Why Human Rights Groups Don't Agree on What to Do About Syria

Some organizations are worried that U.S. plans to retaliate against the Assad regime don’t take into account the impending humanitarian crisis, but Syrian activists want to see more action from the West.
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A Syrian refugee boy cries as he attends the funeral of five Free Syrian Army fighters in Yayladagi in Hatay province near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Human rights groups say the U.S. and its allies have not presented a cohesive plan to deal with an expected stream of refugees that will attempt to flee Syria before and after potential upcoming U.S. strikes on the Assad regime. The groups are also worried that Western governments haven't done enough to prop up moderate rebel factions. Consequently, they fear that Islamists could end up filling a post-Assad power vacuum.

Syria's refugee crisis has become the worst in 20 years, with an estimated 2 million Syrians living in tents in neighboring countries, and another 4.25 million displaced internally.

But the situation seems set to worsen further, because countries sharing a border with Syria have begun to block Syrians from entering their territories.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that Syrians with valid passports and ID cards are being arbitrarily denied entry into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. In some cases, whole families are being denied entry. In other cases, women and children are being allowed to enter, but military-age fathers and sons are being forced to turn back.

"One of the things we've called for is that any intervening party assure that increased humanitarian assistance is available to meet the needs of any refuges. But in talk of attacks on Syria, we haven't seen those preparations being discussed," Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch told me by phone from Lebanon.

Fakih said she is worried that U.S. attacks on Syria could worsen an already drastic humanitarian crisis and possibly trap along the border Syrians intent on fleeing.

Though her group has made its case for more planning to the U.S. and other governments, she said the message appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

"They understand our concern," Fakih said, "But there's no indication of what their response is going to be."

But Fadel Abdul Ghani of the Syrian Network for Human Rights told me that he and his group feel that a likely post-attack surge in Syrian refugees and possible deaths resulting from U.S. strikes are still preferable to doing nothing.  

"If Assad continues without any intervention, everyday we will keep loosing 100 to120 people," Abdul Ghani said. "We have no choice. If we don't try to take out Assad's missiles and tanks, he will continue using them against civilians."

The second issue concerning human rights groups and most European countries is who would take over in the event that attacks cause Assad's government to collapse.

While the U.S. has said that its goal in attacking the Syrian government is to make a statement on the use of chemical weapons, one Syrian human rights activist I spoke with in Berlin - to where he escaped last year after fleeing torture at the hands of the Assad regime - seemed to believe that U.S. attacks would - tacitly - benefit opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops who hold positions around Damascus.

"If they fire some missiles," Hozan Ibrahim said, "and the regime is shaken, the FSA groups around Damascus -- which are well-structured -- could gain territory in Damascus. The West will say that it's done its duty. If not, they can say that they tried."

But Fakih of Human Rights Watch and Abdul Ghani of the Syrian Network for Human Rights both disagreed with this assessment.

Fakih felt U.S. attacks would be aimed at "trying to send a signal to the government not to use chemical weapons again."

Abdul Ghani, for his part, said the U.S. should avoid any appearance of supporting the FSA.

"We disagree with the U.S. providing support to the FSA," Abdul Ghani said. "If there is any hint of support from the U.S. to the FSA, this would lead Assad to attack more civilians in villages in and around FSA strongholds."

Human Rights Watch and other groups have confirmed that the U.S. and other governments are seeking to support, as one activist put it, "moderate people who they think can be effective and who don't pose a threat of terrorism."

But Fakih from Human Rights Watch said that from what her group can see on the ground, moderate groups have not been "empowered."

And she added that groups seemingly in the best position to seize power in a post-Assad power vacuum could not be deemed moderate.

"And I think in many respects, these groups have gained followings," she noted. "They are the true conservatives who want to establish an Islamic state in Syria - that is their stated goal."

Hozan Ibrahim, the human rights activist in Berlin, said that moderates and conservative rebel groups have coalesced around the idea of ejecting from government people who are corrupt and pro-Assad, but possibly leaving in place skilled technocrats who were loyal to Assad in order to ensure stability in the country during the post-Assad phase.

Ibrahim detailed how one Syrian opposition economic committee with which he has been in contact has classified middle and high-level Syrian government officials into three groups: Red, Orange, and Green.

People deemed "Red" are considered to be "corrupt and in power due connections or loyalties to Assad," Ibrahim said. "Orange" people are thought to be loyal to Assad, but skilled at their jobs. Those deemed "Green" are seen as untainted functionaries who could be tipped to rise in the ranks of a post-Assad bureaucracy.

Ibrahim suggested that rebel groups and Syrian activists abroad like himself are in contact with people inside the Syrian government and are working collectively to cobble together a plan for the post-Assad period.

"People inside the government are in contact with the opposition," Ibrahim said. "I can't claim that there are too many of them, but there are sufficiently enough to allow planning for a post-Assad phase."

Ibrahim also suggested that moderate, pro-democracy activists like himself - whose committees abroad have the ears of donor governments - will be able to exert influence on conservatives and Islamist fighters through what they perceive - rightly or wrongly - as their power to direct the flow of reconstruction money from European and other donor governments. 

But it appears that the long-standing gap between members of the global human rights community and Syrian human rights activists remains wide.

Foreign groups say that strikes will achieve little. They emphasize that the road to peace in Syria runs through Moscow. One regional expert who asked not to be named put it bluntly: "This strike won't do anything. Western governments need to 'incentivize' the Russians to change their view, which would then force the Syrians to come to the bargaining table."

But activists like Fadel Abdul Ghani and Hozan Ibrahim still want to see an international force eject the Assad regime and then let them and their various coalitions take up the reigns of power. 

"The world should show solidarity with the people being killed," Fadel Abdul Ghani said, "Not just sympathy."

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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