London has influence over the civil war in Syria

The London Evening Standard - 16 July 2012

Like African famines or tsunamis in the Far East, massacres in Syria are rapidly becoming one of those terrifying phenomena which those of us overseas feel powerless to do anything about.

The latest has been reduced to a trite semantic argument, with the country’s murderous rulers suggesting that the deaths in the village of Tremseh, near Hama, were entirely justified. Rather than innocent people, they argue, the targets of last Thursday’s sustained attack were rebels. As if it lessened the horror, they claim that small arms and grenades were used in the killing rather than heavy armour and helicopter gunships. Never mind that regular Syrian army ordnance was found scattered around bloodied corpses in civilian homes, President Bashar al-Assad was as arrogantly dismissive as ever.

How timely, then, that the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva has finally announced that it views the Syrian conflict as a bona fide civil war. This means that international humanitarian law applies throughout the country, appropriate force can be used by all sides as long as civilian casualties are avoided, and war crimes prosecutions can be brought against those who ignore the rules of war.

Last month I spoke to survivors of the Houla massacre, in which 49 children, 35 women and 25 men were executed by militia loyal to Assad.

Beyond the likely prospect of even more horrific losses, their greatest fear is that the slaughter has become institutionalised, with foreigners accepting it as part of a ruthless repression which has now been going on for 16 months.

All were mortified that, during a conflict which has already claimed more than 17,000 lives and created more than 100,000 refugees since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Assad and his lieutenants had been able to carry on with apparent impunity.

Many noted how the International Criminal Court brought war crimes allegations against the Gaddafi family in Libya for threats against civilians, while doing absolutely nothing about Assad’s actual savagery.

Yes, military intervention is a long way off — China and Russia are making sure of that — but no one should exclude the possibility of an internal coup. Dissidents are everywhere, including many within the military itself, and all will be buoyed by the Red Cross’s statement.

In the meantime, Londoners should remember that this city is the birthplace and former family home of Assad’s wife, Asma.

Her parents still live here, along with other regime supporters, as well as MPs who have previously shown sympathy for the Syrian tyranny. The freezing of some Assad assets by the EU earlier this year was a step in the right direction. But condemnation of the brutality by Foreign Secretary William Hague needs to intensify.

If the deaths and injuries caused by Assad’s forces were the result of a natural disaster, millions would be adding their voices to calls to alleviate the suffering.

As anger against massacres in places like Houla and Tremseh grows, people must realise that the bloodshed can be stopped, and that the more demands made for the Assads and their henchmen to be criminalised and punished, the sooner their wretched rule will come to an end.

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