How will history remember Assad?

While all civil wars tend to be fiercely violent, one unfolding in Syria seems particularly ugly.

2016/12/04 Issue: 84 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

A group of lawyers in Germany is planning to launch a case against Syrian President Bashar Assad for alleged war crimes committed by his forces and his foreign allies in the Syrian province of Aleppo.

While all civil wars tend to be fiercely violent, the one unfolding in Syria seems particularly ugly. Indeed, human rights groups say both government forces and opposition groups have committed atrocities against fighters and civilians alike. Both sides in the Syrian war are guilty of human rights abuses.

The Syrian government and its allies, as well as some rebel groups, can just as easily stand accused of carrying out some of the most the most horrible atrocities as well as general mistreatment of prisoners. There seems to be a general disregard for human decency in this conflict where regrettably reports on the use of torture are all too common.

This particular complaint in Germany, however, focuses on atrocities committed by government forces and their allies in the Aleppo region.

As the lawyers filed their lawsuit, there were reports coming in that government forces in Aleppo bombed a makeshift hospital. Under international law and the Geneva Conventions, targeting hospitals is banned and considered a war crime.

Recent images on internet news sites show Aleppo, once Syria’s main commercial centre, now devastated and ravaged by war. Certain neighbourhoods resemble what Berlin and Stalingrad looked like at the end of the second world war.

The German lawyers presented a criminal complaint against Assad, which they are submitting to federal prosecutors. German law allows international prosecutions on the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, under which countries can pursue foreigners for crimes committed abroad.

Witnesses cited by the lawyers include reports from Amnesty International and individual accounts of asylum seekers in Germany, who reported “overwhelming evidence of multiple atrocities committed by Assad’s forces against civilians in Aleppo between April and November”.

Regardless of the German court’s finding, the outcome of the trial will certainly not carry any real effect in Syria and Assad is highly unlikely to lose any sleep over the findings of a German court. The court’s decision is not going to affect Assad’s relations with his three closest allies: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

The legality aside, is this how the president wants to be remembered? As the man responsible for the killing of half a million Syrians, as the man responsible for the destruction of the country’s economic infrastructure and as the man responsible for turning nearly half of his countrymen and countrywomen into refugees?

Is this how the Syrian president wants to be remembered by future generations? When historians look back some years from now at the battle for Aleppo, currently the focal point in the Syrian war, what are they likely to conclude?

One can only hope that by then authoritarian regimes will be a thing of the past and that democracy in one form or another will prevail and then the truth about the atrocities being committed will finally emerge. Regretfully, as the saying goes, truth is the first casualty of war.

While Assad may come out of the trial in Germany with a guilty verdict, the courts will not have any authority to impose a verdict. Possibly the worst-case scenario for Assad will be that he may not be able to visit Germany any time soon.

History will remember him in the same manner that other tyrants before him are remembered, though Assad remains something of a novice when compared to tyrants such as Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot.

While some leaders are remembered for their great accomplishments, Assad will go down in history as the man who brought about the physical destruction of his country, who was ultimately responsible for the carnage that killed close to 500,000 Syrians and displaced millions of others.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al- Hussein said in October that the government’s siege and bombing of rebel-held eastern Aleppo constituted “crimes of historic proportions”, which have caused heavy civilian casualties amounting to war crimes.

He said the case should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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