Assad: learning lessons from Serbia's Milosevic

This week the most conclusive evidence of Syria's brutal regime was smuggled out of the country, into the hands of leading international lawyers and released to the public; photographs of 11,000 detainees, some covered in blood, some with no eyes and others bearing the signs of strangulation, brutal beatings and torture.

The pictures are part of a mammoth archive obtained by a former employee (who has been codenamed Caesar) of the military police in the Syrian government. His initial role in the service was to photograph crime scenes, but when the conflict begun he documented bodies brought into the military hospital.

After "psychological suffering" Caesar defected, storing the images on memory sticks before smuggling them out of the country via anti-government activists. The activists then contacted the Qatari government, who hired a London law firm to assess the legitimacy of the images.

Between them the legal team working on the case have brought about the arrest and indictment of Liberian President Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone and led the prosecution for Slobodan Milosevic, former president of ex-Yugoslavia, at the International Criminal Tribunal.

Their report on the findings - which will be forwarded to the UN, governments and human rights group - was obtained first by the Guardian and CNN on Monday. It coincides with the beginning of peace talks in Switzerland today which aim to reach a political transition plan to end the crisis.

Based on interviews with Caesar, and on evaluating his evidence, the legal team came to the conclusion that he was "a truthful and reliable witness" and that "there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government."

This would, the report continues, support findings of crimes against humanity and war crimes against the current regime; the hope is that the evidence could lead to the prosecution of Syrian officials, primarily Bashar al Assad, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

But Syria is not actually a member of the ICC and so attempts to try Assad there will be problematic. The case is unlikely to be referred via the UN Security Council, considering Assad's closest ally Russia is likely to veto such efforts. Earlier this month Russia said that such an action would be "counterproductive."

Syria's ally Russia

Western governments have long pressurised Russia to help get Assad out of Syria and offer him asylum, but despite international condemnation it continues to support the disgraced leader.

One of the reasons is the billions of dollars they collect from Damascus in arms sales. Another is Russia's naval station in the Syrian port of Tartous, considered by some to be Moscow's foothold in the Mediterranean. Their resistance implies they are worried the same could happen to them and at the same time sends out a message that the UN and the west do not have the right to act as the world's policeman and decide what happens to a sovereign state.

Back in 1999, Russia made a similar statement though then it was in relation to NATO airstrikes on Kosovo and Serbia following Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's vicious crackdown on Kosovan Albanians. At an emergency meeting at the United Nations Security Council in New York Sergey Lavrov, who was the Russian ambassador at the time, accused NATO of trying to be the "global policeman." Both Assad and Milosevic found a key ally in Russia, despite their increasing international isolation.

Having a friend in Russia is not the only similarity that can be drawn between the two countries. Both have manipulated ethnic-sectarian tensions and positioned themselves as the only one capable of maintaining the peace. They both tried desperately to keep hold of the reins of power whilst at the same time navigating increasing opposition at home.

But they also have their differences. The opposition in Serbia was largely peaceful, for example, yet in Syria they have taken up arms due to the brutality of Assad's methods. Neither did the Serbian President have Iran as an ally, providing arms and aid to the opposition, as is happening in Syria.

In the end, Russia joined the west, cooperated with NATO and pressed Milosevic to surrender and the former President accepted a peace plan on 3 June. Eventually Milosevic was arrested by the Serbian government and charged with committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia. He became the first former head of state to be tried at The Hague.

Still, it was Russia that his family fled to when they finally let go of power in Yugoslavia. His wife, son and brother were offered political asylum in Borviha, Moscow, just around the corner from Russian President Valdimir Putin. Last year his brother, Borislav Milosevic, told the New York Times that if the Assad's sought asylum here, it would not bring the neighbourhood down. On accepting Asma al-Assad, the Syrian President's wife, and their children here, said it would be a "humanitarian gesture."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor