Five years into the Syrian conflict and hundreds of thousands of victims later, the United States, France, Britain and even the United Nations secretary-general are now calling for war crimes probe against the Damascus regime and its Russian allies. But it’s too little, too late, especially for tens of thousands of civilians under siege in eastern Aleppo and many districts and towns all over the war-torn country. Even as talks for a ceasefire are set to take place in Switzerland this weekend, the carnage in eastern Aleppo nonetheless continues unabated with evidence emerging on a daily basis of deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools, mosques and homes.
But even if the International Criminal Court (ICC) was asked to investigate the situation in Syria, it is unlikely that much can be done at this stage. The Syrian regime is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty on the ICC and Moscow, which signed the treaty, is yet to ratify it. Alternatively, a request for investigation must come from the UN Security Council and Russia will certainly veto such a move as it did in 2014 when it blocked a French request. The path to investigating war crimes in Syria, not to mention issuing indictments and holding a trial, is fraught with legal and political constraints. It is likely that nothing will happen.
The apparent failure to stop the daily pounding of Aleppo means that the regime and its allies will eventually overrun the eastern parts of the city.”-Osama Al Sharif
France is sifting through ICC articles to find a legal way to investigate war crimes on behalf of the victims. It is also trying to see if the ICC prosecutor could intervene if individuals suspected of committing atrocities carry dual nationalities, including one of an ICC treaty member. Such efforts are unlikely to succeed in changing the behaviour of the Syrian regime or its allies, though.
International law and relevant treaties have been trampled upon by many parties involved in the Syrian conflict. But the regime’s actions stand out as the most heinous, deliberate and systematic ever since the popular uprising broke out in March 2011. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his lieutenants are accused of committing mass murder against the Syrian people through extrajudicial executions of opponents, including children, torture of tens of thousands of detainees, use of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical agents and barrel bombs, the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, the forced displacement (sectarian and ethnic cleansing) of civilians from their towns and villages, the denial of access to humanitarian aid to besieged areas and many others.
There is no shortage of evidence for the ICC to examine. UN and other international agencies have been monitoring the humanitarian situation in Syria for years. A UN commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria has confirmed at least nine intentional mass killings in the period 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases, and the opposition in one. With tens of rebel groups, including Al Qaida proxy Jabhat Al Nusra (now Al Sham Conquest Army), active all over the country, there is ample evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the opposition as well.
Iran-backed militias, including Hezbollah, have also been involved in war crimes — especially the summary execution of rebels and the forced displacement of civilians from their villages. Even the US-led coalition is accused of carrying out air strikes that hit civilians, reportedly by mistake. But such possible crimes pale in comparison to what the Russian and Syrian air force have been doing in Aleppo and other rebel-controlled areas. The indiscriminate pounding of Aleppo’s eastern district, in addition to Daraya, Idlib, Homs and Hama, the Damascus Goutas among others has left thousands of civilians dead and injured. Children and women account for at least 40 per cent of the casualties.
The international community missed an important opportunity to make the regime accountable and probably change its attitude when United States President Barack Obama walked back on his “red line” ultimatum to Al Assad in August 2012. Obama had threatened Al Assad with US military action if Damascus used chemical weapons against its own people. A year later, the regime crossed that line when it shelled rebel-controlled areas of the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, probably sarin gas, killing nearly 1,200 civilians, including more than 400 children. But instead of military retaliation, the White House blinked and sought other options.
Despite further warnings, the Al Assad regime is suspected of using chemical agents, primarily chlorine gas, against civilians on numerous occasions — the last reported incident being on September 6 in Aleppo.
Such a lack of intervention by the international community has prompted experts to warn that the Syrian precedent will “normalise” war crimes in future conflicts. That kind of normalisation and indifference to consequences have encouraged the Russians to use banned and other controversial weapons, such as napalm, phosphorus and bunker-buster bombs, in Aleppo recently.
Meanwhile, the apparent failure to stop the daily pounding of Aleppo means that the regime and its allies will eventually overrun the eastern parts of the city, but not before carrying out a massacre the world has not seen in years. Threats of war crime probes will not prevent the ongoing mass murder; a fate that also awaits other rebel-controlled areas. One wonders if the perpetrators of such crimes will ever be brought to justice. The moral weight of these crimes rests heavily on the shoulders of those who did nothing to stop them.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.