Aleppo's fall heralds the death of international law

Aleppo's fall heralds the death of international law
Comment: The inability of the global community to hold Assad and his allies to account is a nail in the coffin, writes Anisa Abeytia.
3 min read
02 Jan, 2017
Former rebel-held district of Aleppo, Ansari, after Syrian government forces retook control [AFP]

In the waning hours of December 12, 2016, Aleppo fell to Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers.

The ancient city's population held on for years, waiting for the international community to intervene in a meaningful way. The help they desperately needed never came.  A population of 3.1 million in 2011 dwindled to 250,000 by November 2016 - and 100,000 people remain trapped.

The question that needs to be asked is how the world's oldest continually inhabited city was reduced to rubble and emptied of its population. It witnessed the rise and fall of empires, yet under our watch this World Heritage city was destroyed.

There are several theories that explain the demise of Aleppo. However, leaflets dropped to the civilian population by the Assad regime in the run-up to the final onslaught are the most demonstrative: "Leave the city quickly... You will be annihilated. Save yourselves… Everyone has left you alone to face your doom…" 

After the Second World War, nation states agreed that certain behaviour would not be tolerated

The people of Aleppo were abandoned by the international community.

In 1949 the Geneva Conventions were ratified to outline the basic treatment of civilians and combatants during times of war, and to prevent the use of chemical weapons and other activities now deemed war crimes. After the Second World War, nation states agreed that certain behaviour would not be tolerated.

Syrians experience every death imaginable, by chemical weapons, bullets, bombs, hunger, torture and drowning in the Mediterranean, yet these crimes go unprosecuted and Assad has not been charged with committing war crimes. Aleppo is a failure of the global community's ability to enforce international laws and norms.

The war crimes committed in Syria and the failure of the international community to hold Assad accountable for his violations sets a dangerous precedent and marks the end of international law.

This may seem unimportant, but it turns out to be everything.

Human rights and enforceable laws are the cornerstones of modern Western democracies and provides their mandate to act throughout the world, but the failure in Aleppo reveals a hypocritical Achilles heel in their commitment to human rights. Ultimately the fall of Aleppo exposed the cracks in Western democracies' ability to lead.

When I advocated for the United States to provide leadership in resolving the war in Syria, I was repeatedly asked by members of Congress to explain why the US should act. My answer was not rooted in altruistic idealism, but in self-preservation. The laws ratified by the US under the Geneva Convention must be upheld as other US laws. These laws matter as much as the Constitution - because our body of law defines who we are as a nation.

We must decide how important or irrelevant international law is - and is it worth saving?

Assad is not alone in ringing the death knell to international law. His Russian and Iranian allies are complicit in openly funding and committing war crimes in Syria, while propping up the Syrian regime. Their actions continue to go unchallenged and unchecked.

Russia is no friend to the Syrians nor to any people seeking self-determination. US Senator Mitch McConnell put it simply: "Russia is not our friend."

As Americans grapple with suspected Russian intervention into their presidential election, we must decide how important or irrelevant international law is - and is it worth saving?  

The world's response to the fall of Aleppo will provide the answer. 

Anisa Abeytia is a writer whose work has been featured in The Hill, Brunei Times, The Dubai Sun, and the Middle East Observer. Abeytia holds an MS and an MA from Stanford University in Post-Colonial and Feminist Theory.

Follow her on Twitter: @AbeytiaAnisa

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.