Democracy Lab

Why the Killing in Syria Is Just the Beginning

The international community’s failure on Syria limits its power to act against the even bigger bloodletting that’s likely to happen down the road.

Earlier this month, the United Nations announced its assessment that 59,648 people have died in Syria's two-year-old civil war. That headline figure is grim, but U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay made a point of noting that the real number is almost certainly higher. The overwhelming majority of those people were civilians. Far too many of them were children.

That should have been a call to action. It wasn't. The government's attacks against civilians continue unabated. U.N. Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has accomplished next to nothing. The daily death tolls continue to spiral. Unless the international community does something, the total is going to be far higher.

Why do I say that? Because the fateful wheel of atrocity and reprisal, so familiar from past civil wars, is gathering momentum. It could hardly be any different, considering the scale of the killing so far. The Assad regime bears full responsibility for launching the carnage. But it does not bear sole responsibility for all the crimes that have been committed, and it will not bear sole responsibility for the crimes that are yet to come.

There can be little question that the complex ethnic and sectarian makeup of Syria is exacerbating the situation as the bloodshed goes on. Assad family rule in Syria over the past 40 years has rested primarily on the country's ethnic and religious minorities: above all the Alawites (adherents of an offshoot of Shiite Islam), as well as some Kurds and Christians. Members of the Sunni majority have been largely excluded from power. As those who have borne the brunt of the regime's injustices, they now form the largest force in the opposition.

Divides are deepening. Though it's understandably hard to get precise reports, Human Rights Watch has recently documented attacks by opposition forces on a Shiite place of worship and two churches on the outskirts of the city of Latakia, the stronghold of Syria's Alawite population. The rebels have been criticized in the past for committing abuses against prisoners taken from the pro-Assad armed forces or militias (the notorious shabiha). The growing prominence of jihadist groups among the rebel Free Syrian Army is another source of concern. The worry is that radicals in the opposition are now actively targeting civilians from the groups that have been allied with the government.

Let's consider the potential scale of the problem: There are some two million Kurds in Syria, plus roughly the same number of Christians. There are two and a half million Alawites. They have been schooled by regime propaganda to believe that they will become the victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing should their side lose the war. That probably wasn't true back when their fellow Syrians were peacefully demonstrating for change, but now it's on the way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sunnis account for at least 12.6 million of the population. (They actually make up the bulk of the Syrian regular army's soldiers, who are right now held at bay by Alawite officers and the shabiha.) As soon as the Assad regime loses the advantages of its air power and its heavy weapons, the Sunnis will be able to make their superior numbers count. Their enemies won't stand a chance.

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.

I really do wish him the best of luck with that. But it's hard to be optimistic. As Adams himself points out, the original architects of the expanded international anti-genocide principles back in 2001 -- known as the "Responsibility to Protect," or R2P -- foresaw that it would be extremely hard to against mass atrocities in cases where U.N. Security Council members were opposed to acting. That, of course, is exactly what's now come to pass in the case of Syria.

In any case, it's time to acknowledge that one consequence of the international community's failure to press for stronger action in the past is that it leaves us ill-equipped to make the case for preventing the revenge killings that are likely to come. Let's hope that the Syrian rebels have the wisdom to see the rationale for restraint as the war enters its next phase. They certainly have little cause to listen to our advice.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

What I Learned from Gerard Depardieu

The French actor's case is the exception that proves the rule: Citizenship still matters.

I don't really care about Gérard Depardieu. He's a magnificent actor, and apparently a rather silly person. He probably eats too much. And yes, his on-board airplane decorum makes Alec Baldwin look like Taylor Swift. But I don't spend many of my waking hours worrying about it.

Yet his entirely voluntary decision to forsake his French citizenship and get a Russian passport instead has made for a pretty interesting story. It's made a lot of people angry, though it's also pleased a few fans (like Vladimir Putin). It's certainly been a boon for the French press, who have been happy to spotlight every twist and turn of the whole saga, often referring to the man in question as "the Mordovian Depardieu" (a reference to the province that offered him a job as culture minister shortly after the actor became a Russian). His decision to get himself an additional residence in Belgium, of all places, merely added fuel to the flames.

And he's still keeping the story alive. This past weekend, Depardieu made headlines yet again by giving an interview in which he badmouthed Russia's political opposition.

The reactions to all this have taken intriguing forms. One U.S. magazine compares the former Frenchman with European mammals fleeing climate change to Siberia. Another accuses him of following in the footsteps of other Western men who have gone East to seek the pleasures of the flesh.

Perhaps the most interesting take I've seen is the one that sees Depardieu's act as a parable of globalization. After all, the actor's primary motive for breaking with his home country appears to have been his disgruntlement over the high tax rates on top earners floated by Socialist President François Hollande. So a New York Times op-ed writer has accordingly opted to draw a parallel between Depardieu's yearning for a lower bracket (Putin's Russia has a flat tax of 13 percent) and the multinationals prowling the world's markets for bargain-basement operating costs.

In this reading, Depardieu is just another soulless corporate migrant, unconstrained by outmoded national loyalties, purchasing his nationality purely according to ruthless capitalist calculations. Citizenship is above all a business decision. This is certainly true for many other high-income people, of course -- those tennis players and Formula 1 stars who plant themselves in Monaco. But there is nothing new about this. It's a practice that dates back at least to Britain's famous tax exiles in the 1970s (Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones among them) -- or even to Noel Coward two decades before that.

In Depardieu's case, though, there is just one problem: Why, precisely, Russia? It actually isn't such an attractive corporate domicile. You won't find many multinational companies relocating their headquarters to Moscow. And the Russians who've earned their money there don't seem terribly eager to keep it at home. Capital flight last year amounted to a whopping $56.7 billion -- which suggests a problematic investment climate at best. (That figure was actually down significantly from 2011.) What do those Russians know that Depardieu doesn't?

Well, probably they're aware that Russia remains a place where you can't trust the courts, where you can't count on the law to protect your assets, and where your physical and commercial security depends on your relationships to the people in power. Hmm, on second thought, maybe Depardieu does know this. If his harsh talk about Putin's critics is any indication, he's certainly working overtime to suck up to his friend the president.

Depardieu clearly enjoys that special treatment from Czar Vladimir, and, indeed, this is precisely what he's banking on. He doesn't care about tax law. It's precisely the absence of the rule of law that he likes. And if you're a marquee name who happens to be friends with the guy in charge, why wouldn't you? Most Russians don't have that luxury, of course. But that's their problem (as Depardieu would presumably say). To my ears, he actually sounds relatively sincere in his paeans to the system that Putin has built, talking enthusiastically about the "great democracy" that reigns in Russia.

In this, I suspect, Depardieu hearkens back to a long line of other Frenchmen who have trooped off to Russia in the past, seeking various versions of the despotic utopias they were trying to push at home. The lifelong Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre visited the Soviet Union in the early 1950s and couldn't see anything wrong. When the Marquis de Custine traveled to the Russia of Czar Nicholas I in the late 1830s, he was determined to hype the virtues of one-man rule. (To his credit, he ended up being thoroughly disillusioned by the reality he encountered.) And Joseph de Maistre gravitated to the unforgiving court of Catherine the Great, which he saw as the embodiment of everything admirable that had been destroyed by the hated French Revolution.

I doubt that Depardieu has the brain power of these illustrious forbears. But what's striking is that he decided to go that one step farther by actually becoming Russian. And it's this that has made his critics especially angry. How could he do such a thing?

Well, of course, he's free to choose any citizenship he wants -- just like the rest of us. But it's also worth pointing out that Depardieu's story is a radical outlier, anything but typical of current global migration flows. The overwhelming majority of the other people applying for Russian citizenship each year are either ethnic Russians who live in other republics of the former Soviet Union, or non-Russian citizens of those same countries who yearn to escape regimes that are even more repressive or economically underdeveloped. (That's right, Tajikistan, I'm talking about you.) The number of applicants from the countries of the developed world (by which I mean not only the "West" but also the equally prosperous democracies of the East) is miniscule.

The reason, presumably, is that most people in the world who chose to move to a new country don't make that decision based exclusively on tax rates. (Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship in 2011 in order to maximize his take from the initial public offering of the company he helped to create, is another exception that proves the rule.) Most migrants take a hard look at the relative freedom, security, and prosperity of the place they're planning to move to -- a set of criteria one might sum up in the phrase "the rule of law." (Actually, Saverin currently holds citizenship in his home country of Brazil, which is democratic and prosperous, so perhaps he fits this pattern too.)

By comparison, it's quite striking that so many wealthy Russians and Chinese are opting to bank money, buy houses, educate their children (and yes, obtain passports) in countries where they know they can still count on fair treatment before the law. Meanwhile, despite the surface prosperity of Beijing and Moscow, not too many wealthy Westerners seem to be picking up homes there.

I wonder if the dismal fates of businesspeople such as Bill Browder (who made hundreds of millions of dollars in Russia before running afoul of the corruption there) or Neil Heywood (apparently murdered by the wife of now-disgraced Chinese big shot Bo Xilai) have anything to do with it? Such stories suggest, indeed, that Depardieu might find himself rediscovering the virtues of an EU passport if his friendship with Putin happens to sour.

Citizenship, in other words, is still a pretty important issue -- despite all that well-meaning balderdash to the contrary about our "borderless" global civilization. Quite a few people, indeed, are still prepared to put their lives on the line to defend the highly abstract principle of sovereignty -- but only when it's a matter of the countries in which they are citizens. That's why we still get so emotional over seemingly marginal territorial disputes -- or the doings of big shots like Gérard Depardieu.

CAROLINE LARSON/AFP/Getty Images