Skip to main content

Syrian genocide needs justice

By Ammar Abdulhamid and Ken Ballen
updated 2:59 PM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ammar Abdulhamid, Ken Ballen: Report appears to show proof of Syrian regime torture
  • They say the regime's violence is tantamount to genocide; al-Assad has sown sectarian war
  • They say Geneva goal must be: End killing, bring guilty to justice, especially in regime
  • Writers: Al-Assad should not get immunity; rebuilding Syria society needs accountability

Editor's note: Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and the president of the Tharwa Foundation. He divides his time between Washington and Turkey, where he works with Syrian activists on developing long-term peace building and democracy-promotion programs. Ken Ballen, a former federal prosecutor, is president and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that investigates the causes of extremism. He is the author of "Terrorists in Love: True Life Stories of Islamic Radicals."

(CNN) -- The debate over what is happening inside Syria should now end. A new report by three veteran war crimes prosecutors, released exclusively by CNN and The Guardian, offers what appears to be irrefutable evidence of systemic war crimes by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Any fair observer can no longer doubt the prosecutors' findings of "the smoking gun" of widespread crimes against humanity.

Syrian human rights activists have long been documenting cases of methodical torture and execution carried out by members of the Syrian regime. Organizations such as Human Right Watch have also documented shocking crimes from their own independent investigations.

But none of these efforts has managed to capture the essence of what is really taking place in Syria as much as the new report authored by David Crane and Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutors of the war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, and Geoffrey Nice, lead prosecutor against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Ammad Abdulhamid
Ammad Abdulhamid
Ken Ballen
Ken Ballen

Although their report relies solely on a low-ranking member of the Assad regime, the accompanying evidence of 55,000 horrific photographs documenting the death of more than 11,000 detainees constitutes overwhelming proof.

Opinion: Syria shows peril of Iran's growing power

As Crane said, "This is direct evidence of the regime's killing machine." Now there can be little denying that the violent campaign orchestrated by the Assad regime is indeed tantamount to genocide.

With close to 130,000 deaths, 2 million refugees in neighboring countries and more than 5 million internally displaced victims, Syria's civil war has indeed evolved as a reaction to a campaign of mass murder and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Assad regime in mid-2011 to quash the largely peaceful protest movement.

Some in the Sunni Arab community may stand behind the Assad regime even today, and many elements from the country's minorities, including the Alawites to which the Assad family belong, work with the opposition, but the sectarian character of the struggle and the relevance of the Alawite/Sunni divide must be recognized.

The overwhelming majority of victims are from an Arab Sunni background. The Alawites fear blowback should the regime collapse. The Assad regime has long survived by manipulating the fears and concerns of the country's minorities, relying on members of the Alawite community to control the levers of power within state institutions, especially military and security, and portraying itself as a protector of minorities. Change, many fear, might bring a backlash against them.

Now, after close to three years of bloodshed, a systematic campaign of terror and mayhem (with mainly Sunni victims) -- and with the emergence of extremist groups, including al Qaeda, among the rebels -- minorities who fear that a rebel victory will subject them to revenge appear justified.

Syrian opposition to attend peace talks
U.N.: Iran not attending Syria peace talks
Analysing Syria's alleged torture report

The political process needed at this stage must aim to end the ongoing genocide and hold its masterminds accountable. Only then can there be meaningful talks about ending al Qaeda's presence, especially after new revelations that Western intelligence agencies have detected signs of cooperation between the Assad regime and al Qaeda's Syria affiliates in their fight against moderate rebels.

As the parties meet soon in Geneva to discuss a solution to Syria's crisis, balancing the needs of the country's various minorities should come at the expense of neither the aspirations of pro-democracy advocates nor the demands for justice.

Meanwhile, equating a systematic and premeditated campaign of terror that exploited the full might of the state with random violations committed by rebel groups (who often fail to coordinate their activities, even as they fight in the same neighborhoods) will serve to make reaching a viable agreement well-nigh impossible.

True, war criminals need to be brought to justice no matter to which camp they belong, but we should not be surprised if the majority came from the ranks of the Assad regime. Nor should we be loath to holding al-Assad himself accountable.

Those who propose giving al-Assad and his top commanders' immunity from prosecution to get to a cease-fire agreement forget that, with so many victims and the country's growing communal divides, there is an immediate need for justice. Only then can serious work on rebuilding inter-communal bridges truly begin.

The images of the 11,000 detainees who died in al-Assad's concentration camps cry out for simple justice, not oblivion. They demand that we hold the criminals accountable, not for sweeping the truth under the rug. Achieving this may not be convenient, but it is necessary, both for strategic and moral reasons.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ammar Abdulhamid and Ken Ballen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT