Saturday 18 February 2012

The case for arming the Syrian Free Army

Latest defector, Brig. Gen. Qaddour (photo from

In a sign of growing momentum, last month’s defection of Brig. Gen. Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, was followed this week by the flight of Brig. Gen. Fayez Omar Qaddour, head of the Military Pilot School in Aleppo.
According to the SFA, soldiers and officers are defecting every day and are continuously being organized and assigned tasks by the group.
In its founding statement last August, the group said it wanted to "work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity, topple the regime, protect the revolution and the country's resources and stand up to the irresponsible military machine protecting the regime.”
The strength of the SFA is unknown. But the group is now operating openly in places like Idlib province and the cities of Homs, Hama and Zabadani. It has also established control over some small pockets of resistance here and there.
The group denies any political affiliation.
The opposition umbrella known as the Syrian National Council (SNC) is close to the SFA. SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun says the SFA could not be ignored but should limit its activities to defending unarmed civilians.
However, the Beirut daily Assafir today quotes another leading opposition voice within the National Coordination Committee, Haytham Manna, as saying he was sticking to his three nays: no to sectarianism, no to taking up arms against the regime and no to foreign military intervention.
With the opposition yet to unify its positions ahead of next week’s “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia, Dr. Mahmoud al-Mubarak, a prominent Saudi professor of international law at King Feisal University, today argues the case for arming and funding the SFA.
Here is what he writes in Arabic in his think piece for Aljazeera:
From a legal perspective, the Arabs’ diplomatic breakthrough at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday night was not exactly a victory.
Although an overwhelming majority approved the Syria resolution proposed by the Arab states, its wording was purely political. The resolution was not drafted in the frame of international law.
What the Arab states won was a nonbinding General Assembly resolution that fails to meet the minimum demands of the beleaguered Syrian people.
The resolution’s censuring of the Syrian regime and its call on the Syrian president to step aside and empower his deputy are political measures, no more.
It doesn’t take much imagination to know what the Syrian people want at the moment. They want the uninterrupted brutal and barbaric attacks against them to stop and the Syrian Free Army to be supported with weapons and funds.
The General Assembly resolution cut the Syrian peoples’ tragedy down to the person of the president and his transfer of power to his vice-president. It seemed like the General Assembly was unaware or incognizant of the Syrian people’s daily calls for regime change, not for a change of president.
Regrettably, the resolution made no reference to helping the Syrian Free Army and totally ignored the Syrian people’s legitimate right to self-defense against the inexcusable and savage attacks to which they are subjected every day.
While Syrian regime violence against Syrian civilians continues unabated, the pace of defections from the regular Syrian army is growing by the day. Defection in this case is not so much a political or military “phenomenon” but a security option for civilians and a serious political threat to survival of the regime.
Understandably, Syrian civilians are in desperate need of “legal protection” against attacks by the regular Syrian army that have been well documented by international legal bodies and human rights watchdogs.
Under international law, anyone participating in the killing, torture, rape or siege of civilians in violation of International Humanitarian Law is liable to prosecution without time limits. That applies to military people executing orders and to state officials giving the orders. Moreover, servicemen, irrespective of their rank, cannot invoke the pretext of “executing commander orders.” The “superior-subordinate” argument used by the German military during the Nuremberg Trials was refuted altogether and the matter is now enshrined in international law.
The Syrian regime’s previous and present criminal acts are not only “Crimes Against Humanity” as often mentioned in UN corridors, but “War Crimes” and “Genocide.”
The shelling of residential homes and places of worship, attacks on ambulances and hospital patients, withholding food, water and medicine from civilians and power cuts – all these are classified as "War Crimes" under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and Article VIII of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Statute.
Syrian regime measures to subdue Homs and other cities by deliberately targeting living conditions and citizens’ lives there is classified as “Genocide” by virtue of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and Article VI of the ICC Statute.
The Syrian Free Army, consisting of military defectors and other volunteers, has simply assumed the role of protector of civilians’ lives and rights. It is legitimate under international law to defend unarmed civilians and refuse to execute orders that contravene International Humanitarian Law.
Armed resistance against any “aggression” by a foreign country or an occupying power or a government pitted against its own people is a form of self-defense by virtue of international conventions and agreements, such as the Hague Convention of 1907, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols, the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, and numerous other Security Council, General Assembly and ICC provisions, resolutions and statements.
For all the above reasons, the Arab governments would be well-advised to ask the UN Security Council to endorse the Syrian people’s “Right of Resistance” to defend themselves by legitimate means as provided in international law. The Arab governments should also support the Syrian resistance embodied in the Syrian Free Army with weapons and funds.
In turn, the Syrian Free Army should undertake not to breach international law, to respect the Geneva Conventions and the ICC statute, and to treat humanely all those it takes captive – whether they are officials, Syrian army officers or soldiers or so-called shabiha (thugs).