Watching the horrors unfold in Ukraine, which are currently being replayed every day on our TV screens, I was struck by the similarities with Syria. At the heart of both conflicts lies Vladimir Putin, a man rightly seen to be a war criminal by the international community. Russia’s decisive intervention in 2015 to prop up the failing dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad is being repaid by the Syrian President, who is sending mercenaries to help his stalled Russian ally in Ukraine. Both conflicts are merging into a single, joint war crime. While in Syria, the atrocities may not now be at the same intensity as they once were, what we are witnessing in Ukraine is a dramatic escalation, similar to an earlier phase in the Syrian conflict when Russian forces carried out the complete destruction of the historic city of Aleppo. Russian generals in Ukraine, no doubt under severe pressure from Putin, are becoming ever more desperate as they face mounting logistical problems, low morale, and escalating financial costs, responding with even worse levels of brutality and contempt towards civilians with each passing day as they try to break the Ukrainian resistance.
Russia, it seems, is simply taking a leaf from the Syrian playbook, applying tactics it had ample chance to perfect in the Syrian conflict with the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure, including the bombing of schools, hospitals, and bakeries, reducing the entire country to rubble, in an effort to break the resistance and make all forms of human life impossible. Mariupol already resembles Aleppo. Even more chilling is the fact that chemical weapons, which played a crucial role in breaking the resistance in Aleppo, killing as many as 30,000 Syrian civilians, may be employed by Putin in Ukraine, invoking a Guernica-like image of the worst crimes perpetrated against civilians in modern wars.
While recent reports suggest that Putin may be reducing the scale of his ambitions in Ukraine because of the impressive resistance put up by the Ukrainian people, Russian forces continue to act with complete impunity, carrying out mounting evidence of atrocities in the belief that they will not be held accountable for their many war crimes. This is in spite of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opening an investigation, in a motion supported by over thirty countries, to investigate the possible commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by Russian forces in Ukraine.
Even among the many Syrians I met in Istanbul for our documentary, ‘Bringing Assad To Justice,’ who had survived unspeakable torture and fled the worst of the Syrian regime’s brutality, there was little hope of Putin being brought to justice. This is hardly surprising. If there is no punishment for Assad for committing some of the worst horrors of our time in Syria, then how can we also expect Putin to be held to account?
On the day of the last screening of our documentary at a special showing at the Harmoon centre in the Turkish city of Istanbul, only a few hundred kilometers from Mariupol which was being horrifically pounded by Russian forces, we woke up to read with dismay that Bashar al-Assad was raising a mercenary army to help the stalled Russian army in Ukraine, as if to underline the Syrian leader’s total belief in his own impunity. This on the same day that Assad was given a warm welcome to the UAE by the head of state, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan – Assad’s first foreign visit to an Arab country since he was isolated by the international community for gunning down peaceful protesters in 2011, crushing Syria’s peaceful uprising and maintaining a reign of terror ever since.
The key point here is that the normalisation of Assad offers yet only more reassurance to Russian generals who have committed atrocities in Syria and are now doing the same in Ukraine. These Russian military leaders may well believe that while the EU and western leaders, like President Biden, might talk about war crimes and accountability, and even call Putin a war criminal, in the end, they will do nothing to secure justice for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Ukrainian victims. The United States failed to impose sanctions on the UAE, a leading Gulf ally, for rushing to normalize relations with Assad, and is now effectively endorsing Assad’s rehabilitation into the international community, despite the Syrian dictator’s complicity in raising mercenary forces for Russia – not to mention Assad’s own mass atrocities in Syria, including running a network of torture prisons without parallel in the Middle East in which tens of thousands of people have already perished.
All of which serves to underline the fact that it is incredibly important that some effort is made immediately to establish an international criminal tribunal to prosecute those responsible for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, in order to send an unequivocal message to Russian commanders that accountability is inevitable. Putin has already saved Assad from facing justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC) when he vetoed the Syria’s referral to the ICC at the UN Security Council. That was only possible because neither Russia nor Syria have ratified the statute or treaty setting up the ICC. However, the EU and US should not have let that stand in the way, and should have worked to create an international criminal tribunal on Syria. Had that been done and vigorously supported, most agree we would not now be facing another virtual holocaust in Ukraine after Syria.
Legally, the creation of an international tribunal on Syria would be more than symbolic and would result in real prosecutions given that, as we show in our documentary, the amount of evidence gathered on Syria is “more than the Allies had at Nuremberg.” But the real value of a tribunal on Syria at this moment in time would be to send a clear and unequivocal message to Russian generals and Putin that there will be accountability for all of the war crimes committed in Ukraine, with a view to saving lives now. Ending impunity is not merely an academic exercise. If dictators and military commanders believe there will be accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity it will make them stop and reflect on the consequences of their actions. If we achieve that, we will save many lives in Ukraine now, and help to achieve justice and accountability for the many Syrians who have been working for so long and so hard for this, often at great risk to their own personal security.