Indict Syrian President Assad, but not now

The question is not whether Syrian President Bashar Al Assad should stand trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague but when.

There can be no doubt: shelling the homes of innocent civilians and killing your own population constitutes a war crime. So does the employment of tanks and heavy weaponry against peaceful protesters.
Indicting Mr. Assad and his cohorts sends a powerful message, a message that was first composed when years ago a Spanish judge indicted former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet for violation of human rights.

The message is that political leaders, elected or not, are not above the law and cannot act with impunity.

The question of when Mr. Assad should be indicted is a tactical one.

The answer is simple: at the moment that an indictment does not complicate putting an end to Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The recent indictment of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi on charges of war crimes demonstrates that now is not the right moment even if it would be morally satisfying.

The indictment strengthened Mr. Qaddafi’s resolve to continue fighting NATO-backed rebels and to drive a hard bargain in talks aimed at ending the crisis in his country.

It has meant that NATO countries have been forced to drop their demand that Mr. Qaddafi leave Libya as part of any deal. The indictment means he has nowhere to go without running the risk of arrest and therefore little choice but to fight on in the absence of a deal that guarantees him immunity.

And even then, the question for Mr. Qaddafi remains what immunity would mean. The ICC made clear last week that it is the only authority that has the power to rescind the arrest warrant and that any pledge to Mr. Qaddafi that it would not be executed is null and void.

With other words indicting Mr. Assad now would be counterproductive. The Syrian leader has already boxed himself into a corner. An indictment at this point would seal the box.

The priority has to be ending the violence in Syria as soon as possible. That is easier said than done and more blood is likely to flow before the situation in Syria is resolved.

Mr. Assad’s position is already untenable, he has nowhere to go. An indictment now would only reinforce that.
That however is no license for not holding Mr. Assad accountable. His time will and should come, but only in due course.


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