War Crimes in Syria: Interview with Aghiad Ghanem

By Caterina Barbi

Every average newspaper nowadays will have a small section that keeps up with Syria and the developments of the war. Shouting and getting indignated about the situation has fallen out of fashion and has taken off the table the discussion on the multi-faceted conflicts and the many instances of war crimes and crimes against humanities that have been witnessed. With this issue of Le Zadig focusing on war crimes, I thought it would be a good idea to get an academic opinion on the topic. Espace Mondial seminar professor and PhD student Aghiad Ghanem was nice enough to spend some time answering my four relatively simple questions.

Do we talk enough about Syria? Do we talk about it in the right way?

There is a paradox in the way the Syrian conflict is covered by the international media. On the one hand, you hear about Syria almost on a daily basis. On the other, if you listen to such media, you don’t feel there is any evolution on the ground, as if we were looking at a motionless picture. A relevant example is the rise of ISIS. I remember the siege of Mosul in June 2014 as being a shock for the international media and public opinion, which almost learned about the very existence of Daesh at that time… Of course this event was a critical step in the increasing influence and power of ISIS. But it is striking to see how the media failed to acknowledge how important this actor was on the ground, way before 2014…

Is the concept of war crime relevant to new wars, and can we consider Syria as a new war?

It is a very interesting question. Because, if you look at the genealogy of the idea of war crime as a juridical tool, then you notice that it was not imagined in a ‘new war’ perspective, but rather as an answer to a total war. It first emerged in the framework of the Genocide Convention of the UN, signed in 1948. New wars and total wars differs in many ways, yet, they have an important feature in common, which is the inclusion of citizens in warfare. In both total wars and new wars, civilians are instruments, war aims and targets all at the same time. However, whereas in total wars, the objective of belligerents is the total annihilation of the other, in new wars, belligerents are simultaneously competitors and partners, whose common aim is the creation of new identities, and the strengthening of their authority. In other words, they instrumentalise their antagonism for a political purpose, at the expense of civilians.

In such a configuration, the use of massive violence is intended to raise political borders. It is not only intended to punish the opposing side, it also seeks to spread a message, calling people to take a stand. This is what explains the intensity of such violence – as illustrated by the chemical attacks – that fosters its media resonance.

If one looks at the relation between the Syrian regime and violent actors such as ISIS, and the way civilians were impacted by the conflict – as emphasized by the amount of displaced populations – it seems very relevant to categorize the Syrian war as a new war.

Is there any link between sectarianism and war crimes or has it just come down to who can show the most strength and brutality?

Both ideas are not necessarily contradictory. There is an intricate relation between sectarianism and violence. On the one hand, conflict may enhance the demarcation between the in-group and the out-group, and thus encourage dynamics of identity polarization. In such a process, one has to acknowledge the importance of memory. In the case of Syria, the impact of rumours was also important. In the very beginning of the upheavals, rumours spread in the whole country, reporting the killing of Alawites by Sunnis, Sunnis by Alawites… On the other hand, sectarianism can justify very violent attitudes, through mechanisms of alienation and harsh competition for social, economic and political resources.

Yet, violence also obeys to its own logic, and does not need any ideological or cultural considerations to be fuelled. When ignited, violence can escalate and reach very high levels.

When looking at Syria, it is important to take all these dimensions into account, and also note the instrumental use of violence by the regime and some of its opponents, that we may portray as violent entrepreneurs.

Do you think the international community will have the power and interest in bringing the responsibles for such crimes to the ICC?

To be honest, I really don’t know. The examples of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Yemen illustrate how hard it is to revive the legitimacy and the performativity of this institution. Yet, the crimes committed in Syria had an even bigger impact on public opinions throughout the world… But the dominant actors in the Syrian configuration today, such as Russia and Iran, have adopted a pragmatic approach that is not very consistent with the ideas of international law and justice that the ICC represents.

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