This month we mark the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Today, that war is largely over, but the picture of the Syrian girl wounded in a regime air strike (shown above) should serve as a reminder that its lessons should not be forgotten. The brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad survived the challenge of what began as a peaceful popular uprising because the international community allowed him to commit war crimes while remaining indifferent to the crucial roles of those who aided and abetted his crimes: the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia. Next month, we will mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As the United States seeks to reengage with Iran over its nuclear program, the lessons of history and the Holocaust should serve to inform future negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
A powerful reminder of those lessons came on February 21st when CBS News 60 Minutes aired an eye-opening report by Scott Pelley on the ongoing efforts to hold Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad accountable for committing war crimes against his own people. The crimes included the murder of civilians by chemical weapons attacks and the bombing of civilian targets including hospitals.
The most difficult images of all to see in the report were the victims of torture in Syrian prisons brought to light by a former Syrian military police officer, code named “Ceasar.”
While he was in the Syrian army, “Ceasar” was assigned to photograph and document the victims of torture. Before he escaped Syria, he was able to smuggle 50,000 pictures out on thumb drives. Because of the enormity of the crime, his pictures were displayed in 2017 as part of a special exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Museum aptly titled, “Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us.”
The pictures and documents smuggled out by “Ceasar” serve as conclusive evidence of war crimes committed by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is estimated that more than 100,000 civilians “disappeared” into Syrian prisons and never returned.
New York Times reporter Ann Bernard did extensive research and reporting on Syrian prisons. In 2019 she wrote, “The prison system was integral to Mr. al-Assad’s war effort, crushing the civil protest movement and driving the opposition into an armed conflict it could not win.”
If mass murder in its prisons was not enough, the Syrian regime also used chemical weapons against its own people.
After the world was shocked by the Syrian chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013 that killed over 1,400 civilians, the international community was finally moved to take action. The United States and Russia led an international effort to force the Assad regime to surrender most of its chemical weapons in 2014.
However, the international community continued to ignore the other atrocities of the Syrian regime. By doing so, the world essentially gave the Syrians a green light to continue to commit mass murder by other means.
In 2014, Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In her speech she said, “President Assad is deliberately targeting his own people — using indiscriminate air attacks, introducing the world to barrel bombs, denying civilians food in starvation campaigns and practicing systematic, industrial torture — all of this to force the Syrian people to submit to his will.”
While the international community, especially the United Nations Security Council, has been blocked from holding Bashar al-Assad accountable because of the Russian veto, it has also ignored the complicity of Iran in Syria’s war crimes.
Absent Iran’s crucial intervention, Bashar al-Assad would have been removed from power, tens of thousands of innocent lives could have been saved, and Syria could have experienced the dawn of a new democracy. Leading Iran’s efforts to prop up the Syrian regime was Major General Qassem Soleimani, former commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was killed last year in an American drone strike.
In the eye-opening new book about the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war titled “Red Line”, journalist Joby Warrick provides details of the role of Soleimani and Iran’s complicity in Syrian war crimes.
Warrick wrote, By 2015, Soleimani had cemented his reputation as the master strategist most responsible for keeping Assad in power. In 2012, when Assad’s army began to crack under the strain of the uprising, it was Soleimani who had come to the rescue, directing a patchwork force of Hezbollah fighters, Shiite militias, and Iranian Special Forces operators to shore up the defense of government strongholds and gradually help Assad regain lost ground. Soldiers under his direction were later blamed for some of the war’s worst atrocities…
To continue to remain silent over the war crimes of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian enablers would serve as an invitation for future war crimes by Iran and Syria. This is especially relevant as Iran continues its efforts to turn Syria into a platform to launch a future war against Israel together with Hezbollah and its 130,0000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon.
As the United States seeks to reengage with Iran over its nuclear program and reinstate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), it must not ignore Iran’s destructive role in Syria by “decoupling” it from the nuclear issue.
That is why the non-partisan advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran wrote in this open letter to President Biden: The critical flaw of “decoupling” allowed the regime to further its hegemonic ambitions, hostage diplomacy, and the brutal repression of the Iranian people. It also limited the international community’s willingness to hold the regime accountable for these abuses out of desperation to preserve the JCPOA. Some European leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, have consistently recognized the need to deal with the full scope of Tehran’s unacceptable behavior. America and our other allies must do the same.
In 2015, the year the Iran nuclear deal was made, the death toll in Syria was estimated to be 200,000. By 2018, the death toll was already estimated to be more than 500,000. And more than 6 million Syrians have become refugees.
Simply focusing on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program while remaining indifferent to Iran’s complicity in Syrian war crimes would raise a troubling question: Have we learned nothing from the lessons of the Holocaust?
As the late Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, wrote in his famous book, Night, “On planet Auschwitz, human moral responsibilities are silenced and deformed into indifference.”
A just solution to the tragedy of Syria would be an end to the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Iran’s destructive role in Syria.