Photos don't lie.

Photographer: Fredrik Sanberg/AFP/GettyImages

Assad's Atrocities Laid Bare at the UN

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The rise of Islamic State has distracted many from the murderous assaults by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on his own citizens. Now advocates for those victims are attempting to shock world leaders into action with a novel approach: Gruesome photos of civilians tortured and murdered while in the custody of the Syrian regime are going on display Tuesday in the halls of the United Nations.

Almost a year after the Syrian defector known as Caesar escaped Syria with 55,000 photos documenting the systematic torture and murder of more 11,000 civilians, there has been little progress in holding the perpetrators accountable. Although the U.S. State Department has called Assad’s “machinery of death” the worst since the Nazis -- and evidence emerged that as many as 10 European citizens were among those killed in custody -- no prosecutions have moved forward.

So Caesar's supporters will unveil a display showing atrocities committed by 24 of the regime's security branches, which UN diplomats will see on their way to and from work each day. It comes just as a UN commission is threatening to release the names of Syrian government officials who are implicated in war crimes, a step toward their prosecution.

Syria's grim reality in full color. Source: Coalition for a Democratic Syria

“I would hope that the Iranians the Russians and the regime representatives at the UN would pass by these images as part of their daily routines so they can see what they are subjecting the Syrian civilians to,” said Mouaz Moustafa, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella group for the Syrian opposition.

The display will be split between the hallways of the General Assembly and the Secretariat, and is hosted by the missions of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S.  The hosting nations will hold a press conference on Tuesday; the exhibit will stay up until March 20.

Late last year, a more limited display from the Caesar file was shown at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Last week, the Caesar team began posting photos of victims' faces on Facebook to aid prosecutors and help families find their missing kin. Most of the photos now on UN display were taken between 2011 and 2013 at Syrian military hospitals and show that no group of society was spared: men, women, children and the elderly.

The FBI has analyzed 27,000 of the photos and deemed them to be authentic. The State Department’s ambassador at large for war crimes, Stephen Rapp, has traveled the world to bring attention to the Caesar photos, but was not able to convince the White House to back his efforts in a tangible way. He is leaving the administration soon

There is a widely held suspicion among the regime's critics and human-rights groups that the White House has been intentionally soft-pedaling Assad’s crimes, as pushing accountability too hard might get in the way of a political deal in which he and his inner circle would agree to quit power.

The problem with that line of thinking is twofold: Assad has made clear that he is not interested in seriously negotiating his own departure, and the international community’s failure to confront the Syrian regime on human rights enables those atrocities to continue day after day.

The U.S. government has an interest in keeping the fiction of a political process with the Assad regime alive, but the cost of that fiction can be counted in the lives of Syrian civilians. At least for the next 10 days, nobody walking the UN halls will be able to look the other way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net