Syrian ‘savagery’ shocks the world

Missing: With 11,000 opponents of the regime executed, many families are left grieving © PA

Evidence of widespread torture and executions by President Assad’s forces has been published just as a major peace conference starts. After such horrors, what can diplomacy achieve?

He is known only as ‘Caesar’. A former military policeman who has defected from working for the Syrian government. But the documents and photographs he smuggled out of the country may have made him one of the most important people in the deadly, protracted civil war taking place in his country.

Forensic investigators and human rights experts say they are convinced that the evidence of mass torture he provided is genuine – Caesar took the photographs of the dead himself as part of his duties ‘cataloguing’ what happened to those taken prisoner by the government. This ‘smoking gun’ could lead to war crimes charges against the regime of President Bashar al Assad.

On Tuesday a 31-page report detailing the systematic torture and execution of at least 11,000 Syrians, based on the information from Caesar, was published to reactions of shock and dismay across the world. The three London-based human rights prosecutors who put the report together said it was evidence of ‘industrial-scale killing’ and stated that Caesar, who they had subjected to detailed interviews, was a ‘compelling’ witness.

Damascus denies the abuse, and during the 38 months of ruthless killing, atrocities have certainly been witnessed on the rebel side as well. But experts said the sheer scale of the mistreatment and murder revealed in this report, together with seeing images ‘like Belsen and Auschwitz after the second world war,’ demonstrated for the first time that there was a war crimes case to answer.

Horror at the starvation, beatings, strangulation and other suffering endured by the now-dead prisoners was magnified because an important peace conference about Syria is just getting underway in Switzerland.

Iran was ‘disinvited’, so now it is the US, UK, Russia and the official opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, who will be attempting to find a way out of the bloody impasse. But with a solution described as ‘a distant prospect’ is there any point?

Peace or appeasement?

Some say no. If most of those around the table are determined to achieve Assad’s removal from power, hopes of compromise with his allies, including Russia, are far-fetched. The president has no interest in standing down. To these people, an unrealistic diplomatic process has distracted from the only decisive course of action: military intervention against the regime to prevent even more Syrians dying.

An absurd argument, others claim. We have the example of Iraq to demonstrate that Western intervention can push the death toll higher. Certainly the talks are hampered by wrangles between the participating nations. But diplomacy managed to avert a wider war in September, and achieved a limited decommissioning of the regime’s most deadly weapons. There is always time to give peace one more chance.

You Decide

  1. Do you believe that avoiding a war to topple President Assad is justified?
  2. ‘If peace talks fail, there is no plan B.’ What would you suggest to this diplomat?


  1. Write to your MP, or to the foreign secretary, with your reactions to this story.
  2. If Syria has not signed up to the International Criminal Court, what measures could be taken to pursue its government for these atrocities and others? Investigate and report back to your group.

Some People Say...

“Diplomats are just as essential to starting a war as soldiers are for finishing it.’Will Rogers”

What do you think?

Q & A

The war in Syria is just background noise.
It may seem very remote, and as if all the stories about this civil war merge into one to become a distressing piece of moving wallpaper. But the last outrage committed by the Assad regime, the use of chemical weapons, led to an international crisis, and this latest atrocity may do as well.
OK, it’s serious. But is it relevant to me?
Some intelligence agencies now believe that Syria’s internal conflict is attracting young men from other countries to fight against Assad. They are becoming devotees of radical Islam because of what they see and experience in the war, and there is a serious worry that this will be the origin of the next wave of jihadis and al Qaeda-related terrorists.

Word Watch

According to the report, ‘The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out.’
Sir Desmond de Silva, QC, the former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone; Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic; and Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.
Syria’s capital city and the seat of Assad’s government.
After an attack in a suburb of Damascus when deadly and illegal gases left civilians dead, the West threatened Assad with bombings in retaliation. David Cameron lost a vote in the House of Commons authorising military action, however, and Obama did not have the support of politicians in Washington either. Separately, the Russians put pressure on Syria and Assad agreed to let the United Nations verify that he was destroying all his stocks of chemical weapons.

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