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Trump is holding up funding for war crimes investigations in Syria

Trump is holding up funding for war crimes investigations in Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits government troops in the Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus in March. (Agence France-Presse photo/handout/Syrian presidency Facebook page)

For several weeks, President Trump has refused to release any of the $200 million of U.S. stabilization assistance his own administration allocated to help protect civilians and promote stability in Syria. Caught up in that confusion is the one international program that is working effectively to collect evidence of war crimes in Syria committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and the Islamic State.

In January, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that the United States would commit approximately $350,000 to help fund the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria, a U.N. organization created in 2016 to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those who have committed the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria over the past seven years.

“The United States strongly supports the IIIM as a valuable tool to hold the Assad regime accountable for its atrocities, including its repeated and ongoing use of chemical weapons,” Haley said Feb. 5, pointing out that Russia effectively killed the only other functioning investigative mechanism by vetoing its renewal.

Several Trump administration officials confirmed to me that this funding is now on indefinite hold. A spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations simply said, “We are reviewing our current Syria assistance programs at the President’s request.” The National Security Council declined to comment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was confronted about the IIIM funding during his House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

Pompeo praised the White Helmets, Syria rescue workers whose U.S. support is also in limbo, but didn’t say what Trump will decide. Lawmakers are pressing the administration on the IIIM funding because they believe it’s crucial to maintaining American credibility and leadership as a defender of war crimes victims worldwide.

“Now is not the time to withhold this critical funding,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) wrote in a May 11 letter to Haley. “Bashar al-Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian backers, has continued to kill and injure civilians with impunity as he seeks to consolidate his power over the last rebel-held areas in the country … we must remain vigilant and remember that those conducting these acts are war criminals and they must be brought to justice.”

Stephen Rapp, the former State Department ambassador at large for war crimes, told me that the IIIM’s work is the best chance to see justice not only for Syrians but also Iraqis, Yazidis, Europeans and even Americans who have fallen victim to atrocities at the hands of Assad, Iran, Russia or ISIS.

The actual amount of the funding is only a fraction of the organization’s budget, but the symbolism of America reneging on its pledge to help is devastating, Rapp said. European allies are contributing far larger sums. The IIIM has even supported investigations conducted by the FBI.

“It basically says we are not part of this picture,” Rapp said. “It says that we’re not interested in developing strong cases against the war criminals whether they are associated with Assad, the Iranians, the Russians or ISIS. It’s the one thing that you would think we would support now, given our concern about Iran and Russia’s role.”

Trump is also sending the message that the United States doesn’t follow through on its commitments, said Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights. The group praised Haley for announcing the funding in January. Multiple international organizations have documented Syrian and Russian attacks on hospitals and health-care personnel, which if true represents a clear violation of international law.

“For years at the U.N., the United States has severely and vociferously condemned the attacks, violations and war crimes in Syria and has called repeatedly for accountability and the end of impunity,” she said. “To hold up promised funding for the mechanism that is the first step toward a serious investigation effort does a terrible disservice to the victims.”

Trump has been very clear that he wants to remove all U.S. troops from Syria. He seems not to understand that stabilizing the humanitarian situation there is what will allow him to bring our troops home. He also doesn’t realize that in the long term, justice is a prerequisite to peace.

Trump’s Middle East and Iran strategies depend on a long-term approach for Syria that promotes stability in areas not already under Assad and Iranian control. The United States has an interest in giving the millions of Syrian civilians there a fighting chance to survive, rebuild and heal so that Iran doesn’t take over and extremism doesn’t return.

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