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A Look Back on Russia's First Year in the Syrian Conflict
“President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Vladimir Putin of Russia met in Moscow to discuss the military operations in Syria.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Look Back on Russia's First Year in the Syrian Conflict

September 30, 2016 marked the first anniversary of Russia’s direct military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Although many onlookers initially believed that recent attempts to broker peace would succeed due to Russia’s leverage over the Syrian government, this has not turned out to be the case. Instead, Russia has disrupted the peace process by actively contradicting its verbal commitments for peace in Syria and supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s actions militarily as well as politically through the UN Security Council. The following includes a sampling of five actions by Russia that have been obstacles to peace:

1. Russia has encouraged and proliferated attacks on civilians

International humanitarian law (IHL) is the guiding framework for actions taken during warfare, including the treatment of civilians and those no longer participating in hostilities. Prior to direct Russian intervention, the Syrian government was already accused of committing numerous IHL violations, such as the targeting of hospitals and civilian populations, the forced displacement of civilians, and the use of chemical weapons. Instead of holding the Syrian government to a higher standard, Russia has increased the severity of Syria’s violations. Almost immediately after Russia entered the conflict in October 2015, for example, its air strikes targeted six medical facilities, and since then human rights groups have claimed the health crisis has worsened due to the continued destruction of health facilities. Moreover, Russia has been supporting Syria’s tactic of systematic forced displacement, such as advocating for humanitarian corridors to pressure civilians in eastern Aleppo to leave the area or be subject to attacks.

In addition, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the use of cluster munitions — banned under international law when used in civilian areas due to their indiscriminate nature — during a Syria-Russia joint offensive that resulted in the deaths of at least 35 civilians. Additionally, a Russian media television broadcast revealed incendiary weapons mounted on Russian military aircraft bound for Syria. These weapons are designed to set fire to objects or cause burn injury to persons and are in direct violation of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, of which Russia is a signatory.

Russia has also defended Syria’s use of prohibited arms. In August, a UN Security Council chemical weapons report concluded that the Syrian government had carried out nine chemical weapons attacks in Syria from April 2014 to March 2015. While the UN and other international powers pressed for sanctions and UN Security Council action, including referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, such efforts have been met with resistance from Russia.

2. Russia has conflated attacks on civilians with combating terrorism

Like the Syrian government, Russia has justified many of the aforementioned attacks under the rhetoric of combatting terrorism. Using the Syrian government’s broad definition of terrorism which conflates civilians with terrorists, Russia has continued to conduct indiscriminate airstrikes within Syria. It has also used this explanation to justify its support for Assad at the UN and continued supply of weaponry to Syria. These intentions were further reflected in February’s US-Russia brokered ceasefire agreement, which failed to define “terrorist groups” or create maps defining areas where terrorist groups are located. And it was under the second iteration of this framework that Russian planes allegedly bombed a UN convoy set to deliver aid to approximately 78,000 civilians in Aleppo. At least 20 people were killed in the attack which, if found to be deliberate, would constitute a war crime. Russia’s denials and refusal to apologize despite the many witnesses and videos documenting its role in the attack demonstrate its lack of sincerity in alleviating the humanitarian crisis or advancing the peace process. Although it has blocked aid in the past, not even the Syrian government has taken action to this extent upon a humanitarian aid convoy trying to reach besieged civilians.

#Grozny today is a peaceful, modern, and thriving city. Ain't that a solution we're all looking for? @JohnKerry? @BorisJohnson? | #Aleppo pic.twitter.com/4VWOyVudGX
— Russian Embassy, USA (@RusEmbUSA) October 17, 2016

After comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson that Russia sought a Grozny solution in Aleppo, Russia released the above tweet in response. During the Second Chechen War, Russia destroyed the the Chechen capital of Grozny with ballistic missile strikes.

3. Russia has convoluted the peace process

In Syria, hundreds of armed groups have taken part in hostilities, many of which control territory on the ground, exerting military and/or political influence. To further complicated matters, several foreign powers are also involved either directly or indirectly in supporting different factions and sides. The formation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was an attempt to consolidate the opposition and bring international backers and fighting factions to the negotiating table. Instead of accepting this consolidation, Russia convoluted the process by supporting alternative groups, such as the Moscow Group, Cairo Group, and Istana Group — none of which are viewed as representative and many of which are considered pro-Russian. This has fueled internal rivalries within the opposition, allowing Russia to play the different groups off one another on the issue of if, when, and how President Assad should step down from power, claiming that no single group represents the interests of all Syrians.

4. Russia has undercut a Syrian-led political transition framework

Six weeks into its military involvement in Syria, Russia released a document entitled “Approach to the Settlement of the Syrian Crisis” which outlined Russia’s objectives and strategies for solving the conflict. Next, in the spring of 2016, Russia began working with the US to draft a new constitution for Syria. This action was not only premature, but dangerous to the prospect of a Syrian-led institutional reform process, beginning with constitutional reform to address Syria’s legacy of authoritarianism and human rights abuses. A Russian-drafted constitution would lack input from Syrians and would not appropriately respond to the needs of Syrian citizens to establish a solid constitutional framework that can guide post-conflict Syria. By trying to draft its own version of a constitution for Syria, Russia also undercut the text of UNSC Resolution 2254, which “expressed support for a political process under Syrian leadership.”

5. Russia has decreased the likelihood of an international justice mechanism for Syria

Russia’s participation in the war has drastically decreased the possibility of establishing any type of international justice system for Syria. As a member of the UN Security Council with veto power, Russia had already protected its ally by blocking a resolution referring the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Despite Russian resistance, the international community may still have been able to politically pressure Russia to allow either a referral to the ICC or perhaps the establishment of an international hybrid tribunal. But now that Russia is militarily involved and allegedly responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, it is highly unlikely that Russia will ever agree to any form of international criminal accountability that may lead to the indictment of its own leadership or military personnel. With Russia’s unwavering support of Syria and interest in avoiding criminal responsibility, the international community is now at a deadlock. While other components of transitional justice might still be possible, such as reparations to victims and institutional reform, a key component of the holistic transitional justice framework — criminal accountability — is more elusive than ever.

For more information or to provide feedback, please email SJAC at [email protected].