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Sheeffah Shiraz

Syria's war criminals must be held to account

Britain believes that Assad has no role in Syria's future [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 16 March, 2015

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Syrian regime forces and allied militias have committed violations of international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes. So why are US officials preparing for accommodation with Assad?

In an interview aired Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the United States will have to "negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war".

Clarifications were quickly made following the remark. 

Washington stressed its policy was "unchanged" and reiterated Britain’s stance that "Assad had no role in Syria's future".

But Kerry's comments are still alarming, as there remains concerns about the future of Syria, if Assad is not indicted.

"Not holding Assad to account over the killing of more than 200,000 individuals would represent one of the biggest setbacks in human rights progress in the past century," Syrian activist Shakeeb al-Jabri said.

"Many want accountability for their lost ones."

On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the start of the conflict, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said that the suspected war criminals in Syria will "face justice for gross violations against civilians someday."

But nothing points to the conflict ending any time soon and every diplomatic effort so far has failed.

Not holding Assad to account over the killing of more than 200,000 individuals would represent one of the biggest setbacks in human rights progress in the past century

It began in March 2011 with a few words spray-painted on a schoolyard wall: "Your turn is coming, doctor."

The doctor in question was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist whose family has ruled the country for more than 40 years.

Inspired by uprisings rippling across the Arab world, Syrians flooded the streets for largely peaceful demonstrations demanding change and political reforms.

The security services greeted them with clubs, bludgeons and bullets.

The protests persisted in the face of an escalating government crackdown before the opposition eventually took up arms, slowly turning the uprising into a voracious civil war that continues to devour the country and drag the region into its maelstrom.

Four years on, more than 220,000 people have been killed and an estimated one million wounded in a country with a pre-war population of 23 million, now with a 24-year decrease in life expectancy.

A staggering 12.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, nearly half of whom are children.

Around four million people have fled Syria, putting a massive burden on neighbouring countries taking them in, including Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Another 7.8 million people are displaced within Syria, part of an estimated 12.8 million who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Diseases eradicated years ago, such as polio, have staged a comeback as the health care system has collapsed.

Diseases eradicated years ago, such as polio, have staged a comeback as the health care system has collapsed

Forty percent of Syrians are in need of psychosocial support and there has been a surge in suicide attempts.

Many Syrians are suffering from an epidemic of mental illness, from suicidal adults to children plagued by recurring nightmares.

The conflict has set the Syrian economy back decades with infrastructure destroyed, the currency plunging 80 percent in value and half the population unemployed.

Bridges, roads, power plants, schools, hospitals, entire neighbourhoods and even towns have been destroyed.

Aleppo, once the country's largest city and its commercial capital, has been split apart and devastated by rebels and government forces.

Syria's social fabric is equally in tatters.

The country is home to a tapestry of faiths and ethnicities - Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Christians.

Before the war, the various communities by and large co-existed peacefully and even intermarried.

Now Syria is this century’s great humanitarian disaster, the number of deaths, displacement and destruction obvious examples of the impact of this ongoing tragedy.

 

Syria's war crimes, executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and indiscriminate bomb attack on civilians, including chemical weapons, clearly illustrates that the conflict has violated the international humanitarian law.

The latter protects those who do not take part in the fighting, such as civilians and medical personnel.

Yet, a report published by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), found that at least 610 medical workers had been killed and there had been over 200 attacks on medical centres throughout Syria.

The law has also banned the use of many weapons, including chemical, but throughout 2013, 2014 and into 2015, the government has made liberal use of barrel bombs, including chemical agents, "likely chlorine".

"Kerry's comments on negotiating with Assad confirm what many Syrians and observers have long suspected; that with the rise of the Islamic State group, the White House has decided to focus on what it perceives as the bigger threat, while tolerating Assad's presence," Jabri told The New Arab.

With the rise of the Islamic State group, the White House has decided to focus on what it perceives as the bigger threat, while tolerating Assad's presence

Investigators from the United Nations offered to share names from secret lists of alleged Syria war criminals with prosecutors, to help end the "culture of impunity" in the country.

The commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Syria has been compiling lists of people suspected of committing war crimes in the brutal Syrian conflict for the past four years, but kept them secret for use in future prosecution.

Amnesty International has also repeatedly called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as it believes by doing so will send a message to those committing war crimes that they "will be brought to justice."

"The UN commission of Inquiry on Syria has concluded that government forces and militias have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and gross violations of international humanitarian law," an Amnesty International spokesperson said.

"It is crucial that those who have committed human rights violations on all sides of the conflict are held accountable in order to break the cycle of endless abuse."

"Any person suspected of ordering or committing such violations should be investigated" the spokesperson added,  "This includes political leaders such as Bashar al-Assad."

Jabri believes that Kerry's remark sends a dangerous signal to the world, where belligerent parties can create a problem and present themselves as the solution. 

"Many refugees will not trust a solution that leaves Assad's regime in power," Jabri said. "I've heard many in Turkey and Lebanon say that they will not return under any circumstances where they feel unprotected."

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