Congress Wants To Hit Assad With War Crimes Tribunal, Send Clear Message To Obama

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The Obama administration has softened its stance on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and acquiesced to Moscow’s foreign policy of no regime change, a move GOP Rep. Chris Smith thinks may be reversed by establishing a tribunal to prosecute Syrian officials for war crimes.

Smith has forwarded a resolution to the House Foreign Affairs Panel with the goal of pressuring the White House to wield its influence in the United Nations and demand the establishment of a war crimes tribunal by the Security Council. This ad-hoc tribunal, which Smith has been advocating for since 2013, would transform nebulous allegations against officials in the Syrian government into a careful and detailed list of confirmed crimes. According to Smith, a tribunal ruling would render any kind of cooperation with Syrian regime far more tenuous and may even lead to regime change.

Republicans have notably bashed the Obama administration for abandoning its original goal of regime change after in-depth negotiations with Moscow.

“Everyone who commits crimes of this magnitude could be prosecuted, and I think we have a chance if it’s really promoted to get at least the Russians to abstain from involvement,” Smith told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“The tribunal would make it harder for Russia to stand by such an ally, and it would definitely put pressure on everyone else,” Smith added.

So far, Obama administration officials, like Samantha Power, have dodged Smith’s informal requests for a U.N.-created tribunal. The point of a House-passed resolution is to “send a clear message that the status quo is unacceptable.”

While the tribunal would by no means function as a magic wand, Smith thinks that it would apply additional pressure on Assad in the same way that the International Criminal Court has made life more difficult for Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, who is well-known for committing atrocities, though he has never been brought to The Hague.

But the International Criminal Court is definitively not the right forum for the prosecution, as the court has focused on entirely the wrong issues or otherwise squandered its investigative resources.

“The ICC has been ineffective beyond words,” Smith said. “They’ve had two convictions since 2002. They focus almost exclusively on 8 African nations, and in their most recent report, they examine alleged crimes attributed to the armed forces of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland deployed in Iraq between 2002 and 2003. Talk about misplaced priorities.”

Instead of relying on the International Criminal Court, the idea is to create an ad-hoc or regional tribunal to integrate best practices from previous successful prosecutions, like in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, the tribunal would not be restricted to officials from the Syrian regime, but could also target those part of the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

“The Yugoslavia court has convicted at least 67 people; Rwanda, 26; and Sierra Leone, 16,” Smith wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2013.

The House Foreign Affairs Panel is marking up the resolution Wednesday and has garnered favorable comments from committee chairman GOP Rep. Ed Royce, who told Al-Monitor, “There is the potential to move forward in a way that would push back the gains both made by [the Islamic State] and by the Assad regime, but that would require leadership. “It would require cutting off material support for the Assad regime and increasing pressure on key players aligned with the regime and further isolating those involved in war crimes.”

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