[Marxism] Syrian’s Photos Spur Outrage, but Not Action

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 1 07:46:44 MDT 2014


NY Times, Nov. 1 2014
Syrian’s Photos Spur Outrage, but Not Action
By MICHAEL R. GORDON

WASHINGTON — Wearing a blue hood to shield his identity, a former Syrian 
police photographer briefed a congressional committee over the summer on 
the photos he had smuggled out of the country to document the deaths of 
thousands of prisoners killed in President Bashar al-Assad’s jails. At a 
White House meeting, President Obama’s senior aides welcomed him as a 
man of uncommon courage who had revealed unspeakable atrocities.

But now the Syrian government’s most celebrated defector, who uses the 
pseudonym Caesar, is no longer optimistic that the United States has the 
will to stop the abuses that have shocked the conscience of the world.

His photographs have generated outrage but no fresh action against the 
Assad government. And instead of intervening militarily to support 
opponents of Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama is mounting airstrikes to defend 
Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmen in Syria and Iraq from the Islamic State.

“I completely understand how he came to the defense of two American 
victims killed by the extremist ISIS terror group,” Caesar said in a 
message earlier this month from an undisclosed location in Europe that 
was conveyed by the Coalition for Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American 
organization that sponsored his trip to Washington. “But I and millions 
of Syrians feel depressed when we see that the killer of thousands of 
prisoners is left unchecked,” he added. “I believe my cause demands 
action and a clear position by the president of the United States.”

Caesar’s complaint reflects a broader discontent within the moderate 
Syrian opposition that is posing a new challenge for the Obama 
administration’s strategy to counter the Islamic State, which is also 
known as ISIS or ISIL. While ruling out United States military 
intervention against Mr. Assad, the administration has committed to 
training thousands of opposition fighters in Saudi Arabia and Turkey so 
they can eventually defend territory in Syria that is wrested from the 
Islamic State’s control. But those fighters must come from the same 
constituency that has been increasingly troubled by the American 
reluctance to act more forcefully against Mr. Assad.

“There is a sense that there is discrimination against them, that the 
atrocities they are suffering at the hands of Assad are somehow less 
deserving than what is befalling other communities,” said Emile Hokayem, 
an expert on Middle East affairs at the International Institute for 
Strategic Studies. “For most of these rebels, Assad is the greatest 
evil, not ISIL. For the U.S., it is the opposite,” he said.

Robert S. Ford, a former American ambassador to Syria and a senior 
fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the administration’s twin 
policies of carrying out airstrikes to protect the Kurdish community in 
Syria while refraining from direct military support for Arab opponents 
of Mr. Assad might backfire.

“It will make recruiting harder for an American-trained force, and 
indeed, in the short term, might help ISIL gain recruits by helping it 
pose, however falsely, as defenders of Sunni Arabs,” Mr. Ford said.

The White House appears sensitive to the importance of Caesar’s role. 
Answering a letter Caesar sent in late July to the president, Mr. 
Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, wrote last 
week that the aim of the American program to train moderate opposition 
was to help it not only contend with the “barbaric threat of the Islamic 
State” but also to defend itself “from the brutality of the Assad regime.”

No one has done more to expose that brutality than Caesar. Described as 
mild-mannered and not particularly political, he has become a compelling 
element of the Syrian narrative because he emerged from the darkest side 
of the Assad government.

Caesar was photographing accident scenes for the military police when 
the Syrian conflict erupted. He and several fellow photographers soon 
found themselves photographing dozens of bodies a day, many of which 
displayed signs of torture.

Convinced that he was documenting war crimes, Caesar downloaded copies 
of the photos on thumb drives, sneaked them out of his office and 
transferred them to a hard drive, keeping a grisly record of the deaths 
for more than two years. But when asked to train a successor, he became 
alarmed that the government might be on to him, and he defected, taking 
a hard drive that he says documents more than 10,000 deaths.

Senior American officials say his account and the photographic record he 
has provided are credible.

“You see the evidence of broken bones, of the use of chemicals, of 
strangulation, of evisceration, of eye-gouging, of starvation,” said 
Stephen J. Rapp, who serves as the State Department’s ambassador at 
large for issues involving war crimes. “And it is all being done in a 
state security system.”

The photos are important for another reason. Russia’s veto power in the 
United Nations Security Council has prevented war crimes allegations 
against Mr. Assad from being referred by that body to the International 
Criminal Court. But if any of the victims in the photos can be 
identified as Syrians who also hold American or other foreign 
citizenship, that would make it easier for the United States or other 
governments to hold Syrian officials accountable in their legal systems.

According to a written agreement between the Caesar team and the State 
Department, the defector provided in April 26,948 photographs of people 
who had died in the Syrian government’s custody. In return, the F.B.I. 
was to analyze the authenticity of the photos and provide assessments of 
its findings.

The pace of that work, however, has become another source of friction. 
Mouaz Moustafa, the representative for Caesar in Washington, said that 
Caesar’s team wants to pursue legal cases against members of the Assad 
government in European countries and believes the F.B.I.’s efforts to 
identify any American and foreign citizens among the victims has been 
moving too slowly.

Reflecting its unhappiness, Caesar’s team has yet to give the United 
States the rest of the 55,000 photos and says it may seek the help of 
photo analysts in other governments or nongovernmental agencies. A 
senior American law enforcement official, who insisted on anonymity to 
discuss the issue, said that authenticating the photos was complex and 
painstaking and that there was no timetable for completing the work.

American officials have culled about 4,800 photos from the nearly 27,000 
the F.B.I. received and compared them against visa and passport photos 
in the State Department’s database and with photos in a separate 
terrorism database. Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican 
who serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and who 
also shares concerns about the methodical pace of the work on the 
photos, said that American officials had identified at least seven 
likely matches, though it is not clear whether any are foreign citizens.

Caesar, however, has looked to the United States for more than evidence 
for a possible war crimes trial. When he visited Washington last summer, 
he was hoping that his trip would lead to more forceful American action.

Besides testifying before Mr. Royce’s panel, Caesar sought a meeting 
with Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, his aides 
say. Told she was not available, he scribbled a note in Arabic to Mr. 
Obama, which he gave to Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to 
the United Nations, at an emotional meeting at the State Department.

“I have risked my life and the life of my immediate family, and even 
exposed my relatives to extreme danger, in order to stop the systematic 
torture that is practiced by the regime against prisoners,” Caesar 
wrote. “What is it that you can possibly do to prevent the killing, 
especially since there are more than 150,000 prisoners in the jails of 
the regime awaiting this black fate?”

The White House did not want Caesar to leave Washington without a 
meeting, and one was organized with Mr. Rhodes and Jake Sullivan, who 
was serving then as the national security adviser to Vice President 
Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Explaining that he was speaking on behalf of the president, Mr. Rhodes 
praised Caesar’s courage and voiced the hope that Caesar’s photos would 
shame others not to help the regime.

Emad ad-Din al-Rashid, a former assistant dean at a college in Damascus 
who attended the meeting with Caesar, told the White House officials it 
would be painful if the United States joined forces with Mr. Assad to 
combat the Islamic State. Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Sullivan were adamant that 
the administration had no such intention.

But the meeting also underscored the differing expectations about the 
role the United States should play.

Though Mr. Rhodes mentioned the humanitarian aid the United States has 
provided and alluded to the effort to train moderate Syrian rebels, Mr. 
Rashid said he had told the White House that it risked losing the 
support of the Syrian public if it did not stop the Assad government 
from dropping barrel bombs on Syrian cities.

“The Syrian people are slowly coming to a realization that the United 
States does not value their lives,” Mr. Rashid recalled warning the 
White House aides.

In his Oct. 20 letter, which came nearly three months after Caesar’s 
letter to the president, Mr. Rhodes reaffirmed that the Pentagon would 
“train and equip Syria’s moderate opposition.” But his response still 
fell short of the sort of action Caesar had sought.

“Your letter mentions that more than 150,000 people are still in Assad’s 
custody,” Mr. Rhodes wrote. “The United States Government has 
consistently condemned the regime’s failures to grant independent 
monitors access to detainees. We will continue to push for full access 
to all detainees in Syria, just as we will push to bring the 
perpetrators of atrocities in Syria to justice.”




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