by Rhodri C. Williams
The evacuation of civilians trapped, shelled and nearly starved by the Assad regime’s siege of the center of Homs is an operation that will undoubtedly save many innocent lives. Not incidentally, it is also one of the few areas of concrete progress that appears to have emanated from the Geneva talks between the regime and the opposition, which just entered a laborious second round. But it is hard to avoid a sense of unease about the operation and the signals it sends about the course of the conflict in Syria.
Tellingly, the evacuation deal was rolled out between Geneva I and II, with the opposition apparently caught unawares. This ambiguous start might reasonably be seen as signaling yet another iteration of a high stakes game being played by a discredited regime with its back to the wall. As in the case of last summer’s chemical weapons attack – which made the Assad regime the ‘partner’ in an international effort to dispose of its own illegal weapons – there is a whiff of deliberate atrocities in Homs being used to gain leverage.
Concerns have been expressed on at least three levels. First, the evacuation presents the remaining ‘fighting age’ men trapped in Homs with a Hobson’s choice – remain in the besieged center after the ceasefire expires and continue to face starvation and shelling, or surrender to the tender mercies of the regime’s intelligence forces, who continue to hold some 200 men arrested as they joined the humanitarian exodus from the city. This against the backdrop of continued unresolved questions questions about the fate of men starved out of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya last year:
Rebels have rejected offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns, based on experience, about what might happen to men who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya, near Damascus.
In light of graphic recent evidence that a single detention center in Syria had tortured 11,000 imprisoned men and boys to death, it is hardly surprising that comparisons have been made between the evacuation of Homs and the 1995 fall of Srebrenica in the Bosnian conflict. As in Srebrenica, the means and motive exist. Moreover, the international humanitarian community is caught in a similarly impossible role, trying to protect civilians in a situation where it will not have the power to do more than act as a witness if the regime is determined to seek a final reckoning with its opponents in Homs.
Which leads to the second concern. For some time now, observers have speculated that the regime may fall back on creating an ethnically cleansed rump state connecting Damascus with coastal areas dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect. The burning of the property registry in Homs last summer was widely taken as a sign that the current offensive was meant to permanently remove Sunni Arab populations opposed to the Assad regime from the city. As reported in the Guardian:
All property records for Homs were destroyed in a fire earlier this month at the office of the city’s land registry and residents fear they can no longer enforce a claim to their land and homes.
“What else could be going on?” asked one resident who refused to be identified. “This is the most secure area of the city and it is the only building that has been burned. A conspiracy is underway.”
Former staff at the office say the records existed only on paper and had not yet been digitalised. Eyewitnesses in the Bab al-Hood district where the building is located, and several employees, reported seeing flames on the higher floors of the building on 5 July, where the files were archived, while regime forces were positioned on lower floors.
Homs and the surrounding province is seen as essential to the war in Syria and to any plan to create a safe haven for Alawites if the Syrian state collapses, as it geographically links largely Alawite areas on the Syrian coast and Shia areas in Lebanon‘s Bekaa Valley.
At around the same time, the Telegraph reported on the systematic looting and destruction of Sunni Muslim homes in areas around Homs captured by troops and militias loyal to the regime:
After each campaign … Alawite civilians and loyalist paramilitaries from the National Defence Force have stormed the newly recaptured towns and villages, looting Sunni homes and often setting them on fire, with the apparent aim of ensuring that the owners have nothing left to return to.
Most recently, Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to document the systematic demolition of entire neighborhoods cleared of their inhabitants in parts of Hama and Damascus associated with the opposition. Human Rights Watch Researcher Ole Solvang observed tartly that:
Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war. These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.
Reflecting the fact that fighting for territory has intensified all along the strategic corridor between Damascus and the coast during the Geneva talks, Syrian observers have claimed the highest three week death toll since the conflict began. It is difficult not to see the current situation as a potential endgame during which whatever remaining inhibitions the parties have may drop in a push to create facts on the ground. If Homs falls, the razing of opposition neighborhoods is a virtual certainty, and abuses and massacres a stark likelihood.
In this context, the role of the UN in evacuating the last parts of Homs still inhabited by Sunni Muslims places the UN in another dilemma so familiar from Bosnia that it has overshadowed all subsequent “humanitarian evacuations”. As described by Kirsten Young in 2001, attacks on Bosnian civilians in the early 1990s placed the UNHCR in the position of assisting threatened minorities to safety in a manner that simultaneously provided logistical support to the perpetrators of war crimes. She cites then-High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, who starkly phrases the dilemma:
…if you take these people you are an accomplice to ethnic cleansing. If you don’t, you are an accomplice to murder.
This raises a third issue related to the utility of conventional humanitarian response in situations like Syria where the parties evince so little interest in playing by the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). Ben Parker, writing in the last issue of Humanitarian Exchange, described the Syrian war as having “tested conventional humanitarian practice up to and beyond its limits, and exposed some uncomfortable truths about helping civilians in conflict”:
International bodies routinely call for ‘unimpeded humanitarian access’, but in reality there are few places in the world where aid workers are less free to move around, assess needs and deliver services independently. Humanitarian action in Syria is plagued by insecurity, bureaucracy, manipulation, intimidation and limited operational capacity. … The humanitarian principles which underpin the Western aid system are under extraordinary pressure. … Conventional humanitarianism is besieged.
Reflecting this reality, UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos has been both praised and pilloried for having discouraged condemnation of atrocities in Syria in an effort to avoid alienating the regime and losing any hope of access to vulnerable populations. Frustration boiled over last Fall as human rights advocates accused Ms. Amos of giving the Assad regime “a free pass for mass murder” in exchange for only the most perfunctory cooperation in allowing assistance to besieged civilians.
However, the recent spike in negotiations and fighting have either emboldened Ms. Amos or convinced her there is nothing to lose by throwing caution to the wind. In an interview with the BBC, she accused all parties to the conflict of “flagrant violations” and questioned the utility of the entire model of humanitarian engagement currently applied in Syria:
“All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians. We understand that a war is going on, but even wars have rules.”
Speaking to the BBC’s Nick Bryant, Baroness Amos said a UN-brokered ceasefire deal which has allowed civilians to be evacuated from the besieged Old City of Homs in the past few days did not offer a long-term solution.
“It’s 14 months since I raised the alarm in the Security Council about Homs. We managed to get 1,200 people out of Homs, we managed to get food and medicines in for 2,500 people,” she said.
“If it’s going to take 14 months to do that when you’ve got 250,000 people in besieged communities, when you’ve got over three million people in hard-to-reach communities, I really find it very difficult to say that this is a [right] model.”
To be fair to Ms. Amos, there is little more she can do absent explicit backing from the UN Security Council. But here, Russia has dug its heels in again, seemingly able to detect pretexts for international intervention in even the most straightforward demand for humanitarian access to civilian populations. Alarmingly, Russia has also cited its role in negotiating the dubious Homs ceasefire as an alibi. As reported today in the BBC:
Meanwhile, sharp words were exchanged by Washington and Moscow after Russia again objected to a draft UN Security Council resolution – this time, one that would call on all sides to allow aid workers access across Syria.
That was criticised by US President Barack Obama, who called Russia a “holdout” and suggested that by blocking the resolution it too was responsible for “starving civilians”, along with the Syrian government.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesman dismissed the criticism as a “biased distortion”, highlighting Russia’s role in helping achieve the ceasefire in Homs and insisting Russia was as concerned about the humanitarian situation in Syria as Washington.
As the parties to the Syrian conflict edge around the contours of a political solution in Geneva, the country is in a state of bloody dissolution, with Homs as its crucible. The vital question now is whether the talks are the solution to the destruction of Syria or the pretext under which it will be accomplished.