For three years the suffering of the Syrian people was met with deathly silence from the UN Security Council because of Russia and China's veto. This was broken on 22 February, when the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2139. This resolution clearly identified the regime as guilty of multiple accounts of international humanitarian law violations. The resolution asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report monthly. He delivered his first report to the Security Council on Friday, showing that Assad has continued to bomb, murder, torture and starve our people in blatant defiance of the will of the international community. The lives and aspirations of Syrians are not all that is at stake, so too is the credibility of the international system unless it can move beyond condemning barbarity to actually stopping it.
Our war is no “civil war” fought between morally and practically equal combatants. It is a “war on civilians” perpetrated by a dictatorship. Peaceful protests which began in Daraa were met with a brutal military assault the like of which was catalogued in resolution 2139. It states that hundreds of thousands of civilians are “besieged by the Syrian armed forces”; highlights “arbitrary detention and torture of civilians…notably in prisons and detention facilities”. It condemns “shelling”, “aerial bombardment”, and “barrel bombs”, the last two of which are exclusively perpetrated by the regime. It identifies the regime's tactic of “starvation of civilians” as “prevented by international humanitarian law” and reminds the world that the “primary responsibility” not to impede humanitarian relief activities “lies with the Syrian authorities”.
These words are meaningless to Syrian civilians unless they lead to action – either Assad abiding by them, or the international community taking measures to ensure compliance. Ban Ki-moon’s implementation report shows that the former hasn’t happened. He states: “I strongly condemn the continued heavy shelling, including the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government forces in residential neighbourhoods”. This is no surprise. Assad and his backers believe that the international community is toothless. After using chemical weapons in 2013, the only price he paid was to hand over the remainder of his chemical stockpile. He has not even done this, since at most a third of it has been surrendered so far. He is at liberty meantime to continue to drop all kinds of conventional weaponry on Syrian cities inhabited by civilians, and continue his tactic of “starvation to surrender”.
Our Free Syrian Army forces are expected to uphold international humanitarian law and the laws of war; for Assad's forces, the opposite is true and is indeed their modus operandi. All too often the media confuses the public by conflating all forces fighting the regime under the banner “rebels”. Yet the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria recently differentiated our “moderate nationalist forces” as separate from the extremist groups. We oversee the Free Syrian Army, which has been defending Syrian civilians and which is not only taking on Assad’s forces, but fighting against the extremists, Iran-backed terrorists of Hezbollah, and Iraqi sectarian militias.
Resolution 2139 expresses the Security Council's “intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance”. Ban Ki-moon's report offers an opportunity for the Security Council to show that its words carry weight, to offer Syrians something more than words of sympathy, shock and solidarity. In the likely event that Russia vetoes any “further steps” the West must now show that it will finally challenge what is essentially a “veto” of death for Syrians. This is not just the right thing to do ethically: it is also in the world’s interests and it is in the interests of all who believe in a genuine international community. Red lines must be respected. Otherwise, the world sinks into chaos. In Syria this chaos is unnecessary, arising not by chance but through the malign actions by Assad, and his backers, it is deepened by the inaction of others.
Needless to say, the massacres and brutality of Assad's forces formed a recruiting tool for al-Qa’ida to establish presence in Syria. They are not welcomed by our society, and their dark age actions are making them two faces of one coin, together with the Assad regime.
This dark picture could change if the Syrian Opposition Coalition received more external support. We are not a lost cause. Our forces are liberating and holding contiguous territory and in these areas we are establishing governance on the ground, including through a network of Local councils, which are grassroots self-government bodies. We have also established an Interim Syrian Government based in Gaziantep, which started paying the salaries of previous government employees, and slowly establishing services to citizens. Local Coordination Committees on the other hand are helping establish a resurgent civil society after decades of Ba'athist mis-rule which destroyed any organisation it couldn't control.
There is hope for Syria. At the Geneva talks we stated our guiding principles of security for all, human rights, transitional justice, freedom and democracy, and published a detailed plan of how to achieve this through a Transitional Governing Body which will lead Syria from dictatorship to democracy, from the tyranny of one family to a state that works for all its citizens. But our noble words remain redundant while a dictator is protected by the perverse consequences of Security Council vetoes. It is time for the world to move from inaction towards action showing that it won't allow Syrian civilians to pay the price for a flawed international system. We are the only credible force seeking a democratic, ethnically-diverse Syria which respects human rights. We need help to bring this about. Resolution 2139 hinted at action. In Syria, actions speak louder than words.
Monzer Akbik is Chief of Staff to Ahmad Jarba, President of the Syrian Opposition Coalition