Last week, President Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a war criminal” for ordering attacks on innocent civilians in Ukraine. For Syrians, Biden’s comments are welcome but about seven years too late, considering that the Russian military has been committing war crimes there (in collaboration with Bashar al-Assad’s regime) since 2015. Perhaps if the world had held Putin accountable then, he wouldn’t be committing war crimes in Ukraine now.Biden’s response to a reporter’s shouted question last Thursday came after administration officials spent weeks dancing around the term “war criminal,” pending a formal legal review. But Biden was just acknowledging what everyone could see: Russian forces are committing blatant and deliberate attacks on civilians all over Ukraine. In his speech to the Israeli parliament on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky compared the Russian attacks on Ukraine to the Holocaust.
Survivors of both the Holocaust and Assad’s torture chambers spoke at a Capitol Hill event last week to honor the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution. Alongside several lawmakers, Syrian activists and war crimes experts, they argued that the ongoing war crimes in Ukraine are the result of the world’s failure to stop the Syrian atrocities.
“The world has watched in horror as Putin has committed war crimes in Ukraine, and the parallels to Syria are absolutely chilling,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Syrians are already all too familiar with the atrocities that Russia has been committing in Ukraine: the attacks on hospitals and schools, the use of banned munitions against civilians, the wielding of starvation as a weapon of war. Russian hasn’t yet used chemical weapons, but that could be just a matter of time. “I would not be surprised if we saw that happen soon in Ukraine,” McCaul said.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) said Putin is using the “Aleppo playbook” in Ukraine, referring to the multiyear campaign of large-scale bombing and sieges that Assad, Russia and Iran used to subdue Syria’s second-largest city, which fell to the regime in 2016.
“I firmly believe that if the world had reacted to Syria as they are now, there never would have been a Ukrainian invasion to begin with,” Boyle said. “We should use this as an opportunity to recognize the reality that Putin will keep doing this in other places if he’s not stopped.”
Stephen Rapp, who served as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes during the Obama administration, said that if the international norms against mass atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity are allowed to erode further, mass atrocities will continue to proliferate.
“This is not just about Syria; this is about the whole world,” Rapp said.
Eleven years into the Syrian crisis, efforts to hold the Assad regime and its partners accountable for war crimes in Syria are just now showing results. In January, a German court sentenced a Syrian colonel to life in prison after convicting him for his role in the torture and abuse of more than 4,000 innocent people. These efforts could inform the drive to hold Putin accountable for his war crimes in Ukraine.
German prosecutors based their case on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to be charged even when they have committed the acts in question in other countries. While the International Criminal Court has promised to open an investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, Moscow does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction could offer a crucial alternative to Ukrainians seeking justice.
Meanwhile, new evidence of the mass atrocities committed by Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners in Syria continues to emerge. One of the speakers at the Syria event on Capitol Hill was a former Syrian government contractor who was forced to dig and fill mass graves for several years. Calling himself the “Gravedigger,” he has been helping to expose where Assad buried thousands of the civilians he murdered. This man lamented that there are also now mass graves in Ukraine.
“When the international community turns a blind eye to crimes against humanity, genocidal massacres, the bombing of hospitals and schools, and forced disappearances and detention, criminal regimes will continue to push the limits unhindered,” he said.
Western societies have long been reluctant to intervene in the persecution of those who come from other cultures or religions or races, such as the Uyghur Muslims in China or the Rohingya in Myanmar, who the Biden administration now says are victims of genocide. In Ukraine, the West has done more to protect civilians, although not enough. But the Ukraine example shows that ignoring atrocities anywhere is both morally and strategically bankrupt.
The Syrian and Ukrainian crises are directly linked, because Putin is committing similar war crimes in both places. Now that the U.S. president has called out Putin as a “war criminal,” human rights defenders — working to uphold the post-1945 promise of “never again” — hope they will be able to hold the Russian president accountable for all of his crimes — along with the Assad regime.
“As we focus on Ukraine, as we should, we must also remain as focused and clear-eyed about the realities of what is happening in Syria,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “For the Syrian people, their suffering continues.”