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Syria: Rules-Based International Order Creates Humanitarian Rule, Not Law?

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The world community survived the UN vote on the mechanism for delivering cross-border aid to Syria. On the agenda was the issue of the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint, which stopped functioning on July 11, 2021. This checkpoint on the Turkish-Syrian border is the last of four to be shut down since the mechanism began its work. It supplies humanitarian aid to the last de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria – Idlib province. Control over the province is held by various anti-government and terrorist groups, principally Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, otherwise known as HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, associated with al-Qaeda, banned in the Russian Federation).

Humanitarian aid vs. sanctions

According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, more than 70% of the population of northwestern Syria is in need of humanitarian assistance. These include 2.7 million displaced persons (it is believed that the population of Idlib province is about 4 million people). In this regard, Guterres called for a one-year extension of cross-border operations. Ankara, Washington and a number of Western countries need to extend the mechanism of cross-border operations in Idlib through Turkey. Syria itself, as well as the states supporting it, including Russia, believe that all the necessary humanitarian aid can proceed through interaction with the de jure Syrian government in Damascus. The main task for Damascus, on the one hand, and healthy opposition forces in Idlib, on the other, is to ensure humanitarian access across the contact line. Regarding humanitarian access, non-governmental organisations often have questions for both Damascus and the opposition groups.

The topic of cross-border humanitarian operations, according to US President Joe Biden, was discussed at his meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Geneva. American officials later reported that no agreement was reached on the preservation of cross-border humanitarian assistance. At the same time, unnamed American officials shared with the media statements such as: “… We made it clear that this [cross-border operations] is very important to us if we are going to continue our cooperation on Syria. ”

This logic, in which Russia should allow cross-border operations, and in return rely on potential cooperation on Syria sometime in the future, is seriously flawed, especially in the context of US sanctions against Syria, which have seriously undermined the overall humanitarian situation in the country.

The Caesar Act, passed by the US Congress in 2020, has been the most serious legislation introducing sanctions against Syria; among other things, it limits the interaction of Damascus with third countries. As part of the discussion on June 17 at the Valdai Discussion Club, titled “The Humanitarian Crisis in Syria: Is It Just the Beginning?”, Hames Zreik, CEO of the Damascus Centre for Research and Studies, said that the Western sanctions were supposedly introduced to weaken the political system, while in reality their impact is such that only the Syrian people suffer.

Today in the West, there is no logic that would lead to the successful provision of humanitarian aid; but more importantly, it does nothing for the country’s economic recovery. For the West, any conversation about reconstruction begins with a political settlement, while the topic of humanitarian aid is strictly politicised. But someone should already raise the question of what the sanctions policy has achieved in recent years, other than the deterioration of the humanitarian situation of the Syrian population. Is it not worth starting a revision of this outdated and ineffective policy, as well as a reassessment of the conflict based on the realities of today? This is not 2014, when decisions were made on cross-border humanitarian operations as an exceptional measure; the situation in the region has changed. Several facts indicate that such an opinion is at least being taken into account by the Joe Biden administration. There are reports that the American administration is considering the idea of curbing the use of sanctioned weapons (to correct a “vicious” practice under former President Donald Trump). In addition, the Biden administration has decided not to extend the exemption from sanctions of American Delta Crescent Energy, which was developing oil fields in northeastern Syria (where the Americans are present illegally as occupiers). It seems that Moscow and Washington still retain opportunities for a dialogue on Syria and, with due effort, could try to jointly unleash the accumulated tangle of contradictions.

Aid in the wrong hands

The current military-political situation in Idlib has long been cause for concern among international organisations providing humanitarian assistance. Funding for NGOs in Idlib dropped dramatically in January-February 2019, after the establishment of complete domination over the province by the HTS, headed by Abu Muhammad al-Julani. The transparency of the provision of aid in Idlib has decreased. A number of international NGOs have withdrawn from Idlib both in the face of a terrorist threat and realising that the humanitarian aid they provided could fall into the wrong hands. Nevertheless, Abu Muhammad al-Julani and the HTS militants have managed not only to establish control over the province, but also made a number of decisions to whitewash the terrorist group in the West. This rebranding, which al-Julani has been engaged in more than once since the days of his ties with Daesh (banned in the Russian Federation), is supported by certain circles in the West. This became clear in connection with recent reports of Russian diplomatic sources in the media about direct contacts between representatives of Western intelligence services (such as Jonathan Powell of MI6) and Abu Muhammad al-Julani near the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint.

Closing the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint for cross-border humanitarian operations would seriously affect the humanitarian situation in Idlib. Russia has decided to extend the mechanism for providing assistance through this checkpoint. However, time should not be wasted. An international effort is needed to move humanitarian convoys to Idlib across the contact line and in cooperation with the Syrian government. In this regard, it may be helpful to advance discussion on the details of this approach. The difficulty is that neither humanitarian convoys nor the military of Syria, Russia, Turkey or the United States will be protected from provocations by terrorists. Although Turkey has close relations in Idlib with a number of anti-government Syrian groups affiliated with the so-called “Syrian National Army”, these are weak compared with HTS. This fact has compelled Turkey to not actively oppose HTS. Recently, HTS has re-energised itself and is putting pressure on a number of smaller Idlib groups. The latest big news is connected with a native of the former Soviet Union. According to the Directorate-4 Telegram channel, “a veteran of the jihad, the leader of the Jund Ash-Sham group, Murad Margoshvili, better known as Muslim Ash-Shishani,” received an ultimatum to lay down arms and leave Idlib or join HTS. Such proposals have already been received by a number of other leaders of terrorist groups who, in one way or another, submitted to HTS.

The situation in Syria has not been resolved and is not yet close to a geopolitical equilibrium. HTS policy speaks of the further consolidation of power in Idlib in the hands of Abu Muhammad al-Julani. All this may lead to the need for a joint Russian-Turkish-Syrian (Damascus) solution to the issue via various methods. It is possible that Damascus will decide, at least, on a limited military solution in order to establish control over the logistically important M4 highway leading from Aleppo to Latakia, which would restore economic ties between the regions of the country. As for humanitarian aid, in the new (as they say in the West, rules-based) world order and given international humanitarian law in these conditions, apparently, it may turn out to be not a law, but a rule. With all the ensuing circumstances.

From our partner RIAC

MSc in International Relations, Program Coordinator (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Council

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International Law

Undemocratic United Nations and Global Peace

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War is not the solution to any problem rather war is a problem itself. Many countries believe in diplomacy and peaceful means of problem-solving and conflict resolution. But, unfortunately, many nations still seek solutions of problems and continuity of politics in wars.

If we look at any newspaper, we find too many armed conflicts going on around the globe. To name a few would include a catastrophic war between Russian Federation and Ukraine which has caused tens of thousands of casualties, with millions displaced. Decades-long civil wars and subsequent US-led NATO intervention and withdrawal has brought Afghanistan to the brink of famine and hunger. The whole Middle Eastern region is unstable and striving with civil wars for long. The Arab -Israel conflict and Kashmir Dispute have been there for more than seven decades.

Above-mentioned and many others examples of armed conflicts prove that there is no durable peace in the world. Here one thing that needs to be noted is that conflict is always inevitable among individuals, societies and nations, because the interests of individuals, societies and nations do not always converge. When there is divergence of interests, conflict arises.

What is needed to be done is the resolution of these conflicts. There are two ways to resolve conflicts: one is violent way (use of force) and the other is peaceful way (diplomacy and negotiations). More than seven decades ago, after World War 2, nations realized that war is not solution to any problem and they established United Nations Organization (UNO). Primary objective of UN was and is the maintenance of peace and security in the world.

But, if we look at history, it seems the UN has failed to achieve international peace and security. UN may have had role in preventing the outbreak of another world war, but it could not stop a series of conflicts from Korea, Vietnam to Afghanistan (during Cold War), and from Africa, Middle East to ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict.

This is a question mark on the credibility of UN, that why the UN despite being guardian of international peace and security cannot stop wars.

UN has six principal organs and many Specialized Agencies and Funds for different tasks.  Among them Security Council is the most powerful Organ and is mandated with enforcing international peace and security. UNSC uses two tools to enforce its decisions, one is applications of sanctions and the other is use of force (intervention).

However the concentration of power in the hands of five permanent states of Security Council, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia have been problematic. These five countries use veto power whenever they perceive any resolution to be against their national interest or against the interests of their allies. Throughout the Cold War, US and USSR had paralyzed UN by vetoing resolutions. Same happened with any other conflict including when US drafted a resolution to stop the war in Ukraine.

So, it is crystal clear that if UN (specifically Security Council) is not reformed, UN can not achieve its primary goal i.e. maintenance of peace and security. UN members and experts have talked about reform in Security Council. Experts have also given suggestions and proposals to make UN more democratic and representative. One of those proposals is abandoning veto and doubling the size of SC members. This can make UN more democratic and representative to some extent. But this is not an easy job. Firstly, because P5 are reluctant to abandon this privileged position (veto power). Secondly, countries hoping for permanent membership are opposed by other countries. For example, many European countries object Germany’s membership. Pakistan objects to India’s membership.

 Experts believe the solutions could be the democratization of UN system (particularly UNSC). This is done by involving General Assembly in the decision making regarding international peace and security. General Assembly is a symbol of democracy, representing almost all the states on the globe. Simple or two-third majority must be mandatory to make any decision regarding international peace and security. This could stop any powerful state to use UN as a tool for its own vested national interest , and the decision of majority will prevail. All the states, big and small, powerful and weak will have equal say in the UN. Otherwise the possibility of wars, violence, genocide and injustice will further increase.

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United States thinks it’s ‘the exception to the rules of war’

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The architects of those Nuremberg trials—representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France fully expected that the new United Nations would establish a permanent court where war criminals who couldn’t be tried in their home countries might be brought to justice. In the end, it took more than half a century to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC). Only in 1998 did 60 nations adopt the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute. Today, 123 countries have signed.

Guess what superpower has never signed the ICC? Here are a few hints? – writes Rebecca Gordon in an article at “The Nation”:

Its 2021 military budget dwarfed that of the next nine countries combined and was 1.5 times the size of what the world’s other 144 countries with such budgets spent on defense that year.

Its president has just signed a $1.7 trillion spending bill for 2023, more than half of which is devoted to “defense” (and that, in turn, is only part of that country’s full national security budget).

It operates roughly 750 publicly acknowledged military bases in at least 80 countries.

In 2003, it began an aggressive, unprovoked (and disastrous) war by invading a country 6,900 miles away.

Yes! The United States is that Great Exception to the rules of war.

While, in 2000, during the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton did sign the Rome Statute, the Senate never ratified it. Then, in 2002, as the Bush administration was ramping up its Global War on Terror, including its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan and an illegal CIA global torture program, the United States simply withdrew its signature entirely. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (photo) then explained why this way:

“The ICC provisions claim the authority to detain and try American citizens — U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, as well as current and future officials — even though the United States has not given its consent to be bound by the treaty. When the ICC treaty enters into force, U.S. citizens will be exposed to the risk of prosecution by a court that is unaccountable to the American people, and that has no obligation to respect the Constitutional rights of our citizens.”

The assumption built into Rumsfeld’s explanation was that there was something special — even exceptional — about US citizens. Unlike the rest of the world, we have “Constitutional rights,” which apparently include the right to commit war crimes with impunity.

Even if a citizen is convicted of such a crime in a US court, he or she has a good chance of receiving a presidential pardon. And were such a person to turn out to be one of the “current and future officials” Rumsfeld mentioned, his or her chance of being hauled into court would be about the same as mine of someday being appointed secretary of defense.

The United States is not a member of the ICC, but, as it happens, Afghanistan is. In 2018, the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, formally requested that a case be opened for war crimes committed in that country. ‘The New York Times’ reported that Bensouda’s “inquiry would mostly focus on large-scale crimes against civilians attributed to the Taliban and Afghan government forces.” However, it would also examine “alleged C.I.A. and American military abuse in detention centers in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, and at sites in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, putting the court directly at odds with the United States.”

Bensouda planned an evidence-gathering trip to the United States, but in April 2019, the Trump administration revoked her visa, preventing her from interviewing any witnesses here. It then followed up with financial sanctions on Bensouda and another ICC prosecutor, Phakiso Mochochoko.

So where do those potential Afghan cases stand today? A new prosecutor, Karim Khan, took over as 2021 ended. He announced that the investigation would indeed go forward, but that acts of the United States and allies like the United Kingdom would not be examined. He would instead focus on actions of the Taliban and the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State.

When it comes to potential war crimes, the United States remains the Great Exception. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were just a little less exceptional?

If, for instance, in this new year, we were to transfer some of those hundreds of billions of dollars Congress and the Biden administration have just committed to enriching corporate weapons makers, while propping up an ultimately unsustainable military apparatus, to the actual needs of Americans?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if just a little of that money were put into a new child tax credit? – asks Rebecca Gordon.

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International Law

Selective Standards: Fight Against Oppression or Just a Geopolitical Showdown for Global Supremacy?

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The karma of destiny is perhaps the most patent representation of natural balance one could witness in a lifetime. The global divide between democracy and autocracy has been a mainstay of western diplomacy since the days of the Cold War. ‘Rule-based International Order’ has been the de facto foreign policy of subsequent western administrations – the United States, in particular. One would assume that the virtue of such an altruistic agenda would extend universally regardless of caste, creed, and ethnicity. But unfortunately, while nature could prove occasionally unfair, each successive American regime sets new records of cant and hypocrisy, as if trying to remind us of its duplicitous existence and deviant machinations.

The war in Ukraine was the grotesque highlight of the year 2022. But what notably garnered considerable spotlight was the western unity against Russian maneuvers. Placing crippling sanctions on the Kremlin – done. Cutting energy imports from Russia – mission accomplished. Military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine – $65 billion have already been appropriated to Kyiv, while an additional $47 billion got approved in a $1.7 trillion government funding bill signed by President Biden. What else? Oh, yes! Sanctions on Iran for supplying military drones to Russia, allegedly used in surveillance and targeted attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Russia got ejected from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), ridiculed in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), and suspended from the Group of Eight (G8) in 2014 for annexing Crimea. All in the name of, and I quote the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “defense of the UN Charter and in resolute opposition to Russia’s devastating war of aggression against Ukraine and its people.” Well, is the defense of the UN Charter absolute or subject to the selective judgment of the United States? Is all aggression against any innocent civilians culpable, or just Russian predation against innocent denizens of Ukraine? The answer was pretty evident on (ironically) the last day of the year that would remain earmarked in history as the year of the notorious Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The UNGA voted on a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to opine on the legal consequences of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. Today, Israel colonizes swathes of Palestinian land beyond the borders established under the 1947 UN Partition Plan (contentious in itself to begin with). Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, this illegal occupation also includes Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. The resolution passed 87 to 26 with 53 abstentions. Unsurprisingly, the typical states opposing the resolution were the United States and Britain – the flag-bearers of justice in the Russian war in Ukraine. The same standard-bearers of international law that applauded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for dragging Russia to the ICJ before Russian forces even fully penetrated the Ukrainian borders. It is another rueful example of a shameless display of hypocrisy on the geopolitical canvas. And it would’ve been tragicomical had it not been par for the course – a historical cliche!

Last month, two US lawmakers: namely House Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, introduced a bipartisan congressional resolution calling on President Biden to boot Russia from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for its “flagrant violations” of the UN Charter, including its illegal naturalization of four Ukrainian oblasts and committing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. While the expulsion proceedings of a permanent member of the UNSC are both obscure and (frankly) unrealistic without Russian consent, this scenario is spectacularly ironic.

In November 1967, the members of the UNSC voted unanimously for Resolution 242: calling out Israel to withdraw from the annexed territories seized in the Six-Day War. Yet 55 years later, Israel not only continues to violate the resolution, it also proceeds to expand settlements on expropriated Palestinian land with impunity. In the last five decades, the Israeli regime has demolished over 28,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territory; spawned more than 200 settlements and outposts. And between 600,000 and 750,000 Jewish settlers have been transferred to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The violence against Palestinians has never ceased.

According to the data from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a total of 424 children have been killed in Ukraine by Russian barbarity. Apartment blocks razed mercilessly; the electricity grid battered to the brink of collapse. The United States has termed it a ’systemic’ assault on humanity, and President Biden even called it a “genocide.” The same department (OHCHR) reported in May 2021 that the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip killed 242 Palestinian children. Was Israel punished for its war crimes? Far from it. President Biden recently congratulated the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the architect of the 11-day war in 2021, on forming the government – terming him as his “friend for decades” while conspicuously ignoring concerns regarding the inclusion of far-right racist politicians in the new cabinet.

The US officials have always maintained a programmed PR narrative of “Israel’s right to defend itself.” From what, children? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Israeli aggression in Gaza displaced more than 74,000 Palestinians, including 7,000 children without a roof, scant food supplies, and virtually no access to medical assistance. The WHO also reported the decimation of 30 health facilities in Gaza due to Israeli airstrikes. Yet, annualized military aid to the tune of $3.8 billion continues to flow to Israel from the United States. What more to explain other than the absolute mockery of international law; the farce of diplomacy of human rights and equitable justice at the behest of the apparently puritanical United States of America.

History is riddled with numerous examples of American duplicity. The American acquiescence to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which eventually galvanized the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah. The United States vetoed the UNSC resolution – one of its 53 vetoes time and again used to shield Israel from global denunciation – calling for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from southern Lebanon. An estimated 49,600 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians died during the occupation. And then there are glaring examples of American interventions. Its outright support to the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union and the subsequent provenance of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. How can one forget the devastating invasion of Iraq on the utterly bogus canard of Saddam Hussein wielding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Between 2003 and 2006, the US-led assault resulted in over 655,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, primarily due to the indiscriminate aerial bombardment by the US forces on Iraqi towns and cities. And the civil vacuum engendered in wake of the Iraq War served as a breeding ground for radical offshoots of Al-Qaeda – later accreting under the banner of the Islamic State (IS). How can a country such as America still enjoy a moral high ground when its historical scroll stands emblazoned with unilateral aggression, illegal intervention, and unabashed prevention of justice against its genocidal allies?

The war in Ukraine is a blood-strewn conflict but a rendition of complex realpolitik import and balance of regional power dynamics. Opposing Russian cruelty should not implicitly spell out support for American rhetoric. One could still stand with Ukrainians while denouncing its backers in the name of universal covenants of justice. All humans are entitled to the right to life, security, freedom, and dignity. These fundamental rights should not waver based on alliances – political, ideological, ethnic, or otherwise.

While the passage of this UNGA resolution is a promising sign of growing global consciousness, it won’t yield any significant, policy-altering outcomes. In 2004, the ICJ weighed on the issue of Israeli occupation and ruled that the wall in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem was illegal. In response, Israel termed The Hague ‘politically motivated’ and rejected the ruling. Similarly, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, speaking ahead of the vote, characterized this resolution as “a moral stain on the UN,” further arguing that “no international body can decide that the Jewish people are occupiers of their own homeland.” Russia makes an eerily similar argument about Ukraine; Russian President Vladimir Putin aspires to ‘Reunify the Soviet Motherland.’ Even China’s President Xi Jinping posits a parallel assertion regarding the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan with the Chinese motherland. The resemblance is uncanny. But while the US continues to support Ukraine to wrestle back lost territory from Russian troops; continues to arm Taiwan to defend against a potential amphibious invasion from China, plans are effectively underway to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – a tacit nod to Donald Trump’s aberrant recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – despite the city’s disputed status under the international law. I reckon the words of Ms. Tirana Hassan, the acting executive director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in her introductory essay in the HRW World Report 2023 aptly bewail these double standards: “[In] a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights.

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