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US air strikes against ISIS in Syria & arming opposition groups. Some questions

US-led strikes against ISIS positions inside Syria and the arming of armed opposition groups are now a real possibility. However, little is being said about what this may mean for civilians in Syria or the prospect of long-term stability.

There is no doubt that ISIS is a major threat and Amnesty has reported on their atrocities in Syria for some time and called for comprehensive action against their foot soldiers, funders and facilitators. No matter how horrific the actions of ISIS are though, international humanitarian law is clear that scrupulous care must be taken to ensure civilians are protected from harm at all times.

Though President Obama is unlikely to acknowledge this, the USA has a lamentable record of providing proper accountability for previous US strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacks that have killed and maimed very large numbers of civilians. This is totally unacceptable, as it would be in Syria (and as it is in northern Iraq).

The protection of civilians is a key priority for Amnesty and that is why we call on all parties who could be involved to fully comply with international humanitarian law. In particular, those involved must:

  • Refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects
  • Refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks
  • Refrain from using weapons which are inherently indiscriminate or otherwise prohibited under international humanitarian law, including cluster munitions
  • Take all necessary precautions in attacks to spare civilians, including by issuing warnings to civilians wherever feasible, and paying particular heed to the fact that detainees may be being held in ISIS facilities

ISIS for its part, despite having already terrorised numerous local communities, should itself be taking precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effect of US attacks. This would include avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely-populated areas, and removing civilians from the vicinity of military objectives.

ISIS should also refrain from using civilians to render military objectives immune from attack (that is, as human shields).

Arming Syrian opposition groups

The very serious risk of contributing to human rights abuses is a major factor in considering whether to scale up arms transfers to armed opposition groups in Syria. Rightly, it’s been a major factor for many governments since day one. Some questions about safeguards the US Government should take very seriously to ensure any arms transferred would not be used to commit human rights abuses include:

  • How would the US Government assess and determine which armed opposition groups would receive any transfer of arms and can they name these groups?
  • How would the US Government assess the knowledge it has at the time of any possible authorisation that the arms would be used in the commission of international crimes including war crimes, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances or torture?
  • How would the US Government monitor and verify the use of the arms transferred?
  • What measures would be put in place to prevent the theft, diversion or movement of an arms transfer from the designated end-user to an unauthorised end-user (such as a different armed group)?
  • What type of undertaking would the US Government stipulate of the designated end-user that the arms will not be subsequently re-transferred to another user?
  • What measures would the US Government put in place to ensure a strict system of registration, storage and accountability for the use of the arms transferred?
  • What post-shipment verification mechanism(s) would the US Government put in place and exactly how would the US Government envisage these working?
  • How would the US Government ensure adequate training is provided to the designated end-users to ensure the arms are used in accordance with international law?

There are many more questions, including ones relating to future stabilisation plans in Syria; Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) for instance – look at the poorly thought-through planning from the US and others regarding Libya for an example of how interventions and arming can cause major instability and civilian protection issues if laws of war and human rights considerations are not central to short-, medium- and long-term planning. 

There will of course be many rebuttal questions such as "how are people meant to defend themselves and build a better Syria when ISIS is rampaging through the country?" That’s a fair question – the bottom line though is long-term civilian protection and stability according to the laws of war and human rights safeguards must be a central factor in the planning and delivery of any armed operations or lethal assistance to armed groups in Syria. It’s only in the interests of arms dealers and those that benefit from instability, such as ISIS and other similar groups, and the Syrian government for that matter, if US operations in Syria are as ill-conceived as they have been in previous ill-fated interventions.


Kristyan Benedict is on Twitter as @KreaseChan


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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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seems to be that we are at what is least worst option time, and I'm not sure what that is. Iraq was terroile fro 20+ years before it was further destabilised by NATO invasion ,but it seems worse for more people now than it was in 1980s, is the best that we can hope for in Syria a continuation of a brutal Assad regime?

ChrisUsher 9 years ago

No, definitely not - the regime under Assad has certainly been central to creating and extending the human rights and humanitarian crisis. Syrians can do far better and many opposed to the regime are preparing for a future transition. Whether that will encompass the whole of present day Syria or a section of it remains to be seen.

Kristyan BenedictStaff 9 years ago