Russia’s War Crimes in Syria

For years, Russia has backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of mass murder in Syria. Now, following its unjust invasion of Ukraine, Russia is directly participating in Assad’s attempt to reestablish his control through mass atrocities. Russia has used the existence of ISIS as a pretext for intervention, while often bombing mainstream rebels—an approach that mirrors Assad’s focus on defeating the rebels with the greatest commitment to pluralism, democracy, and basic rights (seeing them as a greater threat to his continued authoritarian rule than ISIS).

Russia is engaged in indiscriminate bombing, killing hundreds of civilians by striking schools, medical facilities, markets, and other non-military targets. This has only intensified the displacement of Syrian civilians, as they flee for their lives.

Human Rights Watch notes:

The military offensive that the Russian and Syrian government forces opened against armed groups opposed to the government on September 30, 2015, has included extensive use of cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate and internationally banned weapons.

The use violates United Nations resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties involved in Syria end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch said.

While the Vatican took a hard line against Western military intervention after Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and sided with the Russia-Hezbollah-Iran-Assad alliance (rather than the democracies with a commitment to human rights) on negotiations, the current approach seems to be to remain silent about Russia’s crimes and make vague calls for a negotiated peace. If Pope Francis would like to provide moral leadership on Syria, he should continue to push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but he should also explicitly denounce Russia’s crimes and Assad’s mass murder, just as he denounces the terrorism of ISIS, and he should be clear: no government is legitimate that relies on the mass murder of its people.

Francis should affirm the right of Syrians to participate in their government (and reject the bigoted anti-Sunni mentality held by some Church leaders that would deny them their most basic rights). Intensified violent repression and renewed tyranny will bring neither durable peace nor greater justice in Syria. The Vatican should set aside sectarian interests and affirm the human rights that belong to all people, an integral part of Catholic social teaching. The concrete impact of such genuine moral leadership is unclear (and may not make a significant difference in achieving a settlement that leads to free elections, minority protections, basic rights, etc.), but it would show the world and its people where the Church stands on human rights and human dignity—not just for Christians, but for every person on the planet.