Newton is an expert in the conduct of international hostilities, and he has published widely on transitional justice topics, as well as the domestic relationship between the legislative and executive branches with respect to modern interventions. Newton also has been working with elements of the Syrian opposition that hope to create a viable transitional justice mechanism.
Newton said that R2P, a UN effort to discern definite legal authority for humanitarian intervention when the domestic state is unwilling or unable to protect its own citizens, has failed. He said that as late as July, the UN was discussing R2P while the Syrian regime killed many of its people.
“Syria marks the death of R2P as a viable, functional concept,” he said.
Newton also said that focusing on Syria’s use of chemical weapons and mandating compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention will not lead to an acceptable resolution. He said that the Syrians will obstruct efforts to find weapons, and they will likely continue to kill civilians through indiscriminate conventional attacks and general bombing campaigns.
Newton also contends that a deal without a no-fly zone legitimizes the broad use of weapons to harm the population.
“At a minimum, structuring a deal with the Assad regime that is brokered by Russian assistance marks a sharp reversal of the previously stated Administration policy that Assad must go,” he told the packed room.
Moreover, Newton said that a deal administered through the treaty bureaucracy has the advantage of being a structured process, but it also has major disadvantages.
“If they follow the playbook, it’s guaranteed to be very slow, very inefficient, and very debatable,” he said.
He argues that any agreement must in fact be readily verifiable because the Syrian regime has repeatedly demonstrated that it disregards its other obligations under the international laws and customs of war.
Newton also said that any deal should preserve room to try the Syrians for war crimes down the road. He is working with a group of international prosecutors and academic experts on a Congressional resolution to lay the foundations for a war crimes tribunal on Syria. Newton and his colleagues are keeping track of documents and evidence to present at a future trial.
“There are a number of lessons to be learned from our experiences in Iraq that must be incorporated into any U.S. efforts to support a Syrian war crimes process,” said Newton. “U.S. policymakers must support a Syrian led process while being aware that the latest round of diplomacy may well lead to mistrust of American commitment and political will inside Syria.”
Moreover, he stated that the Russians will continue to block attempts at a resolution to use force under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter. Getting a resolution similar to the one that allowed intervention to protect civilians that the Libyan regime attacked will prove nearly impossible because it did not go the Russians’ way.
“They felt as though they got burned by use of the Security Council Chapter VII powers in Libya, and they’re not going to go there,” he said.
In addition, Syria’s president and Russian leaders share the same policy of waiting for the U.S. to renounce the threat of attack and to halt arms shipments to rebels.
“That means that the likelihood of an effective enforcement mechanism to induce compliance with any agreement is very much in doubt,” he said. “That leaves us in a kind of limbo.”
Newton also pointed out two ironies in the current situation. First, the Obama Administration finds itself in the same place as the Bush Administration before the Iraq war—contemplating a unilateral use of force in the absence of a Security Council authorization.
Second, the U.S. expects the Syrians to join and domestically implement the Chemical Weapons Convention even as the Supreme Court hears arguments this fall over the constitutionality of the U.S. domestic implementing legislation, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act.
“By summer of 2014 you could have a crazy situation where we are demanding that Syria implement the treaty, while our own domestic implementation is deemed unconstitutional,” he said.
Finally, Newton predicted that negotiations will continue to frustrate U.S. diplomats because they failed to use significant leverage when they had it 18 months ago. He likened the current situation to a budding romantic relationship.
“There’s a moment when it’s right, and there’s a moment when it’s incredibly awkward and inappropriate.”