Assad the war criminal
White House still refuses to acknowledge the obvious
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says Syrian strongman Bashar Assad might be a war criminal. The question is how many more civilians he has to kill to convince her.
In Senate testimony Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton was asked if Mr. Assad could face war-crimes charges, similar to those levied against former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. “I think that based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity,” Mrs. Clinton said, “there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category.” But she was cautious about recommending that course of action because taking that step “limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power.”
The White House maintains concerted action in Syria is unnecessary. “We are working with our allies through the Friends of Syria to isolate and pressure Assad,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said this week, “and to try to get him to realize that his days are numbered and to cease the brutality that he’s been waging against his own people.”
No one seems to have told Mr. Assad. On Thursday, regime forces took control of the rebel stronghold of Homs after a bloody 26-day battle. Homs had become a symbol of the resistance to Mr. Assad and the gruesome toll the civil war is taking among Syria’s civilians. Over the past year, about 8,000 people have been killed by regime forces seeking to put down the rebellion. Eleven months ago, when 1,200 people had fallen victim to civil strife in Libya, President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis that required an armed response. “As president,” he proclaimed then, “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” Now the White House response to pictures of bodies in the streets is that it is “not the time to further militarize the situation in Syria.”
Other countries are finding ways to act. On Thursday, Kuwait’s parliament passed a resolution of support for the rebel Free Syrian Army and called for Mr. Assad to be prosecuted for crimes against his own people. Other Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have said they would cut diplomatic ties with Damascus and support the rebels. Meanwhile, Iran has sent two warships to Syria, ostensibly for a training mission but signaling durable support for the Assad regime.
The time has passed when the United States could hope to finesse a solution. Measures such as officially recognizing Syrian dissident groups as legitimate agents for the Syrian people could lay the groundwork for more assertive international action. While seeking war-crimes charges may dissuade Mr. Assad from voluntarily relinquishing power, allowing him to continue to slaughter his own people will be even less convincing. It is too late to prevent horrific violence in Syria, but it is still possible to hold the perpetrators accountable.