Two recent reports have confirmed that the Syrian regime committed war crimes to hasten the end of the conflict in its favor. The United Nations released the findings of its investigation into the bombings of humanitarian infrastructure in Northwest Syria and found the regime culpable of shelling hospitals and a school. In quick succession, a report by the international watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), attributed the chemical attacks in the town of Ltamaneh in March 2017 to the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAF).
The UN released the findings of its investigation and found the regime culpable of shelling hospitals and a school.
The OPCW’s report says that at 6am on March 24, 2017, three years ago, a Syrian jet took off from Shayrat airbase and dropped Sarin gas — a colorless, odorless but lethal nerve agent — on the town of Ltamaneh. The next afternoon, a cylinder packed with chlorine burst through the roof of a hospital in the same town and sickened at least 30 people. A few days later, on March 30, another plane manned by the pilots of SAF released an M4000 aerial bomb containing Sarin gas and sickened 60 more.
The use of Sarin gas and chlorine in a conflict qualifies as a war crime. But the Syrian regime carried out the operations with impunity, hitting their helpless compatriots three times in a span of a week and then again in a nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun just four days later.
The OPCW has been reporting on the use of chemical weapons through the Syrian war, including the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which claimed 80 lives, but often it stopped short of attributing responsibility. However, the recent report is based on the findings of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), especially formed by the OPCW to assign blame so the guilty party could be held accountable.
The Ltamaneh report is the first of many investigations the IIT has undertaken.
Mr Santiago Oñate-Laborde, Coordinator of OPCW’s special team, said that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the attacks were carried out by individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAF) and alluded that the chain of command in such operations goes all the way to the top. “Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command,” he said. “Even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot.”
Syria’s foreign ministry quashed the report and described it as “deceptive,” ridden with “fabricated conclusions,” and meant to “distort the truth.”
In August 2013, Russia forced the Syrian regime to destroy its chemical weapons and at least 1,300 tons were accounted for.
In August 2013, as part of an understanding with America, Russia forced the Syrian regime to destroy its chemical weapons and at least 1,300 tons were accounted for. But the attacks continued to surface indicating that the Syrian regime had maintained some stockpiles. However, backed by Russia, Basher al-Assad has repeatedly denied the use of chemical weapons and instead accused the rebels of orchestrating the attacks to win over American sympathy.
But the new report poured cold water over such “alternative” theories. As the evidence against the regime piles up, there are few buyers for its denials.
Au contraire, the regime has widely been accused of resorting to war crimes as a well-thought-out strategy to win the war. Sarin gas and chlorine reached where bombs could not and pulled the people out of their basements, terrifying them to flee their homes en masse. Their absence made it easier for the regime to carpet bomb the area. It was a matter of time before the Syrian army, under cover from the Russian planes raining fire, coerced the rebels to agree to de-escalation agreements and reclaimed lost territory. It bombed hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria to the same end.
The United Nations investigated seven such facilities and, barring one, attributed the bombing of all of the rest, five hospitals and one school, to the forces of the regime.
However, the UN’s report has courted controversy for limiting the scope of the investigation. Human rights activists monitoring the conflict have reported over 500 attacks on hospitals and the killings of over 900 medics. The report was also criticized for recommending that the Syrian regime be included in the UN’s deconfliction mechanism in the future because it is “unclear” if Russia — with whom the UN shared the locations of civilian infrastructure — passed it on to the Syrian government. The omission of Russia’s role in shelling humanitarian infrastructure has confounded the activists.
Human rights activists monitoring the conflict have reported over 500 attacks on hospitals and the killings of over 900 medics.
Humanitarians say such leeway makes room for the Syrian regime’s top echelons. In any case, Russia and China shield them at the United Nations Security Council with their veto power. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed the referral of the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court and obstructed justice for the victims of war crimes in Syria.
Nevertheless, the efforts of all those working painstakingly for the last nine years and building a case against the high-ranking Syrian officials, including President Assad, may not be in vain. The pursuit of justice may bear fruit in an upcoming trial. Though disassociated from the use of chemical weapons and dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, it rests on allegations of deploying torture as a tool to quash the rebellion.
The first trial against Syrian regime officials for committing crimes against humanity is going to be held in Germany on April 23. The two men on trial are secret service officers Anwar R., a mid-ranking official, and Eyad G. — a junior accomplice. Anwar R headed the investigations unit of Branch 251 — a dreaded intelligence unit which interrogated people in its detention center on Baghdad Street in Damascus. Thousands were tortured there while Anwar R. was in charge. Though he defected in 2012 and even represented the opposition in the talks in Geneva. The curious case of Anwar R. does present a quandary: When a state institutionalizes crimes against humanity, how responsible is the individual? Germany has its own experience with men who merely followed orders and is best suited to conduct the trial.
This trial may lead other nations to follow suit and investigate crimes committed by the Syrian regime in Syria.
Humanitarians say this trial may lead other nations to follow suit and investigate crimes committed by the Syrian regime in Syria. Germany is conducting the trial under the principle of universal jurisdiction which allows it to investigate and try foreign nationals for committing crimes against humanity in a foreign land.
Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is assisting the prosecution, described it as a “breakthrough trial,” and said that accountability for the Assad regime’s heinous atrocities is possible, “if national prosecutors and judges choose to act.”
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an NGO investigating crimes against humanity in Syria, is also hopeful that finally, they would get to present clinching evidence they have gathered over the years. Nerma Jelacic, director of external affairs at CIJA, said the upcoming trial and other such trials will demonstrate that the crimes committed against Syrian civilians by the regime were orchestrated and controlled by the top leadership of Syria, including President Assad. “Certainly, CIJA already has sufficient evidence to show his responsibility for those crimes,” she said. “When the time comes, and he is removed from power and a court is mandated to hear such cases, that evidence will still be there. And history tells us, sooner or later, that time will come.”