Repeated statements by Western politicians about Russia’s involvement in war crimes in Syria have suddenly shifted. The U.S. president-elect’s pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, refused to name Russia’s actions in Syria as war crimes when questioned on January 11 at a Senate hearing into his nomination.
Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez asked Tillerson several times during the hearings to share his opinion on war crimes in Syria. He dodged.
Tillerson said that he wouldn’t want to rely solely upon what has been reported in the public realm. He said he can’t support serious allegations against Russia without having a lot of sufficient information before to make such a conclusion.
It was clear that it was difficult and inconvenient for the candidate to answer such questions. Apparently the U.S. has no direct evidence of Russia being guilty of war crimes which Tillerson would likely be informed.
Regardless of Syria, the main task of the future head of the U.S. State Department is preparing for his appointment to office. That means not only correctly answering questions but also developing the ability to dodge a question. This will undoubtedly be important and useful for Tillerson if he wants to gain the public support for U.S. foreign policy. All this may explain the difficulties in answering some of the questions at the Senate hearings.
Meanwhile, the deputy spokesperson for the States Department, Mark Toner also had to answer questions like that during a regular press conference on January 12. Once again, the topic of accusations against Russia was raised.
Mark Toner said the Obama’s administration was not ready to accuse Russia of conducting war crimes in Syria. Being an experienced spokesperson, however, he hastened to point out that the U.S. condemns Russia’s actions in Syria, especially in Aleppo.
These are difficult times for U.S. policy in Syria. The U.S. has watched the successful conclusion of the operation in the Eastern Aleppo where tens of thousands of civilians were rescued and saved from further warfare and bloodshed. The ceasefire in Aleppo was a big blow to the massive campaign by the U.S. and others to discredit Russia in the eyes of the international community.
It is strange to hear the cautionary statements made by Tillerson and Toner after the West’s persistent allegations of atrocities committed by Russia in Syria.
According to The Independent newspaper in the UK 11 months ago, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made especially harsh condemnations of Russia’s actions in Syria.
He said that Russian military power increase in Syria strengthens the position of President Bashar al-Assad and, thus, increases the responsibility for the crimes committed by the government forces during the civil war. “The Russians have given the regime [Syrian government] another gasp of life and that is bad news for everyone,” Hammond said.
Bloomberg went even further in accusations that were levied in September 2015. The news agency reported that Russia and its leaders could be vulnerable under international law to accusations of direct incitement to commit war crimes.
Former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp also remembers when Bashar al-Assad was accused of using the chemical weapons and torturing civilians or committing war crimes such as dropping barrel bombs on civilians, which, by the way, has not been confirmed yet. According to the former ambassador, it is sufficient to prove that Russian officials were aware of the Syrian president’s actions.
Perhaps, Western countries are afraid of getting into a trap themselves. International law professor William Schabas tells Bloomberg that other countries could also find themselves charged with involvement in war crimes. For example, he says, there is a real opportunity the U.S. could find itself charged with war crimes. According to the current ‘Leahy Law’, the U.S. government is obliged to prevent aid delivery to armed forces that violate human rights. But the U.S. is presently supporting the Iraqi military and South Sudan’s army, both of which stand accused of war crimes. What’s more, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez has called on the United States to investigate the violations of ‘Leahy Law’ concerning the annual multimillion-dollar military aid from the United States to the armed forces of Azerbaijan.
Thus, the question of Russia’s responsibility for war crimes in Syria is an easy target for those who wish to manipulate public opinion for the sake of selfish political or economic interests. Western responsibility includes not only war crimes and ‘mistakes’ by the international coalition but also the absence of any strategy in the actions taken by the U.S. administration. A lack of coordination leads to distrust and a continuing humanitarian crisis in Syria. Let us hope that Trump’s team will aim at resolving the conflict in Syria instead of groundlessly accusing one side.