Will Russia be tried for war crimes in Syria?

Syrian activists say they have given U.N. investigators evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Russia and Iran in Syria, calling for their leaders to be tried and brought to justice.

By the summer of 2015, President Assad seemed on the verge of being overthrown. Then Russia launched its military intervention as an air campaign, and Iran increased the number of its forces in Syria tilting the ride of war in Assad regime’s favor.

Iran has offered support for Assad regime and sent ground forces and Shi’ite militia fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. These militias were essential forces who helped Assad regime to achieve many victories against the Syrian rebels and to make many massacres against the civilians.

The last major victory for Assad in Aleppo was achieved after long months of the siege imposed on the civilians, starvation tactics, and daily bombardment with international banned ammunition.

Evidence of Russia’s crimes

Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and Husam Alkatlaby, director of the Violations Documentation Center, met U.N. investigators on Wednesday to press the case for probing crimes committed during the long siege and recapture of rebel-held eastern Aleppo last month.

Abdul Ghany said activists “found a similarity between the violations committed by the Russians and the regime, and sometimes the Russians exceed the regime in some kinds of violations”.

“We recorded the killing of 1,305 civilians at the hands of Russian forces,” he told Reuters, referring to victims of hundreds of Russian air strikes between July and December 2016. Roughly one-third of fatalities were children.

“All incidents we provided are violations of IHL (international humanitarian law). Lots of them amount to war crimes, especially targeting the vital civilian centers, especially when we are speaking about hospitals.”

“The Russian air force was trying to target specific points, for example hospitals, schools or whatever. They fly at higher altitude (than the Syrian air force) – this comes through in the testimonies, the interviews,” Alkatlaby said.

The activists, joined by the “White Helmets” civil defense teams and the Independent Doctors Association, documented 31 cluster munition attacks in Aleppo by Russian forces and three by Syrian government forces, as well as their use of banned incendiary weapons, Abdul Ghany said.

“There is clear evidence that the attacks by Russia on Syrian civilians constitute war crimes,” the four groups said in a joint letter to the COI’s chairman Paulo Pinheiro, whose team is expected to issue a report on Aleppo in February.

“We also urge the Commission to explore fully all credible accounts of Iran’s complicity in war crimes in Aleppo,” it said, citing the “central role” of Iranian-backed militias in enforcing the siege and preventing civilians from fleeing.

Abdul Ghany said a special tribunal should be set up to try war crimes, since Russia would veto attempts to send the issue to the International Criminal Court.

“Now we need from the COI to push forward toward this mechanism in order to prosecute the perpetrators. Otherwise there is no meaning for all of this documentation work.”

US: We are not sure

However, the US administration seems net eager to start a move against Russia that may deepen the rift between them.

This matter started a huge debate between the US senators, as the Secretary of State nominee in Trump’s er refused to make any direct accusations to Russia.

US Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he’s not prepared based on his knowledge or what’s been reported in the public realm to classify Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.

At his confirmation hearing, Tillerson, a former Exxon chairman and CEO, was pressed on the issue by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who ran against President-elect Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.

“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal,” Rubio asked Tillerson.

Tillerson responded: “I would not use that term.”

Rubio retorted, “Let me describe the situation in Aleppo [Syria], and perhaps that will help you reach that conclusion. In Aleppo, Mr. Putin has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign.”

“He’s targeted schools, markets, not just assisting the Syrians in doing it. His military has targeted schools and markets and other civilian infrastructure that resulted in the death of thousands of civilians,” Rubio added.

“I understand there’s a body of record in the public domain. I’m sure there’s a body of record in the classified domain,” Tillerson said. “Those are very, very serious charges to make. I would want much more information before reaching a conclusion.”

“Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissident journalists and political opponents?” he asked.

Tillerson: “I do not have sufficient information to make that claim.” To advise future president Trump, he added, it’s important “that I deal with facts.”

“None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” Rubio shot back. “These people are dead.”

Said Tillerson: “I’m not disputing these people are dead.”

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.