On the video screen two innocent rabbits sit looking passively out a glass tank. Concern flashes through their eyes as the noxious vapor hits their noses. They do not panic. Instead they try to find the corner of the tank in search of cleaner air. But there is no escape. Sixty seconds later they lie twitching in the throes of death. The video is intended to shock. But it is no idle threat. The video identifies the next victims of the chemicals in the room as the 'Nusairis', a derogatory term for the Alawi Syrian mystic sect. There were reports that over a hundred Alawis were killed in an purposeful attack on the group during the conflict this week. It is time to decipher whether the boundaries between war and genocidal murder are being eroded and to act accordingly.
We have been here many times before. Combatants and civilians are being killed in this conflict. It is a fact of war. The right of the rebel groups in Syria to shape their own destiny and overthrow the incumbent regime is not in dispute. The right of the regime to respond is also respected within international conventions and norms. We are witnessing a political armed struggle in which both sides are seeking allies including whatever political, tactical and military support they can garner. There is nothing exceptional about that either.
But the death of over 30,000 civilians is a heavy toll indeed, and is where our concern should really focus. Breaches of the Geneva Convention or other human security conventions should not be condoned (on either side) and should be dealt with severely. Civilian death toll in rebel territory at approximately outweighs deaths of combatants three to one. A fact that speaks for itself, even if the numbers do contain additional combatant deaths. History has proved we do not have good track record discerning the difference between war, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, especially while events are unfolding. We need to be alert and responsive to this right now.
Genocide rarely takes place in broad daylight without a parallel conflict in play - but war and genocide are not the same thing. They often occur simultaneously, but are completely separate activities with distinct motives. Even when genocide is used as a tactic of ideologically driven power, its motives and actions are different from the act of war itself. The Holocaust happened simultaneously to WWII, but it was not the same thing. The Tutsi Genocide happened simultaneously to the ongoing war between the Habyaramana regime and the Rwanda Patriotic Front, but it was not the same thing. The point being, if we focus solely on the conflict, we may actually miss what is really happening to the people that live there – and that is where our humanitarian responsibility lies. That is when we need to ask ourselves - what if that was me.
This week the threat of chemical weapons was in the news. We heard of the suspicion that Assad is preparing to load chemicals into weapons systems to use against the rebels. The You Tube video of the rabbits being gassed was posted by an individual claiming to be with the rebels. He was seen in a room filled with chemical bottles of some kind of nerve agent. His threat to the ‘Nusairis’ has it roots in a long history of hatred toward the Alawi people, who are only deemed to have been safe because of the Assad regime. Whatever the truth of the claims on either side of chemical warfare, the very intent to use chemical weapons is clearly targeted for use against civilians. And we know from history that we take threats to kill groups of people seriously.
Assad’s Government is almost certainly totally ignoring the Geneva conventions in his battle with the rebel groups as does not consider himself at war with a legitimate entity. He is out to quash what he views as an insurrection anyway he chooses - including chemicals. Whatever the position of the US, Assad will never recognize the rebels as the legitimate political opposition, so the point is moot.
While we all busy ourselves working out how to work with the rebel groups – including their Islamist factions, some of whom are condemned by the US as terrorist organizations - we need to be aware of the sinister possibility that crimes against and humanity and genocidal violence could yet emerge. The rebels may yet deem the murder of Alawites appropriate reprisal for disproportionate civilian deaths inflicted by the Assad regime.
It could get a great deal more bloody than it needs to, unless the objectives of the war are disentangled from emerging criminal threats from all sides targeted at sectors of the civilian population. The US needs to make sure it reminds its new allies now that it has its support it will hold the rebels feet to the fire on its treatment of civilians in territory it holds.