The desire for revenge is understandable: the instinct to repay killing with more killing is deeply embedded in the human psyche. But that doesn't make it right. Retribution and justice are two different things. The first perpetuates the cycle of violence; the second offers at least the hope of wrongs righted in a way that benefits society. And the logic of collective punishment is always fatally flawed. Not everyone in a group behaves according to the instincts of the majority.
But that's easy for me to say, right? My family hasn't been shredded by a cluster bomb before my eyes. And you could hardly blame Syrian oppositionists for rolling their eyes when they hear a well-meaning Westerner plead the virtues of non-violence. After all, my government has done virtually nothing to help restrain Assad's attack dogs. Where do I get off lecturing the Free Syrian Army about right and wrong?
This is, in some ways, just the problem. If the international community had found some way to undertake meaningful action against the Assad regime from early on, we would have far greater credibility with the opposition today, and we would be in a much better position to argue for de-escalation. As things stand now, indications are that the fighters of the Free Syrian Army and their supporters increasingly regard Western governments with contempt. Many see us as de facto allies of the Damascus regime. We should hardly be surprised.
I decided to ask Simon Adams about this. He's the director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a New York-based organization founded in 2008 to combat genocide and mass human rights abuses around the world. Last year, he published a commentary in the New York Times arguing that the international community should bring constructive pressure to bear on the Syrian opposition to ensure that atrocities are not committed against groups or populations allied with the regime.
Some critics, as Adams puts it, "raised an eyebrow" at his article, suggesting that he was implying a false equivalence between aggressor and victim. He rejects this, insisting that his group has consistently regarded the Syrian government as the main perpetrator in the conflict, and has assailed its crimes accordingly. "But let's be clear," he says. "We're not on the side of Assad and we're not on the side of the rebels. We're against mass atrocities." And the past inaction of the U.N. Security Council -- thanks above all to Russian and Chinese intransigence in opposing any efforts to sanction or condemn Assad's regime -- cannot serve as an excuse for continuing passivity on this score in the months to come.
Adams is not a supporter of military intervention, the consequences of which, he believes, could well end up outweighing the evil it is intended to cure. But he believes that there's a great deal that can yet be done besides stepping into the fight. Above all else, the Americans, the Europeans, and their allies should start concerted action to establish a mechanism for investigating and punishing abuses once the war is over -- applicable to everyone. "You can't say, ‘War crimes are really bad when committed by our enemies.' You have to say that they're bad when committed by anyone. All perpetrators will be held accountable."
Moreover, the Friends of Syria Group, as well as the countries that are directly aiding the rebels, should make a point of urging the opposition and its fighters toward full compliance with international humanitarian law (not least as a way of distinguishing the rebels favorably from the government). Adams notes that the Free Syrian Army has already created its own unit for war crimes investigations. So far the group has focused on abuses committed by the government, of course, but it could be expanded to provide accountability for the FSA's own forces as well. Western countries, says Adams, should offer full assistance and support to such efforts, even while pushing for them to be broadened.