U.S. war crimes ambassador stepping down in ‘frustration’

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Stephen J. Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, speaking at a press briefing at the United Nations Office at Geneva. January 22, 2010. (Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Photo via Flickr)

The most prominent Obama administration official who has spoken out against “atrocities” by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad confirmed today he is resigning his post in the next few months after a “frustrating” experience trying to hold that government accountable for its actions.

But Stephen Rapp, the ambassador-at-large in charge of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, told Yahoo News he was not leaving because of lack of support within the administration.

Instead, he said, the “legal and practical realities” of creating international tribunals to prosecute the Assad regime — without the approval of the United Nation Security Council — has proved too formidable.

“This has been one of those issues that has been fairly frustrating,” said Rapp in a brief interview with Yahoo News. “It’s frustrating for all of us.” But he added, “We’re going to continue to fight for this.”

Still, Rapp’s departure is a symbolic blow for human rights advocates and Syrian opposition groups who have pushed for more vigorous action by the U.S. government to hold Assad accountable.

“This is a huge loss,” said Mouaz Moustafa, the political adviser for the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, one of the leading Syrian opposition groups.  “If more people inside this administration shared his passion, Syrians wouldn’t be suffering the way they are today.”

Rapp, a former international war crimes prosecutor in Sierra Leone, had been a passionate advocate, pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution to set up an international tribunal on Syrian atrocities and prodding the FBI to analyze tens of thousands of photographs smuggled out of Syria that show the emaciated and tortured victims who have died in regime detention centers.

In an interview with Yahoo News last fall, Rapp described the photos, smuggled out of Syria by a former regime photographer known as “Caesar,” as “horrific — some of them put you in visceral pain.” He added: “This is some of the strongest evidence we have seen in the area of proof of the commission of mass atrocities.” http://news.yahoo.com/bashar-al-assad-s-syrian-torture-chambers-205323124.html

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: (Photo combination by Yahoo News, Photos by SANA/AP Photo, Courtesy of The Caesar Team/Coalition for a Democratic Syria)

The graphic photos, reminiscent of scenes out of the Nazi Holocaust, have triggered contentious debates in Washington, with some members of Congress criticizing the Obama administration for downplaying them and not pushing more forcefully for international action against Assad, even while the U.S. government conducts military operations against Islamic State terrorists fighting to topple the Syrian government.

At a conference on Syria Thursday sponsored by the New America Foundation, a Syrian opposition group released a new batch of the Caesar photos — depicting burned, beaten and emaciated bodies that U.S. officials believe were taken inside Syrian prisons. The Coalition for Democratic Syria also released a sharply critical statement from Caesar, who has been hiding in Europe after testifying last year before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and meeting with officials in the Obama White House.

“I have come in the past and visited the United States to show the strongest democracy in the world the war crimes and genocidal massacres ongoing against innocent civilians by the Assad regime,” Caesar said in the statement. “Unfortunately, the industrialized killing that you can see in these pictures has inspired outrage but little action by the United States government.”

White House spokesman Alistair Baskey said in an emailed statement to Yahoo News that the administration will continue to work for  “accountability for war crimes in Syria.”

 “ The Assad regime for almost four years has been carrying out horrific atrocities against civilians and members of the opposition,” Baskey said. “The United States has pushed for accountability through multiple channels, including a vetoed Security Council referral [to the International Criminal Court]. ... Those who are overseeing or complicit in the commission of crimes against the civilian population in Syria need to know that the international community is watching.”

After receiving copies of thousands of the photos last year, Rapp asked the FBI to analyze them, both to confirm their authenticity and to determine if any U.S. or European citizens could be identified among the victims, thereby providing the basis for potential criminal prosecutions for the killing of specific individuals in either U.S. or European courts.

The FBI has since told Rapp that it has found no signs of tampering or doctoring in the photos. FBI analysts have also briefed him that they have found some possible matches among the victims with a small number of foreign citizens — fewer than 10 — but that the facial recognition matches with foreign visa or passport holders were “weak” and potentially not enough to build a criminal case, one source familiar with the briefing said. The FBI is continuing its analysis of the photos.

Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) (C) speaks as Syrian Army defector Caesar, (in a blue hooded jacket) who has smuggled out of Syria more than 50,000 photographs that document the torture and execution of more than 10,000 dissidents, listens through an interpreter during a briefing before House Foreign Affairs Committee July 31, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Rapp spoke passionately about the photos for two hours at the United Nations Security Council last May in support of a French resolution to set up an international war crimes tribunal for Syria. After his presentation, one witness said, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power was “blinking back tears,” and she later issued a statement saying, “Nobody who sees these images will ever be the same.”

But the Syrian government denounced the Caesar photos as fakes, and the Russian representative vetoed the resolution, effectively blocking — for the time being — Rapp’s efforts to hold the Assad government accountable.