Talk to Bashar al-Assad’s enemies, and they’ll tell you he’s to blame for every man, woman and child who has been killed in Syria. That’s 400,000. Or 450,000. Or 500,000. The figures, so carelessly put together by the media, the UN and the various opposition groups who naturally want the statistics to be as high as possible, now embrace 100,000 souls who may – or may not – be still alive. But death tolls have nothing to do with compassion. They are about blame, about culpability.
And the claim that Assad is responsible for every one of the dead rests on the notion that he “started the war”. In his case, this means that the arrest and torture – and in one case, reported killing – of a group of schoolchildren who had written anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Dera’a, was the ignition switch for the mass opposition rallies and subsequent armed uprising which has devastated Syria. In the case of Dera’a, Assad realised the seriousness of the event – he fired the city governor and sent his deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad to see the families. Too late.
In the age of Arab revolutions, routine torture was no longer excusable. And when large crowds of largely peaceful demonstrators were attacked by armed troops and militias, the Syrian war became unstoppable. But unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes whose autocrats respectively fled to Saudi Arabia and an Egyptian hospital, Assad fought on. He declared war on “terrorism”, claiming that his armed enemies were paid and weaponised by the West – which was largely true – and that a plot was underway to overthrow him, which was very definitely true. And then Isis arrived.
The notion has since grown up that Isis was also a product of Assad’s war and that he was thus also to blame for their mass murders and throat-cuttings in Syria. This, of course, is nonsense. Isis was a creature born of the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. Isis was the direct result of our brutal occupation of Iraq. The blood-curdling activities of Isis are the responsibility of those two deeply Christian gentlemen who decided to illegally invade another sovereign state under false pretences and whose criminal adventure led to the deaths of up to half a million Iraqis – weirdly enough, the same death toll now being credited to Assad by his most ferocious enemies.
But the word “responsibility” introduces another perspective. Who was “responsible” for the Syrian war? The Assad family, whose dictatorship stretched back to 1971, can be accused of creating a state whose intrinsic (and undemocratic) flaws would one day engulf the country in mass violence. Individual acts of repression – the Hama slaughter of 1982, for example – could be defined as war crimes, although the regime’s enemies were murdering Syrian officials and their families at the time and the Americans (the saintly Reagan) were then more than happy to allow Hafez el-Assad to polish off his Muslim Brotherhood enemies.
History time. The First World War was triggered, quite literally, by the killing of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo – but no one claims that Gavrilo Princip was either responsible or “to blame” for the killing of over 17 million people. We can blame the Germans, of course, who invaded Belgium and France, although oddly we never paid as much attention to Kaiser Wilhelm as we did to “Prussian militarism”. Perhaps because the Kaiser had a withered hand and was a rather pathetic figure, he never acquired the pariah status of later German monsters.
And then we come to the Second World War – which means a dangerous journey into SpicerWorld. Between 60 and 70 million men, women and children were killed in this worst of all the titanic conflicts in history. And yes, we do blame Hitler and say that, yes, he and his Nazi raptors were actually responsible for the 1939-45 Second World War. And this would be correct. This would probably have to exclude the Chinese who were invaded and occupied by the Japanese Empire, for whom the war began in 1937. And of course, the Soviet Union was only invaded by the Nazis in June 1941 after enjoying almost two years of an outrageous alliance with Hitler. And the US only joined the war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, after America had enjoyed more than two years of profitable neutrality. But Hitler then declared war on America – not the other way round – thus associating himself with Japan’s war crimes.
And Hitler does, I believe, prove to be the undeniable exception. He wanted war and he wanted to kill the Jews – long before he was able to satisfy these truly evil aspirations. His Nazi regime was utterly irredeemable. It had not a single moral feature in its existence. He was to blame. He was culpable. He was responsible. And yes, he was a really wicked man. And he did use chemical weapons on the innocent Jews of Europe. I’ve just finished re-reading DC Watt’s extraordinary account of those last twelve months of peace – How War Came: Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-39 – and I come away exhausted at the sheer villainy of Hitler and his henchmen, not to mention the shame of those democrats who tried to believe in him.
But then we come to individual events. German invasions, the Blitz on Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Belgrade, Warsaw again… All war crimes. And then we come to the RAF and the USAF which destroyed Dresden, whose mass civilian casualties – along with even greater numbers in the fire-storming of Hamburg – must be laid at the individual hands of Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. He knew that if you burn a medieval city, you kill civilians in their tens of thousands. And he went ahead and burned them. During the 1940 Blitz, he said of the Germans – slightly misquoting the Book of Hosea – that “they sowed the wind, and now, they are going to reap the whirlwind”. And Harris’ whirlwind tore through the Germans cities in a tempest of fire. So does a war crime expunge another war crime? Do Hiroshima and Nagasaki shrug off the criminal cloud because of the vicious imperial regime and its murderers which Japan imposed so cruelly upon its own occupied lands?
So now let’s come back, carefully, frighteningly, to the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein, used gas “on his own people” at Halabja, he was, as we all know (but like to forget), killing Kurds who had aligned themselves with the Iranian enemy – with whom Saddam’s Iraq was in mortal combat. This cannot justify such wickedness. Trial recordings in Baghdad after Saddam’s hanging proved that he knew the physical effects of gas. Saddam wanted the people of Halabja to suffer before death.
The fact that he did not personally drop the gas on the Kurdish town does not absolve him – any more than we were prepared to absolve the war crimes in Kosovo for which Slobodan Milosevic was indicted at The Hague. Because we believe not just in blame but in responsibility. Yet Harris, long dead, would say that while he took responsibility for Dresden, he was not to blame – it was Hitler, who “sowed the wind”, who was culpable. And thus we burrow down into the dark world of war crimes trials.
We are told now that Bashar al-Assad should be made amenable for war crimes. And national leaders should indeed be liable before international law. That includes not just regional Arab dictators – I can think of some Saudi princes who might stand in the dock for war crimes in Yemen, though I promise you they are safe from any such outcome – but leaders of much larger, much richer Western countries. And so we come back, naturally enough, to Messrs Bush and Blair. They never used gas. In fact, Blair’s constant refrain – that “we” weren’t as bad as Saddam – would become his mantra whenever he was accused of committing the crime of aggression. Saddam was to blame. He was responsible.
And now anyone can use that line. Bashar is not as bad as Isis, you may say – although his enemies are getting close to claiming that he is. But no Baathist suicide killers are trying to massacre civilians in Paris, Brussels, London, St Petersburg or in the US. And here we must recall when Amnesty produce details of hanging in Assad’s prisons, that only a few years ago Bush and Blair themselves were dispatching civilians to be tortured in these very same prisons (along with their satellite jails in Egypt, Morocco and Libya) during their notorious policy of “rendition” – for Britain, it will be recalled, sent one of Gaddafi’s principal opponents off to Tripoli for a dose of prolonged torture and imprisonment. And didn’t we all love Saddam when he invaded Iran in 1980, even though we knew he hanged his enemies on mass gallows at the time at the Abu Ghraib prison, an institution to which we later turned our own torturing hands?
Yes, it’s a pretty fraught question, this business of blame and culpability and guilt and responsibility. And war crimes. Putin’s not in the clear either. Ukraine. Sevastapol. The bombing of Aleppo. But what we need is evidence. Not anonymous officials and unnamed intelligence sources and all the other comedians on the journalistic stage. Nor the dead whose numbers wobble by a difference of 100,000 bodies. Let’s remember that the 30,000 dead of the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam turned out at Nuremberg to be nearer to 900 (still terrible, but not quite the same figure).
So why not keep our fingers off the missile triggers for a while, restrain the Hollywood adventures of the “special forces” and those who love the “mother of all bombs”? Why don’t we find the lawyers and the judges and the legal clerks and the international police investigators and the judicial institutions which we were gathering long before the Second World War ended? Why not go after evidence?
Who are the killers? Who gave them the orders? And this means not just who gave the orders to the killers of Syria. It also means – do not mention here the kings and prince of the Gulf – that we must discover who is really behind Isis? And that, I suspect, is the question of this decade.