Assad likely to ride out mass executions allegations

With no government willing to directly address war crimes problem, it is unlikely that Assad’s regime will soon be prosecuted.

Syrian artist Aziz al-Asmar working on mural depicting war in his country


2017/02/12 Issue: 93 Page: 4


The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche



Beirut - A bone-chilling Amnesty International report al­leging the Syrian regime secretly and systemati­cally hanged up to 13,000 of its own people between the start of the war in March 2011 to Decem­ber 2015 in a “calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution” could threaten Russian-led peace efforts that would leave Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.

The highly detailed report, re­leased February 7th, attested that the killings carried out in Syria’s notorious Saydnaya prison north of Damascus were authorised by the most senior figures in the regime, including Assad’s deputies, in a war in which all sides have committed multiple atrocities.

Amnesty claimed that at least 17,723 others died in the prison from torture, disease and malnutrition during the same time frame.

It is not known whether Assad himself was complicit in the report­ed secret executions, but the widely reviled regime, established by his late father, Hafez Assad, in a 1970 military coup, has an abysmal hu­man rights record with tens of thou­sands of people disappearing in its internal gulag over the decades.

“There is no reason at all to expect that the hangings have stopped,” warned the report’s author, Nico­lette Waldman. “We believe it is very likely that the executions are going on to this day and many more thousands of people have been killed.”

The Amnesty International dis­closures have come amid Russian efforts to secure a political settle­ment under which Assad would remain in power, at least during an undefined transitional period.

There has been no suggestion that the timing of the disclosures was politically motivated but in the final analysis that may not be important, for justice is likely to be slow in coming — if at all.

Apart from the Syrian regime, the Russians, Iranians and the Ameri­cans have been assassinating jihad­ist leaders since the 9/11 attacks on the United States and killing hun­dreds of civilians in the process. All could face charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Russia and China, which support Assad’s regime, have torpedoed attempts to have the UN Security Council indict the Damascus regime for war crimes and stand trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Since Russia intervened in the Syrian war in September 2015, it has been repeatedly accused of indis­criminate bombing of civilian cen­tres, hospitals and schools.

Moscow denied that, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. As recently as February 2016, Tur­key accused the Russians and As­sad’s regime of deliberately carry­ing out such attacks to drive Syrians into fleeing the country in a tidal wave of refugees — 6 million at the latest estimate — to swamp Turkey and Western Europe and trigger po­litical crises.

Turkey has now become a close ally of Russia and by default the Da­mascus regime. So Turkey, which 18 months ago was howling for Assad’s blood but is now allied with those ensuring his survival, is not likely to initiate war-crimes allegations.

Saudi Arabia, a major supporter of rebel forces opposed to Assad who have also committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, is being accused of committing such crimes in Yemen in its war against Houthi rebels, who are backed to some de­gree by Iran.

In May 2016, senior UN officials demanded the Assad regime should face trial for war crimes over the in­discriminate bombing of hospitals and its starvation sieges of Aleppo and other population centres.

“Intentional attacks on hospitals are war crimes,” declared Jeffrey Feltman, then the United Nations’ top political officer. “Using starva­tion as weapon during conflict is a war crime.”

He demanded Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court for prosecution but, as with other UN attempts to censure or prosecute Assad’s regime, Russia and China used their vetoes in the Security Council to block such moves.

Also in May 2016, the president of Doctors Without Borders, the French medical relief agency, ac­cused the United States, Saudi Ara­bia, as well as Syria and Russia, of wilfully attacking medical centres and targeting medical workers.

There, too, punitive action failed to materialise.

The United States, like Russia and Syria, faces a barrage of similar alle­gations from the mounting civilian death toll from its use of so-called precision air strikes and unmanned drones to attack jihadist groups from Libya to Afghanistan.

With no government willing to directly address the mushrooming war-crimes problem because of the blowback that entails, it is unlikely that Assad’s regime will soon be prosecuted for its alleged atrocities, even with the gruesomely detailed indictments in Amnesty Interna­tional’s report titled Human Slaugh­terhouse.


Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.


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