“It is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”
This is the charge laid by the British ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, in a vituperative meeting of the Security Council on 25 September 2016. In comments unrestrained by the normal diplomatic niceties, Britain, France and the US openly condemned Russia as “an international pariah”.
The war crimes accusations centered on the widespread use of bunker-busting and incendiary bombs on the 275,000 civilians living in the rebel-held east of the city, weapons that Moscow’s accusers say were dropped by Russian aircraft.
“Bunker-busting bombs, more suited to destroying military installations, are now destroying homes, decimating bomb shelters, crippling, maiming, killing dozens, if not hundreds,” said Rycroft.
François Delattre, France’s UN ambassador, specifically declared that the use ofbunker-busters and incendiaries on urban residential areas was a war crime.
“Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia,” he said. “This week will go down in history as the one in which diplomacy failed and barbarism triumphed”.
Delattre’s comparison with the battle of Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict was both apt and significant. When the stricken capital of Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serb militias for no less than 1,425 days – from 2 April 1992 until 29 February 1996 – former US president Bill Clinton made little effort to intervene. NATO mounted a few rather ineffective air-strikes which did little to deter the Serb military, who continued to target the civilian population with shells and sniper fire, killing in all some 14,000 people.
Delattre no doubt wished to remind both Russian President Valdimir Putin and Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad that, as a result, on 24 March 2016 Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić stood trial in the International Criminal Tribunal, was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. His trial and sentence had been preceded by that of General Dragomir Milosevic in 2007 (29 years), and General Momcilo Pensic in 2011 (27 years).
“Though the mills of justice grind slowly,” Delattre might have been saying, “they grind exceeding small.”
The first of the war trials arising from the siege of Sarajevo, mounted in 2003, saw the commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, General Stanislav Galic, sentenced to life imprisonment. The prosecutor in his opening statement read out charges that have an uncanny contemporary relevance in the bombardment of Aleppo. Not since World War One, he said, “had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death.”
Putin has doubtless calculated that the prospect, however justifiable, of his ever standing trial charged with war crimes is remote in the extreme; he doubtless assesses that the likelihood of Assad eventually facing justice is perhaps a tad more possible. But he has almost certainly convinced himself that if their joint effort to regain the whole of Aleppo succeeds, neither will ever be brought to account, regardless of the brutal and inhumane means they have used to do so, In the Machiavellian world view which prevails in global affairs, might is almost always right – a doctrine which Putin exemplifies, with the anschluss of Ukraine under his belt, eastern Crimea increasingly under his control, and a towering Russian presence in the Middle East achieved in the power vacuum created by President Obama’s abdication of the US’s previous dominance of the region.
Just as in the 1930s, while Mussolini and Hitler blatantly contravened international agreements, expanded their military might and invaded or occupied smaller nations, world powers have so far averted their gaze from Putin’s amoral march towards a status for the Russian Republics akin to that of the old Soviet Union. The ruckus at the recent Security Council meeting may be the first sign that the world will not stand idly by on this occasion. Russia and its client state – the rump of the Syria that was – have ridden roughshod over the conventions of acceptable military action, especially where civilians and children are concerned – and this time they may not get away with it.
Retribution may not come by way of charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal, at least not in the first instance. In his UN intervention Matthew Rycroft hinted that Western powers must consider coercive measures to force Russia to back away.
“We must now do more than demand or urge. We must now decide what we can do to enforce an end to bombardment,” he said. The West could consider economic sanctions or a diplomatic move against Russia to try to force it to change course.
The Russians are mightily irked by sanctions already taken in respect of their Ukrainian adventure. Putin characterized them as “the USA’s unfriendly acts toward Russia,” and “a threat to strategic stability.” As he signed a decree on October 3 suspending his country’s participation in a treaty with the US designed to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Putin’s decree stipulates that Moscow will resume its participation in the accord only if the US lifts all anti-Russian sanctions, compensates Russia for the sanctions-related losses and reduces the US military presence in Eastern Europe to pre-2000 levels (NATO opened command points in six eastern European nations in 2015 to enable swift deployment of troops and arms if necessary).
Moreover personal sanctions and travel bans against Russian officials clearly discomfort the regime, for Putin’s decree specifically wants the US to remove them. They hurt some of Putin’s oldest and closest allies whose family members live or study in Western Europe or the United States.
In a statement posted on his ministry website, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Attempts to talk to Russia from the position of power - to use the language of sanctions and ultimatums, and at the same time, to continue a selective partnership with our country only in the areas that are beneficial to the US – are not going to work.”
If sanctions are, for the moment, the only effective counter measure to Russia’s naked aggression and its support for Syria’s brutal military assault on its opponents, regardless of the effect on the civilian population, then let the West clamp down hard with renewed and crippling sanctions – and soon. Something must stop the Behemoth in its tracks.
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