This week saw the publication of a new report into alleged atrocities committed by the Syrian government. The report, published by an inquiry team made up of English barristers, claimed to show that the Assad regime is guilty of making extensive use of torture and execution. The report focused specifically on assessing the credibility of evidence provided by a defector from the Syrian military police, a man known as ‘Caesar’. The report’s findings were seen by many as a fresh justification to try the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes.
Alongside the Syrian civil war, which is nearing the end of its third year, there is also an entirely separate battle playing out between the Western legal and political classes: a desperate battle as to how the West can morally grandstand about the Syrian conflict while remaining within the confines of international law. The inquiry report is just the latest card played in an endless, tawdry, pseudo-legal dispute, fought between international lawyers and politicians, which has dragged on alongside Syria’s disintegration. The West’s response to the Syrian conflict has never been about what is best for Syria; it has been about how the mechanisms of international law can maintain their moral legitimacy in the face of alleged defiance and transgression. While the civil war rages on the streets of Syria, Western governments are fighting among themselves to maintain the dwindling moral authority of their own institutions.
The nature of this ‘battle’ was thrown into stark relief following the revelation that Assad had launched a chemical weapons attack on his own people last summer. Many pointed out that Syria had crossed the ‘red line’ referred to by the US president, Barack Obama, during a press conference in 2012, in which he said the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale may justify American intervention. However, following revelations regarding the attack, Obama retreated on his own comments, saying that the ‘world’ had set a red line when it ‘passed a treaty’ forbidding the use of chemical weapons.
In other words, the ‘red line’ was a legal one, not a moral or political one. Obama’s argument was that the use and movement of chemical weapons would open the door to other states to breach the provisions of international law. Far from preventing and mitigating conflict, it was these conventions of international law that Obama used as a justification for waging war.
The legal handwringing was mirrored in Britain. The House of Commons debate in August last year, on a government motion to table a resolution before the UN Security Council, began with a speech from the UK prime minister, David Cameron, in which he said, explicitly, that the motion was not about ‘taking sides’, but ‘our response to a war crime’. Military action, he said, would not be about resolving the conflict, nor would it necessarily be for the sake of the people of Syria; rather, it was about ‘deterring the further use of chemical weapons… in breach of international law’.