A critical moment for Syria’s Democratic Forces


A film about The White Helmets, Syria’s “largest civil society organization operating in areas outside of government control,” last night won an Oscar for best documentary short.

The award coincides with a critical moment for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the American military says is 50,000 strong and which it has nurtured to roll back the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, The New York Times reports:

In a war in which the United States has sought to minimize its own military footprint, this militia has become the American military’s ally of choice in northern Syria and its best hope of taking Raqqa in the coming months. But the budding alliance has drawn the United States deeper into the complex politics of northern Syria and prompted furious objections from Turkish officials.

In an effort to hold those committing despicable war crimes in Syria accountable, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on December 21, 2016 aimed to investigate atrocities committed since the conflict started in 2011, writes Grant Whittington, an intern at the National Endowment for Democracy.

More than a month and a half after the resolution passed, Amnesty International released a harrowing report highlighting the Syrian government’s mass hangings and extermination of prisoners at the infamous Saydnaya Prison facility, a recent forum at the Arab Center in Washington, DC (right and below), heard. Investigative reports described how once or twice a week, guards would blindfold prisoners – many of whom were activists or journalists or Assad-denouncers given a one- or two-minute fake trial – and usher them to rows of nooses. Amnesty International reported as many as 13,000 people have been hanged and thrown into mass graves at Saydnaya since 2011.

Christian Wenaweser, artist of the UN resolution for war crime accountability and longtime UN ambassador to Liechtenstein, believes crimes like those committed at the Saydnaya prison should come with consequences. He said the UN resolution was an important step for accountability because it makes a measure for punishing crimes “inevitable.” In 2014, a UN resolution pleading to refer Syria to the international criminal court gained a lot of traction and backing until Russia and China decided to veto the draft.

UN ambassador to Qatar Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani joined Wenaweser at The Arab Center’s event to discuss their coalition in punishing war criminals. Al-Thani said people often ask her “Why Liechtenstein and Qatar?” Her answer was simple. “There is a sense of frustration that has brought our countries together.”

She said that the absence of justice and tolerance of impunity only encourages further crimes. In a country where half of the 22 million pre-conflict population is now displaced and a country that has seen more than 400,000 of its citizens murdered in the past five years, Al-Thani views this resolution as a key first step to ensuring justice.

The Arab Center’s Executive Director Khalil Jahshan agreed. “I need to state unequivocally that enough is enough,” he said in his opening remarks of the event. Wenaweser and Al-Thani are still unsure about a couple aspects to the resolution, namely surrounding funding. The funding is done voluntarily. Al-Thani mentioned that they started their fundraising campaign and set the target at $5 to $6 million for the first investigative step in the IIIM resolution.

Citizens for Syria has released the first stage of its new project on Mapping Syrian Civil Society Organizations.

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