In this case, John Kerry is absolutely correct — and three years too late. The current Secretary of State met with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault to discuss a number of issues, but first and foremost the brutal bombing of Aleppo by the Bashar Assad regime. Kerry called for a war-crimes tribunal for Syrians involved in the attacks all the way to the top, and added that their Russian guarantors should be called to that same bar:
— Department of State (@StateDept) October 7, 2016
“Last night the regime attacked yet another hospital and 20 people were killed and 100 people were wounded. Russia and the [Bashar al-Assad] regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals and medical facilities and children and women,” Kerry said.
“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions. They are beyond the accidental. … This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives,” Kerry added.
Deliberately targeting civilians by military operations is clearly a war crime, although one has to show intent in order for the charges to stick. Accidental targeting doesn’t count as a war crime, as the US has correctly argued in a couple of unfortunate incidents of our own. The campaign in Aleppo is very clearly intentional, and neither Bashar Assad nor Vladimir Putin seem terribly concerned about hiding that fact. Assad wants the rebels in western Syria out of Aleppo and to surrender completely, and he’s willing to commit mass murder to get his way. His father Hafez made the same point in Hama in 1982, and Bashar Assad more or less presaged this in Homs two years ago.
Why do the Syrians and Russians think they can act with impunity? Because the Obama administration made it clear that they could. Barack Obama drew a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military in 2012, warning that it would draw a military response from the US. Neither Obama nor then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did anything to bolster Congressional support for military action, and when the Syrians called his bluff a year later, Obama retreated. Faced with a revolt in Congress over potentially starting a war for what Kerry described as “unbelievably small” attacks on Assad and after claims that the military option was the only choice left, Obama suddenly turned to Russia to resolve the chemical-weapons issue. It didn’t help that Obama himself walked back much tougher language coming from Kerry in the confrontation.
As many warned at the time, Obama’s humiliating flip-flop not only destroyed his credibility abroad on Syria, it also signaled to Russia that they could eclipse us in the Middle East and elsewhere. Not long after this, eastern Ukraine and Crimea fell to Putin, and our NATO allies in eastern Europe began to wonder whether they’d be next. Putin cut deals with Iran to allow for the use of their bases to extend his military operations, and of course Putin has carved out his own large niche in Syria, which also benefits Iran. The red-line retreat was an unmitigated disaster.
So yes, Kerry’s correct that in a world where it would be possible, Russian and Syrian leaders would face consequences for their brutal war crimes. Unfortunately, that’s not possible in the world created by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry.