6-25-14 – Syrian Violence Spreads and Devours Iraq

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS—Set to the tempo of escalating violence, widespread human rights violations, and spreading regional conflict, Syria’s civil war continues into its fourth year.  But beyond the increasingly grisly statistics, a UN panel has concluded the crisis has reached a “tipping point” threatening the entire region.   Tellingly, both sides to the conflict, the Assad family regime and the gaggle of Islamic fundamentalist rebel groups share blame for the bloodletting. 

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a respected Brazilian diplomat and legal scholar who served as Chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria warned the UN Human Rights Council,  “With warring parties in unrelenting pursuit of the illusion of military victory, violence has escalated to an unprecedented level. Perpetrators of crimes have no fear or thought of consequence.”    

Pinheiro stated chillingly, “Impunity has made its home in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Significantly, the near political paralysis of the UN Security Council has created another logjam. The USA, Britain and France have to varied degrees of enthusiasm tried to foster political change in Syria.  Russia has offered military support to the Damascus rulers as well diplomatic cover fire in the Security Council.  Three draft resolutions since 2011, were shamelessly vetoed by the Moscow/Beijing tag team.  American diplomacy was checkmated and Syrians of all persuasions suffered. 

Realistically this means the Council has been sidelined.  Pinheiro advised, 
“The international community, and specifically the Security Council, has yet to demand accountability for the crimes that are being committed daily against the Syrian people.  Through their inaction, a space has been created for the worst of humanity to express itself.” 

The report states, “Syrians live in a world where decisions about whether to go to the mosque for prayers, to the market for food and to send their children to school have become decisions about life and death.” 

Paulo Pinheiro concedes that attempts to reach a political settlement have been abandoned and that the “warring parties have recommitted themselves to the dangerous illusion that military victory is within reach. ”   He adds some states continue to deliver large arms shipments to the Syrian government while others support armed groups.  Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the players. 

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an Al-Qaida offshoot, is a case in point.  While the terrorist organization has firm roots in both Iraq and Syria among Sunni Muslim jihadis, the group opposes both the secular government in Damascus and Baghdad.  They don’t comprise the majority of the rebels but they sadly seem among the most effective.   In Iraq, the ISIS terrorists have stunningly seized large swaths of the northern “Sunni triangle” in their quest to create a regional Islamic state.    

Syria’s civil war is spreading, not just in the waves of refugees and foreign Islamic fighters but in the form of ISIS terrorists seizing key Iraqi cities and marching on Baghdad until they hit the fire-wall of the Shiite regions.  The Al-Malaki government in Iraq has willfully marginalized Sunnis making dangerous enemies. 

Now as Iraq’s government teeters, and in lieu of a serious American counterbalance, the Islamic Republic of Iran prepares to fill the power vacuum.  Simply stated the Shiite Iraqi rulers are more than comfortable with their co-religionists in Iran. 

The ISIS has tragically distinguished itself as a terrorist force prompting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to decry the “deeply disturbing” reports of mass executions in the northern city of Mosul.  Furthermore, ISIS has targeted Iraq’s ancient Christian minority, rooted in the Nineveh province.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the threat “if an extremist Islamist regime” comes to power in Iraq.  He said that as well as trying to seize Iraqi territory, ISIS elements “are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom. “  Over 2,000 Europeans, 400 of them UK nationals, are combatants in Syria and Iraq. 

President Barack Obama, given his longtime detached ambivalence towards Iraq, appears to be squandering the American, blood, sacrifice and treasure painstakingly invested to stabilize Iraq in the first place.  Remember the successful  U.S. military surge?  Tragically the more than 4,400 Americans killed in action and 32,000 wounded?   Is this for naught?  

Now faced with few good options, and an expanding geopolitical crisis and humanitarian tragedy, President Obama goes golfing. We don’t need boots on the ground but the U.S. should use decisive airstrikes on the exposed ISIS columns threatening Baghdad, not to save the venal Al-Malaki but to equalize the fight and restore U.S. credibility. 

Former Vice President Richard Cheney in a Wall St. Journal commentary wrote scathingly, “Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” 
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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