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Exclusive: Washington Cuts Funds for Investigating Bashar al-Assad’s War Crimes

The U.S. State Department plans to cut its entire $500,000 in annual funding next year to an organization dedicated to sneaking into abandoned Syrian military bases, prisons, and government facilities to collect documents and other evidence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its proxies to war crimes and other mass atrocities during the country’s ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Louai Beshara AFP/Getty Images
Louai Beshara AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department plans to cut its entire $500,000 in annual funding next year to an organization dedicated to sneaking into abandoned Syrian military bases, prisons, and government facilities to collect documents and other evidence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its proxies to war crimes and other mass atrocities during the country’s brutal civil war, according to the recipient of the assistance and a senior U.S. official.

The move, which has not previously been reported, comes as the Obama administration is stepping up funding to collect evidence of war crimes in Iraq by the Islamic State, an extremist Islamist organization that has horrified the world with its mass killings, enslavement of women, and beheadings of ethnic minorities, foreign aid workers, and journalists, including two American reporters who were executed in recent months. The funding shift has raised concern among human rights advocates that the United States and its allies are reducing their commitment to holding the Syrian leader accountable for the majority of Syria’s atrocities because the interests of Washington and Damascus are converging over the fight against the Islamic State.

For the past two years, the U.S. State Department has channeled a total of $1 million in funds to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a group of international war crimes prosecutors that sends local researchers, lawyers, and law students into Syrian battle zones to collect and extract files and other evidence that can help map the Syrian command structure and identify the military orders authorizing illegal activities, including barrel bomb campaigns, the starvation of besieged towns, and a spate of mass murders that have pushed the conflict’s death toll past 190,000 since March 2011.

The materials are part of a growing storehouse of evidence being collected inside Syria and then transported outside the country for safekeeping in the event that a court is set up at some time in the future for war crimes trials for senior regime officials. The commission has served as a critical plank of an American strategy aimed at assembling enough evidence to hold some of Syria’s worst violators of human rights accountable for their crimes at some point in the future.

But in an abrupt reversal, Obama administration officials recently notified the commission that the State Department would be eliminating its $500,000-a-year contribution, according to the group. “We do not know what the U.S. policy is on this issue, but after extensive negotiations we were informed recently that we would not be receiving further support from the State Department DRL [the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor] to continue our activities in 2015,” Nerma Jelacic, the commission’s chief spokesperson, said in an email. “We were told that criminal investigations were not a priority for that program in 2015.”

Jelacic said the commission’s “document acquisition and processing operations will stop, depriving us [of] the core evidence on which to build next year’s caseload.” She hinted that the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, Stephen Rapp, had not supported the decision. “Ambassador Rapp and his team have been highly supportive of our work but they do not control the funding,” she said.

Jelacic, a former spokeswoman for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said her group’s work stands apart from other human rights groups working on the Syrian civil war. “No organization other than the CIJA is in fact building prosecution-ready case files with evidence pointing to the criminal liability of high and highest ranking individuals within the regime,” she said.

Rapp confirmed that State has ceased funding but said it does not indicate a lack of support for the commission and that Washington still believes its work is vital. The commission — which also receives a total of about $5 million per year from Britain, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland — has proven capable of raising enough funding without the need for American support, he said.

But a second senior U.S. official said the commission’s grant has simply “run its course.”

“As far as State Department funding for justice and accountability in Syria, there has been no change,” the official said. “The bottom line is that we remain 100 percent committed to collecting this kind of information.”

The State Department move comes as the United States has announced $1.6 million in new funding to help document war crimes by the Islamic State, an extremist group also known as ISIS and ISIL. Human rights advocates contend the move reflects a shift in priorities as the United States has intensified its war against the Islamic State, fueling doubts about the U.S. commitment to holding Assad’s regime accountable. “The emergence of ISIL in Iraq has led the U.S. government to downplay the importance of accountability for the most serious crimes committed in Syria over nearly four years,” said Richard Dicker, an expert on international criminal justice at Human Rights Watch. “The recent silence from the top levels of the Obama administration on ending impunity for these crimes committed by the Assad government and various armed insurgents has been deafening.”

More than two years ago, the Obama administration took the initiative to ensure that Syrian regime leaders would one day stand trial for their crimes. On April 1, 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed the establishment of “an accountability clearinghouse to support and train Syrian citizens working to document atrocities, identify perpetrators, and safeguard evidence for future investigations and prosecutions.” Several months later, the State Department help set up the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) with $1.25 million in start-up funds. The center, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands, and has received a total of $3.7 million in donations, is dedicated to promoting accountability and transitional justice.

Mohammad Al Abdallah, the center’s executive director, said he was unaware of the State Department plan to cut funding to the commission. But he characterized the NGO, which is run by William Wiley, a Canadian lawyer who has worked on war crimes tribunals from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia, as a major force in the effort to prosecute Syrian regime leaders. “The amount of documents they have extracted is tremendous, and it is invaluable,” said Abdallah.

Abdallah said his own outfit continues to receive “the same level of support” that it has received in previous years. But he said that there has been a growing focus on the Islamic State because confronting the extremist militant group “is a political priority” for governments that have an obligation to demonstrate to their voters that they are doing everything they can to contain the extremists.

U.S. officials offered conflicting views over who made the decision to end funding for the commission, with Rapp indicating that the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor made the decision. Another senior State Department official said that any decision to halt or continue funding was in the hands of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC). The commission, the official said, “did not receive funding directly from us. Its grant has run its course — though I heard from someone that there may be a possibility of extension. And it’s up to SJAC to decide whether to renew it.”

“SJAC does its own work collecting and preparing prosecution-ready evidence of crimes in Syria, but also distributed some of its funding to others, including the commission,” the State Department official said.

But Nerma challenged that account, saying that the commission’s grant was negotiated directly with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “The SJAC was effectively a bystander,” she said. “The money was channeled through SJAC to simplify our financial reporting, and to enable the SJAC to take credit, with our blessing, for [our] document collection.”

Last May, the Obama administration supported a drive at the United Nations to authorize an investigation into Syrian atrocities by the International Criminal Court. When Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have triggered such an investigation, American officials said they would not be deterred in ensuring that Syria’s leader would be held to account. “The outcome of today’s vote, disappointing as it is, will not end our pursuit for justice,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pledged after the vote. “My government will continue to work with so many other governments and organizations to encourage and facilitate the further gathering of evidence.”

Within days of that vote, Rapp was lobbying Syria’s neighbors to consider establishing a war crimes court in a neighboring country, possibly Jordan or Turkey, to prosecute perpetrators of the worst crimes. The United States worked with its Persian Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to draft a U.N. General Assembly resolution establishing such a court.

But the initiative stalled amid concerns within Washington and beyond that it was unprecedented, impractical, and potentially illegal. “This idea [of a regional war crimes court] has not yielded a significant quantum of support that would overcome the kind of legal and precedential aspects,” Rapp said Friday in an interview.

In the meantime, Rapp said he had shifted his focus to pressing governments whose nationals have been victimized in Syria to consider prosecuting their abusers back home in their own national courts, invoking a legal principle known as “universal jurisdiction.” Rapp said that FBI officials scouring a trove of more than 50,000 photos smuggled out of the country by a defector, known as Caesar, have identified a handful of foreign victims. “Some of the photos [from the Cesar report] are non-Syrians, and we are prepared to share that material with countries who might be prepared to prosecute [suspected perpetrators] in national courts,” Rapp said.

In an interview, Rapp, a former U.N. lawyer who led the prosecution of the Liberian ruler Charles Taylor, said that the commission’s work is vital to successful prosecutions because it provides even more reliable evidence than eyewitness testimony. And he insisted that the United States remained committed to documenting Syrian atrocities, especially because Washington believes “three-quarters of the crimes are being committed by the regime,” he said.

“There is no way one develops a future Iraq or a future Syria and ignores the crimes against the Sunni population, among other things, and everyone recognizes that,” he added. “There is no way that Assad, with the blood of more than 100,000 on his hands, can rule a future Syria in peace…. We need to hold him accountable.”

But that commitment, according to some observers, has been belied by the administration’s relatively muted public comments on Assad’s excesses. “More broadly, we have seen this harsh anti-Assad, anti-Syrian government rhetoric drop down,” said Mark Kersten, a researcher at the London School of Economics and the author of the blog Justice in Conflict. “It’s completely dropped off the map.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch