Tucked inside the continuing resolution the United States Congress passed late last week was a provision to authorize the training and equipping of “moderate, vetted” elements of the Syrian opposition. The CIA has been carrying out a covert, small-scale version of this program, according to media reports. However, the rapid territorial gains and brutality of ISIS tipped the scales and encouraged the administration to go bigger – and go public – with a $500 million Pentagon-run, train-and-equip program, said U.S. President Barack Obama in a Sept. 10 speech.
Members of Congress in both houses debated the merits of the funding provision with the intensity of a war authorization. Understandably, many expressed concerns about providing assistance to disorganized armed groups that, some speculated, could have links to terrorist organizations. And yet, markedly absent from most of the discussion was the need to make sure this new program doesn’t train and equip human rights abusers.
The issue came up briefly during a House Rules Committee Hearing when Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), speaking for the House majority that drafted the authorizing language, was asked about the applicability of the Leahy Law. That federal statute prohibits the Pentagon and State Department from providing assistance, including training, to units of foreign security forces if there is credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.
Thornberry was noncommittal, saying he expected the provision “would be subject to all existing laws.” But even if the Leahy Law doesn’t apply, the administration should quickly and publicly embrace the intent and spirit of the law. It can do this by making clear its commitment to ensuring human rights concerns are included in the vetting of Syrian armed groups that receive U.S. weapons, materiel, and training.
Aiding forces in Syria without such a mechanism in place could mean U.S. military support would end up facilitating abuses instead of helping to curb them, thereby jeopardizing U.S. objectives. The absence of a clear commitment by the State Department and the Pentagon to vet assisted forces for human rights abuses would be a grave omission specifically because the abuse of rights has contributed to the disastrous situation in Syria today. It is also part of what has enabled ISIS to swell its ranks.
In Syria, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread and systematic abuses by the Assad government including the intentional targeting of civilians and numerous indiscriminate attacks against civilians with cluster munitions and barrel bombs. Tens of thousands of civilians have been arbitrarily detained and tortured; many have died in detention.
As abuses of the Assad government have increased, so too have abuses by the non-state armed groups in Syria, chief among them the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which have also been responsible for laws of war violations on a widespread and systematic scale. Brutal detention campaigns and indiscriminate attacks have brought condemnatory language from the governments of the U.S. and other countries, and led to the passage of strongly worded U.N. Security Council resolutions. Yet the violations have continued.
In Iraq, the Sunni population’s legitimate grievances have been outright ignored while the government has attacked their communities. Over the last 10 months, the situation has worsened dramatically with armed clashes between government and Sunni non-state armed groups in Anbar province devolving into direct targeting of civilians. The pervasive rot that plagues key Iraqi government institutions was made plain when the military collapsed as ISIS took over Mosul in June. Despite commitments to reform, the lack of accountability for serious human rights abuses did nothing to dislodge significant U.S. political and military support to then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. This too played a role in ISIS’s emergence as a dramatically cruel and destructive group.
While Congress’ chance to weigh in legislatively in support of strong human rights vetting has passed, the administration’s window of opportunity is now open. Being explicit about its vested interest in human rights vetting is not just a matter of upholding American values. It is about upholding international laws and norms, and ensuring that U.S actions do not facilitate further war crimes or undermine the campaign against ISIS.