Assad’s War on the Syrian People: A Call for Justice | Newsweek

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis & Adelle Nazarian

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—along with his Russian and Iranian backers—is responsible for the greatest human rights atrocity since World War II. History has shown us the ugly face of genocide time and again, from the Holocaust through similar events in Cambodia, Rwanda and most recently China’s Xinjiang province.

At Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, it is our mission to see the end of the genocide that has ravaged Syria and to ensure accountability for these crimes. There must be a renewed focus on Assad’s crimes against humanity. Last week, former United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues Stephen Rapp did a tremendous service to the Syrian people when he went on the record on CBS 60 Minutes to note that there is even more evidence of war crimes against President Assad than was used to convict the Nazi regime at the Nuremberg trials.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy has stifled progress in Syria, and allowed the continued suffering of the Syrian people. While we appreciate the efforts of Rapp and others, Assad’s numerous other crimes against humanity require similar and greater attention. The only way to achieve this is if President Joe Biden appoints a team specifically focused on Syria. This will help emphasize and expedite accountability for the Syrian government’s crimes.

From the mass killings of Syrian civilians—many of them children—to providing citizenship to foreign militias that help embolden Assad and his family’s seemingly endless thirst for power through destruction, it is clear that the Syrian people will not see justice or peace until the Assad name goes down in history as “never again,” or as nothing more than a mere whisper of a time that was.

The first victims of the Assad government are the Syrian people. In January 2014, the United Nations announced that it had stopped counting the death toll in Syria. Rupert Colville of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights told NBC News that “gathering casualty figures in Syria has always been an exceptionally difficult exercise” but that “the figure we continue to use is ‘more than 100,000.” It is believed that there are well over 1 million casualties in Assad’s war against his own people, and that number is only increasing.

One of the most egregious forms of war on the Syrian people is chemical weapons. The Assad government is well documented as having used sarin and chlorine gas against civilians. The Syrian American Medical Society and the Syrian Civil Defense have documented some 200 uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012. The United Nations Security Council has passed resolutions on this matter, but has failed to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. Another hallmark of this genocide is the use of barrel bombs as a preferred weapon to bomb hospitals, markets, schools and humanitarian convoys. Assad’s government has also arrested and tortured medical staff and personnel. In 2017 alone, at least 120 hospitals and other medical facilities were bombed by Assad’s forces and their Russian allies.

Assad’s forces have targeted doctors, nurses and other health care personnel to deprive civilians and those opposed to Assad of critical medical aid. Physicians for Human Rights has documented and mapped at least 583 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities from March 2011 through August 2019; 266 of them took place after Russia intervened in September 2015.

anti-Assad protest
A boy holds a placard with a crossed-over image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on August 8, 2012 outside the Russian embassy in Stockholm, during a demonstration by hundreds of protesters against Russian support for… MoreFREDRIK SANDBERG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Perhaps the most wrenching aspect of this atrocity is the fact that the Assad government has murdered more than 29,000 children since 2011 through chemical attacks, malnutrition and shortages of medicine in areas that were bombed and besieged by the government. The true number is likely much higher, although the UN’s decision to stop counting deaths in Syria in January 2014 has made it challenging to know it for certain. That the horrific torture tactics used on adults and youth have not placed Assad before the International Criminal Court is a travesty.

Syria is also considered the most dangerous place in the world for journalists and is known for its egregious treatment of detainees. The United States’s Caesar Act was born from the bravery of a Syrian military police photographer, codenamed “Caesar,” who in January 2014 published images that showed for the first time clear evidence of the systematic torture and killing of about 11,000 detainees in conditions that evoked Nazi death camps. At least 14,000 Syrians—including children—have been documented as tortured to death in Syrian prisons since 2011 according to an October 2019 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The routine and vile torture and mistreatment of prisoners in Assad’s prisons remains a pressing humanitarian issue that requires immediate remedy.

One major form of Assad’s control and manipulation is the use of hunger as a weapon against the Syrian people. The Assad government has used the intentional starvation of tens of millions of Syrian civilians as a means of punishing opponents and rewarding those loyal to the president. The Assad government repeatedly blockades incoming supplies in besieged areas. Most notably, in September 2018, over 80 percent of the UN’s Syrian convoys were blocked or delayed, denying essential supplies to millions in some of the country’s hardest-hit areas. This has forced many to flee the country they wish to once again call home.

Syria has the world’s biggest population of internally displaced persons. While some estimates suggest 6.2 million are internally displaced in Syria, it is believed that number is closer to 12 million, with the largest concentration in the northwestern part of the country. While the 1951 Refugee Convention indicates that states are obligated to provide treatment for refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, no legal case has been made for internally displaced persons. Displaced Syrians face harsh winter weather, COVID-19 complications and a lack of access to basic necessities like water, food and electricity. And as the Syrian population continues to dwindle, the Assad government granted citizenship to Iranian fighters in the southern part of the country.

A report by the Middle East Media Research Institute revealed that up to tens of thousands of Iranians, including members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Iran-backed militias like Hezbollah, have been naturalized as Syrian citizens. The MEMRI report explained that “systematic action by the regime to settle Iranians throughout Syria” serves two purposes: to conceal the presence of fighters and to change the demographics of the country. Any attempts to report this and other truths that damage Assad’s image are quickly cut short within Syria. And several Americans have had their lives cut short, or have gone missing, as a result.

Unidentified armed men kidnapped American journalist Austin Tice on August 14, 2012, in Darayya, Syria. Assad’s government forces detained Layla Shwekani, a Syrian-American humanitarian activist, in Saydnaya Military Prison that same year. Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American psychologist who was treating refugees, disappeared in Mezzeh, a suburb of Damascus, in February 2017. Marie Colvin, a journalist, was executed with an “improvised explosive device filled with nails” on February 22, 2012, hours after she told CNN‘s Anderson Cooper that it was “a complete and utter lie” that Assad’s militias were “only going after terrorists” and that “the Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”

Until Assad is held accountable for these crimes, the Syrian people will continue to suffer. It’s up to the Biden administration to show leadership in ensuring future accountability for the Assad regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. As the leader of the free world, it’s America’s burden to carry and reward to reap. Humanity must prevail over politics.

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis is the president of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting democracy in Syria so that its citizens may have the opportunity to live in a free, fair and prosperous country. The organization believes that an open and democratic Syria will also lead to a safer, more secure America. Adelle Nazarian is the communications director of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.