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Syria’s Assad Doubles Down on War Crimes

Posted August 18th, 2015 at 2:53 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may hobble on in office for a while, but his place in history is already indelibly fixed as one of the most brutal and incompetent leaders of his era.

Now in control of at most a third of Syria after four years of failing to quell a multi-sided insurgency, Assad unleashed his bombers yet again on Sunday on a market in a Damascus suburb, Douma, which has been a rebel stronghold. More than 100 people were killed, many of them civilians.

Their deaths add to a toll that has already topped a quarter million. The war has also displaced half Syria’s population of 22 million and created a refugee crisis that is threatening the stability of neighboring states and flooding Europe with desperate migrants.

According to Stephen Rapp, who recently resigned after six years as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes and chief of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, Assad’s government is responsible for “north of 80 percent” of the war crimes that have occurred during the conflict. These have included the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs and the killing of at least 11,000 prisoners in military hospitals, many through torture or starvation.

Killing more and more people is not solidifying Assad’s hold on power, however.

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council – which had been chronically divided over Syria  — approved a statement backing new efforts by the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to restart discussions about a “political transition.” While the statement did not explicitly call for Assad to go, it was approved by Russia, which has been a staunch backer of the Syrian regime. Russia recently also approved a resolution condemning the continued use of chemical agents in Syria. Russian officials have been meeting with Iranians, Saudis and others to explore ways of reviving peace negotiations.

Assad’s other ally – Iran – has also stepped up diplomacy efforts on Syria to show that the recent nuclear deal with the international community is a prelude to more engagement in the region, not necessarily a precursor for more Iranian military intervention.

Iranian officials have repeatedly said that they are not wedded to Assad continuing in office but have questioned whether there is a viable alternative among the assorted Sunni factions contesting his rule. Iran’s main priority is protecting a transit route through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Assad’s steady loss of control could threaten that corridor. Increasingly, even his minority Alawite community – which had seemed ready to support him to the end – has begun showing signs of disaffection. The son of a cousin of the president was arrested recently for killing a Syrian army officer in a traffic dispute, an act which led to protests in the Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast,

It’s worth recalling that Assad, 49, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, was never supposed to rule Syria. He became the heir apparent to his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1994 after the death of his elder brother, Basil, in a car crash.

Bashar assumed the presidency after his father died in 2000 and initially instituted modest reforms. But he backtracked in the face of demands for more political and economic freedom. In 2005, in the first of many miscalculations, he is believed to have authorized the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The murder sparked mass protests in Lebanon as well as international condemnation and forced Assad to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Assad further infuriated the George W. Bush administration by providing sanctuary to escaped Iraqi Baathists after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Those given refuge included for a time, the sons of Saddam Hussein. While they eventually returned to Iraq and were captured and killed, some Baathist survivors in Syria went on to form al-Qaida in Iraq, the precursor to the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

Assad appears to have underestimated the appeal of IS, which now occupies a substantial amount of Syria as well as a large chunk of Iraq. The remainder of Syria is held by a hodgepodge of other primarily Sunni Muslim fundamentalist militias that are united on only one goal — Assad’s removal. It is an open question whether Syria can be reconstituted as a unitary state or will split into Alawite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves.

Given Syria’s ethnic divisions and Assad’s misrule, it was inevitable that the Arab spring uprisings that began in North Africa would spread to Syria. Assad’s brutal response to what began as peaceful protests in 2011 – amplified by regional support for different Syrian factions – has brought the country to the sad state it is in today.

As the leader of a regime steeped in blood, Assad has scant prospect of enduring as head of even a rump Syrian state.

Rapp, who helped Syrian exiles compile and analyze 600,000 government documents that provide evidence of regime crimes, says that there can be no durable peace in Syria without some modicum of justice and accountability.

A process of transitional justice does not have to remove all vestiges of the Syrian state, Rapp says, but does have to decapitate it. “No de-Baathification, or de-Islamicization… [But] the authors of very grave crimes have to be … subject to a broad process, hopefully with some international participation to insure greater neutrality,” he said. “They’re some folks that are going to have to be tried.”


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