Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, spent much of his time taking America’s support for Syria’s pro-democracy opposition directly to the streets before he was pulled out of the country in February out of concern for his safety.
Now Ambassador Ford, holed up in Washington and relying on social media to continue getting his message out, is using Facebook to relay a stark warning to Syria’s armed forces: Stop carrying out President Bashar al-Assad’s dirty work for him, or risk finding yourself prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
“The officers and soldiers of the Syrian military have a choice to make,” Ford says in an entry on his Facebook page that he posted Wednesday. “Do they want to expose themselves to criminal prosecution by supporting the barbaric actions of the Assad regime against the Syrian people?”
Ford then cites the case of the former Yugoslavia, noting that 161 people, including prominent and not-so-prominent members of the military, were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia “for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against non-combatants and combatants.”
The alternative for members of the Syrian armed forces, Ford says, is to “help secure the role of the professional military in a democratic Syria by supporting the Syrian people and their transition to an inclusive, tolerant and representative democracy that respects human rights and equal, fair treatment for all components of the Syrian nation.”
The ambassadorial effort to drive a wedge between Mr. Assad and his military henchmen comes as Western powers contemplate another try in the United Nations Security Council for a resolution on Syria. The Security Council is empowered to refer cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Ford’s post was also followed, less than 24 hours later, by the defection of a Syrian fighter pilot, who flew his Russian-made MiG-21 to neighboring Jordan and was immediately granted asylum. While it’s unlikely the pilot was acting on Ford’s admonition, he nonetheless illustrated the kind of action the activist ambassador is trying to encourage.
For months, Western leaders have suggested that Assad could suffer the fate of leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. In February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Senate testimony that Assad should be considered a war criminal, and that same month the UN’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, told the UN’s Human Rights Council that Syria should be referred to the ICC for “the unspeakable violations that take place every moment.”
Mr. Milosevic died in custody in The Hague as he fought war-crimes charges in a long court battle. Mr. Bashir, under ICC indictment for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, remains president of Sudan but is unable to travel widely for fear of arrest.
But other world leaders have also spoken of offering Assad asylum as a way of ending Syria’s violence and paving the way to a political transition. Indeed, the contradictions in the various proposals for handling Syria – asylum for Assad on the one hand, but now the specter of international prosecution for lower-level military as raised by Ford’s warning, on the other – has some human rights advocates worried that a let-off-the-rat-but-go-after-the-mice approach could be in the offing.
"The US is hoping to pull a rabbit out of a hat: trying for a managed transition in Syria which includes an implicit Get-out-of-Jail-Free card for Assad and his associates,” says Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.
The ICC can get involved only if the Security Council refers the Syria case to the court’s prosecutor for investigation, similar to what happened with Libya and Sudan, Mr. Dicker notes. But Russia, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council and Syria’s main defender, is highly unlikely to agree to a referral.
But publicly, administration officials are showing no signs of letting Assad off the hook. At the White House, the spokesman for the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, hailed the defecting Syrian pilot even as he echoed Ford’s call to the Syrian military to jump their commander’s ship and distance themselves from the regime’s “horrific actions.”
“We welcome this pilot’s decision to do the right thing,” Mr. Vietor said. “We have long called on the military and members of the Syrian regime to defect and abandon their positions rather than be complicit in the regime’s atrocities.”
• Staff writer Mike Eckel contributed to this report.