We Asked Experts if Syrian President Bashar Assad Will Ever Be Punished for War Crimes
The embattled strongman could eventually find exile in Russia—if he doesn't wind up before the International Criminal Court.
When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, many in the West were certain that Syrian President Bashar Assad's days in office were numbered. The assumption was he'd join the ranks of deposed dictators like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Officials in the US, the UK, and France were so sure of this outcome that they reportedly ignored a Russian proposal to have the leader step down as part of a peace deal.
Five years later, the West isn't holding its breath. "In short, US policy accepts Assad as the ruler of Syria," Mike Doran, a Middle East specialist at the Hudson Institute, wrote in an email to VICE.
But the question of Assad's final fate was raised again last week, when a German newspaper published the second half of a interview with Vladimir Putin in which the Russian president suggested it wasn't inconceivable that Assad would one day settle down in Russian territory, saying, "It was surely more difficult to grant Mr. Snowden asylum in Russia than it would be in the case of Assad."
A scenario where Assad—who is responsible for the deaths of untold thousands by way of barrel bombs, starvation, and occasional chemical warfare—walks away from his country might be hard to imagine at this juncture. It would involve either the Syrian rebels overthrowing their adversary, or him getting forced out as a result of a peace deal. Another question is whether the world—Syrians especially—could set their thirst for justice aside and accept Assad's retirement to a comfortable estate. Could he really evade prosecution for any of the war crimes committed during the conflict?
"A lot of people would be very unhappy with this," says Stanley Payne, who specializes in European political history and fascism at the University of Wisconsin. "But not all of them. Sometimes you have to simply make peace at a certain cost."
That sentiment is echoed by Mostafa Minawi, who teaches at Cornell's Department of History and has worked with Syrian refugees. When Middle Eastern tyrants are exiled after they lose power, Minawi says, sometimes people forget about them to focus on reconstructing their countries. "This has happened so many times in the region that by the time someone like Assad decides to leave, the people are just so relieved that they don't have to deal with the horrors that they don't even think about pursing justice," he says.
In Syria's case, Minawi said, seeing the end of the Assad family's rule—which started with a bloodless coup by Bashar's father Hafez Assad in 1970—would be victory enough. "They [the Assads] were experts at making you afraid of your own shadow, essentially," Minawi says. "I can't imagine anyone going, 'Oh no but wait, we have to put him on trial, otherwise we won't go for it.'"
Jens David Ohlin, an expert on international war crimes, calls the tension between justice and peace a "classic dilemma that shows up everywhere."
He describes three philosophies regarding criminal accountability. The first is instrumental: If lives can be saved by cutting a deal with a murderous autocrat, you make that deal. Ohlin says there were calls for such thinking as Liberia's Charles Taylor, convicted in 2012 to 50 years in prison for war crimes, held onto power. "There's some people who think that if there hasn't been this insistence on criminal prosecution, that he could have been convinced to end the war and give up power much earlier," he says. "And maybe thousands of people would have had their lives saved."
Another view, Ohlin says, is that the world should prosecute dictators and war criminals whenever it can. If today's strongmen notice their deposed peers facing justice, the reasoning behind deterrence goes, they may realize that there will be consequences for their own transgressions.
The third attitude toward these situations, retributivism, holds that criminals must be punished because that's the essence of justice. "You don't ask whether or not punishment is going to make the world go better or worse," Ohlin says. "You just punish wrongdoing."
But pragmatism often wins out, meaning dictators with blood on their hands never see the inside of a cell.
General Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator of Paraguay who used torture as a political tool and provided refuge for Nazi war criminals, found asylum in Brazil on the condition that he never return to politics. He died there in 2006 at the age of 93. Uganda's Idi Amin, who in the 70s oversaw the death of perhaps half a million of his countrymen, was squirreled away to a villa in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003. The same Saudi city of Jeddah is also home to Ben Ali of Tunisia, who fled there after his ouster in 2011.
For Assad to go on trial before the International Criminal Court would take action by the United Nations Security Council, since Syria never ratified the treaty that founded the ICC. But China and Russia vetoed a resolution referring Syrian war crimes to the court, and an ICC spokesperson confirmed to VICE that absent that sort of action, the ICC would remain inactive. France has launched a probe into war crimes committed by the Assad regime, but it's not clear that that will result in any prosecutions.
For now, Assad is going to stay right where he is.
Pierre is a writer and musician based in New York. His work has appeared in GlobalPost, Columbia Journalism Review, and on the radio.