Days ago, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria released its latest report, which covers events from January to May. While government abuses have exceeded those of the rebels in “scale and intensity,” both sides are perpetrating crimes against humanity, says the report. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), in its direct response to the UN report, pledged “to hold all those involved in such violations accountable, before a fair trial, to ensure that the innocent are acquitted and that the guilty are punished.” These are important words, but how much influence does the opposition’s political leadership have to actually hold fighters accountable?
The pledge of accountability probably reflects a sincere commitment by opposition politicians. But this isn’t the first time the opposition have made such pledges. Last August the FSA agreed to a code of conduct, vowing, among other things, not to use torture or commit public executions. Despite such statements, violations, executions, and crimes against humanity have continued.
Speaking realistically, the opposition’s political leadership has little control over armed groups. With huge amounts of funding and arms coming from outside of Syria, many fighters see more incentive to please foreign backers than the opposition’s political leaders who have little, if anything, to offer in the way of materiel. Second, Syria’s opposition is notoriously fragmented. A recent report by the Center for American Progress attempts to describe the complex relations among Syria’s many unified, allied, and independent opposition groups. Given such diversity of actors, it’s not possible for any single body to keep the opposition accountable. It’s hard to see, for instance, what opposition politicians can do when powerful Islamic militants summarily execute civilians.
But it’s easy to understand why the SNC would pay lip-service to accountability. The SNC wants to maintain the moral high ground in the eyes of international organizations and foreign governments, which is understandable. But making a commitment isn’t just about honesty, it’s also about credibility. The SNC’s claim to hold “all those involved” accountable is simply not credible. Moreover, by suggesting they have the power to hold fighters accountable, the SNC are opening themselves up to criticism. Whenever violations do occur, critics can claim the SNC isn’t trying hard enough or, worse, that they don’t really care.
So what can the SNC do? It might help to admit what everyone knows already: that opposition leaders can’t control all the opposition fighters. Television statements and written declarations would help to circulate this honest stance, while the opposition can continue to profess its desire to keep fighters accountable. This would open the space for the SNC to take a more pragmatic approach to accountability. Opposition leaders could collaborate with military commanders to find ways of enforcing last summer’s agreed upon code of conduct. Should the opposition receive more funding or weapons, they could condition their provision upon fighters’ willingness to enforce such standards. More pragmatic SNC efforts could also support non-political groups, like those working in human rights, to encourage documentation and education focusing on particular fighting groups, rather than addressing the entire spectrum of rebel fighters. Building norms of taboo around violations and more efficiently broadcasting violations by fighters could also help accountability efforts.
As long as the opposition political leadership remains weak, it will have little ability to hold many of the fragmented fighting groups accountable for violations. But rather than overreach on promising accountability, the SNC should admit its limitations while vigorously and sincerely pursuing what few pragmatic efforts it can. Such deeds, far more than any new pledges, will show that the SNC is serious about delivering justice and accountability now, and not just in some distant possible future.
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