Rebels in Syria Threaten Genocide Against the Shia

Rebels in Syria Threaten Genocide Against the Shia

Bloomberg reports very disturbing statements made by a spokesperson for the Free Syrian Army:

Communities inhabited by Shiite Muslims and President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority will be “wiped off the map” if the strategic city of Al-Qusair in central Syria falls to government troops, rebel forces said.

“We don’t want this to happen, but it will be a reality imposed on everyone,” Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, told Al-Arabiya television yesterday. “It’s going to be an open, sectarian, bloody war to the end.”

The Colonel apparently made those comments during an interview with Al-Arabiya. You can find the interview (in Arabic) on YouTube here. I asked a friend at the law school to translate for me; here are two other disturbing statements by the Colonel:

“I am telling them, if Al-Qusair falls, then Shia villages in Syria will be wiped off the map. The same applies to Alawite villages. We don’t wish this thing at all, but it will be something out of control.”

“Who would be able to control and restrain thousands of fighters full of spirit of revenge? Who would be able to control all those people?”

Simply put, the Colonel is acknowledging that a government victory at Al-Qusair would almost certainly lead to genocide against the Shia — the Alawites in particular. It is thus worth reminding the leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in case they read Opinio Juris, that command responsibility applies to them no less than to the leaders of Assad’s forces. The good Colonel has already acknowledged that the FSA is fully aware that its soldiers intend to commit genocide if they lose a key city, so the leaders of the FSA have a duty, in the words of the Rome Statute, “to take all necessary and reasonable measures” to prevent that from happening. If they fail to do so and genocide takes place, they too could be convicted of genocide — even if they did not share their subordinates’ genocidal intent.

The larger point, of course, is that the West should not uncritically valorize the Free Syrian Army as part of its understandable quest to replace the murderous Assad regime. Regime change is not the same thing as regime improvement. Moreover, even if a new regime would be generally better than the Assad regime, that does not mean it would not do terrible things to certain disfavored groups. That is a lesson we should have learned in Libya: although no one is shedding tears for the Gaddafi regime, the new Libyan government has proven all too willing to commit atrocities against groups such as the Tawerghans. Indeed, as I discuss in this essay, there is significant evidence that the Libyan government is responsible for numerous international crimes against the Tawerghans, ranging from the crime against humanity of deportation to perhaps even genocide. Unfortunately, the West has largely ignored those crimes — the result, no doubt, of its deep investment in the new Libyan government’s success.

We can only hope history does not repeat itself.

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Forgive me if I’m missing something, but by my reading, the colonel is not saying that “a rebel victory at Al-Qusair would almost certainly lead to genocide against the Shia” as a campaign objective. He’s saying that genocide would occur out of revenge in the opposite case of a government victory in the currently rebel-controlled town of Al-Qusair. 

Bryan C
Bryan C

I have to agree with Jaylemieux that you’ve misread this one, Prof. Heller.  When I first read the Colonel’s comments, I figured that the strategic city of al-Qusair may be strategic for command purposes.  In this line of thought, a capture of that city might degrade command ability to control relatively un-disciplined troops, for example by cutting off lines of communication and mobility between two regions of the country.  Giving the broad benefit of the doubt to FSA commanders, this may mean that they are not able to prevent crimes by troops—of course they would still be responsible, if nothing else, for prosecuting/punishing those soldiers who engage in it.
It seems the real question is whether this colonel is saying “Look, we’re in a bind here, there’s not much we can do if we lose this city,” or if he is saying something more like “Gee, these are some nice Alawite/Shiite minorities you got here.  It’d be a shame if something were to happen to them, you don’t want to make my guys angry, something COULD happen to them…”
Without a full command of Arabic, I can’t say for sure, but from the video it doesn’t look like the first.

Robert Clarke

I don’t agree that the “the FSA is fully aware that its soldiers intend to commit genocide if they lose a key city”. That suggests a presently existing (albeit conditional) intention to commit genocide. In fact what the quoted passage says is that if the city fall to the SAA then the FSA rank and file troops would be ‘full of the spirit of revenge‘ and the FSA commanders would not be in a position to control them. In other words, it is conjectured that some event that is yet to occur would trigger the formation of a genocidal intent.
This is a long way of asking – are these commanders therefore aware that their forces are ‘about to commit’ genocide (to paraphrase the ICC Statute)?

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Ironically, or awkwardly, this rather crude attempt at preemptive disavowal of command responsibility would appear only to enhance such responsibility and, in the case of crime of genocide, only make the knowledge element (at least in the sense of ‘should have known’) of such a crime that much easier to establish. However, I think Rob raises a pertinent question that is difficult to answer.
And I like the important “larger point” about valorizing the Free Syrian Army, as there is indeed often a tendency or temptation to indulge in black and white thinking or so-called Manichaean moral dualism in such cases, if only as an illustration of the proverb that “the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend.” Sometimes our moral choices are constrained: either this or that, one must take sides (e.g., you’re either with La Résistance française or cooperating or collaborating with the forces of fascism), but even in such cases, once the choice has been made, there are occasions aplenty for further moral consideration, deliberation, and choice.