“We will go down in history either as the world’s greatest statesmen or its worst villains.”
These were the indomitable words of Field Marshal Hermann Goring prior to the Nazis facing a crushing defeat and Goring himself facing trial in the world’s first war crimes tribunal. Had the Nazis emerged victorious, the tables would certainly have been reversed.
With Bashar al-Assad on the verge of complete victory in Syria, we can expect his regime to follow a similar trajectory of engineering the historical narrative to paint Assad as the greatest statesman and the civilian uprising as nothing but a plot by dark foreign powers and Islamists.
In fact, much of this groundwork has already been laid by Putin’s cyber warriors with the demonization of the White Helmets and declaring all opposition to Assad as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
In fact, much of this groundwork has already been laid by Putin’s cyber warriors with the demonization of the White Helmets and declaring all opposition to Assad as al-Qaeda and ISISDr. Azeem Ibrahim
And the West, suffering from guilt after a complete dereliction of duty of standing up for their own values, will likely not offer much resistance. After all absence of war is much more important than justice and accountability. The Syrian people who rose up against a brutal dictator and paid with their lives will simply be recast as enemies of stability.
This handbook for beating a civilian population into submission will become a must read for any authoritarian regime facing a popular uprising within its territory. Militarily, first encircle the target area and block all traffic of food.
Then, bomb hospitals to ensure insufficient medical facilities when casualties start mounting up. Last, use munitions with the highest psychological impact, such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons to break the targets into surrendering. In case you were not certain, yes, all three of these tactics are explicit war crimes.
Evidence of war crimes
What used to happen until now, however, is that the propaganda offensive by the Russian information warfare machine to obfuscate and confuse the evidence for war crimes committed by Assad and the Kremlin started either as during the acts themselves, or immediately after.
But this has now changed, and the Kremlin has moved onto the next logical evolution of its propaganda capabilities: pre-emptive misinformation. Prior to any offensive, the Kremlin-backed “media” channels started pushing the narrative that the rebels are acquiring and planning to use chemical weapons.
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This did two things: 1) it supposedly gave Assad and Putin cause and urgency to step up their offensive against the rebels; and 2) if chemical weapons were to be deployed, well this time “we know” that it was the rebels who had such weapons on hand.
Translation: an all-out military assault is necessary even if it will be utter bloodbath, complete with liberal deployment of chemical weapons and any other illegal weapons and munitions against civilian targets deemed necessary to shatter the psyche of the local population.
Under normal circumstances, such advance warning of intent to commit war crimes by clearly identifiable state actors would be useful in formulating a response from the international community, which might prevent such an attack, or at least mitigate it to some extent.
But we do not live in normal time. The incumbent administration in the United States has no personal moral interest in humanitarian concerns, either around the globe or indeed in their own country, China does not get involved in these kinds of disputes as matter of policy, and the rest of Western Europe has neither the leadership, nor the will, to risk direct confrontation with any serious adversary.
The aftermath of this kind of assault is equally predictable. Tens to hundreds of thousands dead, horrific pictures on the news, a new wave of refugees heading towards Europe, and the tacit acceptance by the West that the situation is what it is, and nothing can be done about it now – “at least the regime is killing terrorists”, is what they will be telling themselves.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.