SYRIA: HUMAN RIGHTS WHEN NEEDED
In 2014, a man called “Caesar” goes to Washington and meets the Republican senator John McCain and the former US ambassador at the United Nations Samantha Power.
“Caesar”, who still uses this pseudonym to avoid reprisals against his family, is a former Syrian military photographer. His job was to shoot pictures of the people who died during detention in Syrian camps and prisons. Every corpse was cataloged, photographed and assigned a number for reference. Some of the corpses in his pictures show evident signs of torture, while others had evidently died of want and famine. They were photographed, assigned a convenient cause of death, archived and buried in mass graves, unbeknownst to their families. Detention without rules, trials without appeals, extorted confessions and unlimited death sentences were the rule of law in Syria. All one needed to be arrested and made to disappear was a tip off or a slight suspicion.
Caesar escaped from Syria in 2013 carrying a photographic archive comprised of 27.000 photographs, including pictures depicting dead minors. Cutaneous wounds, signs of burns from electroshock, enucleation of the eyes, signs of strangulation, fractured limbs, bullet holes and finishing wounds on the nape, lacerated abdomens, signs of chemical burns on the skin and of whipping: a long list of brutalities supported by irrefutable evidence.
Caesar, who was aided in fleeing the country by the opposition,
was tasked with showing to the world the genocide of the Syrian
population on the part of Bashar al Assad’s bloodthirsty regime.
Unfortunately, the world seemed to look elsewhere.
In Washington, Caesar underwent a closed-door interview by the US Committee on Foreign Affairs. The audition was in the presence of the Committee’s chairman Ed Royce, its 30 members and several representatives of human rights organizations. Former prosecutor David Crane, who was the first to write about the photographs, was also there. All of the people present asked questions, looked at the evidence and became aware of the facts. They even drew a parallelism with the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis during the second world war.
Caesar was especially supported by a US senator whom, during his experience in the Vietnam war, suffered over six years of torture and abuse: John Sydney McCain. Then-President Obama, on the other hand, refused to meet him.
The reason for the refusal was the 2014 situation on the ground: The ISIS was growing strong; they had conquered Mosul and represented the single greatest danger in the spread of terror and the destabilization of the Middle East. The US President of the time knew full well that the fall of the Syrian regime could boost the expansion of the ISIS. Obama had not forgotten the events that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and that of Gheddafi’s in Libya. He did not wish to repeat the same mistake in Syria.
He was, of course, well aware of the brutality of Bashar al Assad, but preferred not to raise the issue. He chose to protect the USA’s military interests over the respect of human rights.
Caesar also met with the FBI, which had already received copies of his photographs. If the US could find, among the pictures, a person with a US passport or someone related to a US citizen, they could have brought the issue to the International Criminal Court. The FBI, however, refused to offer their help both in identifying the individuals depicted in the photographs and in using the Bureau’s database. They did admit, however, that the photographs were authentic, but they did so after a year’s time (to put these events in their context, at the time the US were negotiating a nuclear treaty with Iran and raising human rights issues could have compromised such negotiations, since Iran, together with Russia, was one of Syria’s staunchest allies).
Caesar (in the blue hood) in front of the Congress Foreign Committee
France raises an eyebrow
Unlike the reluctant and embarrassed Americans, the French government, intellectuals and public opinion reacted to Assad’s brutalities. On top of that, Amnesty International published witness accounts confirming Caesar’s photographic evidence. The former French ambassador in Damascus, Eric Chevalier, a witness of the Hama killings, also managed to meet the Syrian photographer. The various departments of the French foreign ministry were mobilized and a report for the UN Security Council was drafted. The 15 members of the Council were shown the pictures and France demanded that the case be brought to the International Criminal Court. However, an International Criminal Court proceeding would have required an authorization by the UN Security Council if the country involved – as is the case with Syria – is not a signatory of the Rome Statute (the treaty that establishes the ICC).
The other nations look the other way
As expected, the Russians and Chinese refused to participate. The former to save their Mid-Eastern ally from facing a trial; the latter to respect a so-called principle of non-interference with the internal affairs of other nations. France attempted to convince Russia by including the crimes of the Syrian opposition’s armed forces in the report but on June 22, 2014, the Security Council rejected the French proposal: 13 favorable votes against 2, Russia and China, of course.
The periodic reports of a special investigative commission on Syria created in 2011 by the High Commissioner for Human Rights were not sufficient to form an international front against a form of genocide that is ongoing in Syria as we speak. Even the well-documented accusations that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against the rebels met deaf ears.
The other witnesses
Is Caesar’s account the only valid testimony of the Syrian regime’s misdeeds? In fact, no. The witness accounts gathered in time are many but Caesar, unlike the others, has photographs to prove his claims. But there is also another individual who experienced various Syrian prisons during his 13 years of captivity and who decided to tell his experience in a book (“The shell”). His name is Mustafa Khalifa and he was arrested while returning home from France, where he was living, because of a tip off. Khalifa, who now lives in exile, was not only a witness to the horrors of the Syrian lagers but also a direct victim of the regime’s tortures. During his captivity, he experienced mock trials, uncured epidemics, malnutrition, continuous abuses and executions. He was contacted and interviewed by various organizations and by French authorities before his case was swept under the rug by countries that do not want to see or hear what goes on in Syria.
But on May 15 this year, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, Stuart Jones, during a press conference, denounced the construction of a crematorium in the military prison of Saydnaya, near Damascus. A huge prison that was already the object of a specific report by Amnesty International. Photographs of this new structure were shown, genocidal aims evoked; again many made the parallel with the crematoriums of the Nazis.
first question that springs to mind is whether or not the evidence
produced by the US Department of State is more irrefutable than
the accounts offered by Caesar, Mustafa Khalifa and the other
witnesses of the regime’s misdeeds since 2011. It is quite clear
that the DoS report confirms the validity of the previous
The reaction of the Syrian regime to the publication of the photographs is another indicator that the accounts are true.
Seen that keeping archives of the deaths of detainees is a high-risk endeavor (especially if these are then shown abroad); seen that the number of these deaths, weather through torture or hanging, continues to grow (Amnesty International claims that since 2011, in the Saydnaya prison alone, roughly 15.000 individuals have died), the regime has probably adopted a more cautious approach: no more archives, no more mass graves, only crematory ovens that leave no traces.
It is paradoxical that the aim of Caesar and Mustafa Khalifa in making their stories public was to stop the violence perpetrated by the regime. The effort produced the opposite result: a more functional way of getting rid of thousands of corpses.
Now that the ISIS militias are nearing defeat, only now, do the US find the systematic violations of human rights by the Syrian regime interesting. Not because Obama, then-president and Nobel-prize winner, stepped down and was replaced by Donald Trump, but because the situation on the ground has changed.
new Middle-eastern theater
Once the ISIS is defeated, the new problem in the stabilization of the Middle East is connected to the survival or defeat of the Syrian regime. Until May 15, world media spoke solely of the brutality of Al Baghdadi’s militia, now they speak of the regime’s brutality as well. Both contenders have used violations of human rights extensively. The only difference is that the ISIS was willing to publicize the circumstance to scare their enemies while the Syrian regime tried to hide such violations. Notwithstanding, the brutality of one side matched the other’s both in quantity and quality.
It is also worth noting that the accusations by the US come at the eve of the Geneva negotiations, which are already conditioned by the Astana talks, where Russia took the upper hand. Perhaps the aim of the US is to influence the negotiations. Clearly, if Assads regime remains in power, the traces of these violations will be wiped away forever, save for the witness accounts of the few, lucky, individuals that survived the regime’s lagers. Whether or not the prison of Saydnaya is using a crematory oven to get rid of the bodies (the regime said that the US claim is “Hollywood-like”) is not that important after all.
After five long years of bloody civil war, if the Syrian regime is allowed to remain at the helm, the complete genocide of the opposition is likely to go on stage.
The most striking element in all of this is that the violations of human rights are emphasized or ignored according to an opportunistic agenda. Caesar, Mustapha Khalifa, the 80 witnesses produced by Amnesty International and the NGO reports that systematically denounced abuses have become a political instrument that ignores the suffering of many poor souls.
Extrajudicial executions; inhumane conditions in crowded cells, mostly underground; mock trials; roughly 50 executions per day; all of it becomes either important or is forgotten and the victims are but a number. It is rumored that the crematoriums were functioning since 2013. Then why did the US authorities decide not to disclose their existence until May 2017?
Assad was useful then; now he is made to be a twenty-first century Hitler.
Definitely a striking case of truth manipulation.