Has the War in Syria Now Killed Off All Accountability for War Crimes? | Opinion

President Trump's impulsive decision to allow the Turkish offensive against civilians and the Syrian Democratic Forces—the American-backed militia that led the fight to destroy ISIS—will leave a dark legacy that extends far beyond this war or this presidency. The two-week Turkish offensive against northeast Syria is the latest chapter in today's age of impunity, with dire consequences for civilians, humanitarians, and global security.

In the two weeks since Trump's fateful decision, over 150,000 people, including 70,000 children, have been displaced, airstrikes have attacked medical and humanitarian facilities designed to help people fleeing the violence, children and other victims have suffered chemical burns that appear to be from white phosphorus-laced weapons, Syrian government forces have reclaimed territory they haven't stepped foot in for years, and ISIS appears poised for a resurgence with every other military force in the region now distracted. There have also been disturbing reports of executions of civilians.

The horrifying images coming out of northern Syria are a sign that we are living in what David Miliband calls an "age of impunity"—an era where the previously agreed-upon rules that govern war, politics, and international affairs are increasingly violated without concern for the consequences. It's an era in which violations of international humanitarian law are not simply the unfortunate result of the fog of war—rather, they are part of a deliberate strategy of terror, brutality, and cruelty designed to displace as many people as possible and break the will of the unfortunate few who remain.

Since 2011, Syria has been the epicenter of impunity, beginning first and foremost with the Syrian government and its supporters butchering peaceful protesters, which prompted the first rebels to take up arms against him. That original sin has spawned an ugly, soul-warping war that has dirtied anyone who has dared enter it. When the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians, President Obama's failure to impose costs for his stated red line (reinforced by the U.K. Parliament and the U.S. Congress's equal unwillingness to take any action, along with the thirteen Russian and seven Chinese vetoes in the United Nations Security Council) only reinforced the notion that there are no consequences in Syria, no matter how awful the crime.

This legacy of impunity deepened with the targeting of hospitals, aid convoys, and civilian infrastructure by Syrian and Russian air forces, particularly in and around Idlib. Since the beginning of the conflict there have been 583 attacks on health facilities—including attacks against eight facilities supported by my organization, the International Rescue Committee, since this April—resulting in the death of 912 medical personnel. When the UN began working with international humanitarian organizations to provide the exact GPS coordinates of hospitals to the various militaries in the conflict, Russian air craft still repeatedly and deliberately struck these deconflicted sites, including striking four hospitals in a 12-hour span in May. The situation has become so desperate that some humanitarian groups, including ours have begun deploying mobile health clinics which can more easily flee incoming missiles.

The Turkish offensive that began last week, the result of Trump's spur-of-the-moment decision to cave to Turkish President Erdogan's demands to establish a so-called "safe zone" in Syria, is just the latest, saddest chapter in this war of impunity. The fact that Erdogan made it clear he would repatriate 1 million to 2 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey, displace Kurdish civilians and fight the American-backed SDF, seemed to make no difference in the decision to greenlight the invasion.

Syria is part of a broader story we're seeing around the world. The number of aid workers killed, injured, or kidnapped is up 60 percent since 2010 to a total of 405 humanitarians last year. The Freedom in the World report highlights eleven countries where there have been ethnic cleansing incidents this year compared to just three in 2005. More people are being displaced per person killed in combat—from a historical ratio of 5 to 1 compared to the 25 to 1 rate in Syria—which could be a sign that governments realize that subduing a hostile population is much easier when a large percentage of that population has already fled.

The U.S. and Europe are not the primary culprits in this age of impunity, but we should be clear about their complicity. By de-prioritizing human rights in their rhetoric and declining to enforce international humanitarian law, Western powers have inadvertently sent the signal to authoritarian leaders from Syria to China to Saudi Arabia to Russia that the only law of war that matters is that might makes right.

The U.S. under President Trump has fed this dangerous sense of impunity in both word and deed. Bragging about the "Mother of All Bombs" in Afghanistan, defending alleged war crimes committed by military officers, continuing to supply weapons to the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen despite their documented use of force against civilians including a bus-load of children, claiming that the best way to fight terrorism is by "taking out their families," and praising another leader for his use of extrajudicial killings has made it frighteningly clear that this administration does not view international humanitarian law as a priority and will not punish those who deliberately violate it.

Even if Trump can credibly argue that he did not know how troops would act in battle, his words and actions rolled out the red carpet for the impact on civilians we're seeing now. Trump's response that the SDF are "not angels" and that whatever happens between Turkey, Russia, Syria and the SDF is none of our business because "there's a lot of sand that they can play with" only reinforces perceptions that the U.S. has no intention of establishing accountability for violations that may have occurred.

Europe's role in this disaster has been less dramatic than America's and thus the continent has avoided some of the harsh spotlight pointed at Trump. But by showing cowardice in the face of a refugee crisis they did their best to ignore until it was on their doorstep, the EU and its member states allowed themselves to be held hostage by Erdogan's brazen threat to flood Europe with 3.6 million Syrian refugees. European governments have unfortunately made it clear that while they may not support the current offensive or widespread abuses of migrants in Libya from sub-Saharan Africa, both outcomes are preferable in their eyes to more migrants and refugees making their way across the Mediterranean and the Balkans into the Schengen area.

But the U.S. and key European countries like Germany, France, the UK, and Sweden don't have to simply stand back and watch impunity become the morbid moniker of our generation. Though re-establishing a semblance of accountability in Syria years after it was initially broken may not be possible in the near-term, policymakers should learn three lessons from Syria to prevent the impunity mindset from embedding itself elsewhere and reaping greater chaos for the most vulnerable.

The first lesson is that our leverage to stop violations drops precipitously the moment the violations begin—in nearly all cases of foreign policy, it is easier to deter action before it happens than to compel changes to existing policy. This is particularly evident as the Trump administration frantically tries to put the genie back in the bottle by agreeing to a ceasefire after it green-lit the invasion in the first place. The U.S. can use the diplomatic tools in its toolkit to put pressure on parties to the conflict, but these actions would have likely had a greater impact on decision-making if threatened or implemented before Ankara made any decisions. Deterring violations of IHL from happening requires credible threats, and that means threatening action before the deed is done.

The second lesson is the need to be explicit about what we're trying to prevent and disentangle adherence to international humanitarian law from broader geopolitical goals. This should in theory be relatively easy for enforcing the laws of war and international humanitarian law because they are very clearly codified in a series of documents, including the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which all 196 states are party to, and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, to which all nations are bound.

A convoy of Russian military vehicles drives toward the northeastern Syrian city of Kobane on October 23. AFP/Getty

But by inconsistently and selectively calling out war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law, the U.S. muddied its ability to send a credible signal that they actually did care whether or not humanitarian law was followed, separate from geopolitical interests in Syria. The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an example, where it could be argued that a humanitarian issue was being employed to promote a broader political objective, that of regime change. The fact that Trump only references human rights as a means to attack geopolitical rivals has only blurred these lines further and diluted any call for lawfulness. This is the other side of the coin of deterrence: establishing credible assurances that the U.S. government is willing to not pull the trigger if international humanitarian law is respected.

The third lesson is the need to consistently speak up and speak out when these lines are crossed. Public outcry may feel inadequate in the face of such atrocities, but in an era where countries are willing to pay millions of dollars to PR agencies to prevent bad publicity in Washington and London, day after day of bad press coverage will make governments pay attention. There's even speculation that the constant bad press and criticism in Congress over atrocities in Yemen contributed to the UAE's decision to withdraw their support for that war. Calling out atrocities must include publicly documenting the facts. The newly announced UN Board of Inquiry in Syria is a step in the right direction, but the fact that the UN has yet to pledge to make the findings public is a cause for concern. The Board of Inquiry should examine the alleged violations of international humanitarian law in both northwest and northeast Syria, and the findings and evidence should be released to the public if it is going to help establish accountability in this war. Accountability mechanisms like the Board of Inquiry should become commonplace and it should never come as a surprise to a foreign leader or a military commander when Western capitals erupt in fury over war crimes. The more consistently leaders loudly and defiantly apply public pressure, the more it will strengthen the credible threats used to deter such atrocities.

Fighting back against an age of impunity that has become the norm on 21st century battlefields won't be easy and we shouldn't pretend there's a silver bullet that can put the broken pieces back together, but it would be a serious mistake to simply accept the abuses we are currently seeing in northeast and northwestern Syria. The only way to fight back is to start chipping away at the aura of inevitability, the belief that the rules are for suckers, and the mindset that all is fair in war. Deterring such behavior only happens by establishing clear and credible threats and assurances and speaking out every single time that line is crossed. Civilian blood is on our hands because we let that mindset become the norm in international affairs, and there is much more blood to be spilled if we don't start untangling ourselves from this age of impunity.

Ken Sofer works at the International Rescue Committee, where he is the Advisor for Policy & Planning in the Office of the President.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​