The international response to the crisis in Syria has been mixed since the conflict began in 2011. While Assad maintains some international support, much of the world has condemned his regime’s response to the protests against his regime since the early days of the conflict. The UN has attempted to issue sanctions against Assad multiple times, but Russia and China have vetoed each attempt. While Iran has not consistently supported Assad, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei spoke out in favor of Assad during a June 2011 event, saying, “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist and anti-American, we support it.”
Prior to the instigation of the current conflict in March 2011, Assad was already a controversial figure internationally. In the past, he has been accused of human rights violations for imprisoning individuals with opposing viewpoints and was called on by HRW, the Arab League, the US and the UN to release political prisoners. During the UN’s probe into the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, Assad continually rejected requests that he submit to questioning and ignored international pressures to cooperate with the investigation. There is still international speculation that Syria was involved in the assassination. Assad was also criticized by the UN and other members of the international community for his perceived involvement in the Lebanese presidential election in 2004 and the stationing of thousands of troops in Lebanon during that time, as well as for stunting economic growth in Syria and corruption within his administration.
The Arab League
Fellow Arab League states initially stood behind Assad and supported his government as the conflict began. However, this support diminished as the conflict continued to grow and threatened stability in the region. In October 2011, the Arab League denounced the violence in Syria and called for its resolution. The next month, the League voted to suspend Syria’s membership due to the Assad regime’s violence against protesters. This vote came as a surprise to many in the international community given that Syria was one of the founding nations of the Arab League. The vote was 18 in favor of the sanction, with only Lebanon, Yemen and Syria voting against it and Iraq abstaining. As a result of this vote, all Arab League nations were instructed to remove their ambassadors from Damascus. This action was viewed as effectively isolating Assad in the region with many longstanding allies voting against his regime.
In December 2011, Syria agreed to allow Arab League observers to monitor protests as part of a peace plan. As a result, in January 2012, Syrian leaders released 552 prisoners. Although further pressure was put on the Arab League by HRW and other groups to push Syria for more action to resolve the conflict quickly and peacefully, all of the observers, beginning with those from Saudi Arabia, withdrew by the end of January 2012. The Arab League’s General Secretary, Nabil el-Araby, cited “the critical deterioration of the situation” as the promulgating reason in a statement.
In January 2013, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the largest economies and most populous nations in the Arab League, issued a joint call for a peaceful handover of power from Assad to the opposition. “A peaceful exit is an Arab and international demand,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said to reporters in Riyadh on January 5, 2013.
The United Nations
In September 2011, the UNHRC established the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria to investigate human rights abuses during the conflict. This group released a report in February 2013 that cited war crimes on both sides of the conflict, including indiscriminate attacks in areas causing civilian casualties and destruction of civilian entities, such as hospitals. Although the Commission was not permitted to conduct interviews inside the nation by the Syrian government, they were able to conduct 445 interviews over two years:
The depth of the Syrian tragedy is poignantly reflected in the accounts of its victims. Their harrowing experiences of survival detail grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The destructive dynamics of the civil war not only have an impact on the civilian population but are also tearing apart the country’s complex social fabric, jeopardizing future generations and undermining peace and security in the entire region.
Also in February 2013, the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura expressed concern regarding sexual violence on both sides of the conflict. She stated, “The people of Syria continue to suffer greatly. Civilians already caught in a vicious cycle of violence are also the target of sexual violence by all parties to the conflict.”
In October 2013, the UN entered a joint mission with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. The mission completed operations in September 2014.
In December 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging the UN Security Council to combat ongoing human rights violations in Syria. On December 18, 2015, the UN Security Council agreed to a plan focused on assisting a political transition in Syria. The resolution called for ceasefire, a new constitution and elections facilitated by the UN.
The UNHCR has been increasingly involved in providing humanitarian aid to refugees and other displaced persons fleeing the conflict. In 2015, efforts focused on providing basic needs, improving and maintaining shelters, protecting against and responding to sexual violence, and resettling refugees.
The US first spoke out against Assad’s actions against protesters early in the conflict. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep concerns over Assad’s actions in an opinion piece that ran in Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper based out of London, on June 17, 2011. In the article, Clinton stated, “It is increasingly clear that President Assad has made his choice. But while continued brutality may allow him to delay the change that is underway in Syria, it will not reverse it.”
In August 2011, US President Barack Obama issued a statement outlining a series of sanctions and other actions being taken against Syria by the US Departments of the Treasury and Commerce, which effectively froze all US-controlled Syrian assets and prohibited US entities from doing business with Syria. In a statement issued the same day, President Obama echoed a similar sentiment of support for the opposition against Assad as that had been offered earlier by Clinton:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
In April 2012, President Obama issued an executive order allowing for sanctions against foreign nationals who use technology to violate human rights. In the order, he specifically targeted Assad and subsequently used the order as justification to issue further sanctions against Syria. The US Department of State (DOS) continues to emphasize the US’s commitment to humanitarian aid in Syria, and in June 2013 President Obama pledged to allocate over $300 million in aid.
The White House issued a statement in response to videos showing chemical weapon attacks on Syrian civilians in August 2013. President Obama confirmed in September 2013 that the US would continue working with Russia towards eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program.
As resettlement efforts for displaced Syrians progress, public anxiety about security concerns grows. While the US continues to receive refugees, the Department of State has emphasized a rigorous screening for all incoming refugees to eliminate potential threats.
Russia was one of Assad’s strongest allies both before the conflict began in Spring 2011 and during it. In addition, Russia, as one of only five nations with permanent veto power in the UN Security Council, vowed to veto any sanctions brought against Assad in the UN. This vow led to the veto of the first three resolutions that were brought before the UNSC to condemn the actions of Assad. China joined Russia in opposition of Assad and vetoed the same three proposed resolutions. The US and Turkey, among other nations, claim that Russia is currently assisting Assad by providing him weapons and other tactical support. Russian leaders deny any support on their part and the country’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated in November 2012:
Our stance on Syria is well known: Russia does not support anyone in this conflict … We only tell them that they must sit down at the negotiating table and come to an agreement, rather than shoot at each other, which is the worst possible scenario. But unfortunately, some countries have a more one-sided approach: this one must leave immediately, and we will send weapons to the other ones. We believe that this is not right, that this will never bring peace to Syria.