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Assad’s crimes can’t be ignored

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

By Ben Cohen/

It was one of the most dramatic moments so far in the five-year civil war that has torn Syria apart.

In August 2014, a man disguised with dark glasses and a hood, and known as “Caesar,” testified before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. A former sergeant in the armed forces of the ruling regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Caesar had worked as a photographer; his principal job was to document the gruesome torture and murder of the thousands of ordinary Syrians taken into custody. As he explained matter-of-factly to the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “I had the job of taking pictures of the dead – before and after the revolution. Our work increased greatly after the revolution.”

The spectacle of cruelty and brutality that Caesar was exposed to over the course of two years would quite probably have driven most human beings insane. Not just dead bodies, but maimed bodies, bodies with their eyes gouged out, bodies emaciated from the effects of enforced hunger, bodies of men, women, and children alike. The sorts of atrocities that come naturally to a dictator like Assad, just as they did to his father, the late tyrant Hafez al-Assad.

In 2013, Caesar escaped from Syria, faking his own death and even having relatives and friends stage a funeral. He took with him 55,000 of the images he’d photographed, stored on memory sticks which he hid inside his shoes. As he told the Foreign Affairs Committee, the images were gruesome proof that Assad’s drive to retain power would lead him to kill “his own brother” if necessary. “I endangered my life by coming to the U.S., testifying before Congress in hopes for justice and appealing to the moral conscience of free Americans,” Ceasar said. “I now believe that with this bill, Congress has taken the first step toward justice and accountability in my wounded nation.”

The bill Caesar was referring to, designed to bring the perpetrators of these atrocities to justice, began making its way through the U.S. legislature two years ago, with both strong bipartisan support and backing from Syrian-American groups working to highlight the profound human cost of Assad’s war. H.R. 5732, also known as the Caesar Civilian Protection Act of 2016, in recognition of the critical role played by the provider of the evidence, passed through the House this week in a voice vote. The bill includes tough sanctions against individuals and entities associated with the Assad regime, in such vital sectors as banking, airline and energy. In addition, it would mandate the president to report to Congress on the prospects for a no-fly zone in Syria, as well as requiring the president to make available to Congress the names of Syrian regime war criminals, with an eye on future prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Now the bill needs to pass through the Senate and be signed into law by the president. There is no shortage of reasons for the importance of this legislation, foremost the assault by the Assad regime—backed by Russia and Iran—on Aleppo, where 250,000 civilians have been told they will be “annihilated” if they do not leave. In case there was any doubt as to Assad’s intentions, it’s worth pointing out that medical facilities and hospitals have been targeted at least 30 times during the regime’s all-out assault on Aleppo. Human rights groups working on Syria are hence calling on U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to push through the bill via an expedited process called “hotlining,” which bypasses committee review and allows the legislation to be introduced directly on the floor before Congress goes home for the year.

Predictably, progressive and far-left opponents of firm action on Syria are now marshaling their arguments. Some of what is being said—for example, the smear that Caesar is a confidence trickster peddling fraudulent evidence—is only to be expected from the folks who were, just more than a decade ago, defending Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in neighboring Iraq from Western pressure.

A more conventional set of objections is that the legislation would drive resources away from the fight against Islamic State, risk conflict with Russia, and threaten the survival of the nuclear deal with Iran. It’s certainly true that under President Barack Obama’s very own nose, the Russians have made enormous strides in Syria, to the point where the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is now deploying S-300 and S-400 missile batteries in defense of Assad—and Russian defense officials have made clear that they will use them.

The argument about Islamic State is specious, because Assad and his Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies have spent much time fighting other rebel groups while enabling, indirectly and sometimes even directly, the Islamic State advance. The net result of this has been to make the war even more complex and enduring, as outside powers like Turkey and Iran have used the ostensible fight against Islamic State to pursue their own agendas—in Tehran’s case, building a Shi’a crescent through the region, in Ankara’s case, waging brutal war against the Kurdish minority in both Syria and Turkey.

Yet the Assad regime remains the core of this sectarian cauldron. Its “war crimes drive ISIL (Islamic State) recruitment and hamper the rebel forces fighting ISIL,” Evan Barrett of the Washington, DC-based Syria Emergency Task Force told me.

Even so, it’s an open and vexed question as to whether Obama would sign the bill into law before he leaves office. After all, Obama backed down on taking military action against Assad out of his desire to please the Iranians—there is little to suggest that he would make a different calculation this time around. As for President-elect Donald Trump, the shape of his foreign policy remains indistinct, and we have no idea whether his desire for an alliance with Russia against Islamic State terrorists will be the final guarantee of Assad’s long-term survival.

The Senate should be urged to pass the Caesar Act as resoundingly as did the House. As Evan Barrett says, “it will demonstrate to the president elect that both parties in both chambers of Congress seek greater accountability for war crimes in Syria.” It will also send a message to those who believe that Assad is now safe from international justice that many past dictators, from Benito Mussolini to Saddam Hussein, thought that they too would go on forever. And they were wrong.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of“Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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