Iran and Russia: Why We Fight in Syria

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has just submitted to the Human Rights Council yet another devastating report on mass homicide in Syria. Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic spares no one: it cites deadly, illegal abuses by the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh), the Nusra Front, and some other armed, nongovernmental factions. Yet its harshest findings and strongest prose are reserved for the Syrian Arab Republic Government. No one now employed by that government can conceivably claim ignorance of what he or she is supporting.

Two parties that have never claimed ignorance of the criminality they facilitate are Iran and Russia. During World War II the US government produced seven films for public consumption on “Why We Fight.” If Moscow and Tehran wish to undertake a similar effort to explain to their citizens the human and material sacrifice being expended on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, perhaps they can use the following passages from “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” to rally public opinion:

85. Government forces and agencies in control of detention facilities are responsible for torture, degrading and inhuman treatment including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

86. …Information obtained from detainees under duress, including during the use of torture or threats of rape or other violence against family members, was frequently used as grounds for the arrest and detention of others, in violation of international human rights law.

88. Through its widespread conduct of mass arrests, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearance, victimising the general civilian population living in restive areas and persons otherwise perceived to be in opposition to the Government, and the ensuing ill treatment and killing of those detained, Government forces have engaged in the multiple commissions of crimes, amounting to a systematic and widespread attack against a civilian population. In the context of the armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, the number of civilians targeted with arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance and subsequent violations, in contravention of international humanitarian law and without any lawful military justification, suggests that the civilian population as such is the primary object of that attack.

89. The acts were committed in pursuance of a policy to target civilians broadly perceived as associated with the opposition, evidenced by the systematic occurrence of crimes across geographic areas. The existence of a State policy is further demonstrated by the fact that significant State resources were employed in the commission of the crimes and the way in which numerous State institutions throughout the country actively participated and coordinated operations at various levels of the sequential conduct, during which custodial deaths and other crimes occurred. Military and civilian courts consistently failed to order investigations into cases where detainees appearing before a judge were visibly ill-treated, sometimes displaying severe injuries, and in cases of deaths in custody.

90. The role of State institutions, namely the intelligence agencies and armed forces, and their leadership in actively executing mass arrests, transfers of detainees, their ill treatment and torture, and subsequent issuance of death certificates to misrepresent the circumstances of death in an effort to conceal detainee abuse, demonstrate the existence of State policy and commonality of criminal purpose.

93. Information suggests that deaths of detainees were meticulously reported up the chain of command in several detention facilities of intelligence directorates, and that the superiors of the detention facilities and intelligence directorates were aware of the deaths occurring. Information on those that died was also conveyed to the Military Police, who sometimes informed families. Information also suggests that rather than surrendering the bodies of the dead to their families, detainees were buried anonymously in mass graves.

97. Given the above, it is apparent that the Government authorities administering prisons and detention centres were aware that deaths on a massive scale were occurring. The accumulated custodial deaths were brought about by inflicting life conditions in a calculated awareness that such conditions would cause mass deaths of detainees in the ordinary course of events, and occurred in the pursuance of a State policy to attack a civilian population. There are reasonable grounds to believe that the conduct described amounts to extermination as a crime against humanity.

98. The commission further finds that the Government is responsible for the crimes against humanity of murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.

99. The commission’s factual findings further provide reasonable grounds to believe that, in relation to relevant conduct occurring after the start of the armed conflict, the Government has committed the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, torture, rape, sexual violence, and outrages upon personal dignity.

This is what Iran and Russia fight to preserve: a depraved, criminal iron lung pumping oxygen into ISIL’s recruitment effort worldwide. The notion that ISIL is, for Washington, Tehran, and Moscow, a common enemy was a convenient diplomatic fiction, one instrumental in creating the appearance of a Syrian peace process. That fiction cannot be sustained.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the [Assad regime’s] conduct…amounts to extermination as a crime against humanity.” It is for this that Iran and Russia fight. It is in the face of this that the United States remains inert.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: (Photo: Residents carry banners and opposition flags as they march during a protest in Aleppo, asking for the release of prisoners held in government jails and lifting of the siege on besieged areas, in the al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria January 24, 2016. The banner (C) reads: "No place for whoever allied with Bashar... among the revolutionaries". REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail)