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Could Syria's Assad face a war crimes trial?

The Week

World leaders start labeling the Syrian president's lethal assault on his opponents a crime against humanity. But that doesn't mean Assad is headed for the Hague

With no end in sight for the bloodshed in Syria, world leaders have begun threatening to charge Syrian officials with war crimes. "Make your choice," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday. "Turn your back on this criminal regime or face justice for the blood that's on your hands." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's deadly battle against the opposition could land him in international court... at least theoretically. Is there any chance justice will catch up to Assad?

Assad obviously isn't afraid of a trial: The possibility of being charged with crimes against humanity isn't Assad's "first concern" these days, Syria expert Joshua Landis tells The Christian Science Monitor. He "knows that if he loses this struggle, he's dead," so his priority is crushing the opposition, whatever it takes. "Threats of possible international charges at some point in the future" aren't going to frighten him.
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War crimes charges could actually harden his position: Clinton said Assad's murderous actions fit the definition of a war crime, says David Bosco at Foreign Policy. But she also said that referring him to the International Criminal Court might not be helpful. As we saw when the late Moammar Gadhafi dug in his heels in Libya, "ICC referrals in the midst of conflict" often make despots more determined to fight to the death, because if they give up, they're going to jail.
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Assad may face trial someday — but not yet: Threats might not chasten Assad, says Barbara Starr at CNN, but they might weaken his regime by shaking "the loyalty of Syrian troops and commanders." In the meantime, we can continue using our satellites and other intelligence capabilities to intercept military communications and gather evidence of Assad's ruthless campaign. Then, when the time comes, there should be ample evidence for a trial.
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