The day before yesterday, on 21st January 2013, a report purporting to document the deaths of 11,000 detainees in Assad’s prisons in Syria was released to coincide with the Geneva 2 peace talks by a plenary of three war crimes prosecutors along with a cache of autopsy images and accompanying forensics examinations outlining the causes / methods of death. The source is a former photographer employed by the Syrian military apparatus, known by the pseudonym ‘Caesar’. The findings of such a report will certainly not come as much of a shock for those who have been following the Syrian revolution and as well the unravelling humanitarian & military crises that have since transpired. The policy of meting out detainees arbitrarily seized by the Assad regime with torture culminating in execution is an uncontroversial fact. However, there is already at least one dissenting article that been published in response on which doubt is cast not merely on the veracity of this particular report, but on what it says about the Syrian situation as a whole.
In Dan Murphy’s article in the Christian Science Monitor , ‘Syria ‘smoking gun’ report warrants a careful read’, the author correctly demonstrates that, though the summary of the report states that 55,000 images were taken of 11,000 victims evaluated by the forensics teams, the actual report itself mentions that in fact only 5,500 images of 1,300 individual corpses were considered. The author prefaces this observation with the disclaimer that his aim is not to defend the Assad regime nor act as an indirect apologist for its crimes, but merely to question the findings of this particular report, as well as the credentials of the war crimes prosecutors who conducted it. However, the writer goes on to dismiss the entire report out of hand, irrespective of the fact that it contains incontrovertible proof of the deaths of detainees in regime custody and many images corroborating the causes of deaths of certain martyrs, as a “well-timed propaganda exercise funded by Qatar”.
While this conclusion does not automatically make Murphy an Assad-supporting stalwart (despite the special pleading), it does strike me as remarkably unfair and downright callous to draw such a conclusion from otherwise legitimate claims of inconsistent presentation and numerical inaccuracy. Murphy is engaging in an intellectual battle of statistics, completely oblivious to the urgency of this report in the context of Geneva, the facts and documentation that it correctly portrays, and, vitally, the practical fulcrum it could serve at the UN conference, potentially allowing the Syrian opposition delegation and the representatives of participating countries extra leverage in putting pressure on the Assad regime to cease hostilities against civilians, the destruction of infrastructure, to open up besieged areas to humanitarian aid, and to release all prisoners.
“There has been much stronger and more credible evidence of this than the Qatar report going back years. Just as there is strong and credible evidence of torture, summary executions, and associated war crimes being carried out by various rebel factions (a fact completely ignored in today’s report).”
The purpose of the report was to provide a small representation of the widely-applied policy of the Assad regime disappearing detainees and privately killing them in custody. A state that is friendly to the Assad regime such as Iran or Russia could have funded a countervailing dossier of its own detailing comparable war crimes by Syrian rebels in the run up to the Geneva talks if it so wanted and they had a body of evidence to present. It would certainly have had the logistical and financial wherewithal to do so. This particular report is also novel in that it is the first human rights report, as far as I am aware, documenting the deaths of political prisoners in state prisons that contains officially sanctioned photography of the some of the deceased by an officially employed member of the Syrian military establishment. While the information contained within the report may not in fact constitute a ‘smoking gun’ in revealing what was unknown previously about such barbaric practices, the scale and form that this set of evidence takes of previously known state-sanctioned massacres does make it worth seriously considering in trying to push for a solution that saves lives in the midst of a wave of human suffering and cruel, deliberate mistreatment of livelihood by Syrian authorities.
Murphy reasonably makes the claim that “association with war crimes prosecutors is no guarantor of credibility”, however, he goes on to state that:
“Just consider Luis Moreno Ocampo’s absurd claims about Viagra and mass rape in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya in 2011. War crimes prosecutors have, unsurprisingly, a bias towards wanting to bolster cases against people they consider war criminals (like Assad or Qaddafi) and so should be treated with caution. They also frequently favor, as a class, humanitarian interventions.”
Is it not their duty to at least collate evidence of war crimes by figures that they have been appointed to investigate? In both Assad & Qaddafi’s case, enough is known and can be gleaned from the scale and nature of their cruelty and injustice against the people they were tasked with governing without needing to fabricate claims. While misrepresenting the numbers of figures dead could understandably be seen as attempt to bolster a case against a political leader who they prejudicially consider a war criminal, it is definitely not on the same scale as the outright falsehood relating to the claim that Qaddafi gave Viagra to his thugs in order to make them more effectively able to rape Libyan women or that Saddam Hussein threw babies out of incubators in Kuwait during the first Gulf war. The fact is that, despite imperfections, this report contains genuinely legitimate and verifiable information.
But perhaps the most outlandish suggestion in accordance with Murphy’s analysis explaining why this report should be regarded with doubt if not dismissed entirely is that it is tantamount to a lie “gobbled up by the US people and Congress from anonymous sources” such as “the ongoing reassessment of the strength of the public evidence presented by the US about the certainty that the Assad government used sarin last year” (he mentions, as another example, the falsified intelligence relating to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). It should hardly need emphasising how disingenuous and misleading is the insinuation that the strength of evidence coming to light implicating the Assad regime in perpetrating the sarin gas attacks against civilians in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013 is something to be wary of. This is all the more so considering the overwhelming testimony, footage, and evidence compiled and forensically examined by bloggers such as Brown Moses in demonstrating that it is in fact the regime that is responsible for killing thousands of civilians with chemical weapons in the Ghouta suburb.
As far as the Geneva conference on Syria is concerned, the fact remains that any legitimate documentation, testimony, or information that can be used to hold war criminals to account or at least put the ball in the court of parties seeking to alleviate human suffering in Syria through the pushing of cease-fires, the lifting of sieges, and the dissemination of provisions such as food and medical attention, should be championed and utilised in order to save lives and improve livelihoods. Quibbles aside, these crimes are far too big to ignore or dismiss and the plight of the Syrian people is far too urgent to delay over a concern relating to dubious funding. Few Syrian observers will doubt that Qatar has geopolitical interests that don’t concern the welfare of Syrians in funding such an archive of documents. But if it contains accurate details of inhumane detention, widespread mistreatment, and murder, then it must be treated for what it is at heart; that is, a representation of inhumane crimes against innocent human beings that are continuing in Syria today, but that can easily be stopped by concerned world powers precisely by making reference to such representations.