Syria needs a special tribunal and the promise of justice if it is ever to move forward

Establishing such a body is a task of monumental challenges, but one that has precedent and that can be achieved

Syrians gather at the site of a reported air strike on the town of Maaret al-Numan in the jihadist-held Idlib province on June 3, 2019.  / AFP / Abdulaziz KETAZ
Powered by automated translation

The outrages in Syria continue. The ongoing government offensive, backed by Russia, on Idlib has so far claimed the lives of 61 children, 11 of whom were killed while attending school. In total, more than 1,000 people have been killed since April 30, when a campaign to reclaim the province began.

More than 300,000 have been driven from their homes, government forces have burned crops and shelled camps for the displaced, and hospitals have been repeatedly bombed, further squeezing the 3 million people trapped in the province.

Bashar Al Assad, with the support of the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias, such as Hezbollah, has reclaimed much of the war-ravaged country. Not so long ago, his rule was on the edge of collapse, but now he is ebullient and has momentum. The regime is inching closer towards a military victory, one war crime after another.

Syria’s uprising has failed and, with half a million dead and half the country’s population displaced, it is clear that the primary victims were, and continue to be, ordinary civilians. Tens of thousands still languish in the Assad regime’s dungeons, their fates unknown. Many who have returned, hoping to resume their lives back home after rejection from European nations, have been arrested and disappeared, a signal that the regime is unwilling to offer even the appearance of reform.

Nobody has been held accountable for this; or the hundreds of babies killed in the infamous 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta; or for the systematic targeting of civilians with barrel bombs; or for the use of sieges as a weapon of war by the government and rebels; or for the tortured existence of those who lived under ISIS rule.

One frequent chant employed by Syrians protesting the savagery to which they have been subjected was “Malna gheirak ya Allah” (Nobody is with us except you, God). Implicit in it is a belief that it is pointless to hope for redemption from a callous world, that justice would only be served on the Day of Judgment.

But there must be justice in this life, too. As it did in Nuremberg, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, the international community should consider establishing a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. Its job would be to put on trial those who ordered outrages carried out by the government and its allies, by the opposition, or by terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. It is a task of monumental challenges, but one that has precedent and can be managed.

Russia has wielded its veto in the Security Council to shield Bashar Al Assad from accountability time and time again. Such a court would take years to prepare indictments, hold trials and bring the perpetrators to justice, if ever. It would face charges of politicisation and be denied access to key witnesses and facilities, and it would likely have a limited mandate, barred from investigating war crimes committed by Russia’s air force or the US in Raqqa.

And yet, a special tribunal for Syria may be the only way out of the morass. The International Criminal Court (ICC) will be forever tarnished by the limits of its authority, which have restricted it mostly to the prosecution of crimes committed in African countries that voluntarily joined it. The US, under President Trump, has also said it will not co-operate with the court.

Russia is eager to have other countries shoulder the cost of reconstruction in Syria, a country it helped ravage. Its economy cannot bear the burden. If aid is tied to the establishment of an impartial tribunal with a limited mandate, it may be persuaded to co-operate, particularly if such a deal is sweetened by the partial or full lifting of European and American sanctions. After all, Serbia’s co-operation with the Yugoslavia tribunal was aided by the ultimatum that the arrest of war criminals was a prerequisite to joining the EU. Such an agreement could be an entry point for a rapprochement with Moscow.

The work of such a court would also be aided by two other things. First, Syria is the most well-documented conflict in modern history. Hundreds of activists and journalists risked their lives or lost them to catalogue its horrors. Reams of data are available to UN investigators. Evidence of the mass killing of detainees, documented with numbers, has been smuggled out, among it the horrific Caesar photographs.

Second, the investigations could build upon the work of respected agencies, such as the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry for Syria, which has continued to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country since its establishment, as well as that of temporary organisations such as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, which studied chemical weapons attacks.

The West has a responsibility to back an effort to bring justice to the victims of the war, its last chance to reclaim some semblance of decency in its Syria policy. The US, under President Barack Obama, stood aside as hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were made refugees, as chemical weapons red lines were crossed, and as the fabric of the international community was destroyed. The Security Council, an institution tasked with maintaining international peace and security and with a responsibility to protect civilians, has become an arena of political theatre.

The West has almost no leverage in Syria, with Moscow, Tehran and Ankara holding the cards on the ground. The only hand it has to play is that of reconstruction aid, of which up to $400 billion will be needed after the war, and the promise of an end to Russia and Syria’s pariah status.

The EU has tied this aid to a nebulous political solution to the conflict. But, as Idlib and the broader post-conflict consolidation has shown, the regime has little interest in dialogue, especially now that victory is within its grasp.

Instead of a stillborn peace process, the West should tie reconstruction aid to the creation of the special tribunal. Such a step would send the message that there is still the prospect of justice in this world for Syrians, that they will be able to tell their stories in court, that perhaps their tormentors will be held accountable, and the international community may yet recover a shred of its moral authority.

There have been some halting efforts to bring justice. In recent months, German authorities said they had arrested two individuals accused of complicity in the torture of activists in detention. Universal jurisdiction is another tool that could be deployed.

But something more systematic is needed. Perhaps, just this once, Syrians should not be made to wait for divine retribution.