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Lessons in the Laws of War - A New Syrian Group takes on the Challenge

Indiscriminate attacks and reckless use of weapons, use of children, torture and ill-treatment of captives, sectarian threats and attacks, abductions and hostage taking, killings of civilians, including journalists and members of minorities and a general disregard for international humanitarian law (IHL). These are just some of the abuses perpetrated by some armed opposition groups in Syria. These are just some of the abuses which betray the spirit of many of those who peacefully rose up for freedom and human rights in early 2011. 

The picture is not pretty but as I have said before, the extremely grim and brutal reality which quite often the mainstream media present is but one, narrow perspective of what is going on in Syria. It is far from the whole truth.

So it is positive to see a new organisation, The Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP), finally come to life after several months in development. The founders of this organisation see their main function and aim as educating non-state armed groups with knowledge of International Humanitarian Law. 

Of particular interest to me is their “IHL Project”. Over several conversations and meetings with Ibrahim Olabi, one of the principal architects of this programme, a range of areas (or deficiencies) were identified. In many senses it started with an acknowledgement  that when we at Amnesty International or the UN or Syrian activists themselves call for respect of international law, we recognise that many opposition armed group members either don’t know what this means or simply don't care. This is not something unique to the armed conflict in Syria.

Ghalia Al Barazi, another Syrian activist involved in this organisation, said to me: "We forget that many of these fighters, two years ago, were ordinary civilians going about their daily lives. To expect them to rise from 40 years of oppression equipped with IHL is unrealistic. This training will hopefully help them become more aware of their actions so that they themselves can improve the situation on the ground.

A critical improvement on the ground is obviously to reduce the number of human rights abuses by armed opposition groups. The SLDP identified the following areas to initially begin their work: Treatments of detainees, summary executions, hostage taking, torture and ill treatment, child soldiers, unlawful attacks and specially protected figures and properties.

They say they have drawn information from the Geneva Conventions, the Additional Protocols, Customary International Law and Case law from the International Criminal Court. This information is now being formulated into a curriculum. To convey this information, a series of seminars, workshops, handbooks, presentations and videos are being developed and the training will be delivered on the ground in Syria, possibly starting next week.

I also asked Ghalia about their main motivations for this initiative and if there had been any resistance or cynicism – something they will certainly experience.  She said “The main reason is to protect; protect human lives, reducing the amount of civilian lives killed and protecting infrastructure. There hasn’t been any resistance yet. The biggest problem seems to be ignorance. People are unaware of what these laws entail and thus become defensive. Further, speaking to those on the ground, the fact it is called “International” humanitarian law, puts them off initially. Their response is that the international community hasn’t done anything to help, why should we abide by its laws. With time and dialogue however, they become very willing to listen, and do usually want to do some training.”

The task is not going to be easy and they know this. Armed opposition groups continue to commit human rights abuses in Syria and many opposed to the Assad government justify these abuses. People will of course be cynical about this sort of training and it is certainly right to be cautious and questioning. Hopefully the group will see this as an attempt to make them more effective. As I said to Ibrahim at our first meeting when this was just an idea, if this is just public relations then it will be called out. Effectiveness needs to be judged by real human rights results on the ground.

We at Amnesty want armed groups operating in Syria to condemn publicly, and take action to stop all human rights abuses. That a group of Syrians are positively taking on this challenge is encouraging.

We will be watching, as we have done after the introduction of the FSAs code of conduct and the recent training supported by the NGO Geneva Call. There are also other less public initiatives going on at the moment. 

There will of course be major challenges especially when it comes to groups like Jabhat al Nusra, ISIS or Ahrar ash-Sham. The SLDP do say their “sole driving factors are strictly humanitarian, we will assist all non-state armed groups regardless  of their  ideologies” – this is fine in principle but the armed groups I just mentioned may express their resistance in a way a little bit more robust than just cynicism.

Ibrahim was very aware of this when we discussed the issue of ideology, religion and international law and the groups they will initially engage. He said: "At SLDP we want to show them and stress the importance of distinguishing their acts from those of the regime, and that respecting IHL is one way to do so. We also constantly remind them, listing evidence from the Qur'an and history, that IHL laws do not differ in principle from those of Islam. This has resulted in more acceptance of the training."

It is true there are crossovers but also notable differences between International Humanitarian Law and Islamic law. This group is seeking to bridge these differences as much as possible to begin a conversation from where many armed group members are now as opposed to where many of us who want to see human rights protected, would like them to be. This has its own risks and is very open to criticism but then this was never going to be an easy task to take on.

For now though, this is a group to keep an eye on. Amnesty will certainly continue to be on the ground researching and reporting abuses by armed opposition groups and of course the widescale, brutal and systematic violations by Syrian government forces. We will also continue to engage individuals and groups to build awareness, understanding and respect of International Humanitarian Law so it can be further disseminated inside Syria. 


Kristyan Benedict is on Twitter as @KreaseChan 


Related links

A Map of Non Violent Activism in Syria

Targeting media activists in Syria: The case of Mus'ab al-Hamadi 

Justifying abuse kills hope for a human rights revolution in Syria

Arming the Armed Opposition in Syria - the realities and the risks


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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