Why Iranian regime should face justice over Syria

Why Iranian regime should face justice over Syria

There has been debate recently over sending some Syrian leaders to face the International Criminal Court in order to prosecute those who have committed war crimes. But little attention has been given to other state actors who actually play the same role, if not more intensively, by committing or facilitating heinous crimes against Syrian civilians. 

The Iranian regime is typically involved in military operations across Syria through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite branch the Quds Force, along with domestic and foreign militias. Even the Iranian leaders have admitted their direct military role in the Syrian war. Soldiers from the IRGC, as well as military advisers and trainers, are ubiquitous in Syria, dominating and significantly influencing the local political and military command-and-control systems, as well as often appearing on the front lines.

Regarding the latest bombing and massacre in Ghouta, the Iranian regime even showed its desire to escalate the war and civilian casualties by ignoring the UN ceasefire. Appearing unconcerned with the deaths of civilians, including many women and children, Gen. Mohammed Baqeri, Iran’s military chief of staff, pointed out defiantly that pro-Damascus forces will continue the assault despite the truce, which is aimed at allowing aid access and medical evacuations. 

Without the Iranian regime’s financial, political, military, advisory and intelligence assistance, Syria’s leaders would not have been capable of committing war crimes at such an extensive level. Efforts should be made to hold not only the Syrian officials, but also their main backers — the Iranian leaders — to account. 

To do so, realistically, there exists several obstacles that can only be overcome with robust leadership. One of the major issues is that, while Iran is a signatory to the ICC’s Rome Statute, it has not yet ratified the treaty. This means there are two other options that need to be pursued in order to investigate Iran’s role: Either the Iranian regime has to give jurisdiction to the ICC, or the ICC would require a referral from the United Nations Security Council. 

It goes without saying that the Iranian regime would not voluntarily accept ICC jurisdiction, since it is fully aware of its direct and indirect involvement in the Syrian war. Hence, the other members of the Security Council ought to pressure Russia publicly in order to allow such a referral and to uphold justice. 

Many believe that the ICC is the only judicial mechanism to addressing war crimes in Syria, but many states also have the alternative of creating an international committee or tribunal to hold the Iranian leaders accountable. 

Senior leaders and IRGC generals have been operating with impunity and must be taken before the International Criminal Court to be held accountable for war crimes.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh 


An international tribunal might not be as powerful as the ICC but, if it indicted those senior Iranian leaders who are responsible for war crimes in Syria, other states could pursue various steps to hold those leaders accountable; such as freezing their assets, issuing visa bans against them, and refraining from negotiating with them. This approach can be powerful in delegitimizing these individuals and the Iranian regime in the international arena. 

If there is a consensus to take this path, there are many countries that would be willing to bring these war criminals to justice. Remember that the Arab League has previously called for accountability in Syria, including a referral to the ICC and calls for “fair international trials.” Formerly, 64 countries, alongside the EU Foreign Affairs Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Syrian National Coalition, supported investigating those who are committing war crimes in Syria. 

Finally, it is worth noting that individual states or international organizations can also utilize the legal concept of “universal jurisdiction.” Applying this indicates that, regardless of individual nationality, states or international organizations can claim jurisdiction over state and non-state actors who commit grave breaches of international laws, such as massacres, war crimes and torture. 

History has proved that peace, stability and security will not be fully obtained without criminal indictments of those military generals, politicians and militia leaders who commit horrific war crimes. When people observe that justice has been done, this would be the beginning of peace, and with less antagonism and incentive to take the law into one’s own hands in order to punish the perpetrators. 

Senior Iranian leaders and IRGC generals, who are directly or indirectly involved in war crimes in Syria, should not be allowed to continue operating with impunity. Bringing them to justice would be the first step toward addressing the Syrian situation. It is incumbent on the ICC, the UN Security Council, the international community and individual states to hold them accountable. 

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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