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Responsibility to Protect?

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
September 18, 2013


During his opening statement before last week's House Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria, ranking member Rep. Adam Smith described the "civil war in which Assad has killed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand of his own civilians." Versions of Smith's misleading characterization are repeated often by policymakers. As Sen. John McCain has often proclaimed, and repeated last week, "The fact is Bashar Assad has massacred 100,000 people."

That the security forces under Assad's authority have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons, is beyond doubt. And as the head of state, he has effective control over his subordinate forces and must be held accountable before the International Criminal Court or a post-conflict special tribunal for Syria. However, most of the reported deaths in Syria have not been committed by those forces under his command.

The most widely quoted source for civil war deaths has been produced by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which consists of a handful of Syrian activists compiling information in a war zone and presenting the best estimates possible. Despite their potential for bias and the methodological challenges of tracking the Syria war, SOHR estimates are consistent with the latest United Nations numbers. In the past 10 days, both the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs,Valerie Amos, and the high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, estimated that "more than 100,000" Syrians have lost their lives in the ongoing civil war.

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