The pictures are horrific, the torture details revolting, the numbers terrifying. And the integrity of the three former prosecutors who have effectively accused the Syrian government of war crimes with their report published this week, is without blemish. Shrivelled, blood-spattered corpses provide unstoppable evidence of regime cruelty – just as the videotapes of Syrian rebel executions tell us what kind of Syria may soon exist if the insurrection against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad succeeds.
Everyone knows that the Assad regime – from father Hafez onwards – has employed torture and executions to preserve the doubtful purity of the Baath party. So why not, indeed, talk of war crimes? Well, let’s just remember that the 11,000 prisoners reportedly done to death by the Syrian regime is only just over half the total number of Syrians – 20,000 – reportedly killed by Hafez’s brother’s troops in the besieged Syrian city of Hama in 1982.
So how come we are not demanding war crimes trials for those responsible for that even greater massacre? Could it be that we have just forgotten this even more terrible massacre? Or could it be that we don’t have the inclination to pursue that particular bloodbath?
No, that’s not to say that the evidence from the Qatar-funded report – and we shall come to the matter of Qatar shortly – is not true. But we should be asking a lot more questions than we have been asking about this portrait gallery of pain, unleashed only hours before an the international conference in Switzerland which begins Wednesday in which we in the West – but perhaps not Qatar – hope to end the civil war in Syria.
How long, for example, have the Qatari authorities been in possession of this terrible eye-witness material? A couple of weeks, just enough time to rustle up the lawyers for the prosecution? Or a couple of months? Or six months? And, more to the point, why now? For it would be difficult to imagine a better way for Qatar – whose royal family viscerally hates Bashar al-Assad – to destroy his hopes of a future role in Syria, even in a ‘transitional’ Syrian government, than by releasing these snapshots of terror just before the Swiss talks.
Indeed, one is reminded – in terms of political purpose rather than historical parallel, of course – of Nazi Germany’s disclosure of the mass graves of 22,000 Polish officers and civilians murdered by the Soviet secret police in 1940 at Katyn, in that part of Russia newly occupied by German troops. The Nazis claimed the Soviets were responsible – in the hope that this would divide Stalin’s alliance with America and Britain. The Allies denounced the Nazis for the massacre – although it was indeed committed by the Soviets. Does Qatar now hope to divide Syria’s alliance with Russia and Iran with similar evidence of Syrian government mass murder?
There are other questions to ask, of course. How on earth did the Syrian police operative who brought the incriminating photographs out of Syria, acquire the code-name ‘Caesar’. True, the real Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and set the Empire on the path to civil war. But who called him ‘Caesar’? And why? The real Caesar – a moment of incongruity here – was stabbed to death in the Roman senate, an act which led directly to the execution of Cicero – which was the codename of Nazi Germany’s top spy in Istanbul, the top Middle East espionage centre in World War Two.
But seriously… How come Qatar’s brilliant plaything, al-Jazeera – the Arab satellite channel to beat them all – didn’t get the exclusive on the Syrian execution report? I’m told that al-Jazeera didn’t even get advance warning of the revelations, which were handled by a lawyer acting for the Qatari authorities in London.
The involvement of solicitors Carter Ruck – may their name be praised, as every journalist would say at once – may seem quite obvious, but how come the Qataris didn’t involve the obvious NGOs in such disclosures. Human Rights Watch, it turned out, knew nothing about the photographs – had not even time to identify them – and Amnesty International fared no better. If you really want to point the finger at a dictator, why not bring in the heavy guns of HRW and Amnesty?
And Bashar’s reaction so far? Zilch. His delegation in Switzerland can sit down to chat about the need to destroy ‘terrorism’ and offer a few local ceasefires, humanitarian supply convoys and prisoner releases to mark time. The regime’s enemies can parade those terrifying pictures which Qatar has made available. But war and peace in Syria will not be decided by this horror show.