Is Assad scared of a war crimes trial? Assault on Homs suggests not.

Diplomats critical of Syria are using terms such as 'crimes against humanity' and 'war criminal.' But the Homs assault suggests Assad sees defeating the rebels as more vital for his survival.

Members of the Free Syrian Army take positions at al-Bayada, Homs, February 29. Syrian troops launched a ground attack in Homs on Wednesday in an apparent attempt to overrun the rebel-held Baba Amr neighborhood.

Bashar al-Assad’s pull-out-the-stops assault on civilians holed up in the city of Homs Thursday offers an answer to questions about how much the Syrian leader fears international threats to charge him with crimes against humanity: apparently not much.

“Bashar knows that if he loses this struggle, he’s dead, so some threats of possible international charges at some point in the future aren’t his first concern right now,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Besides, he adds, “He knows he can count on the support of Russia and China at least for a while, because they still see him as a possible survivor.”

Thursday’s fight, with reports of the Syrian regime sending in tanks and rooftop snipers to finish off the rebel stronghold in the Baba Amr neighborhood, comes within days of high-profile international condemnations of Assad.

Last week the United Nations Human Rights Council suggested Assad is reaching a point of no return from war crimes charges, and on Tuesday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Assad fits the definition of a war criminal.

Yet even as the assault intensified on a neighborhood that rebels claimed was abandoned by all but 4,000 desperate civilians, Assad could proceed with the assurance of protection from high places: the lopsided Human Rights Council vote condemning Syria last week was 37-3, with Russia, China, and Cuba opposed.

The vote was a reminder of two recent vetoes by Russia and China of UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, one in February and an earlier one in October. One Arab diplomat, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah, predicted after the February veto that Assad would interpret them as a “license to kill.” As the Homs assault intensified, he added, “This is exactly what we feared.”

The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has repeatedly accused Syrian leaders “at the highest levels” of crimes against humanity, and has called for the Syrian regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But so far world powers have stopped short of that step, as indicated by the Human Rights Council’s condemnation-but-no-referral last week.

In congressional testimony this week, Secretary Clinton said experience has shown that declaring leaders war criminals can cause them to dig in their heels and go for broke with repressive measures. The serious step of leveling charges “limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power,” she said.

Professor Landis, who writes the SyriaComment blog, says he thinks Assad is doomed, but not because of the threat of international tribunal action. Rather, he says, the Assad regime will eventually fall because of international support for the Syrian opposition that he says is strengthening and organizing – especially in deep-pocketed Islamic countries.

In that context, the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians are likely to stick with the Assad regime (and stave off meaningful international action) for a while, Landis says – not because they relish coming across as bolstering a dictator who is assaulting his own people, but because they face lost influence and a Syria hardly to their liking.

“The Russians don’t want to look like they’re completely opposed to [Syrian civilians] getting help,” says Landis, “but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to turn Syria over to the Saudis.”

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