit war crimes in Syria on a daily basis, violating UN Security Council Resolution 2139. The crimes the Syrian government commits are so systematic and widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity. The report states: ‘It is a war crime to intentionally make civilian objects and civilians who not directly participating in hostilities the target of attacks. Such a systematic attack on the civilian population, when carried out as part of government policy as appears to have been the case in Aleppo, would also constitute a crime against humanity’. (page 7 of the report) This is just an example, as many other war crimes are committed, such as torture and enforced disappearances. And it is not about a few cases, but about thousands of them.

War crimes/crimes against humanity & R2P

When war crimes or crimes against humanity are committed, the Responsibility to Protect principle applies. This principle has its roots in the 1990s and was adopted unanimously by world leaders at the 2005 World Summit in New York and was reaffirmed by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1674 in 2006. The aim of this principle is to protect populations against the worst crimes against individuals and populations: war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The principle prescribes that a state must protect its population against these crimes and when it fails, or is unwilling, the international community may interfere to protect the population, by prevention measures and, if necessary, by the use of military force, authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations. This makes the Security Council of paramount importance to the R2P principle. But why does the Security Council, in the clear case of Syria, not opt for an intervention?

The Structure of the United Nations Security Council

The structure of the United Nations Security Council also contributes to the lack of intervention in the Syrian civil war. From the beginning of the war, it is clear that Russia – as a supporter of the Assad regime – would use its veto power to prohibit any intervention in Syria. In the first years of the war there was a division among the permanent five in terms of which camp, either that of Assad or the rebels, countries supported. However, by now it seems clear that the situation escalated into one where two are fighting and the third wins: Islamic State has gained control over vast areas of Syria since 2011.

The humanitarian crisis, not only in Syria, but also in neighbouring countries, is deepening week by week. This destabilizes the region even further and gives way to terrorist groups. The Syrian civil war should not end when one party, either the Syrian government or the opposition, attains victory. Because no matter what, there will be one big loser: the Syrian people. The international community is responsible for them and their well-being, which makes a humanitarian intervention necessary.

Not only is the international community indifferent to the fate of millions of Syrians, it also seems to underestimate the seriousness of what is happening on a geopolitical level. If the countries of the United Nations Security Council, and especially the permanent five, do not find a way of cooperating to contain the crisis in the Middle East, they will soon become obsolete, like the League of Nations, whose indecision led to an escalation on a global level and ended in the Second World War.

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