“Our troops went to the battlefront with a gun in one hand, and the Human Rights Charter in the other.” The imagery is striking. All the more so because it was invoked (repeatedly) by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, defending Sri Lanka’s military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the face of credible allegations that his forces had slaughtered tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, the claim was jaw-droppingly brazen. Yet, as the evidence mounted, the Rajapaksa government and its representatives continued to dispute not only its culpability, but also the very fact of mass civilian death.
Much has been made of the example set by Sri Lanka’s ruthless strategy as an alternative to “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency efforts. Governments battling stubborn militant movements continue to seek advice from Colombo on employing the “Rajapaksa model.” But the successful elimination of the LTTE in 2009 wasn’t the only unexpected feat Sri Lanka accomplished. It also managed to preempt international action long enough to conclude its brutal campaign, despite state-perpetrated civilian casualties on a massive scale. Syria, where more than 200,000 civilians have died since 2011, is poised to test the limits of this precedent.
It is therefore perhaps no surprise that Syria’s reaction to accusations of war crimes contains unsettling echoes of Sri Lanka’s. As the civilian death toll has mounted over the past six years, President Bashar Assad has rejected all allegations of atrocities as “devoid of logic” because “the Syrian Army is made up of Syrian people.” When confronted with overwhelming evidence of systematic violations of the laws of war, he has stuck to this line, insisting: “We don’t kill civilians, because we don’t have the moral incentive, we don’t have the interest to kill civilians.”
Of course, there are key differences between the two cases, most notably the greater internationalization of Syria’s conflict and the fact that its rebels seek to topple the government, rather than secede. And importantly, the Rajapaksa government enjoyed much greater international support than Assad. But, like Sri Lanka, Syria is a strong state with a well-organized military fighting territory-holding rebels who have significant popular support. While the scale of civilian death is greater in Syria, the pattern of violations is similar: custodial torture and extrajudicial killings of suspected regime opponents, attacks on civilian targets including hospitals and aid conveys, and the use of prohibited weapons. And in both cases international audiences raised the alarm about mass atrocities.
The striking similarity of the response to allegations of war crimes extends beyond bald-faced denials. Syria has employed three other key elements of the Sri Lankan playbook. The first is to restrict the flow of information. In addition to forbidding foreign correspondents and human rights organizations access to the conflict zone, the Sri Lankan government terrorized the domestic press. Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka became one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. The delivery of humanitarian aid was also severely restricted. In September 2008, the government ordered all aid workers out of the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka. The Assad regime has followed this example closely. While foreign journalists are not officially banned from the country, access to regime-held territory is limited to pre-approved journalists, often accompanied by a minder. Today, it tops the list of deadliest countries for journalists, in large part due to regime attacks on the domestic press. Humanitarian aid delivery has been restricted since the conflict began. In both Sri Lanka and Syria, these measures cut off nearly all sources of independent information.
The second tactic out of Colombo’s playbook is to vehemently contest the limited information that does trickle out of the war zone. The Sri Lankan government challenged all casualty reports as “Tiger propaganda.” In late April 2009, as thousands were dying from government shelling, the Sri Lankan Air Force denied that it was carrying out any operations. Both during and after the war, the Rajapaksa regime also challenged the veracity of all photographic and video evidence. Syria has pursued an identical approach. In 2016, Assad disputed the existence of the Aleppo siege, arguing that if it were true, “people would have been dead by now.” (One estimate suggests that more than 30,000 people died in Aleppo between 2012 and 2016.) The regime has disputed the authenticity of photo and video evidence of chemical weapons attacks, barrel bombs, torture, and extrajudicial killings. And Assad’s farcical suggestion last month that the dead children in the videos from Idlib were actors was almost identical to Sri Lanka’s claim that video evidence of extrajudicial killing was faked by “Tamil rebels in army uniform.”
Finally, like Sri Lanka, Syria has disputed the attribution of all war crimes it can’t deny, and portrayed its opponent as the only blameworthy actor. Despite the implausibility of the claim, Sri Lanka insisted that any shelling of civilian targets had been committed by the “terrorists.” The government also repeatedly accused the LTTE of employing civilians as human shields, arguing (incorrectly) that this exonerated the military of any responsibility for their deaths. Likewise, Syria has attempted to shift the blame for atrocities to the rebels. Early in the conflict, Assad told international media that “Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government.” In 2013, he rejected responsibility for the sarin gas attack in Ghouta, insisting “We’re not there.” Finally, the Syrian government has accused the rebels of using civilians as human shields, and excused its targeting of hospitals and schools on the grounds that “terrorists” are using them as bases and weapons storage.
On first look, these tactics – all of which amount to contesting empirically verifiable facts – appear deluded. Against reams of physical and testimonial evidence of war crimes, who would believe a self-interested denial? But sometimes it works.
The strategy paid off for Sri Lanka. In fact, immediately following its victory, the Rajapaksa regime was commended by the U.N. Human Rights Council for its efforts “to ensure the safety and security of all Sri Lankans.” And as impunity for war crimes was compounded by a litany of human rights abuses in the aftermath of the war, the most significant sanctions the government faced were reductions in aid and trade. The war ended eight years ago this week, and to this day no member of the civilian or military leadership has faced justice for war crimes.
This is encouraging precedent for the Assad regime. Especially because Sri Lanka’s success did not depend on actually convincing anyone that it hadn’t committed war crimes. It simply relied on muddying the waters enough to prevent international action. Two structural features of the situation enabled this strategy: First, Sri Lanka was mostly insulated from action at the U.N. Security Council or at the International Criminal Court. Consequently, there was no straightforward path to halting the violations or ensuring justice for them. Any intervention (military, judicial, or otherwise) would have been costly and challenging to coordinate. And second, the final phase of the conflict played out against the backdrop of the Global War on Terror, allowing Sri Lanka to emphasize the LTTE’s use of terrorist tactics and characterize their eradication as an international necessity. There was widespread support (both overt and tacit) for the fight against the LTTE. If the first dynamic meant that the bar for international action was set higher than it would have been otherwise, the second meant that Sri Lanka’s actions, seen through the more permissive lens of a fight against terrorism, were less likely to clear that bar.
Both of these factors are arguably present for Syria, although in different measure. The Assad regime’s close relationship with Russia means that it is even more well-protected than Sri Lanka was from either enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter or an International Criminal Court referral. And although Syria’s war, unlike Sri Lanka’s, is widely viewed as illegitimate, it has still benefited immensely from the fact that the opposition includes militant Islamic groups, whose defeat members of the international community prioritize above Assad’s ouster.
For six years, victims’ advocates, international human rights activists, and horrified onlookers have been asking themselves how high the death toll in Syria has to get before someone will step in. But international action on mass atrocities is the exception rather than the rule. The Sri Lankan experience shows that obfuscation and denial can be enough to exploit this inertia and prevent intervention. If Syria manages to do likewise, it will show that even an international pariah can get away with mass murder.
Kate Cronin-Furman is a postdoctoral fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She holds a Ph.D. in political science (2015) and a J.D. (2006) from Columbia University and is currently writing a book about the politics of justice for mass atrocities.
Image: Adam Jones, CC