France to investigate crimes against humanity in Syria

Friday 09/10/2015
Trump card

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 .”