Is Assad scared of a war crimes trial? Assault on Homs suggests not. (+video)
Diplomats critical of Syria are using terms such as 'crimes against humanity' and 'war criminal.' But the Homs assault suggests Assad sees defeating the rebels as more vital for his survival.
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Bashar al-Assadâ€™s pull-out-the-stops assault on civilians holed up in the city of Homs Thursday offers an answer to questions about how much the Syrian leader fears international threats to charge him with crimes against humanity: apparently not much.
â€śBashar knows that if he loses this struggle, heâ€™s dead, so some threats of possible international charges at some point in the future arenâ€™t his first concern right now,â€ť says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Thursdayâ€™s fight, with reports of the Syrian regime sending in tanks and rooftop snipers to finish off the rebel stronghold in the Baba Amr neighborhood, comes within days of high-profile international condemnations of Assad.
Last week the United Nations Human Rights Council suggested Assad is reaching a point of no return from war crimes charges, and on Tuesday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Assad fits the definition of a war criminal.
Yet even as the assault intensified on a neighborhood that rebels claimed was abandoned by all but 4,000 desperate civilians, Assad could proceed with the assurance of protection from high places: the lopsided Human Rights Council vote condemning Syria last week was 37-3, with Russia, China, and Cuba opposed.
The vote was a reminder of two recent vetoes by Russia and China of UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, one in February and an earlier one in October. One Arab diplomat, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah, predicted after the February veto that Assad would interpret them as a â€ślicense to kill.â€ť As the Homs assault intensified, he added, â€śThis is exactly what we feared.â€ť
The UNâ€™s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has repeatedly accused Syrian leaders â€śat the highest levelsâ€ť of crimes against humanity, and has called for the Syrian regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
But so far world powers have stopped short of that step, as indicated by the Human Rights Councilâ€™s condemnation-but-no-referral last week.
In congressional testimony this week, Secretary Clinton said experience has shown that declaring leaders war criminals can cause them to dig in their heels and go for broke with repressive measures. The serious step of leveling charges â€ślimits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power,â€ť she said.
Professor Landis, who writes the SyriaComment blog, says he thinks Assad is doomed, but not because of the threat of international tribunal action. Rather, he says, the Assad regime will eventually fall because of international support for the Syrian opposition that he says is strengthening and organizing â€“ especially in deep-pocketed Islamic countries.
In that context, the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians are likely to stick with the Assad regime (and stave off meaningful international action) for a while, Landis says â€“ not because they relish coming across as bolstering a dictator who is assaulting his own people, but because they face lost influence and a Syria hardly to their liking.
â€śThe Russians donâ€™t want to look like theyâ€™re completely opposed to [Syrian civilians] getting help,â€ť says Landis, â€śbut that doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™re ready to turn Syria over to the Saudis.â€ť