General Alexander Dvornikov was Vladimir Putin’s first commander in Syria and his reputation for civilian slaughter quickly earned him the infamous title ‘the Butcher of Syria” especially in crushing Aleppo in 2016.  But what does Putin’s appointment of this allegedly notorious war criminal as his supreme commander in Ukraine say about impunity in the 21st Century? President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal scorched earth military campaign to crush the 2011 peaceful uprising by the Syrian people without any real attempt to stop him by the international community especially the United States and the Europe Union is even more eloquent in showing how impunity has become the norm? Worse still the EU and the US did nothing when Russia and China vetoed in the UN Security Council an attempt to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court as Assad’s slaughter of civilians escalated as he found himself under increasing pressure from an armed revolt after he so brutally began crushing the peaceful uprising turning it into a revolution. But as in all situations when nothing is done in any way to make those accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity they commit even worse atrocities. So it came to pass in Syria and in the following year Russia intervened as President Vladimir Putin moved to save Assad and his regime which was already marked by medieval cruelty and brutality with a network of torture prisons that have few if any parallels since the Nazi death camps. Indeed, it can be argued Assad even has his own Auschwitz with Amnesty International calling his Saydnaya prison “a human slaughterhouse.”

Syria in other words uniquely illustrates the rise of impunity to the extent one is forced to ask does international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and the laws of war have any real meaning anymore?  The same question of course can be asked about Ukraine and as I have argued in a previous article on this site, the failure to even try to make Russia accountable for atrocities in Syria with the Assad regime only encouraged Putin and his forces under General Dvornikov to commit equally egregious crimes in Ukraine.  

But are we guilty of helping war criminals normalize impunity by not making impunity the first item on the global human rights agenda given that it threatens to make even the concept of human rights irrelevant? I had a kind of eureka moment at a meeting in Chatham House recently thinking about that question. The topic for discussion was appropriately enough ‘The Future of Human Rights’ and it was a special meeting to celebrate the late philanthropist Sir Joseph Hotung and his commitment and support for the promotion of human rights with an excellent panel of the highest reputation. However, it was not what the panel members said that proved so revelatory but rather that they failed to even mention impunity and its overarching importance until I raised the issue when the Q&A session began! In fairness, they thanked me for raising it and accepted my point that impunity is that important and it should be at the forefront in any discussion of human rights.  I should stress of course this article is not meant as a personal criticism of well-meaning people but as a reminder, that unless we show and express outrage and do something to demand accountability for all atrocities tens of millions if not hundreds of millions will pay a real and horrific price when they find themselves in the middle of the next war zone.

The failure so far to secure accountability for some of the most unimaginable atrocities in recent decades in Syria, and the fact that many of these same atrocities and horrific crimes are being carried out in Ukraine by the same Russian forces like the bombing of hospitals, schools, bakeries, apartment building and all civilian infrastructure in what at times looks like a naked campaign to inflict maximum civilian casualties is a chilling reminder that they believe in their impunity. Indeed, they have been right so far as Assad who has been carrying out the same atrocities since he began crushing the peaceful uprising in Syria in 2011 in addition to running torture prisons like death camps such as Saydnaya Prison which must also reassure them their atrocities in Ukraine will go unaccounted for in spite of the fact some Russian soldiers of low rank have been arrested and one of whom has been tried and convicted for the murder of a civilian. 

Putin’s newly appointed supreme commander in Ukraine General Alexander Dvornikov personifies in many ways this new age of impunity. He was rewarded for his atrocity-laden record in Syria in saving Assad being declared a “Hero of the Russian Federation” by Putin. So no surprise then as the campaign in Ukraine backfires badly the Russian autocrat again turned to the ‘Butcher of Syria’ by appointing him supreme Russian commander although he had already been active in Southern Ukraine, including Mariupol, which has witnessed many alleged war crimes with tens of thousands of civilians believed to have been killed and wounded in the taking of the city.

No surprise given the level of savagery deployed by the Russians against Mariupol that there have been many comparisons made with the way Dvornikov also reduced Aleppo to rubble in 2016 with huge civilian casualties. That campaign was marked by the targeting of hospitals, schools, bakeries, and as noted all civilian infrastructure with a view to literally erasing the city.  Indeed, at times when you look at the urban landscape in Mariupol now and Aleppo at the end of Dvornikov’s campaign of annihilation they look the same with virtually every building made uninhabitable and most only worthy of demolition.

In short, Dvornikov’s appointment is very significant not only in signaling that Putin has contempt for the notion that he will be made accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity but also in signaling that the campaign will become even bloodier in terms of the targeting of civilians.  Mind you given that targeting civilians has been the hallmark of the Russian campaign since the launch of the invasion on February 24 some might ask could it get any worse. Well, the answer given what happened in Syria is unfortunately yes. Some speculate that Dvornikov might also introduce an approach he adopted in Syria which involved using what are called “integrated forces groups.” These are a kind of hybrid Russian expeditionary corps that have been developed to help crush popular rebellions in the Middle East not only in Syria but also in Libya and across Africa and even in a pre-emptive formation in Venezuela.  These formations seek to leverage local forces and while the situation in Ukraine is very different it is one way that might make it easier for the Russians to integrate mercenaries from Syria and other places to make up extremely high losses since the invasion began on February 24.

As reports continue to emerge of Russia being desperately short of combat troops due to heavy losses and the anticipated lightning campaign turns into a long, bloody and protracted war Putin has turned to the Syrian regime and Assad in particular for help. This was confirmed again in recent days in the Guardian by the paper’s Middle East Correspondent Martin Chulov under the headline: “Syria’s barrel bomb experts in Russia to help with potential Ukraine campaign.” The article pointed out that over 50 specialists skilled in delivering these crude bombs are already working with Putin’s forces to make a similar impact as that which they achieved at home in terrorizing civilians, and reducing civilian areas to rubble, including with Dvornikov’s forces when the Russians arrived in September 2015 in Syria. However, one of the most alarming points about these Syrian barrel bomb experts is that their arrival may foreshadow the use of chemical weapons.  Barrel bombs were the primary mechanism for the delivery of chemical weapons in Syria and General Dvornikov is highly familiar with their use.  While there is no direct evidence Russia actually used chemical weapons in Syria there is evidence chemical weapons were used in the campaign to take Aleppo when Dvornikov was in command. Furthermore, Syrian regime helicopters that dropped chemical weapons on Aleppo were based at the Hmeimim Air Base, which is a Syrian airbase operated by Russia under Dvornikov when in overall command there.

Martin Chulov also pointed out and has been reported elsewhere that the Assad regime has already supplied about a thousand mercenaries and more can be expected. Not least as they receive as much as twenty times what they get working for the regime which means with the Syrian economy collapsing there is probably no shortage of volunteers and the Assad-sponsored mercenary force will expand rapidly. All the more so since the latter owes Putin for saving him which is arguably another reason to sanction the Syrian regime to prevent it from making Russia more effective in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine?

Syria and Ukraine uniquely illustrate the importance of maintaining the focus on accountability to end impunity when the same Russian forces that committed atrocities in Syria with Assad are now committing the same atrocities against the Ukrainian people. That is no small point with impunity virtually normalized in Syria where chemical weapons eventually became a weapon of choice by the regime after President Barack Obama failed to act on his now-infamous “Red Line” when over 1,500 were killed in one of the worst chemical attacks in the early hours of August 21, 2013, in Ghouta. However, it should be noted Obama made a deal with Putin making the Russians responsible for ensuring Assad did dispose of his chemical weapons which as we have seen was a risible failure! In other words, the history of Syria since 2011 is the story of impunity. The Assad regime unchecked went on to plumb the depths of depravity in its increasingly barbarous attacks on civilians, combined with medieval sieges of opposition areas as it used mass torture, disappearances, rape, and arbitrary killing on an industrial scale to erase all traces of the 2011 peaceful uprising.  

But how do we break the cycle of impunity in Syria and Ukraine?

History is being made in that regard led by Syrian human rights lawyers Anwar al-Buonni and Mazen Darwish, as we show in our award-winning documentary Bringing Assad To Justice. Anwar and Mazen were, themselves, imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime and they are now exploiting universal jurisdiction in Germany and other European countries, where it is possible to seek prosecution for crimes committed anywhere when the perpetrators are apprehended in their jurisdiction. Already one Syrian regime torture prison head of Branch 251 who was arrested in Germany Colonel Anwar Raslan has received life in prison following the first trial of a Syrian war criminal involved in the campaign of terror in crushing the peaceful uprising. This is sending a message to Assad and his henchmen that there will be accountability. However much more can be done not only to reassure Syrians of accountability but also to create the basis for a political settlement and signal to the Russians they too will face accountability not only for their crimes in Syria but more immediately in Ukraine.  One initiative that could make such a difference would be to establish a Syria war crimes tribunal to build on and not replace the amazing work being done in preparing cases in a number of European countries under universal jurisdiction.

The setting up of a Syrian war crimes tribunal at this point could make a big difference under several headings not least in serving to undermine efforts to normalize Assad and his brutal regime which is growing in such confidence that are sending mercenaries on an increasing scale to fight with Russia in Ukraine, and given their notorious record will have no problem committing war crimes. First, it could actively promote universal jurisdiction and seek to get more countries to adopt that legal mechanism so that cases against Syrian war criminals could be tried when apprehended in their jurisdictions. Second, such a tribunal could also begin systematically naming alleged war criminals in Syria, as well as Russians about whom evidence has been gathered and cases can be taken when they are apprehended. We cannot underestimate the psychological value of naming those suspected of war crimes in terms of acting as a deterrent reminding all combatants they too can face the same publicity immediately and ultimately trial in court for their alleged crimes when they are arrested. Third, a Syrian war crimes tribunal could also be used as a funding channel especially by the EU directly to states to underwrite the taking of cases under universal jurisdictions. Fourth, a Syrian war crimes tribunal could actively and publicly promote accountability to maintain the spotlight on all of those still committing crimes in Syria and signal to all combatants that the age of impunity is over, and regardless of how long it takes all of those responsible for alleged atrocities will face trial.  Finally, such a tribunal could signal to the Syrian regime there will be no reconstruction without accountability, and more than six million Syrian refugees can return safely.