Syria and the costs of non-intervention

Real evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes

Molhem Barakat /Reuters

One of the enduring features of the West’s myopic narcissism is our ability to believe a war doesn’t exist if we’re not involved in it.

It’s this that causes preening ninnies like the Raging Grannies to declare their desire to “stop the war” by leaving in the middle of it.

It allows reporters and television hosts who should know better to utter banalities about Afghanistan’s “12 years of war” — as if the struggle between the Taliban and its Afghan opponents was not already raging before 9/11, and won’t continue after we leave.

It permits Barack Obama to campaign on slogans such as “a decade of war is now ending,” and get re-elected rather than hooted off every stage he appears on.

Most tragically, it has contributed to a political climate in which most Western governments avoid intervening in conflicts beyond their borders.

A civil war has been destroying Syria and Syrians for more than three years. It began as a popular protest movement against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Repression beget resistance beget revolution beget bloody sectarianism.

At every stage, as the death toll grew from the hundreds to the thousands and then tens of thousands, as the numbers of displaced swelled to the millions, policy makers in Western capitals considered military intervention and decided against it.

The costs of intervention might have been high. The air defence capabilities of Assad’s regime were said to be robust. And we don’t know how Syria, or its ally Iran, might have reacted to air strikes or the establishment of a protected rebel enclave within Syria (though the fact that Syria did nothing after Israeli strikes against it suggests these fears were overblown).

Western governments were also worried about who might replace Assad. These concerns are now more valid than they were when the revolution began, as extreme Islamists among the rebels become stronger (though more moderate opposition fighters are now taking on these extremists themselves).

But there were always costs to our non-intervention, too. And now, in chilling clarity, we are faced—should we choose to look, and many won’t—with what those costs are.

A photographer for the Syrian military police was given the job of documenting the bodies of Syrians murdered in custody. He was ordered to do this to prove that execution orders had in fact been carried out. Many of the victims were starved and tortured to death. Their bodies showed signs of beatings, eye gouging, and strangulation. There were other photographers doing the same work. But this one man photographed approximately 11,000 victims himself. Then he defected with his photos.

Three former war crimes prosecutors with experience in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia have interviewed the former police photographer. Three forensics experts examined the photographs he took. They found the man credible, and believe the evidence he has compiled is legally compelling.

“The inquiry team is satisfied that upon the material it has reviewed there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by agents of the Syrian government,” they concluded in a report that can be read here.

The report was commissioned by a London law firm acting for Qatar, which supports rebel groups in Syria.

“Such evidence would support findings of crimes against humanity against the current Syrian regime,” it continues.

“Such evidence could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime.”

The report is difficult to read. The photographs it contains are painful to look at. More painful still is knowing that, in the immediate future, nothing will happen as a result.

Assad has already crossed Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. He used them against women and children. There was no punishment. And now Assad is a partner in Syria’s internationally supervised disarmament process.

There’s never been even the illusion of a “red line” on the torture and murder of prisoners. Obama proscribed gassing civilians, not strangling them. So Assad will stay. His prisons will fill. One day Syrians will topple his regime, and the strangled and starved will be avenged. But it will be despite, rather than because of us.

In the meantime, can we at least have the decency not to boast that we chose peace by staying out of Syria? An infant believes something disappears when he covers his eyes. We’ve done the same thing.

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