A Note on ‘Syria’s Nuremberg’

The war crimes of Syria’s conflict have been obfuscated and lied about on a vast scale and with great success, but they have never been effectively hidden.

Not hidden from those whose spells in regime prisons included torture and the possibility of execution, not hidden from those whose experience of regime bombardment was a little more than theoretical.

And not truly hidden from those abroad whose contact with events was tenuous. A migration crisis involving millions was the clue. One did not even need to turn one’s head to see it.

But all of this tacit acknowledgement of the degeneration of the regime led by Bashar al-Assad, a Mukhabarat state – a state run by secret police and military cadres, and characterised by their moods and impulses – lacks significance. Crimes are committed consistently, even constantly. But without the use of great external force, justice is harder to find, and harder still to achieve.

Here, at least, international observers can play a role, and a positive one.

Canadian reporting in recent weeks has drawn attention to one bright spot: the work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, which notes and prepares material for the prosecution those who have committed crimes in the course of Syria’s war.

The report served as a positive reminder. Work is ongoing. Evidence is being collected. The materials to hand are vast, and neatly catalogued. Surely, in such circumstances, judgement and justice cannot be far from reach. This is, sadly, an example of magic thinking.

In Syria’s war, the violence and dispossession war brings, and civil conflict requires, is inevitable. Justice is not. In conflicts of this sort, it matters little; and present circumstances suggest justice may never come about.

This prompts a question. Why any new interest in the Syrian activity of the CIJA?

The scope and mission of the commission of have been covered extensively before – in the British and American press; and circumstances are not newly propitious. But given the restatement new reporting provides, it might be useful to run through what is known and new in the CIJA’s methods, and what has changed of late.

Those changes are less in activity, it seems, and more of emphasis.

Some things ought to be noted. They are not – or not all – encouraging.

First is the near certainty, even among campaigners for bringing members of the regime to trial, that it will survive. The effort of these investigators is significant and will not cease. But if the regime does not fall, as it no longer looks at likely to do, their efforts to put Assad and his closest confederates on trial will be for nought, and the rhetoric of preparing to do so will be wasted. There will be no Nuremberg trials, nor a trip, en masse, to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But there could still be trials – perhaps of low-level regime apparatchiks stupid enough to get caught or dispensable enough to be sacrificed in the future as a sort of feeble peace offering. But more likely, those who will see the dock will be jihadist fighters – fighters for the Islamic State most notably, but also, possibly, from other groups.

This is the ancillary idea, expressed in the Globe and Mail piece, that the evidence gathered could be used to try ISIS members – especially given the unwillingness of many Western governments to repatriate ISIS fighters and the difficulty many have had in prosecuting them for crimes committed in Syria and Iraq. Many will look upon this development as a victory and a solution to a pressing concern. But the change of emphasis it demonstrates has other implications.

One must also note the increasing unease international organisations are beginning to express about their work with rebel factions in Syria.

This is due not only to of the jihadist presence in the country, but also dates from a more a priori concern. A concern about the motivations of the armed opposition which has always existed, grafted now on to a new reality.

That reality requires a sense that the fall of the regime in Damascus seems more remote than ever. It’s aided in that Syria’s rebels have been not only comprehensively abandoned by many of their former allies. The truth is that Syria’s opposition fighters and factions have also been effectively disparaged after a years-long piling up of ill-will from the regime and its supporters; propagandists of all kinds; and the long-standing, prejudicial suspicions of Western officials and functionaries. All this is known, but noting it does not remove the bitterness and injustice of the situation.

Very little of this is new but even less of it is good. The papers will continue to pile up. Evidence will continue to be gathered of crimes now considered incontrovertible. And all that work will likely be for nothing as the people who bear responsibility continue to survive and to rule, and to fight.

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