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For more than two decades, Kenneth Roth has led the outstanding global team of advocates and monitors at Human Rights Watch. Under his leadership as executive director, HRW has expanded enormously both in reach – now operating in more than 80 countries – and influence. Government officials, journalists, and citizens around the world pay close attention to its reports and statements, documenting war crimes and sometimes even helping to bring war criminals to justice. No doubt that is a source of personal as well as professional satisfaction to Roth, whose father fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust.

 The Syria dossier compiled by Roth’s colleagues bulges with evidence against Bashar al-Assad and his regime – historically among the Mideast’s habitual and gross violators of human rights. As Congress considers President Obama’s plan to punish Assad with missile strikes for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians, our editor-in-chief Joe Conason spoke with Ken Roth about the Syrian crisis.

Joe Conason:  What is your view of the debate over the president’s request for authorization to use military force in Syria?

Kenneth Roth: Human Rights Watch has not taken a position for or against a military response to the Syrian chemical attack. Our principal concern is ensuring that whatever response takes place, including a very possible military response, be done in a way that maximizes the capacity to protect civilians, not just from chemical weapons, but also from the conventional weapons that have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths to date.

Conason: How would the United States best achieve that end if it does go forward with a military campaign?

Roth:  If there is a military attack, our concern is that it be done in a way that both deters further use of chemical weapons and also somehow degrades Assad’s capacity to continue to commit mass atrocities against the civilian population, particularly those living in rebel-held areas. So what that would mean is targeting military assets that are of significance to Assad, [which] would have a deterrent value to him to see them destroyed, but ideally, also, some of the tools that are being used to target civilians and indiscriminately fire upon civilians. Something like targeting the airplanes, the helicopters, the Scud missiles of the Assad regime would serve both of those purposes. These are among the tools that he uses to indiscriminately kill civilians. They also are significant military assets, and, therefore, would be felt as a deterrent if they were destroyed — you know, unlike various Bill Clinton-like pinprick attacks that you could see Assad sloughing off, and he’d be dancing in the streets saying he survived this attack without any significant damage to his military capacity.

Conason:  Some people have suggested a no-fly zone as an alternative U.S. policy in Syria. What’s your view of that?

Roth:  Well, first of all, as a factual matter, it’s actually not true that the majority of the civilian casualties are due to air attacks. Most civilian casualties are due to much more intimate forms of warfare, whether it’s just machine gun fire, or heavy weaponry, the sort of shelling or rocket attacks that don’t involve aircraft. So I think we have to recognize that even if Assad’s air capacity were degraded, there’s still lots of ways that he can kill people, and there’s still lots of concern about his killing machine.

As for a no-fly zone, I don’t see that as even being in the cards as a serious option for the Obama administration, for two reasons. It would require a long-term military commitment, and he seems to have no stomach for that. And second, it would require most likely taking out a significant portion of the Syrian air defenses, which, again, would require a larger military campaign than Obama seems to be contemplating. So I think that as people think through military options, they’re assuming the use of cruise missiles, which Obama has talked about, and more recently there’s discussion of possibly some attack aircraft, but still a relatively limited campaign.

Conason:  If the United States and other states possibly conduct a military strike against Syria, Ken, how should they prepare for the aftermath of that attack?

Roth:  Well, first of all, it’s important to recognize that to be effective in protecting civilians, a military response would be much better if it were endorsed by a broad international coalition. That’s important, because it would affect the way that Assad responded to it, and it would affect the way his closest supporters responded to it — principally Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. And so I do think it’s worth the effort to take a little extra time to try to build that coalition.

What that would mean most likely is waiting for the U.N. inspectors to report, and effectively encouraging them to report not simply on the obvious fact that this was a chemical attack, but on the question of authorship. Was it the Syrian government that launched it? It also means probably one more attempt [to win approval of military action] at the U.N. Security Council. We recognize that Russia and China have repeatedly exercised their vetoes, that they have obstructed any meaningful role for the Security Council, but if the aim is to build a broad international coalition behind a significant response to the chemical attack, one more effort at the Security Council would be worth it. And if it fails, it fails, but at least it would have been tried.

We also then have to worry about how the rebels might respond, and one of the fears is that if the rebels were to sense Assad’s weakness that they might themselves start committing atrocities. And so there would be a real need to make clear that there would be no tolerance for mass atrocities by either side — and, indeed, I think the selection of targets that Obama is considering, one of the factors is not wanting to shift the balance of power too much for fear of causing a rebel onslaught, and simply not trusting particularly the more extreme elements of the rebels to refrain from committing their own mass atrocities. These are all factors that have to be looked at as military force is contemplated.

Conason:  Is there a “red line” in international law against the use of chemical weapons by a state against its own citizens? And how should we view the means of enforcing or prosecuting the violation of that red line?

Roth: There’s an absolute red line against using chemical weapons, whether in international conflict or against one’s own people. It’s the Chemical Weapons Convention. It originated in the aftermath of the First World War, and it absolutely prohibits chemical weapon use. That is a clear red line. It’s not the only red line around. There also is a red line against deliberately or indiscriminately targeting civilians. That red line is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, and it’s a red line that Assad has also systematically violated by deliberately targeting civilians in rebel-held areas by attacking their bread lines, their hospitals, their schools, their residential areas.

Unfortunately it took crossing the chemical weapon red line to get the international community to possibly act in a way that may also have some consequence for the violation of the red line against targeting civilians. On the question of enforcement, first, from a prosecutorial angle the relevant court here would be the International Criminal Court, but because Syria has not ratified the ICC Treaty, the only way to bring Syrian officials before the court would be through a resolution at the U.N. Security Council — and so far Russia and China have given every indication that they would block such an effort. Indeed, the U.S. is not even actively pushing for it, because it’s afraid of possibly implicating Israel via the Golan. So the International Criminal Court has not been actively on the table.

The U.N. Charter says that military force can be used only in the case of self-defense or with the permission of the U.N. Security Council. No one’s arguing here that the U.S. would be operating as a matter of self-defense for it to launch a military attack in Syria, but the problem with relying on the Security Council to enforce things like the prohibition on chemical weapons is that the veto system means that the Security Council is disinclined to enforce the law whenever the violator is an ally of one of the permanent five members. In this case, it’s Russia and China that are blocking progress. In other cases you’ve seen the United States, or occasionally France, or the United Kingdom blocking progress. We have an imperfect enforcement system. And it is precisely that imperfection…that has led the United States and others to contemplate military force without Security Council authorization.

Conason:  Just the other day, Human Rights Watch described the performance of the G20 nations on Syria as “abysmal.” Can you elaborate? What they should do to change that abysmal performance?

Roth:  Human Rights Watch issued that statement not so much talking about the question of military force, but rather to discuss the other forms of possible response to Syrian atrocities. And what we had foremost in mind was the fairly poor response to the acute humanitarian needs of the Syrian people. There are now two million refugees.  There’s an estimated four and a half million more Syrians who are displaced within the country. There are acute humanitarian needs, only a small fraction of which are being met. And part of that is just a matter of money, but part of it is actually a matter of access, because the United Nations is precluded from operating within a country without the host government’s permission, and the Syrian government has only allowed a small trickle of aid to get to Syrians in need who are living in rebel-held areas.

The only way to get to these people would be with a cross-border humanitarian operation, and so far Damascus has blocked that. The U.N. Security Council could give permission, but Russia and China don’t seem inclined to do it.  And so what we’ve been urging is, on the one hand the G20 [should] put additional pressure on Russia and China to unblock this lack of access, and to push Syria to allow humanitarian access, but also the G20 as a whole, the wealthiest governments on Earth, [should] step up their financial support both for the refugees and through cross-border operations themselves to the people in need in rebel-held areas.

The neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan are being overwhelmed by the flow of refugees, and clearly need help just providing basic humanitarian needs, but the people who are probably in most acute need are those who are still inside [Syria]. There is a significant international relief effort going on — but the United Nations, by its rules, has to operate with the consent of the local government, in this case, Assad — and while Assad is allowing a trickle of aid to get to rebel-held areas, it’s nothing like what is needed for the large displaced and needy population there.

So one of the things we’re pushing the G20 to do is to build up pressure for a major cross-border humanitarian relief operation, ideally done through the U.N. Security Council…But if Russia and China continue to block that, then individual governments, just on their own initiative, can set up cross-border operations, either by themselves, or by funding NGOs. There’s a real need to step that up, because we’re getting terrible stories of deprivation, particularly among civilians in rebel-held areas, which is just not being met by the official U.N.-approved system operating with the consent of Damascus.

Conason:  Why are the Russians and the Chinese opposing humanitarian aid?

Roth:  It’s difficult to know for sure, but I think part of it is that they fear any support to the civilian population in rebel-held areas will have the effect of bolstering the rebels. Certainly one part of Assad’s military strategy is to make life so miserable in rebel-held areas that he makes the rebels less popular, and that is, you know, a lot of why you see him deliberately bombing civilian targets in rebel-held areas. He’s deliberately bombed bread lines, hospitals, and clinics. Just a week ago, he dropped an incendiary bomb on a school. All of this is designed to make life utterly untenable for the civilian population in rebel-held areas, and, obviously, providing humanitarian relief would work counter to that aim.

So if Assad’s strategy is to…depopulate the area to make it harder for the rebels to operate there — and if the Russians and Chinese are backing him in that ruthless war criminal-type strategy — then I guess that might be one reason why they don’t want cross-border aid.

Conason:   I understand that Human Rights Watch does not advocate regime change, as it’s called, or any particular outcome — but what should the goal of U.S. policy in Syria be right now?

Roth:  …Long-term, I think everybody feels that a negotiated solution would be best. And I say that because we learned from Iraq that a collapsed state can be a disaster – that chaos can lead to massive bloodshed. And so the best solution would be one that left state structures intact, that incorporated rebel forces in some way, but that most important, provided guarantees of protection for all Syrians — even minority groups, and even the people who today fear retribution at the hands of the rebels, or for that matter, people who are being attacked by government forces today.

That’s going to take a negotiation, but nobody pretends that that’s anywhere near on the horizon. And so the shorter-term or medium-term goal is to protect civilians in the interim. And, you know, many people say, “Oh, give peace a chance, we really should focus on the peace process.” They’re actually right, but it’s irresponsible, in the interim, to just close your eyes to the slaughter of civilians. We need to focus on both.

Former Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe

Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

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