In Syria, the civil war shows no signs of abating. 80,000 have already been killed, and Bashar al-Assad seems little inclined to give up. That’s because he can’t. He surely knows, as anyone must, that there is no good way out for him, except to fight to the bitter end.
If, after conceding defeat, he doesn’t flee the country immediately, he risks the fate that befell Muammar Gaddafi. But if he does flee, there is little safety for him outside of Syria either. In this day and age, the consensus is that fallen despots such as him must be dragged in front of an international court and tried for sundry crimes. Already, his assets are frozen and he is persona non grata in most Western countries; so he does not give way, as dictators of yore did, while blood continues to be spilled.
This is an unintended consequence of the current regime of international justice. The International Criminal Court (ICC), the culmination of a century-long effort to hold political leaders accountable for their conduct, seems to many to be a symbol of the triumph of the rule of law over arbitrary power. But some recent conflicts have been made bloodier by its existence. For instance, the Libyan civil war would have been less of a calamity if Gaddafi had been allowed to retire to a third country with his retinue and a sizeable booty looted from the state treasury. Crazy as he was, had he been offered a choice between martyrdom and retirement, he would have probably picked the latter. The same lack of choice is what is dragging the Syrian war into its third year.
Admittedly, not all dictators flee if they are offered a choice. But many do. One is reminded of how Idi Amin went to Saudi Arabia following the Tanzanian invasion, where he became a harmless relic of a curious past. When he left Uganda, he still controlled a sizeable part of the country and had many army units at his disposition. But since there was no risk of him being chased down by international prosecutors armed with sanctions and warrants, he did not see it worthwhile to die with sword in hand. Much bitter fighting was thus prevented, along with large destruction of lives and property. The same could be said of the fall of Duvalier in Haiti, or of the Shah of Iran. Both men could have used armed force to crack down on their opponents: but they both chose to become exiles instead, something that would be difficult for state leaders today.
What is the justice in that? None, of course. Amin, for instance, was a first-class political butcher, conducting mass killings and ethnic cleansing whenever he fancied. Having him locked up in a cell would have been morally satisfying. But it is hardly worth the lives of those who would have died as a result of prolonged fighting. Those under investigation by the ICC may be appalling human beings, but they are often appalling human beings with power. They may not hold onto it for too long still, but in the meantime they can use it to atrocious effect. A realistic policy is to get them stop wielding it as quickly as possible, and if letting them go unpunished for their political immoralities is the price to pay, then it should be paid, in whatever denomination they may desire.
People close to Assad have said that he knows his situation is hopeless. Barring a miraculous and bloody victory against half of his country’s population, his end will be a grim one. As he sits in his Damascus office, no doubt he had the occasion to rail at the international justice apparatus that prevents him from ending his days in peace. So should we.
– Yuan Yi Zhu
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons