Mauricio Lima / The New York Times

At a panel Friday, Cornell professors agreed that U.S. involvement has exacerbated conflicts in the Middle East.

November 6, 2016

Profs Weigh in on Wartime Atrocities, ‘U.S. Fingerprints’ on Syria, Yemen Conflicts

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The ongoing atrocities in Syria and Yemen have been complicated by international involvement, according to panelists at a forum in Myron Taylor Hall Friday.

Moderated by Prof. Aziz Rana, law, the forum allowed five professors from Cornell’s government, law and history departments to discuss whether some actions constitute war crimes and outline what — if anything — the international community can do to punish those responsible.

“The only thing that’s going to improve the situation — and this seems like a dire thing to say — is if the U.S. gives the [Syrian] rebels more assistance or just withdraws assistance entirely,” said Prof. Jens Ohlin, law, associate dean for academic affairs, adding that the current assistance from the U.S. was just upholding a “stalemate.”

Prof. Elyse Semerdjian, Middle Eastern history, Whitman College, said “wordsmithing” by Syrian government forces and Russia has made the Syrian conflict more difficult for people to understand.

“The regime is really trying to use this language of looking out for civilians, but also invoking these terms of ‘human shields’ and ‘terrorists,’” Semerdjian said. She cited the regime’s use of ‘cessation of hostilities’ rather than ‘ceasefire’ as an example.

Semerdjian also spoke about efforts by the Syrian government and Russia to allow rebels and civilians to leave through “humanitarian corridors.” These efforts have been largely unsuccessful, according to The New York Times.

“Civilians are having trouble leaving even when they’re offered safe passage,” Semerdjian said, adding that there are snipers and other dangers along the pathways.

Prof. Mostafa Minawi, history — who is also the director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative — showed attendees a map of the Middle East, but stressed that one country was missing.

“The one nation that is deeply involved in all of these conflicts that doesn’t show up on this map, of course, is the U.S.,” Minawi said. “The U.S. has been so involved in [the Yemeni] conflict that there has been talk of the U.S. having to be careful about not being directly involved in war crimes if there is a tribunal.”

Panelists agreed that the United States is at least partially responsible for portions of the Syrian conflict — such as the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State — but were uncertain about whether the United States could be held legally responsible for war crimes in Yemen because of its aid to Saudi Arabia.

“ISIS was originally an insurgency in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled, and then that gave birth to ISIS,” Ohlin said, using an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “So the U.S.’s fingerprints are unfortunately all over the situation there.”

While Ohlin said the United States clearly bears some responsibility for the rise of terrorist groups in the Middle East, he said he was less sure about what role the international community could play in ending the conflict.

The International Criminal Court would almost certainly not be able to hear a case on possible war crimes because Russia has veto power on the United Nations Security Council, according to Ohlin.

“I am hopeful that those responsible for the worst crimes in Syria will be brought to justice,” Ohlin said. “But I don’t see that process playing a major role in actually bringing the armed conflict to an end.”

If the Syrian rebels emerge from the war and create a sustainable government, Ohlin said, they could prosecute members of the former government through a newly-created justice system.

“But that would only be after rebels won the war, took control over country [and began a] movement for accountability for wartime atrocities,” he said. International law, he added, is not “a magic bullet to end the war.”

Prof. Matthew Evangelista, history and political science, also pointed out that war crimes currently occurring in Syria are comparable to those in the conflict between Russia and Chechnya in the 1990s.

During that conflict, the international community witnessed “everything we’ve seen in Syria: kidnappings, torture, indiscriminate killing and bombing of civilian areas,” Evangelista said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the legal right, according to international law, to suppress an armed rebellion, Evangelista said. Russia is also legally permitted to aid the Syrian government if aid is requested.

“Indiscriminate violence” against civilians violates the laws of war, but the consequences of these violations may be scant, he said. He added that the consequences of Russia’s 250 human rights violations during the Chechnya conflict were solely monetary.

“What did Russia do? It paid the fines,” Evangelista said. “That’s what it had to do for violating the right to life — it paid fines for the families of victims.”

“Russia and the Syrian regime, I think, are going to go scot-free,” he added. “And it’s very sad to say that.”