Rights groups have documented the regime’s systematic and indiscriminate targeting of civilian centers, schools and hospitals
US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as she speaks as the UN Security Council meets in an emergency session at the UN on April 5, 2017, about the suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria. / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY
WASHINGTON: At a sun-dappled briefing in the Rose Garden, King Abdullah II of Jordan standing at his side, President Donald Trump issued his strongest-ever condemnation of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He said on Wednesday that the regime’s suspected chemical weapons attack on a town in Idlib province, which killed scores of civilians, was “horrific” and “an affront to humanity.” He then appeared to move away from his long-standing indifference to Assad, an Arab strongman whom Trump has sometimes cast as a potential ally against the Daesh.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump said of the attack. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
Of course, as is often the case with Trump’s rhetoric, it’s not clear how he intends to walk his talk. Trump has opposed bombing Syrian government forces, pushing regime change and engaging in protracted nation-building projects overseas. While numerous Western governments are adamant that Assad must go, the Trump administration has now publicly put that goal on the back burner.
Meanwhile, collective action is stymied both at the United Nations Security Council, where Russia and China wield vetoes, and at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, an entity whose jurisdiction Syria does not recognise.
Yet a case is slowly being built against the Assad regime, which has waged a catastrophic six-year war in Syria and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Prosecutors in several European countries are moving forward with criminal cases against regime officials, backed by a mountain of evidence that’s emerging from the war — sometimes from within the regime itself.
Whatever the verdict on the latest chemical attack, an investigation by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that Syrian government forces were responsible for two chlorine gas attacks between 2014 and 2015. Rights groups have also documented the regime’s systematic and indiscriminate targeting of civilian centres, schools and hospitals with air strikes.
An independent group of legal experts based in Geneva known as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability now possesses more than 700,000 pages from Syrian intelligence and security archives, smuggled out of the country by a clandestine network of activists and defectors. They appear to reveal the regime’s widespread system of illegal detention centres — and evidence that could support future prosecutions of Syrian officials.
As Washington Post reported earlier this week, some of the documents detail in almost clinical fashion the ways the regime tortured and possibly killed tens of thousands of political prisoners. “Documents signed by senior government and security officials acknowledged the upsurge in deaths, at times complaining that the bodies were building up,” Washington Post reported.
To be sure, it’s not just Assad who may be guilty. A recent UN inquiry into the battle for Aleppo found that both sides of the conflict likely committed war crimes. Investigations by advocacy organisations and non-profit groups have catalogued abuses carried out by a range of factions, from US-backed Syrian Kurdish groups to the Daesh. But the scope of the regime’s alleged crimes — and the evidence that supports those claims — is unmatched.
Other evidence comes in the form of more than 55,000 forensic photographs collected by a former Syrian military police photographer known as Caesar. Caesar’s images of tortured, brutalised Syrian bodies — detainees with eyes gouged out, limbs drilled through and maimed — shocked Western audiences when they were released a couple of years ago. Syrians in exile found themselves combing through the grisly archive for images of their disappeared loved ones.
“You have to realise that these were just the photographs taken by a single man during a single period, and even then, they were only a fraction of what he’d actually recorded,” Nadim Houry, who examined the photographs for Human Rights Watch, said.
This is no mere historical record, either: It’s now criminal evidence. Last month, a judge in Spain’s national court agreed to hear a case against high-ranking Syrian military and intelligence officials over the 2013 death of a 43-year-old delivery-van driver identified as Abdul. His sister, who runs a beauty salon in Madrid, launched the case after seeing her brother’s image amid Caesar’s trove of photos. French judicial authorities are conducting their own investigations into Syrian war crimes in the wake of the Caesar revelations, and nine Syrian torture survivors in Germany have filed a war crimes complaint with the German federal public prosecutor against top regime officials.
While such legal challenges may have limited reach, they are certainly going to be noticed by the regime. And, if nothing else, these steps seem more meaningful than feuding in forums like the Security Council, which was deadlocked once again at an emergency session on Wednesday.
“History will judge all of us in how we respond to these unforgettable and unforgivable images of the innocent,” said Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations. “How long are we going to sit here and pretend that actions in these chambers have no consequences?”
Trump’s ambassador at the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said of Russia, Assad’s staunch ally. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she asked. She was rebuffed by Moscow’s envoy, Sergey Kononuchenko, who said the accusations of the Assad regime’s involvement are “closely interwoven with the anti-Damascus campaign which hasn’t yet reached the place it deserves on the landfill of history.”
In the seventh year of Syria’s tragedy, such talk is cheap. But the painstaking and oft-heartbreaking research carried out by the various groups investigating the war is not.