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:
"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.