Ben Taub, 22 diciembre 2016 / THE NEW YORKER
Last Thursday, as forces loyal to the Syrian government advanced through eastern Aleppo and despondent civilians there wondered whether they would be massacred, Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, stood in a sunlit courtyard in Damascus, dressed in a crisp blue suit, and compared his victory to the births of Jesus Christ and the prophet Muhammad. Just as our calendars count the years before and after those events, he explained, “I believe that we will talk about history—and not just the history of Syria but of the entire world—as before and after the liberation of Aleppo.” He rocked back and forth on his heels, waving his arms and raising his eyebrows, unable to conceal his excitement.
So, characteristically, an autocrat inflates his place in history. But, in this case, it’s worth acknowledging that Assad has a point: the significance of Aleppo’s collapse is far greater than its physical territory, its ancient history, and its former splendor. For more than four years, Western governments and the United Nations stood by, watching, as Assad and his backers ostentatiously ignored the laws of war, and residents of eastern Aleppo live-streamed their own extermination. Now, along with tens of thousands of civilians, the credibility of the powerful countries and institutions that could have helped them, but didn’t, lies in Aleppo’s rubble and blood.
Consider Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a Syrian teacher and activist, who had taken Western politicians at their word and believed that documenting human-rights abuses mattered to the international community. He stayed in Aleppo under bombardment and siege, and broadcast his thoughts on Twitter, because he thought that if the world witnessed civilians suffering in Aleppo, it would come to their aid. Last Tuesday, Alhamdo filmed what he expected to be his final message, a warning to activists living in other repressive parts of the world. “Don’t believe anymore in the United Nations,” he said. “Don’t believe anymore in the international community. Don’t think they are not satisfied with what’s going on.” He sighed, and checked his surroundings. Pro-Assad militias were closing in. “This world does not like freedom, it seems. Don’t believe that you are free people in your countries anymore. No.” There was the sound of gunfire in the background. “I hope you can remember us.”
In addition to banned munitions, Syrian and Russian aircraft spent the past few months dropping leaflets over eastern Aleppo, warning that anyone who didn’t leave the area would be “annihilated.” But there was nowhere to go, except into government-held districts, where many residents feared that they would be detained, tortured, and killed. The leaflets continued to rain down on them. “You know that everyone has given up on you,” the leaflets said. “They left you alone to face your doom.”
Now is the time to stop talking about violations of human rights in Syria, and, instead, to describe atrocities in the proper terms: war crimes and crimes against humanity, as defined, unambiguously, in the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court. A campaign of “extermination,” for example, is a crime against humanity characterized by “the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.” The U.N. spent the past five months asking the Syrian government for permission to deliver food and medical supplies to eastern Aleppo, but the request was never granted. And so the people of Aleppo starved, and shivered, because, in order not to be kicked out of Syria entirely, the U.N. only delivers aid where and when the Assad regime allows it to. Last June, when Syrians were starving to death under siege in Madaya, near Damascus, the U.N. told the Syrian government that if aid convoys were not allowed to enter the neighborhood by road, it would begin dropping aid from the air. The regime didn’t acquiesce. Still, the airdrops never happened.
Assad’s campaign in eastern Aleppo was distinguished by the near-constant commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in plain view. (Many rebel groups in Syria have also violated the laws of war, but on a vastly smaller scale.) Total war against a civilian population and infrastructure is as effective as it is illegal, and last week it prompted what has become widely known as the “evacuation” of eastern Aleppo. Even the U.N. Security Council used that term, as if the choice between death and displacement is any choice at all. In the preceding days, the U.N. had reported that pro-Assad militias were going house to house, and had executed scores of civilians, including women and children.
The legal definition for what is happening in Aleppo is forced displacement—a term that has been carefully avoided by the Security Council, which, ignoring the reality on the ground, issued a resolution this week stressing the importance of “voluntary, safe, and dignified passage of all civilians.” This crime is well established under international law. “If civilians are being told that they should leave or risk being deliberately targeted by military forces, that amounts to forcible transfer,” Alex Whiting, a former prosecutions coördinator at the I.C.C., who now teaches at Harvard Law School, told me. “The ‘force’ in forcible transfer is not limited to physical force,” he added. “It also includes threats of force or coercion, or fear of violence or duress.” On Thursday, as locals crammed into buses—even crowding into the luggage compartments—Majd Khalaf, a member of the White Helmets civilian-rescue organization, posted on Twitter, “Today, Assad and his militias won their war against civilians of #Aleppo they forced them to leave their homes in front of the whole world.”
To discredit allegations of war crimes, Syria and its ally Russia have instigated a forceful campaign of disinformation and punditry. Russian state television insinuated that activists filming in Aleppo were not actually civilians. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, appropriated the ongoing hysteria over “fake news” to apply the term to Western coverage of Syria. Meanwhile, Bashar Ja’afari, the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, recently held up a large printed photograph before the Security Council, depicting a soldier on his hands and knees, offering his back as a footstool for an elderly woman climbing out of a truck bed. “Here you see a picture of a Syrian soldier providing help and support to a woman,” Ja’afari said. “This is what the Syrian Army is doing in Aleppo.” The photo, however, had been cropped to hide an Iraqi flag. It was taken at least six months ago, likely near Fallujah.
As I have previously written, the volume and quality of court-ready evidence against high-level officials in the Syrian government is greater than has ever previously been collected in an active conflict. Still, the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over Syria, because Russia, voting no alongside China, obstructed the conflict’s referral at the U.N. Security Council, in 2014. A single country’s veto power shields all of Syria’s war criminals from justice—not just Assad and his deputies but also various rebels, including members of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The credibility of worthy institutions is at stake when they are totally incapable of adhering to their founding principles. Under the present system, to some war criminals with powerful allies, the laws of war, drafted during the bloodiest century in human history, can be brushed aside as little more than a suggestion, to be ignored, shamelessly, with impunity.
International criminal law takes into account the fact that the highest-level perpetrators are rarely present at the scene of the crime. For this reason, one of its modes of liability, known as “command responsibility,” is an assessment of whether the individual on trial knew or should have known that his subordinates were committing war crimes, and, in turn, whether he failed to prevent or punish those crimes. That will be one measure of Assad’s guilt, should he ever be brought to court. Our collective shame, having watched this horror unfold, is another matter still.