What Will Shock the World? Waiting for Syria’s Srebrenica by Tobias Borck

The bombing of the Ain Jalout school in Aleppo, on 30 April 2014, encapsulates the horror of the war in Syria. The air strike, carried out by the Syrian military, killed more than 20 people, half of them children. That day, the school was hosting an exhibition of drawings and paintings, in which the students had depicted their dreams – most of them featured the war, death and destruction.[1]

James Bays, reporting for Al-Jazeera, said that the attack on the Ain Jalout school “should shock the world.”[2] But will the shock be big enough to change the attitude of the international community, or rather, the strategies of the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council? Valerie Amos, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, expressed her outrage calling the bombing of the school, and other attacks targeting civilians, “a flagrant violation of the basic tenants of war.”[3] Ultimately, however, the attack is unlikely to change anything.

Syria’s war has entered its fourth year. The killing, maiming and displacement of ordinary Syrians have become a daily occurrence, causing unspeakable human suffering. James Clapper, United States Director of National Intelligence, has recently called the humanitarian situation in Syria “an apocalyptic disaster.” Since the beginning of the war in March 2011, more than 150,000 people have been killed,[4] among them more than 11,000 children.[5] 2.7 million Syrians have fled the country;[6] a further 6.5 million were forced to leave their homes but remain in Syria.[7]

We Are Waiting

The strategy of the western P5 members towards Syria, led by the USA, appears to be based on waiting and monitoring the situation. But what is it that Barack Obama’s government is waiting for?

Despite recent territorial gains for Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a military victory for any side in the conflict is unlikely. The Geneva peace talks, chaired by UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, ended without significant results in February 2014. Back then, Brahimi called on all parties involved to decide whether “they want this process to take place or not.”[8] In the absence of any tangible further developments since, the answer seems to be: no. Brahimi himself is expected to resign in the coming months, particularly if presidential elections in Syria planned for June are going ahead. President Bashar al-Assad has recently confirmed his stand for reelection and it is widely believed he will win.[9]

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council Resolution 2139[10] from February 2014, continues to be violated with impunity by all sides in the conflict. The resolution demanded an end to all attacks against civilians, and unrestricted access for humanitarian agencies within the countries. While the resolution is legally binding under International Law, it does not stipulate any consequences for noncompliance or measures for its enforcement. Any advances towards a more robust resolution continue to be blocked by Russia.[11]

To improve their own position and to convince Assad that there can be no military solution to the conflict, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the opposition’s leadership in exile, continues to lobby western governments to provide opposition forces with much needed military equipment. In an interview with Exeter students, Walid Saffour, the SNC’s UK ambassador, expressed his belief that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could make significant progress on the ground “if we have got adequate arms to stop two things: the tanks and the aircraft.”[12]

Next week, Ahmad Jarba, the SNC’s president will visit Washington, not least in an attempt to convince the US government to arm the FSA with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Whether he will succeed, however, is uncertain. Apart from some limited shipments of weapons, the Obama administration has thus far been extremely cautious in providing military equipment to opposition forces. The main reason for this reluctance is the fear that American weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.[13]

What Are We Waiting For?

What, then could change US policy towards Syria? A review of some of the US-led military interventions and wars in past decades, suggests that changes in US strategy are often influenced by specific events. With regard to the US interventions in Lebanon (1982), Bosnia Herzegovina (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011), it is possible to identify crucial turning points for US strategy. With the exception of the war in Afghanistan, which was a direct response to the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, these events were not in themselves the sufficient or sole reason for respective US governments to launch interventions. They did not occur in a vacuum, but rather in a continuum of conflicts within the individual countries or – in the case of 9/11 – within the context of global developments. They were the last straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back and convinced the US presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama that military action, or at least military support for one side in the conflict, was unavoidable.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan’s decision to send almost 2,000 US Marines to Lebanon came days after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September. At this point, Lebanon’s civil war had already devastated the country for seven years. In August, a contingent of US marines had briefly deployed to Lebanon as part of a multinational force to supervise the withdrawal of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from the country. They left on 10 September. A week later, between 16-18 September, a Christian militia – with, at the very least, the quiet acceptance of the occupying Israeli army – killed between 700 and 3,000 Palestinian refugees. The images of the massacre’s aftermath went around the world and promoted Reagan’s formation of a new multinational force tasked with supporting the Lebanese government. The intervention was ultimately unsuccessful and ended in the horrific terror attack on the US Marines’ barracks in October 1983. The war continued until 1990.[14]

In Bosnia Herzegovina, the US-led NATO interventions only occurred after the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. The war had begun in 1992 and had already cost tens of thousands of deaths. A UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), with limited US participation, was deployed in 1992, but only had a mandate to protect certain areas, not to use force to stop the fighting. UNPROFOR’s ineffectiveness was exposed when Bosnian Serb forces overran the Muslim town of Srebrenica on 11 July 1995 and killed more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims. Days after the massacre, NATO agreed to take a tougher stand to defend other safe areas and in August launched a decisive campaign to end the war.[15]

In Kosovo, two widely publicised massacres by Serbian forces against Kosovo Albanians in Prekaz and Racak played a critical role in the prelude to NATO’s US-led military intervention. After the Prekaz massacre, in which 53 Albanians were killed on 5 March 1998, the USA intensified its efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Two days after the attack, US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright announced that “We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia.’’[16] Nine months later, after 45 Albanians were killed in the Racak massacre on 15 January 1999, the USA and its European allies decided that diplomacy alone was no longer enough. In March, NATO’s military intervention began.[17]

The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not preceded by massacres in those countries, but by the terror attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001. These attacks were decidedly more instrumental in the US government’s decision to launch military operations than any of the events outlined above, especially in the case of Afghanistan. However, both Afghanistan and Iraq were on the USA’s foreign policy agenda long before 2001. In 1998, the Clinton administration authorised missile strikes against suspected bases of Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan.[18] In Iraq, the USA played the leading role in maintaining no-fly zones over both the north and the south of the country throughout the 1990s. Regime change in Iraq was certainly identified as a US objective before 9/11, especially among the neoconservative establishment. Yet, it took 9/11 to create the momentum to launch a military campaign.[19]

Finally, NATO’s intervention in Libya is a rare example of where the threat of a massacre was sufficient for the USA and its allies to launch military intervention. In March 2011, Gaddafi’s forces were advancing on Benghazi, the origin of popular protests against the regime and the stronghold for the armed rebellion. Obama later explained his decision to support NATO’s intervention: “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”[20]

These six events – the atrocities in Sabra and Shatila, Srebrenica, and Prekaz and Recak, the attacks of 9/11, and the potential massacre in Benghazi – were unique in themselves and specific to their respective contexts. There is no particular threshold, no definitive number of casualties that forces US presidents to opt for military intervention. However, these events are united in the fact that they represented significant turning points for US strategy. It is important to note that these events did not necessarily lead to international consensus in favour of military intervention – the Kosovo intervention happened despite vehement Russian opposition.[21] Although Russia may have more of an invested interest in Syria than it did in Kosovo, this suggests that deadlock in the UN Security Council is not an insurmountable obstacle to military intervention.

The Waiting Continues

In Syria a turning point was almost reached in August 2013, when between 300-1,400 civilians were killed in a chemical weapons attack. For a few days US missile strikes against Syria seemed likely. However, diplomacy prevailed and the Assad regime agreed to the US-Russia brokered deal to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles.[22] Six months later, the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has removed the bulk of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal.[23] The killing, however, continues unabated and with horrific consistency. In the week culminating in the Ain Jalout school bombing on 30 April 2014, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) had counted daily death tolls of 206, 270, 210, 265, 288, 223 and 284.[24] These figures are far from unusual for the war in Syria. The data published on the SOHR’s Facebook page shows very similar numbers for the past months, even years.

Alistair Burt, former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, suggests that this consistency is no accident. “We think Assad has learned perfectly well from his father that killing 20,000 people in Hama as in 1982 would not now be the right thing to do,” he said in an interview with Exeter students.[25] However, the death of 200-300 people a day appears to be a level that governments in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Paris and London are prepared to sustain. The decisive turning point, Syria’s Sabra and Shatila or Srebrenica has not yet occurred. For the moment, “four, five thousand, six thousand people a month appears to be a figure that the world is prepared to stand,” says Burt.

In the absence of a turning point event in Syria, a terror attack originating in the country but carried out in one of Syria’s neighbours or even in Europe or the USA could potentially lead to a policy change by western governments. The proliferation of radical Islamist forces and groups linked to Al-Qaeda in Syria is well documented.[26] Thus far, these groups have concentrated on terrorising Syrian civilians. A day before the Ain Jalout school bombing, two car bombs by Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra killed more than 50 civilians and injured hundreds in an area of Homs controlled by the Assad regime.[27]

However, it is far from certain that Al-Nusra, and other radical organisations active in Syria will continue to limit their operations to the battlefield within Syria. Matthew Olson, Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2014 that “Syria has become the preeminent location for independent or Al-Qaeda-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks.”[28]

It is clear that the current policy of the Obama administration and its allies in Europe is not leading to any meaningful changes in Syria. Chemical weapons may have been largely removed from the conflict, but the killing, maiming and displacement of ordinary Syrians continues at a horrifically consistent level. US and European strategy appears to be reduced to waiting, either for one side of the conflict to achieve an unlikely military victory, or for an atrocity that will make further inaction simply impossible.



[1] BBC (2014) “Syria Crisis: ‘Children Killed in Aleppo School Strike.” BBC Online, 30 April. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27227791 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[2] Al-Jazeera (2014) “Aleppo School Bombing Condemned by UN.” Al-Jazeera Online, 1 May. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/05/aleppo-school-bombing-condemned-un-2014516372113604.html [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (2014) “More than 150,000 Martyred and Killed Since the Start of the Revolution.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Arabic website, 1 April. http://www.syriahr.com/index.php?option=com_news&nid=17296&Itemid=2&task=displaynews#.U2J3A16CTwJ [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[5] Salama, H., and Daragan, H. (2013) “Stolen Futures: The Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria.” Oxford Research Group, 24 November. http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers_and_reports/stolen_futures [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[6] UNHRC (2014) “Syria Regional Refugee Response.” UNHRC, last updated 14 April. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[7] USAID (2014) Syria – Complex Emergency: Fact Sheet #12, Fiscal Year 2014, April 10, 2014. Available at: http://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1866/syria_ce_fs12_04-10-2014.pdf [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[8] Maigua, P. (2014) “Syrian Peace Talks Adjourned Indefinitely.” United Nations Radio, 15 February. http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/2014/02/syrian-peace-talks-adjourned-indefinitely/#.U2J5dl6CTwI [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[9] Charbonneau, L. (2014) “Search is on for Successor to Syria Peace Mediator Brahimi.” Reuters, 30 April. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/30/us-syria-crisis-brahimi-idUSBREA3T10A20140430 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[10] United Nations Security Council (2014) “Full Text: UN Security Council Resolution 2139.” UN Watch, 22 February. http://blog.unwatch.org/index.php/2014/02/22/full-text-un-security-council-resolution-2139/ [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[11] Nichols, M. (2014) “UN Aid Chief Suggests Stronger Action Needed on Syria.” Reuters, 30 April. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/30/us-syria-crisis-aid-un-idUSBREA3T10B20140430 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[12] Saffour, W. (2014) Interview. London, 4 March.

[13] Pecquet, J. (2014) “Syrian Opposition Looks to Congress for Military Boost.” Al-Monitor, 25 April. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/syria-opposition-congress-military-boost.html [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[14] Azrael, J. R., and Payin, E. A. (1996) US and Russian Policymaking with Respect to the Use of Force. Santa Monica: RAND. Available at: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/conf_proceedings/2007/CF129.pdf [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[15] Daalder, I. H. (1998) “Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended.” Brookings, December. http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/1998/12/balkans-daalder [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[16] Erlanger, S. (1998) “Albright Warns Serbs on Kosovo Violence.” The New York Times, 8 March. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/08/world/albright-warns-serbs-on-kosovo-violence.html [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[17] BBC (2000) “Behind the Kosovo Crisis.” BBC Online, 12 March. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/674056.stm [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[18] BBC (2014) “Afghanistan Profile: Timeline.” BBC Online, last updated 8 April. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12024253 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[19] BBC (2014) “Iraq Profile: Timeline.” BBC Online, last updated 1 May. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14546763 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[20] Cooper, H. (2011) “Obama Cites Limits of US Role in Libya.” The New York Times, 28 March. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/world/africa/29prexy.html?pagewanted=1&hp [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[21] BBC (1998) “Why Russia Opposes Intervention in Kosovo.” BBC Online, 13 October. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/111585.stm [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[22] BBC (2014) “Q&A: Syria Chemical Weapons Disarmament Deal.” BBC Online, last updated 30 January. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23876085 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[23] BBC (2014) “Bulk of Syria’s Chemical Weapons ‘Removed’, Says Sigrid Kaag.” BBC Online, 27 April. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27179365 [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[24] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (2014) Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Facebook. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/syriahroe?fref=ts [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[25] Burt, A. (2014) Interview. London, 4 March.

[26] Jones, S. G. (2013) “Syria’s Growing Jihad.” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 55 (4), pp. 53-72. Available at: https://www.iiss.org/en/publications/survival/sections/2013-94b0/survival–global-politics-and-strategy-august-september-2013-0b78/55-4-07-jones–seth-abcd [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[27] Human Rights Watch (2014) “Syria: Car Bombs, Mortars Hit Residential Areas.” Human Rights Watch, 1 May. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/01/syria-car-bombs-mortars-hit-residential-areas [Accessed 4 May 2014].

[28] Olson, M. G. (2014) “Extremism and Sectarianism in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.” Hearing Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 6 March. Available at: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/030614AM_Testimony%20-%20Matthew%20Olsen.pdf [Accessed 4 May 2014].

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