BEIRUT: The international community ramped up pressure on Bashar Assad Monday with U.N. investigators pressing the Security council to refer suspected Syrian war criminals to the International Criminal Court and the EU authorizing “nonlethal” support to protect civilians.
The EU decision, taken at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, was a compromise after weeks of disagreements between Britain, which pushed for easing the embargo to help rebels, and EU countries worried that allowing more weapons into Syria could fuel violence.
The ministers took steps to provide direct aid to the rebels fighting Assad, but stopped short of lifting an arms embargo on the country.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he foresaw more talks in the coming months on how the EU can help the opposition in Syria, but that for now London would use the new measures to offer help.
“We will certainly use the full leeway provided by this amendment to the embargo in order to provide greater assistance for the protection of civilians,” Hague told reporters after meeting his EU counterparts in Brussels.
Details of what will be allowed in practice must still be determined, but diplomats said governments could offer advice on bolstering security or holding back Assad’s forces, for example.
“[It could take place] in the country or in the region,” one EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many EU governments are concerned that any easing of the arms embargo would only inflame the Syrian conflict and that it would be difficult to ensure equipment reaches the right people.
“There is no shortage of arms in Syria,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said before the meeting.
EU rules only allow some protective gear to be sent to countries under arms embargoes, such as Syria.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton underlined that no “lethal” support would be provided but said Monday’s decision marked a significant change in the EU’s approach to the rebels.
“This is not about military support, but that we were able to give the support to the people on the ground to help them in every possible way,” she told reporters. “There’s nothing politically fudgy ... around this at all.”
The EU’s decision came as the U.N.’s investigators urged the Security Council to “act urgently to ensure accountability” for violations, including murder and torture, committed by both sides in an uprising and civil war that has killed about 70,000 people since March 2011. “Now really it’s time. ... We have a permanent court, the International Criminal Court, who would be ready to take this case,” Carla del Ponte, a former ICC chief prosecutor who joined the U.N. team in September, said in Geneva.
But because Syria is not party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, the only way the court can investigate the situation is if it receives a referral from the Security Council.
Russia, Assad’s long-standing ally and a permanent veto-wielding member of the council, has opposed such a move.
“We cannot decide. But we pressure the international community to decide because it’s time to act,” del Ponte said.
Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the U.N. inquiry set up in 2011, said that the matter was now in the hands of the Security Council:
“We are in very close dialogue with all the five permanent members and with all the members of the Security Council, but we don’t have the key that will open the path to cooperation inside the Security Council.”
His team of some two dozen experts is tracing the chain of command in Syria to establish criminal responsibility and build a case for eventual prosecution.
“Of course we were able to identify high-level perpetrators,” del Ponte said, adding that these were people “in command responsibility ... deciding, organizing, planning and aiding and abetting the commission of crimes.”
Del Ponte said it was urgent for the Hague-based war crimes tribunal to take up cases of “very high officials,” but did not identify them, in line with the inquiry’s practice.
Del Ponte, who tried former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on war crimes charges, said the ICC prosecutor would need to deepen the investigation on Syria before an indictment could be prepared.
The inquiry’s third roster of suspects, building on lists drawn up in the past year, remains secret. It will be entrusted to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay upon expiry of its mandate at the end of March, the report said.
Pillay, a former judge at the ICC, said Saturday Assad should be investigated for war crimes, and called for outside action on Syria, including possible military intervention.
The investigators’ latest report, covering the six months to mid-January, was based on 445 interviews conducted abroad with victims and witnesses, as they have not been allowed into Syria.
“We identified seven massacres during the period, five on the government side, two on the armed opponents’ side. We need to enter the sites to be able to confirm elements of proof that we have,” del Ponte said.
Government forces have carried out shelling and airstrikes across Syria including Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Idlib, the 131-page report said, citing corroborating satellite images.
“Government forces and affiliated militias have committed extra-judicial executions, breaching international human rights law. This conduct also constitutes the war crime of murder. Where murder was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with knowledge of that attack, it is a crime against humanity,” the report said.
Those forces have targeted bakery queues and funeral processions to spread “terror among the civilian population.”
Rebels fighting to topple Assad have also committed war crimes including murder, torture, hostage-taking and using children under age 15 in hostilities, the U.N. report said.
“They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives inside civilian areas” and rebel snipers had caused “considerable civilian casualties,” it said.
When asked about the U.N. report, George Sabra, a vice president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said at a conference in Stockholm: “We condemn all kind of crimes, regardless who did it ... We can’t ignore that some mistakes have been made and maybe still happen right now. But nobody also can ignore that the most criminal file is that of the regime.”
As the diplomatic pressure was ramped up on Assad, his minister for national reconciliation, Ali Haidar, appeared to signal that the regime was willing to talk to the armed opposition.
“We, the government and me personally, will meet without exceptions Syrian opposition groups inside and outside [Syria],” he said Monday during a parliamentary session.
It was not clear if the comments by Haidar, who is not in Assad’s inner circle of decision makers, reflect a substantive change in policy.
“With regard to negotiations, the door is open,” Haidar said.
But As-Safir newspaper reported that recent visitors to Damascus had portrayed Assad as confident of ultimate success, although he said the battle was not yet over.
“Even if we are convinced of the certainty of our victory, and reassured by what has been achieved militarily and politically, that does not mean that everything is finished,” they quoted him as saying, according to the paper.