Mick Clifford: Reeling in a brutal dictator on the verge of respectability

"It has been stated that there is more evidence than there was collected by the Allies to try the Nazis after World War Two," regarding Bashar al-Assad's war crimes, says Irish journalist Ronan Tynan.
Mick Clifford: Reeling in a brutal dictator on the verge of respectability

Syria's President Bashar Assad is sworn for his third, seven-year term, in Damascus, Syria, on July 16, 2014. Picture: AP Photo/Syrian Presidency via Facebook

Ronan Tynan is watching agog at the rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian dictator is tiptoeing back to international respectability.

Just last week, Assad spoke by phone to King Abdullah of Jordan, the first contact between the neighbouring rulers since Syria first fell into war in 2011. There are reports that the Biden administration is tacitly supporting Assad’s rehabilitation. In July, Arab states lobbied Biden to allow Syria to partake in a multi-state deal to export gas to Lebanon.

If Biden acquiesced, it would require the waiving of human-rights sanctions imposed by the US. All of this points to Assad coming out of the bunker and walking among national leaders again. 

He ruthlessly murdered thousands of his own people,” says Tynan, an Irish filmmaker. “He oversaw the torture of thousands more and he is still in power and looking secure. Now the reports are that he is being allowed back into the international mainstream."

Tynan and his partner, Anne Daly, have made their second film about the Syrian conflict. 

The couple have been producing award-winning documentaries, principally about the developing world, for the last 25 years with their company, Esperanza Productions.

The destruction of Syria was an obvious area of interest for them, and in 2018 they launched Syria — The Impossible Revolution, which examined the roots of the conflict and its fallout.

Now they have moved forward to the issue of consequences. Bringing Assad to Justice follows attempts by various groups outside the country to compile a case against the dictator so that he may face international justice for myriad war crimes.

As world leaders whisper about how to bring him back in from the cold, many who were tortured in his prisons and are now living abroad plan how to ensure he is instead brought to justice.

The film recently received its Irish debut screening in Dublin’s IFI, at which retired chief justice Frank Clarke described it as “a most powerful piece of cinema”.

So after completing one piece of work on Syria, what brought them back for more?

“Anne and myself were depressed and almost traumatised after doing Syria — The Impossible Revolution,” Tynan says. “There didn’t seem to be any hope there or any chance of up to 6m refugees who’ve had to leave, returning there.

“Then we discovered a justice and accountability movement. 

These Syrians had taken part in the peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011 and then had been imprisoned and tortured. Now they are building an evidence-based case against Assad.”

The extent of the brutality of Assad’s regime is now widely accepted. Tynan quotes one foreign correspondent who described the conflict as “a war crime masquerading as a war”. 

Assad bombed his own people from the air; he gassed them with chemical weapons; he also imprisoned hundreds of thousands and subjected them to concerted torture.

A picture taken on March 8, 2018, shows a Syrian child walking down a street past rubble from destroyed buildings, in the rebel-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of Damascus. Picture: HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on March 8, 2018, shows a Syrian child walking down a street past rubble from destroyed buildings, in the rebel-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of Damascus. Picture: HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images

Only the lucky ones survived. One victim who survived recounts in the film how she was held in a cell one metre by one-and-a-half metres and tortured daily. She was allowed one trip to the bathroom a day, usually at around 2am, when the prison was quiet. Going to and from the bathroom, she would see all the bodies of the recently dead lying around.

A photographer, given the codename 'Ceaser', was a forensic photographer for the regime. His job was to photograph the dead in the prisons. He began working for the oppositions — risking not just his own life, but those of his extended family.

Eventually, he made it to Europe with an extensive file that ultimately identified 7,000 victims of the regime, murdered in prison. The prison in which he worked was only one of dozens scattered around the country where the same horror was perpetrated.

Bringing Assad to Justice also features Irish video-analysis journalist Malachy Browne, who now works for the New York Times.

Malachy Browne from Limerick, a journalist and editor who has pioneered international investigative reporting via eyewitness media, open-source reporting and community engagement. Picture: Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD
Malachy Browne from Limerick, a journalist and editor who has pioneered international investigative reporting via eyewitness media, open-source reporting and community engagement. Picture: Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD

Using all the technology at his disposal, Browne was able to show that a bombing campaign by Assad’s forces in which a hospital was hit directly was not a mistake, but an actual target. Killing people in hospitals was used as a choice tactic of terror against his own people.

“There is mountains of evidence assembled,” Tynan says. 

Objectively, it has been stated that there is more evidence than there was collected by the Allies to try the Nazis after World War Two. All that is missing is political will.”

Russian objections meant Assad was not subjected to the International Criminal Court, but those pursuing him now hope he may face trial at some point under “universal jurisdiction” law, in which a case can be brought against a war criminal for crimes committed in a different country.

Germany is the model for such a law and has put two officials from Assad’s regime on trial there. The dictator is en route to rehabilitation among world leaders, it would appear, but those who are pursuing him will not rest until he answers for his extensive crimes.

Bringing Assad to Justice is available online at Vimeo. Ronan Tynan is the guest on this week’s Mick Clifford Podcast.

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