TFS Note: Is this Vanity Fair article in response to Vogue’s calling Asma al-Assad a desert rose at a time when her husband was massacring children and women in his jails? Well worth reading this long exposé.
Source: Vanity Fair – by Adam Ciralsky (Documenting Evil: Inside Assad’s Hospitals of Horror)
When a photographer-archivist working for Syria’s military police defected with grisly evidence of the regime’s brutality, he became a war-crimes whistle-blower. Adam Ciralsky uncovers “Caesar’s” story.
The rationale is coldly sinister: no body, no evidence; no evidence, no crime.
By his own account, Abu Odeh, like a number of Sunnis within the military-hospital system, was pulling double duty: treating regime members in the daytime and then moonlighting at field clinics, where he would patch up opposition combatants and their civilian supporters. He worked at Tishreen on the morning of the Assad visit, but persuaded his superiors to cancel his televised cameo, arguing that appearing alongside the president might increase the risk that rebels would recognize him, accuse him of being a government lackey, and kill him at a checkpoint. (Three weeks after I met with him, he informed me that one of his close family members had been arrested in Damascus, taken to an interrogation center, and sent to Harasta military hospital, where, two weeks later, that person died.)
In Turkey I also interviewed Eyad Ibrahim, a heavy-set man who worked as a nurse at Tishreen before the civil war and at the military hospital in Deir Ezzour after it began. “The killing is systematic,” insisted Ibrahim. He described a singularly abhorrent incident. In the aftermath of a raid that the Syrian Army conducted on Mou Hassan–Ibrahim’s home village—a lieutenant in the Makhabarat, he recalled, began asking if any members of the medical team had grown up in that town. Confident that the officer already knew the staff members’ backgrounds, Ibrahim stepped forward. A short time later, he said, he was escorted to an area near the E.R. where he came face-to-face with a villager wounded in the raid. It was his cousin. “They ordered me to torture my cousin,” he conceded. “I did everything they asked. I beat him with my hands, kicked him with my legs, beating him and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ ” After a pause, he added, “I wished the earth would have opened up and swallowed me whole. . . . No matter how we describe or explain the torturing and killing that took place in the military hospitals, we can’t do it justice.”
I met with al-Rasheed in Washington and also interviewed him by phone in Europe, where he now lives. “Caesar might not otherwise be a risk-taker,” al-Rasheed stated. “The horrendous things he saw forced him to be.”
Caesar began working with a handler—a Syrian academic and human-rights figure named Hassan al-Chalabi. In two lengthy conversations, al-Chalabi—who is not related to the Iraqi opposition politician Ahmad Chalabi—described running a shadowy intelligence network inside Syria, though his claims cannot be independently verified. The initial batch of images arrived via courier in July 2011 while al-Chalabi was attending a conference in Istanbul; these were the first photos in what would come to be known as the Caesar File. “I was rattled to the core,” said al-Chalabi, recalling his reaction to the pictures. Unfortunately, the images could not immediately be publicized since it would have been fairly easy for the Syrians to narrow down their source—a military police photographer—and mete out retribution. “We were between a rock and a hard place,” al-Chalabi explained, “between taking him out of the country (because of his and his family’s safety) and foregoing an opportunity to get more evidence out.” He opted to do what seasoned operatives often do when handling an agent-in-place: he kept Caesar there.
As for the authenticity of the photographs, the F.B.I. has been analyzing them for almost a year and is said to be close to announcing their assessment of the cache’s authenticity. (According to a senior administration official, the bureau has privately conveyed its findings to insiders: “[There is] no evidence of any alterations—no pixels inserted—except where Caesar used [Microsoft] Paint to clarify a number . . . which he told us about.”)
Last year, Rapp said, Caesar met several American officials, including Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. In a letter last October, Rhodes would write the following to Caesar: “As I said to you in person, I want to commend you for the enormous courage and the great risk to yourself and your family that you have taken to bear witness to the As[s]ad regime’s brutality and to bring the world evidence of its atrocities. This is a service to the Syrian people and all of humanity.” On President Obama’s behalf, Rhodes promised that America would “push to bring the perpetrators of atrocities in Syria to justice.”
This is certainly a tall order. All of this comes at a moment when many world leaders, whether they admit it or not, are finding common cause with Syria’s president in the fight against ISIS. Moreover, certain Syrian opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s local affiliate)—according to outside monitors and press accounts—have committed their own share of abuses. As a result, the prospect of indicting Assad and his leadership for war crimes and for crimes against humanity seems ever more remote.
David Crane, for one, is repelled by the thought that Syria’s dictator may not only survive but be rehabilitated. Over the course of the civil war, Assad, according to overwhelming evidence, has been implicated in the deaths of more than 220,000 Syrians through the use of conventional and unconventional weapons, including sarin shells, chlorine canisters, and jerry-rigged barrel bombs. And the photographic record of these individual deaths—the Caesar File—is hard to refute. But regional conflicts can shift one’s perspective, priorities, and allegiances. “We used to view Assad like cancer—as a terminal disease,” Crane told me recently. Now Assad is deemed to be, in Crane’s words, “a persistent, manageable problem.” Assad’s own hospitals, however, provide the best diagnosis of what he is.