- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2015

Embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad will likely not have to face war crimes charges any time soon, despite widespread agreement that his regime committed shocking atrocities against Syrian citizens.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry convenes Syria peace talks in New York on Friday, U.S. officials and Western allies say the issue of bringing Mr. Assad to justice is a lower priority than ending the conflict in Syria as soon as possible, Politico reported.

“I haven’t given up on the idea,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a recent interview. “If there’s justice in the world, Bashar Assad will end up in The Hague. Whether that’s going to happen is another question. The moral answer is to end the killing now.”

Western officials have admitted that persuading Mr. Assad to step down and leave Damascus will probably mean allowing him to retire to a cushy private life under tight security in Russia or Iran, his chief foreign patrons, Politico reported.

Human rights groups cautioned against such an arrangement saying it would weaken any peace deal in Syria.

“The idea that you can go forward [with a peace settlement] without accountability is impossible,” Stephen Rapp, the former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told Politico.

But Mr. Rapp admitted that bringing Mr. Assad to trial is becoming increasingly difficult. The Syrian leader is unlikely to accept a deal that would put him in front of an international court, and as the Islamic Sate terrorist group gains power, Mr. Assad’s leverage grows.

This week, the Obama administration seemed to soften its stance on Mr. Assad. For years, administration officials, including the president, had insisted that the only way to ensure peace in Syria is for Mr. Assad to surrender power.

Following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, Mr. Kerry said the U.S. “is not seeking so-called regime change.”

He added that Mr. Assad’s fate will be decided by the Syrian people.

The State Department later denied that Mr. Kerry’s comments marked a change in the U.S. position on Syria.

“Nobody’s given up on that notion that Assad has to go,” said spokesman John Kirby.

 

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