Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Writing an autopsy of Assad’s victims

The Daily Star
Tuesday, January 28 2014
By Michael Glackin

Sixty-nine years ago this week, soldiers of the Red Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in southwest Poland.

That the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the site of what is thought to be the largest mass murder in history, should have coincided with the release of a report exposing the atrocities of Bashar Assad’s regime, was not lost on one of the report’s authors.

Speaking to me last week, Sue Black, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist and co-author of the report, which accused the Assad regime of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, said: “It is ironic that we are so close to the Auschwitz anniversary. Because examining the photographs of those starved remains was like going back in time and looking at photographs of the concentration camps. I have been doing forensic work for over 30 years and this is the worst I have seen. It is absolutely horrendous.”

Considering that Black led the British forensic team that exhumed the mass graves of Kosovo in 1999 and later identified victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, you can appreciate this is not hyperbole.

The photographs of prisoners killed by the Syrian security services and smuggled out of Syria by “Caesar,” an Assad regime photographer and defector, are, she insists, evidence of the torture and brutal murder of some 11,000 people.

Black is a scientist. She relies on hard evidence to reach conclusions, and for that reason retains an objective, unemotional detachment from the dark deeds her skills lead her to investigate. It is her painstakingly clinical approach that makes her conclusions about the suffering of those shown in the report all the more damning.

“In Kosovo, horrific as it was, one could understand the conflict side of things, and the victims were killed by gunshots. In the Asian tsunami, it was an unfortunate natural disaster. But here, the intensity of the one-to-one infliction of injury is horrendous. The deliberate personal suffering that has been inflicted on the victims is truly shocking.”

The images, which Black carefully examined, came from a single location inside Syria, and since more than half of the photographs were taken by a single cameraman, it is realistic to assume that they only represent a fraction of the regime’s victims. Yet even allowing for the fact that the images are just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of prisoners killed by the regime since the uprising in Syria in 2011, the murders are still not on the scale of Auschwitz in size.

But Black’s comparison comes from the systematic nature of the torture and killing, what she calls the “incredible organization, the coordinated, cold blooded, efficiency” of the process of torture and death. It is this that she says bears the chilling resemblance to the Auschwitz example.

Black told me more than 60 percent of the bodies showed evidence of starvation, “not thin, but clinically starved so there is almost zero body fat.” She said ligature marks found on necks of victims indicated death by slow strangulation, with a garrote-type implement that resembled the fan belt on a car. Many bodies had been severely beaten, and some had their eyes gouged out. Others showed signs of electrocution, while some were burned.

“You do not starve quickly, it takes time,” she said. “Then there is the brutality of the beatings. But beyond that, there is the cost to the families of those young men. Like a stone thrown into the water, there is a ripple effect, it impacts on families, and beyond families onto an entire nation.”

The evidence provided by Caesar should increase the likelihood of Assad facing a war crimes tribunal – he is of course already facing investigation by war crimes prosecutors over the Sarin gas attack that killed up to 1,300 civilians last August. It has also lead to renewed calls for the West to finally act, and acknowledge that talk alone will not achieve its avowed aim of ending Assad rule.

But don’t hold your breath. For one thing, the United States has been aware of the Caesar images since last November. The British government couldn’t confirm when it first learnt of the photographs, but Foreign Secretary William Hague said they were “compelling and horrific,” and that the perpetrators must be held to account. But the reality is that the United Kingdom is compelled to do nothing.

Just four months ago parliament, which includes many of those expressing horror and faux sympathy last week – such as Labour leader Ed Miliband and his foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander – led the parliamentary vote against British involvement in Syria.

The West balked at a meaningful display of its outrage at the use of chemical weapons and by doing so aided and abetted an evil regime, enabling it to carry out more atrocities. Other young men in the regime’s prisons will be tortured and starved and slowly murdered today or tomorrow, and their abused bodies will be photographed by other Caesars. We can blame the likes of Russia or Iran, but the truth is, many in the West do not care about Syria.

What the Red Army found at Auschwitz confirmed beyond doubt that World War II, the destruction of the Nazi regime, was a necessary and noble war. On a visit to Auschwitz in 2005, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said: “The story of the camp reminds us that evil is real. It must be called by its name and must be confronted.”

Cheney’s words harken back to a time when the civilized world matched its words with deeds. Everyone agrees that the Caesar images reveal a deep-rooted evil. The failure to confront it today means that tyranny and fear is prevailing. As the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke succinctly put it: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2014, on page 7.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The West may pay for its inaction in Syria

The Daily Star,
Friday, January 17, 2014.
By Michael Glackin

For months, while the atrocities and body count in Syria have risen, the West, and the United Kingdom in particular, has insisted that the often-postponed Geneva II conference, now scheduled for Jan. 22, is the lever that will take power away from President Bashar Assad and end the bloodshed in Syria.

Speculation about backroom deals with Russia and Iran paving the way for a diplomatic breakthrough have been making the rounds for months. However, so far Geneva II has only succeeded in pushing an already weak and divided moderate opposition movement to the brink of collapse.

The recent refusal of the Syrian National Council – arguably the most important of the moderate opposition groupings – to go to Geneva was expected. But the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group created by the West to represent all opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army, is also bitterly divided and has yet to confirm its attendance. Meetings held by the coalition last week descended into chaos, forcing it to postpone a final decision until Jan. 17, days before the conference begins.

The Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), both affiliated with Al-Qaeda, have of course not been invited. Many of the armed Syrian opposition groups reject the very idea of negotiating with the Assad regime and don’t recognize the authority of the Syrian National Coalition.

Geneva II is an increasingly pathetic sideshow of a tragedy that those who will gather in Switzerland will be powerless to relieve or stop. Having spectacularly humiliated itself with hollow military threats for nearly three years, the West will add failed diplomacy to the wreckage of its Syria policy.

The United States and the U.K. are now busy arming the fervently pro-Iranian and pro-Assad regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as it struggles to combat Sunni Al-Qaeda-linked militias. Their previous hostility to the Syrian leadership has evaporated in the face of what is perceived as a worse threat.

The need to supply arms to the increasingly tottering regime in Iraq stems partly from the West’s inaction in Syria. This created the space for radical Sunni militias to become the main opposition on the ground to the Assad regime and wage a war against Alawites and Shiites. A similar picture is forming in Lebanon where bombings are occurring with familiar and frightening regularity. The continuing bloodshed in Syria is even starting to seriously threaten political stability in Turkey.

But the flames of the West’s disastrous foreign policy toward Syria are no longer just burning in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. They are poised to reach Europe as well.

There may have been little domestic support for British Prime Minister David Cameron in taking a firm line with the Assad regime, but increasingly the British public is becoming aware of the cost to national security of the West’s failure to stand up for right against might in Syria. There are now over 40,000 foreign jihadists fighting there, including, according to recent estimates, up to 400 British citizens, mainly from Pakistani backgrounds, along with some Sudanese and Syrians from the U.K.

With radicalized Britons having been exposed to the extremist views of the likes of the Nusra Front and ISIS (most British jihadists tend to fight alongside the latter), as well as trained by them, concerns are growing that they will return to the U.K. and unleash a campaign of violence. Indeed, a report in the New York Times on Jan. 10 appeared to confirm that Al-Qaeda affiliated groups were recruiting Westerners in Syria to carry out attacks at home.

The fear is that returning fighters will want to punish the U.K. for abandoning Syria’s Sunnis. Such a view will have been reinforced by a former U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker.

He recently wrote that the West should engage Assad on counterterrorism, because “he is not as bad as the jihadists who would take over in his absence.”

Last October, British police arrested two men who had recently returned from Syria and were allegedly linked to a terror plot within the U.K. And in November, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, told a parliamentary hearing that the “interaction” of Britons fighting with radical groups in Syria was a “very important strand of the threat” the U.K. faced.

Parker said, “The attractiveness to these groupings is that they meet British citizens who are willing to engage in terrorism and they task them to do so back at home, where they have higher impact, in this country.”

The British suicide bombers who carried out the July 7, 2005, London bombings, which killed 52 people, had also made contact with radical Islamist groups abroad. Two more British Muslims who had become “radicalized” during visits overseas are due to be sentenced this month for the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier in the middle of a busy London street last year.

It is precisely this sort of unorganized terror attack, carried out by so called lone wolves acting spontaneously, that are impossible for the security forces to prevent. And it is the type of attack they fear the returning jihadists will commit.

In a bid to combat the threat, British citizens who fight in Syria are being stripped of their citizenship to prevent them from returning to the U.K. The government has revoked the passports of 20 people this year, more than in the previous two and a half years combined.

But it is not just the U.K. that faces a threat. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London says the number of European fighters in Syria has tripled to 1,900 in the last year. The number reported from France quadrupled to 412 (although President Francois Hollande gave a higher figure of 700 this week), while Belgium has the highest per capita rate with almost 300 fighters.

The West’s Syria strategy has been an unmitigated disaster. Assad remains in power, the region is dangerously unstable and Europe is facing the increased danger of terror attacks by its own citizens. Somehow, the futility of Geneva II sums up the entire fiasco. The West keeps fiddling, and Syria keeps burning.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2014, on page 7.