Examining the Crisis in Syria: What Can Be Done?

Thomas O. Melia
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Conference Hosted by Arizona State University and New America Foundation
Washington, DC
January 15, 2015

Thank you, Joyce, and thank you to ASU and New America for inviting me to join this conference on Syria and particularly this panel on “What Can Be Done?"

My colleagues here and in previous panels have described the horrific conditions under which millions of Syrians live. The Assad regime continues to carry out abhorrent crimes and violations against the Syrian people -- including murder, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances, torture, rape, sexual violence, use of child soldiers, targeting civilians, and indiscriminate bombing.

The regime continues to imprison tens of thousands of individuals, many arbitrarily, and subjects many to torture, sexual violence, inhumane conditions, denial of fair trials, and execution. These prisoners include women, children, doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, journalists, and others, from every part of Syria’s religious and ethnic fabric. Estimates of total prisoners detained by the regime are difficult to verify given the dearth of independent monitors and the violations against them, but documentation groups estimate that 215,000 persons have been detained, including 35,000 political prisoners. These tens of thousands of documented political prisoners were reportedly detained based on their political activism and affiliations, their attempts to document abuses, and organize their communities in defense of basic human rights.

There are likely many more political prisoners, but their families have not been informed of their arrest and charges or groups have not been able to confirm their status given the ongoing restrictions. Credible Syrian groups also estimate at least 85,000 persons have been forcibly disappeared. Many are most likely either dead or in captivity.

Syrian civilians already terrorized by Assad's barrel bombs and starvation sieges are now additionally threatened by the vicious terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and its Al Qaeda affiliated rival and counterpart, Al Nusra. ISIL arose in part because a dictator in Syria has spent nearly four years destroying towns and cities, driving half the people of his country from their homes until some of them became so desperate that they turned to the false deliverance ISIL and groups like it offer.

In support of many of the displaced, the U.S. is the largest donor in response to the humanitarian crisis, providing over $3 billion to support life-saving humanitarian assistance, such as clean water, food, and medicine to people inside the country, as well as over 3 million refugees who have fled from the horrors of this tragic conflict. My colleagues at USAID and PRM and other parts of the USG are the principal people mobilizing these resources and implementing the programs.

Working with our Coalition partners, we have come to the aid of members of communities targeted by ISIL and have dealt it strategic blows, halting its advance and thus helped prevent further atrocities. I’m sure that everyone in this room is familiar with the Coalition airstrikes, including the airstrikes on Kobani that have allowed Kurdish fighters to push back ISIL militants from their territory.

Our support for the armed moderate opposition is helping them do more to protect their people in liberated areas, push back the terrorists and defend against the regime.

Before the airstrikes and support for the armed opposition, we were working – and we continue working – with civilians on the ground to protect vulnerable communities, strengthen civil society structures and local governance structures on the ground, and document atrocities on all sides of the war eventually to hold those responsible accountable for their actions and deliver justice to victims. Amidst all the bad news from Syria, it is important to remember that there is a great deal in Syria and among its people that is worth defending and that can be built upon to achieve a better future for Syria.

Dedicated Syrians are bravely trying to maintain local self-government, functioning police and judicial institutions, to keep open schools, to deliver services, to rescue people injured in the fighting, and to rebuild what is constantly being destroyed.

The U.S. Government is also providing $330 million in non-lethal support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), moderate armed opposition, local opposition councils, and civil society groups, and non-lethal support to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition to help Syria's moderate center stay alive. U.S. assistance is being directed to maintain public safety and to mitigate sectarian violence. Assistance includes training and equipment to build the capacity of a network of more than 3,000 grassroots activists from more than 400 opposition councils and organizations from around the country.

This assistance enhances linkages among Syrian activists, human rights organizations, and independent media outlets and empowers women leaders to play a more active role in transition planning.

In furtherance of the goals set forth in the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, U.S. support inside Syria empowers women to take an active role in governance, civic engagement, and conflict resolution. We are also amplifying the voices of Syrian women civil society leaders participating in peace-building initiatives such as in mediating local ceasefires, ensuring their perspectives are considered by the international community. We provide trainings and tools to enhance the digital security of activists and journalists to mitigate threats by all parties to the conflict.

Even in the face of this continued onslaught, courageous Syrians continue their pursuit of peace, justice, and fundamental freedoms, and civil society and human rights defenders document abuses and violations committed by both the regime and armed groups. Civil society actors provide an essential link between Syrians and the international community on a range of issues related to peace, security, and justice. The U.S. Government engages with civil society particularly on shared priorities including: protection issues, human rights, women’s empowerment, cross-sectarian reconciliation, and transitional justice. I have had the honor to meet with many dedicated activists, including some who have survived horrific imprisonments and great personal risk to continue their advocacy.

I have had the opportunity to meet just a few dozen Syrian activists, but through our outreach and programs, we aim to support many more. One of the thousands of brave human rights activists is Razan Zeituneh, who has played a critical role in documenting human rights violations and calling for peace as the founder of the Violations Documentation Center. She, her husband Wael Hamada, and their colleagues Samira Khalil and Nazem Hammadi – also known as the Douma Four – were abducted and kidnapped in Douma in December 2013. Their whereabouts are still unknown. Razan, like so many Syrians who took to the streets over three years ago, has called for the end of torture, respect for human rights, and a peaceful end to the conflict.

As Secretary Kerry has said when publicly calling for the release of Razan and her colleagues, “we stand in awe of her leadership and heroism… Their voices must not be silenced – their voices must be empowered.” Razan has also demonstrated the critical role that women as agents of change have played and continue to play in Syria. Those responsible for the multitude of other abuses and violations of human rights, must be held accountable.

To establish a peaceful, inclusive political solution in Syria, we must remain committed to seeking justice for victims of atrocities and accountability for those responsible for such heinous crimes. Towards this end, the United States supports programs to enable Syrian civil society to document human rights abuses.

This documentation, led by Syrians, can serve a wide range of future transitional justice purposes, including, but not limited to truth-telling, reconciliation, reparations, institutional reform, memorialization, evidence collection, and criminal accountability. We are supporting a number of initiatives focused on transitional justice and atrocity documentation, aimed at bolstering accountability for atrocities committed by all sides. The United States, along with eight other governments, supports the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) as one of the premier Syrian-led institutions leading impartial documentation efforts through its database, analysis, training, and networks inside Syria. The information collected lays the groundwork for future accountability processes, including potential criminal prosecutions.

We also strongly support the efforts of the United Nations, including the critical reporting provided by the Commission of Inquiry and the efforts of the UN Special Envoy who continues to seek a negotiated political solution. We will continue to support efforts to pursue a political solution that will result in a united, inclusive, and democratic Syria. We will also continue to work with partners to end the atrocities, lay a foundation for justice, and sustainable peace in Syria.

To bring an end to the human rights violations carried out by the regime and the abuses by terrorist groups like ISIL, we must confront its root causes through a negotiated political solution that stops the violence and addresses all dimensions of human rights and international humanitarian law to the conflict. The crisis demands a political solution that leads to a sustainable peace for all Syrians, men and women alike; the U.S. Government will continue to support the Syrian people in pursuing this outcome.