For the U.S., what to call al-Assad's crimes
March 21st, 2012
01:14 AM ET

For the U.S., what to call al-Assad's crimes

By Elise Labott

With the brutal crackdown in Syria having reached a full year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is drawing comparisons to some of recent history's most brutal dictators, several of whom have been indicted as war criminals.

The words "war criminal" and "crimes against humanity" are increasingly being used to describe al-Assad and the violence against the Syrian people, most recently at the United Nations.

Francis Deng, the secretary-general's special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Edward Luck, special adviser on the responsibility to protect, found "strong and growing evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed in Syria," an assessment backed up by last month's commission of inquiry by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Yet the Obama administration has been reluctant to label the crisis in Syria as such.

Even as British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for al-Assad to be brought to trial for war crimes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it rather clear recently that she didn't see that as particularly helpful to unlocking his grip on power.

Here's what she said to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee:

"Based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category. People have been putting forth the argument. But I also think that from long experience that can complicate a resolution of a difficult, complex situation because it limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power."

As a former lawyer, Clinton was cautious to make a statement about the seriousness of the situation without drawing a legal conclusion.

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in 2004 that the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was responsible for genocide in Darfur, he did so against the advise of the administration's lawyers who weren't ready to draw that legal conclusion. With such enormous political stature, Powell was not challenged in making the assessment, which most of the world shared and ultimately led to al-Bashir's indictment at the International Criminal Court in 2009.

A determination by the United States that crimes against humanity are taking place in Syria could rally the international community to send al-Assad to the Hague. But senior U.S. officials say the administration's lukewarm attitude toward international justice in Syria stems from a series of complications ranging from the technical and legal to the practical and political:

  1. Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court. That means the ICC has no jurisdiction in Syria. Taking al-Assad to the Hague would require either a referral by the U.N. Security Council - which is next to impossible because of a probable veto by Russia and China - or a voluntary accession to the court by al-Assad himself, which is inconceivable.
  2. Chain of command is hard to prove. Even with the assumption al-Assad bears full responsibility for the violence being perpetrated against the Syrian people, a case would need to be made that al-Assad himself gave the orders and direct activity took place as a result. The difficulties of a criminal investigation that could lead to a conviction are plenty, given the current lack of access by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian and human rights groups.
  3. The conflict in Syria isn't easily defined. The terms "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" refer to specific conditions under the Geneva Conventions governing armed conflict. The situation isn't a war between states, along the lines of World War II, nor is it yet an internal armed conflict between the government and another party, like the battle in Colombia between FARC rebels and government forces. In Syria, there is not a single opposition group fighting the government forces. and it is unclear day-to-day who the "other" party is.
  4. Labeling al-Assad a war criminal could harden his resolve. The administration found in Libya that referring Moammar Gadhafi to the ICC in the midst of conflict only caused him to dig his heels in. In Yemen, the U.S. supported a deal that gave outgoing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down. The U.S., Europe and the Arab League are hoping for a similar solution in Syria, a plan which officials say an ICC referral could complicate.

"As much as advocates of international justice would like to believe there is no tension between international justice and ending a conflict, unfortunately, there often is," said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser for the administration of George W. Bush. "We try to say peace and justice go hand and hand, but often there is really a tradeoff."

For now, officials say the Obama administration is trying to illustrate its outage at the events in Syria without putting the conflict into a legal category.

Officials are calling the violence "atrocities," which has a clear political meaning, but not a legal meaning as does the term "crimes against humanity." It is not, they say, because there is no interest in seeing al-Assad in the Hague. Rather the administration wants to keep its options open to all possible solutions and does not want to box itself in. The bigger concerns are stopping the violence and getting al-Assad out of office. That, officials say, has to be the priority.

But al-Assad's exit and accountability for his actions are not enemies. Officials point to the case of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who stepped down from power but was ultimately sent to the Hague. They also note al-Assad could well be subject to "Gadhafi-style accountability," a victim of the same type of crime for which he was accused of many times over.

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Penny

    The Pelosi trip to Syria had more to do with sticking her fnegir in Bushe2€™s eye than the middle east. The message, e2€œin friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace.e2€9d was not for Syriae2€™s el-Assad but George Bush. It meant e2€˜We won and we are taking overe2€™

    July 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
  2. Potamus

    Ask the U.S. government to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians.
    http://wh.gov/IeA

    March 21, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Reply
  3. CharlieSeattle

    Lol, 4 reasons? Let me guess.

    1. Russia China
    2. Russia China
    3. Russia China
    4. Russia China

    March 21, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  4. rightospeak

    Not allowed to comment -censorship.

    March 21, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  5. strikelightning

    ii guess they are reluctant to call what is happening in syria war crimes because they've only killed 10,000 people.

    March 21, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  6. larry5

    Obama can't even classify the Ft. Hood shooting as a terror attack and Hasan as a terrorist. Obama can't even bring Hasan to trial. Many times Muslims get a pass with Obama. The fact is that Assad is a criminal and you don't need a piece of paper for proof. There's never going to be an end to Muslims killing humans or each other.

    March 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  7. Homsi

    Not clear who is the "other" party?! Please watch what is going on in Homs for 5 minutes.
    Trial of ASS-ad and the rest of the gang will be in a Syrian court in Homs.
    Finally, to the world: thanks for watching.

    March 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  8. Alex Ratz

    If Assad was indicted for War Crimes, and Crimes against Humanity, the Liberals and Conservatives would freak since they support Assad's regime. They all think that the guerrillas are "terrorists". The US govt. even supports Assad.

    March 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  9. hasselhoff1@yahoo.com

    WHO CARES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  10. Nadia

    With the recent leaks of document assad had full knowledge of all the atrocities so this article is a week to late. The internal ministry guy who handled secret documents of assad and his thugs defected with thousands of documents.

    March 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  11. david

    > 1×10^6 Iraqi killed illegally an no one held for war crimes yet.first things first!!

    March 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      David-
      Dozens of US Soldiers have been tried and convicted for commiting war crimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as we will see here soon again. Remember, or in case you weren't aware, the vast majority of killings in Iraq (over 95%) were conducted by Iraqis themselves.

      March 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • YouBetcha

      Jason – I think David, like me, would like to see Bush and Blair tried for lying to invade another country and killing thousands.

      In Nazi Germany after the war the Allies tried the LEADERS first, then the rank and file.
      So no it hasn't been dealt with. Is THAT why the US government are dragging their feet?

      March 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
    • Bintang

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      August 1, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  12. reader

    The noun is advice, not "advise"

    March 21, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  13. Steiner

    Put him in the same legal category as Abraham Lincoln.

    Both are chief executives of strong centrally controlled federal governments who brutally suppressed insurrections.

    How is Assad shelling Homs different than Lincoln burning down Atlanta and Columbia? Indeed, Assad is minor league compared to the hundreds of thousands killed at the hands of Lincoln.

    I respect every man’s right to try and overthrow his sovereign, like George Washington, and I respect every sovereign’s right to crush insurrections, like Lincoln. Fighting is integral to the human condition.

    March 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
    • Jesse

      Now that's just silly, you know America is a "do as I say, not as I do" nation. Atleast someone notices these things, thank you.

      March 21, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  14. James

    We shouldve kicked Russia's ass in WWII when we had the chance.

    March 21, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • Rus

      You are stupid

      March 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
    • Roma

      We? Zionist Jews? So, you fuckers invent communism, kill our Royal Family and it is still not enough for you. Zionists – war criminals.

      March 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
      • YouBetcha

        Pipe down, Troll!

        March 21, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
      • shrinkDave

        Please remove this post.

        March 21, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
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        May 22, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Jason

      Viva Patton!

      March 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  15. Ruys

    Sad to say this, but there's no purpose of bombing Syria as there is no economical outlook for Western companies. Lybia had an economical outlook...

    March 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  16. SILENT IS A CRIM MR OBAMA

    TOTAL BUL SH IT HE IS A KILLER, WAR CRIMINAL THUG LIKE AHMEDI NEJAD OF IRAN , THOSE THUGS AND KILLERS killed more then qatahfi USA IS A COWERED PLAYERS, RUSSIA WANT TO SALE WEAPON, USA HAS AN ELLECTION AND ONLY PICK ON A WEAKER COUNTRIES.....leaving terrorists like alasad and hizboallah , iran and the iraqi shiia killers deztroying peace.. IT A SHAME THAT OBAMA GOT THE PEACE PRISE!!! FOR WHAT? HE IS A HALF MUSLIM THUG LIKE THEM.....14, 000 women and children has been killed by bashar al kalb in syria SILENT IS A CRIME

    March 21, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
    • sdboschick

      Um, Muslim is not a race. It is a religion. But it did origionate in the middle east. ^-^ Also Jesus was arab too!

      March 21, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
      • YouBetcha

        Jesus was a Jew. He was of the bloodline of King David. Pontius Pilate had a special plaque put at the head of Jesus' Cross saying INRI – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. OK.

        March 21, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Roma

      Another uneducated north american.

      March 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  17. Gary

    Make no mistake about it, the US government will shoot American citizens who violently demonstrate against the gov't. And it appears that the gov't will also instigate violence against old men and communities that speak against it.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
    • YouBetcha

      Oh yes. Good one and so true. NDAA here we come!

      March 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  18. ray gibbs

    excellent article . thanks the clarification . more Assad & assassins.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
  19. michaelfury

    "Yet the Obama administration has been reluctant to label the crisis in Syria as such"

    http://michaelfury.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/forgive-and-forgetforget/

    March 21, 2012 at 10:46 am | Reply
  20. SSI

    ITS NOT THEMSELVES WHY OR ANY MEMBER OF THEIR FAMILY WHY SHOULD THEY CARE

    March 21, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
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    March 21, 2012 at 9:41 am | Reply
  22. The Professor

    "For now, officials say the Obama administration is trying to illustrate its outage at the events in Syria without putting the conflict into a legal category." Is it at all possible to expect that the person writing this be able to properly proof read the article before putting it to print? I am, and I can only speculate, reasonably sure Elise meant to say that the Obama adminstration is trying to illustrate its OUTRAGE and not outage at the events in Syria. More and more we seem to expect less and less of the level of writing considered acceptable on the internet but when discussing something as serious and deadly as the genocide occuring in Syria should we not at least be able to expect that a writer for CNN to be able to throughly read their own piece?

    March 21, 2012 at 9:31 am | Reply
    • WHAT WAS THAT

      Hi to the PROFESSOR , well guy do you think this would be happening if someone other than obama was behind the wheel ?

      March 21, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
    • YouBetcha

      WHATWASTHAT? – Obamas's car never got out of first gear! If there's nothing in it for HIM, or he has to make a DECISION he pulls over to the kerb and hopes it'll go away.

      He got Bin Laden because a snitch betrayed him – and the Military did the rest. He DID manage to nod "OK" before they went!

      March 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  23. Nunya

    Genocide, murder, rape, torture. These things have been going on since written history and assuredly well before that point in time even. It is up to the citizens of that country to stand up for themselves and for the soldier's in the Syrian army to stop killing their own people. America can no longer invest lives in defending people a world away with no benefit to ourselves other than appeasing the bible thumping minority in our country. The world is as it would be.

    March 21, 2012 at 8:13 am | Reply
    • YouBetcha

      You didn't mind going into Pakistan and Libya??????? You interfered by encouraging thye "Arab Spring" and look at Libys, Yemen, Egypt etc – all taken over by Muslim Brotherhood or Jihadist tyrants.

      The citizens of Syria saw Libya and thought America would support them. No way, Syria – YOU don't have OIL!

      March 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  24. Dildo Baggins

    Assad looks like a mini Hitler-all he is missing is the poopstain above his lip.

    March 21, 2012 at 6:05 am | Reply
    • Roma

      You are a psychopath.

      March 21, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  25. WHAT WAS THAT

    HOW CAN THIS GUY SMILE ?????????

    March 21, 2012 at 2:38 am | Reply
    • Dildo Baggins

      As he is dropping mortars and hellfire missiles on his people, Assad and his esteemed colleagues are at a Syrain ball getting hammered. Way to kill your own people and blame it on armed terrorist. Its ashame he makes it even worse by lying when we have satallites all over the country seeing the mayhem he's causing. Well hopefully his British wife will leave him soon so I can give her the business.

      March 21, 2012 at 6:27 am | Reply
      • Clinton

        yo baggins... just lettin you know... Syria has russian weapons... so he's not dropping Hellfire missles... those are ours. Russia makes crap... nothing as good as hellfires.

        March 21, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • SSI

      BECAUSE HE IS FN NUTS

      March 21, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
    • YouBetcha

      Easy! He knows he can do as he likes. The US wouldn't dream of stepping in because Russia is involved. And we KNOW America won't offend the 2 new Superpowers [Russia and China] You do MUCH better in smaller countries with OIL!

      March 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
      • YouBetcha

        Sorry this was for the guy who asked "How can this guy SMILE"

        March 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm |

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