Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution accusing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his allies of committing war crimes. The resolution comes amid concerns from Republicans and some Democrats that the Obama administration—under pressure from Moscow—has all but abandoned its goal of regime change in Syria. It calls on the White House to use its influence at the United Nations to establish a Syrian war crimes tribunal.
“The government of Syria has engaged in widespread torture and rape, employed starvation as a weapon of war, and massacred civilians, including through the use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and barrel bombs,” the resolution asserts. It adds that “the vast majority of the civilians who have died in the Syrian conflict have been killed by the government of Syria and its allies,” including Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. As many as 470,000 Syrians have died so far in the conflict, and millions have been made homeless.
The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who first introduced this bill in 2013, says that establishing a war crimes tribunal for Syria would force a stronger stance from Washington, make it more difficult for other countries to cooperate with the Syrian government, and could potentially lead to Assad’s ouster. “I have continued to ask Secretary Kerry and others in the Administration—they have never said no, but they haven’t said yes—about this idea of establishing a Syrian war crimes tribunal,” a frustrated Smith said at the resolution markup on Wednesday. The resolution passed through the committee on a voice vote.
The only dissenting voice at the hearing was that of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who claimed that Assad is helping fight ISIS, America’s real enemy. He was quickly shut down.
Republicans have generally been skeptical of international prosecutions of accused war criminals. In 2002, George W. Bush signed the the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which shields American personnel and allies from prosecution in the International Criminal Court. Yet this position has softened. In 2013, President Obama signed a bill that would make it easier for the United States to go after war criminals like warlord Joseph Kony; the measure was spearheaded by Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and former chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
Smith’s approach would circumvent the ICC, which he chastised for only achieving two convictions in 14 years. His resolution would seek the creation of an ad hoc or regional tribunal. He pointed to similar tribunals in the former Yugoslavia (which convicted 67 people), Rwanda (26), and Sierra Leone (16). “Can a UN Security Council resolution establishing a Syrian war crimes tribunal prevail?” he asked. “I would respectfully submit yes.”