Argument

Responsibility to Object

It's time for the U.N. Security Council to do something about war crimes in Syria.  

In Syria, the new year begins without change. President Bashar al-Assad continues to attack Syrian citizens on a vast scale, targeting civilians and rebels indiscriminately, and making use of summary executions and torture. Meanwhile, anti-government factions commit human rights violations of their own, according to the United Nations and various human rights organizations. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights recently estimated the number of dead at more than 60,000; Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League peace envoy, warns that the civil war could claim another 100,000 lives in 2013.

But if the situation in Syria looks increasingly grave, one thing could and should change. The U.N. Security Council -- so far unable to agree on measures to try to end the war -- should find a way to deter war crimes and crimes against humanity by all parties to the conflict. Its current silence encourages all Syrians, especially the perpetrators of such crimes, to believe that nobody will be held accountable for these abuses. The Security Council should therefore adopt a three-pronged strategy to insert some measure of accountability and restraint into the war, even while a political settlement remains out of reach.

First, the Security Council should impose financial, travel, and diplomatic sanctions on individuals on both sides of the conflict who commit serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. The Security Council has established sanctions committees in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan to restrain those responsible for the worst abuses. In Sudan, the so-called 1591 Sanctions Committee is authorized to make sanctions determinations on the basis of information from a range of sources, including a specialized panel of experts, governments, U.N. bodies, and non-governmental organizations. A similarly modeled Syria sanctions committee would also complement the U.N.'s independent commission of inquiry on Syria by providing a more individualized and granular response to the violence.

Second, the Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- as it did Sudan in 2005 and Libya in 2011. An ICC referral has long seemed out of reach because of opposition from critical Security Council members, but that may be changing. Russian officials, for instance, increasingly see Assad as a butcher and understand the risks to the thousands of Russian nationals living in Syria. Moscow, itself not hostile to the court in principle, should see that an ICC referral could restrain the rebels as well as the government.

To facilitate success, the Security Council should take two steps it failed to do in previous cases. Because a Syria investigation would likely stretch ICC resources beyond capacity, the Security Council should take a leading role in helping fund a serious, sustained process. Likewise, the Security Council should promise up front that it will stand behind the results of the ICC investigation, obligating all governments to provide the court with the necessary logistical and political support. This should not involve a commitment to use military force to make arrests, but political and logistical support, as well as a sanctions process, would put a meaningful squeeze on those alleged responsible for the worst crimes.

Third, the Security Council should support a framework to encourage Syrians from all ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds to begin discussions about long-term justice and rule of law in the country. The ICC is a blunt and limited instrument, designed to hold senior political and military leaders accountable for their actions. But many thousands more have been and are involved in the violence; they too need to be reminded of their obligations of humane behavior in war.

A Syrian national effort, with U.N. support and encouragement, could begin to map out a plan for seeking justice in the long-term. Such an effort should include discussion of criminal process at local and national levels; truth and reconciliation programs; reparations for those thousands who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods; and rebuilding of the institutions of law and governance. Many Syrian activists are already thinking ahead to the day when accountability is on the national agenda. They should be supported by the international community, though the process must ultimately be Syrian-led and inclusive of all sections of society.

None of these efforts is a substitute for real efforts to end the war. But they would amount to a powerful statement in favor of norms against war crimes and crimes against humanity -- warning both the regime and the opposition that they will be held accountable for their actions. Such measures would also offer a longer-term framework for restraining abuses in the future. If even at the margins, a strategy against the most serious crimes could temper abuses and possibly save lives. Failure to take action, moreover, undermines the international community's commitment to seeking justice for massive crimes and upholding the responsibility to protect.

There are some who will argue that introducing accountability weakens the prospects for a political settlement by forcing leaders to dig in their heels in commitment to violence. In some situations, the reality on the ground may indeed counsel against moves toward accountability at a given moment. But that moment has long passed in Syria, where the regime has abandoned even the pretense of restraint and elements of the armed opposition have already stumbled into the regime's sectarian trap.

Justice may seem unattainable for now as Syria spirals further out of control. But Syrians and members of the international community can still point the way to another possible future -- one where those who commit terrible crimes cannot escape some measure of justice.

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National Security

Why the Left Should Embrace John Brennan

The architect of the drone program is the only one who can fix it.

Critics of the U.S. counterterrorism drone program can't seem to catch a break. After a presidential campaign in which the promiscuous use of American drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia was largely given short shrift, President Obama is placing the architect of that program, John Brennan, into a position of even greater power, as head of the CIA.

Brennan, from his perch inside the White House and away from the prying eyes of congressional overseers, has been the engineer of Obama's targeted killing campaign and intimately involved in its implementation. In fact, according to the Washington Post, when operations are planned, it is Brennan who goes to President Obama for his approval. As my colleague and FP columnist Micah Zenko succinctly put it, "No politically appointed official in U.S. history has played such a prominent role in killing so many people outside of a war zone as John Brennan."

So by this logic, the selection of Brennan is a disaster for drone critics and will likely lead to an increase in U.S. targeted killings.

Well, not so fast. Because at the same time that Brennan is the architect of the drone program, he is also one of the most prominent critics in the administration of its usefulness and secrecy. According to a recent profile in the Post, Brennan is the person inside the president's national security team "who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy."

Indeed, Brennan has been one of the leading proponents of moving the drone program from the CIA, where it is almost completely opaque (aside from the occasional leak), to the military, where by law there would be greater transparency. Now, in fairness, some have questioned whether military control would actually lead to greater openness -- actions taken by Joint Special Operations Command can disappear down their own particular black hole. But as Brennan stated this past fall, "I think the rule should be that if we're going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that." Putting the program in the military's hands would go a long way toward achieving that goal.

Indeed, Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, has pushed for the agency to focus more on intelligence activities and less on the paramilitary operations that have increasingly defined its mandate since 9/11. As CIA director, Brennan will certainly have more opportunity to implement such a shift than he does now from inside the White House. And as one of Obama's most trusted advisers, he will likely have the juice to see it through.

The cynical might argue that Brennan's desire to reform the drone program is born out of a larger desire to ensure that it remains a crucial part of the U.S. counterterrorism toolbox -- greater transparency now will defuse criticisms and guarantee that the program endures. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Brennan has soured on drones. But so what? Even most critics of the administration's drone strikes recognize they can be a necessary tool of war-fighting; better for there to be greater clarity about their use.

Indeed, here's another positive to Brennan's selection. He'll have to go before Congress and answer questions about the program that he built. This has been one of the most nettlesome elements of Brennan's standing over the past four years: He is the architect of the U.S. targeted killing program, and yet he is unaccountable to anyone besides the president. Congress does not approve his position as counterterrorism czar, and he can't be forced to answer a congressional subpoena. But in being nominated as the head of the CIA, Brennan can be forced by Congress to come clean about the drone war, the targeting of suspected militants, and the cooperation of key allies. In short, confirmation hearings can increase transparency. Moreover, if Brennan is confirmed -- and assuming he remains involved in the drone program -- it will only increase the amount of sunshine shed on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

None of this is to say that there aren't reasons for concern about Brennan's selection. In 2008, his nomination for the CIA was derailed because of liberal fury about his alleged involvement in the Bush administration's torture and rendition programs. (Brennan claimed at the time that he opposed such policies.) Those apprehensions still exist, and he should be forced to provide more detail about the nature of his opposition at confirmation hearings.

In addition, Brennan's public statements on the drone program and U.S. policy toward Yemen have, for lack of a better term, not always passed the smell test. His assertion last year that he could not confirm the death of a single civilian from U.S. drones hardly seems credible. Moreover, if Brennan was so serious about reforming drone use, why hasn't he done it already?

I will grant there is something perverse about promoting the person who built an unaccountable targeted killing program so that he can reform it. But that doesn't mean it might not produce the best result for drone critics.

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