The atrocities have been relentless. Protesters gunned down in the streets. An opposition singer whose vocal chords were carved out. Beheadings and mass sectarian killings. Barrels full of explosives dropped from warplanes onto bakeries and homes.
It will be hard enough to find a political solution to Syria’s crisis at an international peace conference convening in Switzerland today, given the vast differences between the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the opposition. In a nation drowning in blood, reconciliation and justice over the atrocities seem even more distant.
“The ethical and moral fabric of this society has been stretched to beyond breaking point,” said Amr al-Azm, a US-based Syrian opposition figure and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. “For a country to recover from such a traumatic rupture of the very glue that holds it together is not easy.”
In the latest sign of the brutality, three prominent international war-crimes experts said they had received a huge cache of photographs documenting the killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities.
David Crane, one of the three experts, said the cache provides strong evidence for charging Assad and others for crimes against humanity.
In the 55,000 digital images, smuggled out by a defector from Syria’s military police, the victims’ bodies showed signs of torture, including ligature marks around the neck and marks of beatings, while others show extreme emaciation suggestive of starvation. Syrian authorities photographed each body to show those who ordered their deaths that the executions had been carried out, according to the report.
“The last time you see this type of industrialised killing with this type of records keeping, you have to go back to Nuremberg,” Crane said, referring to the post- World War II trials of Nazi atrocities.
“It’s chilling; it’s direct evidence to show systematic killing of civilians,” said Crane, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the US has focused too strongly on bringing the warring parties into peace talks at the expense of putting “real pressure” on the Assad government to end atrocities and hold to account those responsible. The group also accused Russia and China of shielding Syria from concrete action at the UN.
“The mass atrocities being committed in Syria should be a parallel focus of the peace process,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Berlin.
The peace talks were in disarray before they even began, buffeted by a botched UN invitation to Iran.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s unexpected, last-minute decision on Sunday to invite Assad’s main foreign backer Iran — only to withdraw the invitation a day later — proved a diplomatic fiasco, undermining talks that are already given little chance of success.
The peace conference set to begin today will include the first talks between Assad and his opponents. But neither side shows any sign of retreating from its demands or being able to end the war with a victory.
Around a third of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes, many to refugee camps abroad; half are in desperate need of international aid. The country at the heart of the Middle East has been carved up on ethnic and sectarian lines, with neighbours and distant powers lining up to arm and fund rival factions.
It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure.
“At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on,” said one Western diplomat.
“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimisation to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table.
“And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”
The opposition says the talks, taking place in Montreux, must seek Assad’s removal from power; he says the only subject to discuss should be fighting terrorists, the label he uses for all his armed opponents.
The opposition team is headed by Ahmed Jarba, leader of the opposition National Coalition, which only agreed to attend at the last minute and nearly pulled out on Monday over Ban’s invitation to Iran.
On the rebel side, the talks could increase the already ferocious internal strife among rival factions. The conference is being boycotted by the powerful Sunni Islamist factions that control territory inside Syria. They have denounced the exiled political opposition as traitors for attending.
The main ethnic Kurdish faction, which controls a large swathe of the northwest, has not been invited.
The UN secretary-general arrived in Geneva yesterday.
His aides shielded him from journalists’ questions about the Iran affair, which ended with a dispute over whether Iran had agreed to pre-conditions to attend.
A Western diplomat described the day as “a real mess” and said Ban had made a gaffe that had almost led to the entire conference being cancelled and replaced with a bilateral meeting between Russia and the United States.