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World powers’ surrender on Iran deal reverberates most immediately in Syria

The Iran nuclear program’s heavy-water reactor at Arak and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr and Nanking2012 via Wikimedia Commons.
The Iran nuclear program’s heavy-water reactor at Arak and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr and Nanking2012 via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week—and please forgive me for the graphic nature of this metaphor—Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled down his pants and urinated over the graves of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys exterminated by Serb forces in the enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.

Twenty years after Bosnia was torn apart by the genocide committed by both Serb and Croatian forces, the Russians—who were the main backers of the regime of the late tyrant of Belgrade, Slobodan Milosevic—are still playing the insidious role of denying the most monstrous crime to take place in Europe since the Second World War. In vetoing a joint American-British resolution to commemorate the slaughter at Srebrenica with the legal status of a genocide, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin grunted that what was tabled at the U.N. Security Council was “not constructive, confrontational and politically motivated.” Predictably, his words drew a furious response: “After 20 years, Russia showed that it backed the crime instead of justice,” declared Munira Subasic, the head of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association.

But as deplorable as the Russian stance is, it isn’t at all surprising. Towards the end of the 1990s, when it came to dealing with genocide and crimes against humanity, the momentum was clearly on the side of the western democracies. Among the milestones were the creation of the International Criminal Court—whose true purpose was to try monsters like Milosevic and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—and the development of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. In essence, that doctrine, known by the shorthand of R2P, was aimed at overriding state sovereignty in order to prevent authoritarian and totalitarian regimes from exterminating their own civilians at will.

Halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, it’s time to admit the bitter truth. We’ve failed. We’ve failed to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity. We’ve failed to deliver a decisive message to the world’s tyrants that they can no longer get away with murder. If anything, we’ve actually encouraged them to believe that the more violent and intransigent they are, the greater the chances of them receiving deferential treatment. Look at North Korea. Or Qatar. Or any other despicable regime that denies those who live there the right to speak and vote without fear of intimidation or arrest.

Look, most of all, at Iran, and at the deal that was reached Tuesday in the talks over Tehran’s nuclear program in Vienna. The litany of losers arising from this deal is by now familiar: the United States of America, which in the name of enhancing its own security is fatally compromising it; Israel, which now faces its most serious existential threat since the Yom Kippur War of 1973; and the Arab states, many of whom will now be racing towards their own nuclear program.

But the biggest and most immediate losers are those who are too often forgotten: the Syrian people locked in a diabolical civil war that puts the horror of Bosnia into the shade and credibly rivals Pol Pot’s massacres in Cambodia when it comes to atrocities. And the reason? Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who is a tool of the Iranian regime.

Well over 200,000 civilians have been killed during the four-year conflict. More than 4 million refugees have fled the country, living in makeshift camps in countries like Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon—all of them becoming increasingly inhospitable to a massive population influx that has created an enormous financial burden. Inside Syria, close to 8 million people have been displaced from their homes. When you remember that the pre-war population of Syria was 22 million, you come to the staggering realization that more than half of its people have lost their homes and livelihoods. No wonder they are calling this the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

And where is the West, with its Responsibility to Protect doctrine? In the Syrian case, we appear to have inverted it; rather than weakening the Assad regime, we are in fact strengthening it. And the necessary battle against the barbaric forces of Islamic State doesn’t mean we aren’t also obliged to confront Assad, who launched this ghastly war in the first place.

How, though, does Assad himself see the situation? Some clue as to his vision was provided in a recent interview published on the Russian Sputnik website, conducted by the French parliamentarian Jean-Frederic Poisson—who sounds, if you’ll allow me the pun, like a rather fishy character who talks about the “stability in Syria” that the preservation of Assad’s rule would bring.

In his comments to Monsieur Poisson, “Assad criticized Western governments for meddling in regional countries’ internal affairs, ‘failing to listen to the voices of nations,’ and displaying ‘double standards’ in the fight against terrorism.” All tropes, you will notice, that his Iranian paymasters were raising at the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.

The surrender in Vienna reverberates most immediately in Syria. Assad’s most powerful backers are now Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, assisted by the notorious Qods Force and various intelligence agencies. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a terrorist group, is also engaged in combat on behalf of Assad. Even Shi’a militias from Iraq, like the Kata’ib Hezbollah, have been imported into Syria by the Iranians. Imagine what they can do—and will do—when billions of dollars of sanctions relief make their way into Tehran’s coffers after the signing of this nuclear deal.

Assad’s future is not, of course, guaranteed. Recent reports suggest that members of Assad’s own Alawite community are fed up with Iranian domination of their country and are challenging their president on that basis. Still, the guns, the planes, and even the chemical weapons remain largely in Assad’s hands, supported by the Iranians and also the Russians, who have no reason to commemorate past genocides when they are involved in present ones.

So, then: what of the Responsibility to Protect? Maybe we should rename it the License to Kill.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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