By: Dr. Nikolaos van Dam

More than 50 kinds of war crimes are defined in the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. All 50 of those crimes have been committed by various combatants during the war in Syria. Some examples of prohibited acts include: murder and torture; taking hostages; employing chemical weapons; pillaging; any form of sexual violence; conscripting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces; and intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects, such as schools, mosques, hospitals or historical monuments.

Intentionality’ is important. It implies that if the same act were carried out unintentionally it might not be a war crime. If, for instance, an inhabited city is bombed, one can assume the probability of killing civilians will be high. The bombers may argue that ‘they did not know’ that they would kill civilians, but realistically, ‘they should have known.’ Therefore, any war that takes place within inhabited cities will most probably have collateral effects which can be defined as war crimes. Military battles which have taken place in, for instance, uninhabited deserts, like the well-known Second World War battle of El Alamein, did not result in such collateral damage. However, the bombing of Syria’s urban centres, such as Aleppo or Raqqa, inevitably caused many civilian casualties.

It is clear that a lot went wrong with the Syrian Revolution. Not only did it fail to achieve its proclaimed goals, but the number of killed and wounded has been huge. Almost half the Syrian population were driven from their homes with half of those fleeing the country. The destruction has been massive in every part of the country. The effort of the opposition to topple the Syrian regime was bound to lead to bloody violence, which has to be taken into account when apportioning blame. The party that first ‘pulled the trigger’ – the Syrian regime – bears responsibility, but so too does the opposition which could calculate the government’s violent crackdown.

The opposition should not have been surprised that the Ba’thist dictatorship responded violently to its demands for radical reform. Earlier massacres committed by the Syrian regime were a sure guide to its actions in 2011. I am not talking about justice and moral principles here, but about the hard realities on the ground. These realities should have been taken into account. As I noted at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, to expect that President Bashar al-Asad was going to resign voluntarily and, thus, effectively sign his own death warrant, was unrealistic. Nevertheless, many people imagined that the Syrian president would decamp as had the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This, however, was based on wishful thinking or a lack of knowledge of the power structure of the Syrian regime.

It is remarkable that war crimes are sometimes condoned, depending on which country or which leader has committed them. When, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carry out bombardments in Yemen, causing numerous civilian casualties, we hear fewer protests than when something similar happens in Syria. Governments tend to turn a blind eye on war crimes when friendly countries commit them. But when unfriendly or hostile governments bomb their enemies causing civilian casualties, things are different. Even within the same country, concern for civilian casualties depends on when they were carried out and by whom. In the past some crimes against humanity committed in Syria were excused, whereas today, they are condemned and considered unforgivable. In 1982, the Syrian regime committed serious war crimes in the central Syrian city of Hama. At the time, it bombarded the city for almost four weeks with the aim of quelling the Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Estimates of the number of people killed vary between 5,000 and 25,000.

In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, published in 1989, the American journalist Thomas Friedman argued that the Hama massacre could be justified because it had to be seen as “a natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state.”

Friedman explained that President Hafiz al-Asad, the father of Bashar, was:

trying to stave off retrogressive – in this case, Islamic fundamentalist – elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a twentieth-century secular republic. That is also why, if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among many Sunni Muslims. They might have said, ‘Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon’. [1]

The Hama massacre was clearly a war crime and a crime against humanity. Many Syrian opposition members today refuse to label the Hama uprising of 1982 as a ‘battle’, because they consider it to have been a one-sided slaughter of innocent people carried out by the Syrian Ba’thist dictatorship. Indeed, many of the civilians killed in the suppression of the uprising had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood was well enough armed to resist the Syrian army for almost a month. And it was the Muslim Brotherhood which started the revolt with the intention of toppling the regime; an aim which was quite unrealistic.

Four decades later, many Westerners judge Syria quite differently. This time a massacre like that in Hama has been resolutely condemned. One similarity between the uprising of the Hama Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 and the uprising of 2011, is that the opposition forces in both instances wanted to topple the Asad regime but were unable to do so. The main difference between the two is that in 2011 the Syrian uprising was not confined to one city or one political group. It quickly spread to every province of the country. The spectrum of opposition forces was broad. Some of the protests were peaceful at first, others not.

Tens of thousands of war crimes have been committed in Syria, by the regime, by the opposition, by the international supporters of both sides, and by the Islamic State. The number of civilians killed by the regime outnumber those killed by the opposition, perhaps by ten to one. It is not only the numbers that count, however. The victor often kills more than the vanquished. The facts also count, irrespective of the numbers. In that sense, the various sides are equally guilty of war crimes. Being guilty of a smaller number of war crimes does not mean that one is less guilty.

My vision of how the Syrian conflict could best have been approached, can be summarized as follows:

  1. I am generally against military intervention in countries which do not pose a threat to the foreign countries which want to interfere militarily. For example, the Syrian regime threatened its own people, but not the countries that militarily intervened in it; neither did the Iraqi regime of president Saddam Hussein pose a threat to the United States and Great Britain who occupied the country in 2003. A principal reason I am against such interventions is that invariably they cause more casualties, greater instability, more widespread destruction, and larger numbers of refugees. In the Middle East, there is no shortage of examples to prove that interventions cause greater harm. One need look no farther than the wars in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The military interventions in these seven countries were not only unsuccessful; they were disastrous. They generated thousands of war crimes. The countries that intervened achieved the opposite of what they claimed to want to achieve by intervening. The American-British removal of the regime of President Saddam Hussein produced a power-vacuum that enabled the rise of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It also dramatically increased the regional influence of Iran. The unintended consequences of intervention are many and usually lead to greater death and destruction. There is, however, a second type of military intervention: a response to another country’s invasion and occupation of a country. A good example of this sort of intervention is the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, Operation Desert Storm. This was a successful operation. It ended a foreign occupation and liberated Kuwait.
  2. If a military intervention is undertaken under the auspices of the UN principle of Responsibility to Protect, the intervening parties should not leave the country once they have achieved regime change, as happened for instance after the killing of the Libyan leader Qadhafi. In such a case, the intervening forces should stay until a new and better situation has been realized. In practice, this would mean that the intervening parties would have to stay for 10, 20 or even 30 years. Naturally, the hope is that stability would not collapse once foreign forces left. Iraq and Libya are clear examples of interventions where imposing ‘better government’ and durable stability was not realized following occupation. Because few countries are prepared to occupy other peoples for decades, as we have seen in Iraq and Libya, it would have been better had they not intervened at all.
  3. If foreign military interventions are intended to change the political order of the occupied countries, the outcome will depend on the views of the occupier. But democracy and political freedom cannot be imposed by military force. It even sounds contradictory to militarily impose so-called ‘freedom’. Moreover, it would be naïve to think that military interventions are generally only motivated by idealistic ideals, such as bringing democracy, without strategic calculations playing an important role.
  4. In the case of Syria, it would have been better not to intervene at all. Without foreign military intervention, the regime would in all likelihood have clamped down on the opposition forces just as ruthlessly as it did. But the number of casualties would have been far fewer. Perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 Syrians would have been killed rather than 500,000. The number of refugees would surely have been smaller, and the country would have been spared such extensive destruction. It would have been better to have the Asad regime remain in power with 10,000-50,000 dead, than to have more than ten years of war with over 500,000 dead, the country in ruins, 10 million refugees, and al-Asad still in power. The expected number of victims should always be an important part of the equation. One could argue that those officials who now complain of the large numbers of Syrians who have taken refuge in their countries helped cause the refugee flow themselves through their intervention in Syria. Turkey, which has most of Syria’s refugees, is a clear example in this respect.
  5. It reminds me of the words of Thomas Friedman, whom I quoted earlier: “Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon.” When applying these words to present-day Syria, they should read: “Better a year of intense bloody conflict, than ten years of bloody war with no political solution in sight.” The longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it became to see a way out or a solution. Solutions that might have been practical one year after the start of the Syrian Revolution, were not practical later on. As the violence grew more intense and the destruction of Syrian society compounded, the chances for halting the war narrowed.
  6. One could argue, of course, that all this should never have been allowed to happen, but most foreign countries only interfered half-heartedly. Yes, some countries sent military weapons worth billions of dollars, but they did not send large enough quantities with enough military sophistication to help the opposition prevail against the Asad regime. Actually, by supporting the opposition morally, without arming them sufficiently to achieve the goal of toppling the regime, the countries that sided with the Syrian rebels effectively sent them to their deaths. And once the Asad regime was threatened in earnest in 2015, Russia and Iran intervened. Their intervention should have been expected. It was naïve not to expect Russia and Iran to defend Asad or to counter the ambitions of the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Russia and Iran simply wanted to save their most important ally in the Middle East. Ironically, the result of Western intervention in Syria is that the position of both Russia and Iran in the region has been strengthened.
  7. The most serious threat to the Syrian regime may come from a coup, carried out by members of its own military. But possibilities for such a threat to materialize have essentially diminished over the past half a century since Hafiz al-Asad took over in 1970. During this period, the regime has efficiently protected itself from coups, by posting only the most loyal people to the most sensitive military positions and units. Any doubt about loyalties has always led to purges from those who were suspected or were considered to be disloyal. The persons involved have been dismissed, imprisoned, or executed.
  8. Personally, I would have preferred a continuous dialogue with the Syrian regime on how to end the conflict, even though the prospects for such a dialogue have been very bad from the outset. A failed dialogue, however, would have been better than a failed war.

To conclude, as the old adage goes: don’t start a war unless you can win it. This is particularly true if such a war implies the high risk of massive bloodshed, as could have been predicted – and was predicted – in the Syrian case. The party that failed to achieve its aims – however idealistic and positive these may have been – carries a responsibility for the bloody results, just as does the party that frustrated the revolution. In the end, the results count; not the so-called good intentions that led to those results. The costs of not-winning should have been sufficiently calculated before engaging militarily in the conflict, the more so as it was bound to include thousands of war crimes. This is easier said than done, of course. The Syrian Revolution erupted to a large extent spontaneously as a result of the so-called Arab Spring. Developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the swift fall of their leaders, causing euphoria among many Syrians and leading opposition members to misjudge the chances of success. Even though opposition leaders were painfully aware of their own disorganization and lack of a plan for success, they believed that they could not let the revolutionary moment slip through their fingers. Their euphoria turned out to be unjustified. Moreover, the fate of the Syrian opposition groups was quickly determined by foreign countries. The Syrian civil war turned into a war-by-proxy.

If external powers really wanted to help the Syrian opposition, they should have done so with full conviction and not half-heartedly. The countries that intervened in the fighting should assume full co-responsibility for the results. But they did not, and it was predictable that they would not do so. Thus, it should be concluded that all major parties to the Syria war are responsible for war crimes, some by proxy, some directly, and some more than others. In Syria, perhaps even more so than in similar conflicts, the commission of war crimes is a shared responsibility.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, London 1989, pp. 100-101.

[*] Dr. Nikolaos van Dam serves as an Honorary Senior Advisor of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. Prior to this, Dr. van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria. As a junior diplomat he served in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. He is the author of various books on the Middle East, including The Struggle for Power in Syria and Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria (also published in Arabic and other languages). This article is part of a lecture he presented to the World Affairs Council of the Desert (California) on June 8th, 2021, on behalf of The Hague Institute for Global Justice.