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