The politics of war crimes in Syria

Evidenced-based reporting of potential war crimes in Syria is needed rather than politicised accusations.

Heavy smoke rises from a location said to be a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital in Marat al Numan, Idlib, Syria [Reuters]
Heavy smoke rises from a MSF-supported hospital in Idlib, Syria [Reuters]

After almost five years of brutal fighting in Syria, the issue of war crimes has reappeared following the destruction of two hospitals in the north. 

The iconic images of bombed-out medical facilities has set off a firestorm of accusations among some key players in the conflict. Accountability for the crimes of war is noticeable for its absence to date, but it is crucial that the mechanisms of global justice are properly applied, to affect the actions of combatants today and to help heal a Syria of tomorrow.  

For this to happen, the current arms race in the language of accusations must be focused on more practical action towards accountability.

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The United Nations has warned that “intentionally directing attacks” at hospitals and medical units would constitute a war crime and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, confirmed that the raids violated international law.

Turkey has been more forthright about Russia’s culpability, claiming that the Security Council permanent member is guilty of an “obvious war crime”.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that “those who make such statements are not capable of backing them up with proof”.

Targeting hospitals

MSF, whose hospital was hit, didn’t choose to tell the Syrian authorities their exact location for fear of being targeted. Now that the hospital has been destroyed, the Syrian Ambassador to the UN had the temerity to describe the aid agency as an “intelligence” arm of the French government.

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Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his policy of complete denial of any civilian harm from his country’s actions, saying that Russia “categorically does not accept such statements”.

So could this latest attack on healthcare in Syria be the trigger for a reasserting of the laws of war into the conflict?


This is not the first time a healthcare facility in Syria has been hit. Indeed, there has been an exodus of medics from the country while buildings and vehicles supposedly granted protected status have been devastated.

Overwhelmed makeshift hospitals now operate out of basements in Aleppo more akin to air-raid shelters.

According to the Syrian American Medical Society, 2015 was a record year for attacks on health infrastructure, with an attack on average every two or three days. 

So could this latest attack on healthcare in Syria be the trigger for a reasserting of the laws of war into the conflict? 

That the UN stopped counting the Syrian dead in 2014 doesn’t bode well for those hoping for accountability for those Syrians yet to be killed.

However, if a mechanism by which evidence of potential war crimes can be collected and processed by credible players, it would send out a clear message to those who order air strikes on hospitals and potentially check the likelihood that they will do it again in future.

Power of evidence

One sample we’ve seen already as to the power of the evidence of war crimes came in the form of the smuggled work of the Syrian military photographer known only as “Caesar”. His thousands of photographs, which eventually found themselves on display in the corridors of the UN, showed the reality of the grisly fate of those whose lives ended in the regime’s jails.

Destruction and rubble at an MSF-supported hospital in Idlib province in northern Syria [EPA]
Destruction and rubble at an MSF-supported hospital in Idlib province in northern Syria [EPA]

Yet to date nobody has been held to account for the crimes which Caesar exposed. We should not forget that much of the infrastructure around the laws of war emerged following the end of World War II.

Today the Syria crisis has heaped more numbers on what is the biggest refugee displacement since the last global war. War crimes were meant to be deterred and punished, yet they are being flouted with impunity in Syria.

That such crimes are being raised now is a positive step but there is a danger around their being used as a justification for escalation rather than as they were originally intended.

There is a need for evidence-based reporting of potential crimes rather than politicised accusations ratcheting up the rhetoric. This month’s hospital attacks could see independent investigators being given a mandate from the international community and allowed to safely access and collect evidence as to what happened as a way of signifying a new approach to the conduct of the fighting. 

One day – soon, we hope – the war in Syria will end and the people who remain will have to come to terms with the horrors of what happened. Without genuine accountability for what happened in the past, the challenge of the future will be even harder. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.