A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.
Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.
Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.
What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?
As the rhetoric surrounding the status of Syrian refugees in the United States and Europe continues to intensify, a handful of people are turning to music as a tool to attempt to bring a more civil tone to the discussions. At its final summit of the year, the European Union’s meeting of Heads of State reached agreement on efforts to increase border security, dedicating more than $300 million to expand funding for security at border crossings and establishing an EU “rapid-reaction force” to respond to refugee influxes. The government of Denmark came under sharp scrutiny last week for a proposal to seize assets of asylum-seekers in order to pay for their upkeep, a plan which critics decry as echoing Nazi seizure of the jewelry belonging to the Jewish victims of concentration camps. And the United States, Republican President candidate Donald Trump continues to promote his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States—a proposal which, according to a Fox News poll, receives support from a narrow majority of voters.
A music video released last week by a Syrian-American hip-hop artist in New York seeks to draw attention to the plight of refugees. The video by Akram Shibly covers Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams, reworking the lyrics and includes a call to action by viewers. Shibly’s goal is to get viewers to tweet @taylorswift13 using the hashtag #DearTaylor, hoping that Swift will use her celebrity status to change the discourse and welcome refugees to the United States.
What do you think? Would such a grassroots campaign to create a more welcoming environment for Syrian refugees in the United States be successful? Is Shibly correct to target a celebrity like Taylor Swift rather than politicians or elected officials? What conditions are necessary to ensure civil society can affect the political discourse around accepting refuges? Why?
The British Parliament yesterday voted to approve airstrikes against ISIS. By a vote of 397 to 223, Prime Minister David Cameron won approval for his proposal to join the American-led coalition in striking Islamic State targets in Syria. Less than three hours later, four Royal Air Force Tornado strike fighters struck six targets in an ISIS-controlled oilfield in eastern Syria, the first British operation in the region. The British Defense Minister, Michael Fallon, confirmed that addition aircraft were being re-positioned to a British airbase in Cyprus to support and expand ongoing operations.
The vote to approve military action won a decisive majority, with 315 of the 322 Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) voted to approve the action. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had attempted to rally his party in opposition to the movement, but was unable to do so, and 66 Labour MPs defected from their party to support the action, but 152 voted against it. President Obama quickly welcomed the decision.
What do you think? What do you think should be done to weaken the growing influence of the Islamic State? Will Western intervention be successful? Why?
Following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, the international media quickly speculated that Russia and Turkey were on a warpath. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called for an emergency meeting of the group, a move which Russia described as an escalation. The downing of the Russian jet marks the first direct engagement between NATO and Russian forces since the end of the Cold War.
The issue at the heart of the current crisis was the subject of intense dispute. The Russian government maintains that the Russian aircraft were striking Islamic State targets in northern Syria, when Turkish fighter jets engaged and shot down a Russian plane. Turkey maintains that Russia was striking Turkmen rebel forces, repeatedly crossing into Turkish airspace and ignoring multiple warnings to leave Turkish airspace before being fired on. Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan condemned the event, which he said was provoked by a Russian violation of Turkish airspace and an infringement of Turkish sovereignty. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov implied the act was premeditated, stating that the downing “looks very much like a planned provocation.” He ordered the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft batteries to Syria.
In addressing the situation, US President Barak Obama called on both Russia and Turkey to “take measures to avoid escalation.” But Russian intervention in Syria has complicated American and NATO allies efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria. American strategy has been to oppose both ISIS and the Syrian government, supporting rebel forces in the region and striking ISIS targets from the air. Russian intervention has centered on supporting the Syrian government. While the Russian government maintains that its intervention is focused on defeating ISIS, Russian airstrikes have been condemned by the West for primarily targeting anti-government forces.
What do you think? Are NATO and Russia on a path to war? How might the situation in Turkey (and relatedly in Syria) be resolved to prevent further escalation?
The international response to last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris continues to intensify. Investigations by French authorities have led to multiple arrests in Belgium and France, and an international warrant has been issued for the Belgian citizen believed to be the mastermind for the attack. French President François Hollande descried the attacks as “an act of war” and has intensified French airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
Within the United States, the response to the attack in France has been shaded by the ongoing Presidential primary process. Republican presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Bobby Jindall have called for a range of military actions, from increased airstrikes to deploying American ground forces. Democratic candidates have generally supported President Obama’s existing strategy of airstrikes to support anti-ISIS forces—most notably rebels in Syria and Kurds in Iraq—rather than deploying US soldiers directly on the ground.
But perhaps the sharpest difference has been on the response to Syrian refugees. Noting that one of the terrorists killed in the Paris attack carried a Syrian passport, Republican presidential candidates have called for responses to address immigration. Some have called for an outright ban on refugees from Syria, while others have called for a religious test, limiting immigration to “true Christians” only. Governors of more than fifteen states have said that they would not accept Syrian refugees—proclamations that may be more symbolic than effective. But according to German sources, the Syrian passport was likely a fake intended to paint the attackers as Syrian refugees and provoke precisely this response.
What do you think? Should the United States and other Western countries take steps to limit the ability of Syrian refugees to seek asylum abroad? Why? Does such a move strengthen ISIS’s narrative, as President Obama suggests? Why? And how do you think the United States should respond to the Paris terror attacks?
A series of simultaneous attacks launched in Paris yesterday resulted in at last 140 deaths and more than 80 injuries. French President François Hollande described the attack as an “act of war” perpetrated by Islamic State militants, and world leaders expressed sympathy and support. The attack targeted bars, restaurants, and nightclubs popular with young Parisians and a football match underway. At least eight gunmen and suicide bombers responsible for the attack have been captured or killed. The French government responded by temporarily closing its borders and imposing a curfew in Paris. In claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Islamic State warned the Paris attack was “the first of the storm.”
The Islamic State burst on to the international scene in 2014 after capturing large portions of territory in Iraq and Syria. Originally referred to as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant), the organization has launched operations in countries as far as Australia, Belgium, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Norway, and elsewhere.
What do you think? What, if anything, can be done to prevent terror attacks like that in Paris yesterday? How might France, the United States, and others work to address the growing reach of the Islamic State both in Europe and the Middle East? And how might the attacks affect EU migration policy as the European Union struggles to address the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS in Syria?
It was announced yesterday that missiles launched from a Russian naval vessel intended to strike targets in Syria instead veered off course and exploded in a remote part of Iran on Thursday. Then today, a Russian jet was reportedly shot down by Turkish defense forces after it strayed into Turkey’s airspace. Russian intervention in Syria has largely been condemned by the West as an effort to prop up the Assad regime, which has been destabilized by both anti-government forces and Islamic State militants operating in the country. Although the Russia has maintained its airstrikes are intended to weaken ISIS militants, the United States and its allies have condemned Russian intervention as an effort to help shore up the Assad regime. Shortly after Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government launched a series of renewed operations which drove rebel forces in the country back. And now, key American military advisers warned the Obama Administration that it’s goal of supporting rebel forces in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime may no longer be a viable strategy in Syria, leading the Obama Administration to concede it would end its policy of supporting rebel forces in the country.
What do you think? Is the Middle East in danger of destabilizing? How has Russian intervention changed the strategic calculus for the United States in Syria? Do you agree with the advisers warning that the United States’ goal of overthrowing the Assad regime is no longer viable? Why? And if so, how should the United States proceed?