France to investigate crimes against humanity in Syria
BEIRUT - French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius linked Paris’s recent decision to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime with the need to react to “crimes that offend the human conscience”.
The French move is also seen to be politically motivated as Paris seeks to strengthen its hand in Syria should the Russians and some Western countries try to grant Assad’s regime a role in the future of the country.
Fabius said that graphic evidence provided by a photographer of the Syrian military police, known for security reasons as “Caesar”, indicated that thousands of Syrians had been tortured to death, some with their eyes gouged out and “others starved to death in the prisons of the regime”.
This “demonstrates the systematic cruelty of the Assad regime… It is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the killers,” he said.
“Caesar” defected in July 2013 with some 55,000 photos. The French Foreign Ministry studied the pictures and forwarded information to Paris prosecutors, allowing for the opening of an investigation.
From a French viewpoint, the decision to investigate alleged crimes against humanity in Syria is seen as a reminder that Assad cannot — for moral reasons — be a partner either in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) or as part of any diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, in which more than 240,000 people have been killed, millions displaced and which triggered mass exodus of Syrian refugees.
For Thomas Pierret, a French lecturer in contemporary Islam and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh, the investigation is “a way to counter the evolution by some Western countries towards the idea of a rapprochement with Assad”.
“The crimes against humanity probe is a trump card that allows France to try to spoil attempts to rehabilitate Assad,” Pierret noted.
And, indeed, as the judicial move against Assad was made public, French President François Hollande was at the United Nations saying that the Syrian president had to go.
The investigation also aims to silence internal criticism on France’s stand regarding the Syrian president. Voices on the right and left of the French political spectrum are calling for cooperation with Assad against ISIS to fight terrorist threats at home and stop the influx of Syrian refugees.
Critics say air strikes by the US-led alliance are not enough to defeat ISIS, adding that victory can only be achieved by troops in the field, specifically the Syrian Army and its allies.
France’s fears of seeing Assad stay in power were enhanced by Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which will make it hard, according to French analysts, to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Pierret echoed those fears. “The Russian intervention might very well make any negotiated settlement useless as a strong Assad won’t feel the need to reach a compromise and impossible as Russians are focusing on moderate rebel groups with the aim of destroying them, a prospect that will leave [us] without any credible partner to negotiate with,” he said.
And, indeed, rather than bombing exclusively ISIS positions — as the US-led coalition would want them to do — Russian warplanes are targeting “moderate” rebel groups.
French fears are not shared by Syrian sources in Damascus, who acknowledge privately that the Russians know that, despite their intervention, Assad’s army and the various Shia Hezbollah, Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan militias cannot regain full control of all of the Syrian territory and that negotiations will have to take place.
Russia’s goal is to strengthen the regime’s grip on territory dubbed the “useful Syria” — the Mediterranean coast, including the port cities of Latakia and Tartus and the Alawite hinterland, Homs and Hama in central Syria and Damascus with its outskirts.
The military escalation in Syria coincides with a plan by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to revive diplomatic talks between the regime and the opposition. De Mistura, whose plan has been endorsed by the UN Security Council, is to set four working groups that would tackle the humanitarian needs of the population, political and constitutional reform, military issues and reconstruction.
The end result of such inter-Syrian talks would be endorsed by the Security Council as the basis of an agreement, paving the way for a new peace conference on Syria.
Pierret, unconvinced, said: “What Putin is doing in Chechnya since the end of the ‘90s gives us a pretty good idea on the type of ‘reforms’ he is envisioning for Syria, which is a scenario that would have Assad’s regime negotiate and reconcile with himself .”