A Diplomatic Solution to the Crisis in Syria: Remembering the 1930s

JURIST Contributing Editor David Crane, of the Syracuse University College of Law, argues that the world should remember the 1930's in crafting a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria ...

Appeasement in the face of tyranny never works. Consider the 1930's, when the international community, (and a spineless League of Nations) bent on avoiding another war, was faced with a tyrant and his ambitions: a two-bit dictator seeking a place for a so-called Third Reich. In 1936, Adolf Hitler gambled and seized the Rhineland from France, which at the time was one of the world's super powers. Emboldened, he realized that the use of force was not a viable option for the world's democracies. In 1938, he turned east and seized the Sudetenland.

A peace treaty was negotiated with Germany which gave Hitler a piece of another sovereign nation in return for a promise of no further expansion/aggression. As the exultant Prime Minister of the UK, Neville Chamberlain declared, "It was peace for our time." It is interesting to note hovering in the background, in league with Germany, was the Soviet Union, led by another tyrant. Within a year, the world plunged into the Second World War. These two nations would join forces, albeit briefly, to parcel out Poland and allow the Soviets to take over Finland.

Hitler and Stalin were not alone in their policy of aggression; Italy and Japan observed the maneuvering by Germany during this time frame and moved within their regions with impunity. China was attacked by Japan and Ethiopia fell to Mussolini's Italy. The response by the international community was to talk and to seek diplomatic solutions. Without the threat of force, these countries felt little concern for being held accountable politically, diplomatically, or legally. History tells us that tyrants only respect power and the use of force. They calculate their policies and plans based on this. If confronted they back down.

After the horror of the Second World War, mankind tried to limit the use of force through the advent of the UN, and its charter that said that nations should always settle their disputes peacefully, resorting to force only as a last resort. In principle, the settlement of disputes peacefully, placing the use of force on the back burner, is a laudable goal and one necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security.

With all this in mind, we are at an interesting intersection of history and policy as we watch the US and Russia maneuver geopolitically for influence in Syria specifically and the Middle East generally, in light of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Supported by Russia, President Assad stands back watching, buying time, and gaining a lost legitimacy due to these negotiations that he thought was gone forever; with the possibility of surviving a two year attempt to topple him a real expectation.

The use of chemical weapons in the modern era is rare. Used only in the 1980's in the Iran/Iraq war and by Saddam Hussein against his own people, the use of this weapon system is banned and its use is illegal per se, a war crime by any measure. With the recent use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces, the international community hesitated to act with force in the hope of diplomatically resolving the matter. They stepped over the principle of the use of those weapons being illegal per se and ignored President Obama, who reminded the international community that this cannot stand and that force was needed to punish Assad for the use of a weapon of mass destruction. Hampered politically at home and abroad, however, there is little President Obama can do but to give diplomacy a chance before possibly using force to destroy Assad's chemical arsenal.

Be that as it may, a diplomatic solution to this illegal act could be useful and set up further dialog between the parties and their political backers to end the bloodshed in Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians are dead. As the civil war continues, the chances of a peaceful and a gentle transition diminishes and the specter of a bloody conclusion has risen. This tentative agreement between the US and Russia may lead to a framework for a ceasefire by Assad and the Syrian resistance brokered by the UN.

The phenomenon of two old Cold War adversaries working together towards a peace in Syria is helpful. Yet let's not forget that an accounting must be had for the destruction of over 100,000 Syrians at the hands of their own government. There is nothing wrong in brokering a peace to stop death and destruction, yet Assad and his regime must be dealt with under law. Already, efforts by governmental and nongovernmental organizations have built the makings of a criminal case against all sides in the Syrian civil war. For a true peace to be had in the region, a full legal accounting by an appropriate justice mechanism must be had.

We won't have peace in our time without the rule of law, backed by a commitment to use force when current and future tyrants test the theory that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun. President Obama has it right, let's work with our partners in the UN to seek a diplomatic solution, mindful always that Assad does not respect the rule of law, only the threat and the ultimate use of force against him. With that fear of the use of that legitimate force, the international community can keep Assad in check. The shadow of the 1930's lingers in the corners of current events playing out in Syria. Lest we forget...

David Crane is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. He teaches international criminal law, international humanitarian law and national security law. He was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2002-2005. Crane served over 30 years in the US federal government, holding numerous key managerial positions and also serving as the Waldemar A. Solf Professor of International Law at the US Army Judge Advocate General's School.

Suggested Citation: David Crane, A Diplomatic Solution to the Crisis in Syria: Remembering the 1930s, JURIST - Forum, September 24, 2013, http://jurist.org/forum/2013/09/david-crane-syria-1930s.php


This article was prepared for publication by Alex Ferraro, the Section Head for JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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