The photos brought to public attention in January 2014 by the anonymous witness codenamed ‘Caesar’ show corpses, thousands in number, deceased from violent causes, some bearing signs of torture and many having suffered starvation and neglect. The dead are said to be victims of Syrian state detention facilities, but it is now known that many were not, and it is still not known for sure how many of them were. If the atrocity of the crimes to which the photos attest is in no doubt, the question of who perpetrated them is less clear-cut. Yet Western reports have unequivocally blamed the ‘Assad regime’. A counter-hypothesis, hardly considered in public discussions, is that many of the bodies were of civilians captured by Jaish al-Islam (JAI) after taking control of Douma in December 2012. JAI are known to have starved their captives while using them as slave labourers, which they did on a scale monumental enough to create the extraordinary network of deep and impressively engineered tunnels that we now see had been built across the area under their control. Nevertheless, a Qatari-sponsored prosecution team vouched for the Caesar evidence as being ‘capable of being believed’ – in a court of law – to show ‘systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government.’ The Western media’s subsequent dissemination of the prosecutors’ interpretation of the images – unchallenged – caused it to be widely believed in the ‘court of public opinion’. Despite significant unsettled and unsettling questions, then, a particular account of what the images show has exercised considerable influence over people’s default assumptions about accountability for atrocities in Syria.
It is the influence of this specific interpretation of evidence that will be reflected on here, and without prejudice as to what may be established about occurrences in Syrian detention on other bases. Questions about the Caesar evidence point up concerns about the extent to which the dissemination of inaccurate information might have distorted the written historical record of our times and how it may have practically influenced real decisions and events. It matters to get at the truth about the photos for those reasons, as well as for the sake of families whose loved ones have disappeared, but there is also a further reason. This concerns a use made of Caesar’s testimony that may affect the futurecourse of history too. It is the promotion by Western prosecutors of judicial innovation in the pursuit of accountability for atrocity crimes. The purpose of this article is to set out how and why that is a concern, and fundamentally one about justice.
To situate the discussion it will be worth briefly outlining the contrasting kinds of reception the Caesar testimony has received – affirmative versus sceptical – and then also pointing to a much less noticed reception, one of significant silence. For there is an identifiable group of usually vocal critics of the Syrian president and government that has refrained from mentioning the name Caesar. This in itself could be somewhat revealing about what intelligence that group accepts as authoritative. But it also throws into relief the distinctive commitments of another group who, by contrast, have made considerable use of the Caesar name. It is they who have, for instance, provided the impetus behind successful lobbying for the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in the United States. Less spectacular, but of potentially more enduring international significance, is dissemination of Caesar’s narrative in a wider campaign aimed at creating increasingly flexible mechanisms for international criminal prosecutions. Billed by some as a progressive and cosmopolitan approach to ‘global justice’ that sets human rights above the prerogative of despots, this movement might more cautiously be assessed as legitimising ‘regime change’ by means of judicial innovation. Such use of the Caesar testimony could serve not only to delegitimise the current president of Syria but also to enhance the possibility of delegitimising any head of state. This would be at the initiative of prosecution teams who themselves are accountable to their clients and sponsors rather than to the victims of conflict or to principles of humanitarian justice. The argument thus to be developed in this article commends caution about both the evidentiary value of the Caesar testimony and the intentions of those who have most vocally asserted it.
The basic outline of Caesar’s story can be sketched quite succinctly. According to the testimony attributed to Caesar, he had been working as a military photographer in Damascus, where his job was to photograph the dead for purposes of state record keeping. In 2011, concerned at the number of deceased, and the visible indications of torture and starvation, he started smuggling digital files of the images to a contact, now referred to as Sami, who passed them to the Syrian National Movement (SNM). In August 2013, the SNM facilitated Caesar’s extrication from Syria, to be followed shortly after by his immediate family members. The SNM, although based in Turkey, was backed by Qatar, and the Qatari government hired a team of lawyers and forensic specialists to assess the credibility of the witness and his evidence as a basis for potential prosecutions. In a matter of days the team pronounced Caesar’s evidence ‘capable of being believed’ in a court.Caesar was then taken to Washington on a visit facilitated by Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a US State Department sponsored organisation representing some of the anti-government forces in Syria. When giving testimony there, Caesar’s face was concealed and his words were whispered to Moustafa, who acted as translator. After appearing in several other high profile venues with similar arrangements for anonymity, Caesar withdrew from the limelight.
Meanwhile, an influential section of United States political opinion has pronounced itself confident enough in the witness Caesar to enact legislation in his name – the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act – aimed at enforcing ‘accountability’ measures on Syria. The lead author of the Caesar Report, David Crane, has spoken of the photographic evidence as a ‘smoking gun’, words echoed by Keith Harper, US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Stephen Rapp, the former US Ambassador At Large for War Crimes, has stated that the photos help to provide ‘much better evidence than has been available to prosecutors anywhere since Nuremberg’. Prosecution teams in Europe have also attributed great value to the photos as evidence of atrocity crimes. Among the lawyers prominent in promoting the prosecutorial value of the Caesar evidence are Toby Cadman, Wolfgang Kaleck and Patrick Kroker. Meanwhile, the NGO Human Rights Watch produced its own report claiming to validate some of the Caesar evidence. A number of journalists have also expressed themselves convinced, including Richard Engel, who has met ‘Caesar’, and Josh Rogin, Ben Taub, Susie Linfield, Nick Robins-Early, Adam Ciralsky, Jim Muir for the BBC, as well as many more contributors to news outlets including Spiegel, Daily Mail, CNN. Garance le Caisne wrote a book on OperationCaesar, and documentary films featuring it include Sara Afshar’s Syria’s Disappeared. Affirmation of the evidence has made its way into academic publications too. Some of this has come from people involved in organisations campaigning for an approach to justice and accountability for atrocity crimes that allows implementation of a ‘responsibility to prosecute’. Those with this interest include prosecution lawyers and advisors like Stephen Rapp, David Crane, Wolfgang Kaleck, Patrick Kroker, and Beth Van Schaack. Other academics who have cited the Caesar evidence uncritically, treating it as part of an established factual record, include: Noha Aboueldahab; Jamie Allinson; Adam Bazco, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay; Nader Hashemi; Bessma Momani and Tanzeel Hazak; Chris Tenove; and Thomas Weiss. Some academics have cited the HRW report rather than the original Caesar Report, even if, like Van Schaack, they apparently did not notice how HRW had significantly modified some of the original report’s claims, such as the 11,000 victims figure that HRW corrected down. In all, it can certainly be said that Operation Caesar has made its way into publications that will be regarded as laying down the historical record.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Even the initial reception was cautious in some quarters. One reason was the revelation that Operation Caesar had been initiated by Qatar, a country that had been providing funds – now known to be in the billions of dollars – to opposition fighters aiming to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad. There were also the questions, flagged at the start of this article, that are simply begged by appeals – of Rapp and others – to the confirmation by the FBI that the photos showed real dead people. Other serious concerns have been set out in detail by Rick Sterling and Adam Larson, but an elementary and conspicuous one is the unconvincing justification for Caesar’s anonymity, which serves to prevent any rigorous independent questioning of his story. The rationale given for secrecy appears to depend on the implausible proposition that a photographer in the state’s employ could go missing and yet not be missed. A result of the anonymity is that the public ultimately has to place a lot of trust in the competence, integrity and good faith of the people translating and relaying the story. Given that these are people pressing a case for the prosecution, it would be only proper to allow a full examination of the methods they have deployed in presenting their case. From a defence perspective, it would be hard to ignore facts like prime mover Rapp and the fixer and translator Moustafa having been among the most persistent lobbyists on Capitol Hill for regime change – previously in Libya and then in Syria. Rapp, furthermore, has been campaigning for changes in international criminal law that would lower the barriers to prosecution for atrocity crimes. Even their allies in the quest to prosecute Assad have expressed reservations. Notably, the directors of the organisations gathering the documentary evidence that Rapp finds the necessary complement of Caesar’s evidence have been quite clear on the point. Thus Bill Wiley, director of the Europe-based Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has said ‘would it make a case against Assad? No, not at all, not at all.’ Wiley’s counterpart in America, Mohammad al-Abdallah – director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre – is also deeply sceptical of the photos’ evidentiary value.
The central concern of this study can now be further delineated by reference to a group of social media commentators who, to my initial surprise, have appeared to accept that point. This is a group of people who are generally vocal in matters relating to the war in Syria and would not typically pass up an opportunity to highlight crimes alleged of the Syrian president and government. This group would include Idrees Ahmad, Eliot Higgins, Oz Katerji, Scott Lucas, George Monbiot, Thomas Pierret and Robin Yassin-Kassab. None of them – as far as I can discern – has ever referred to Caesar. The most natural explanation would be that each has individually examined the Caesar Report and decided it did indeed give rise to the critical concerns that sceptics have identified. However, the same people have been prepared to refer to the HRW report that validates the Caesar evidence, even though it does not address the critical questions. It is as if they are aware that particulars of the Caesar story may be vulnerable to being discredited but they are satisfied that the reputation of the NGO makes it safe to cite as an authority.
What makes this anomalous is that similar caution does not come into play for members of the group with regard to other operations that are no less controversial. A notable example would be the White Helmets. The idea that the White Helmets organisation consists of unarmed humanitarian volunteers devoted to altruistic and impartial service of their home communities is demonstrably misleading in that the funding, coordination and training comes from abroad, its recruits are paid, and they do not represent or serve all sections of Syrian society. If some of the men may simply be carrying out the tasks they are ostensibly paid to, others have appeared to bear arms and to collaborate with militant extremists. Some have been accused of crimes, including serious ones, and there are even questions about whether some may have been involved in committing atrocities. In short, if one sees reason to be cautious about the credibility of Caesar it would be consistent and reasonable to be cautious about the White Helmets too.
In order to try and resolve the anomaly, it is worth considering another feature of the White Helmets operation that invites comparison with the Caesar narrative:
‘Like Caesar, the White Helmets—also known as the Syrian Civil Defense forces—have become inadvertent documentarians. … White Helmet volunteers have testified before the Security Council, in capitals, and elsewhere and provided photographs and videos of the aftermath of attacks that have helped to shed light on chemical weapon use.’
This documentary role – ‘inadvertent’ or otherwise – has not been lost on promoters of the two operations. Of the Caesar exhibition, Van Schaack observes ‘Such displays respond to the behavioral psychology research on the “picture superiority effect,” which teaches that humans respond to photos more viscerally than to text.’ Of the White Helmets, James Le Mesurier has explained how, in 2012, the security firm he then co-directed, ARK FZC, consulted global market research showing that military and security actors were least likely to win public trust whereas first responders are the most trusted. Thereupon ARK created the White Helmets, and Le Mesurier subsequently formed the Netherlands-registered non-profit Mayday Rescue to manage them (although he was funded from sources like the UK FCO through his company Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC based in a UAE tax haven). As documentarians, the White Helmets have had a much more widespread and sustained impact than Operation Caesar.
So there are some differences worth reflecting on. First, the publicity value of the Caesar images needs no narrative or naming, no due process or due diligence to underwrite, since it is immediate and visceral. The name that needs to be tagged to those images, moreover, is not Caesar but Assad. People don’t need to be kept in mind of the codename for an operation but they do need to have in mind a constant association of those terrible images with the name of Assad. Seen in this light, therefore, silence about Caesar is an entirely consistent element of an anti-Assadist strategy to influence public opinion. By contrast, although the White Helmets also make considerable use of imagery, their narrative and their projected identity are necessary for situating and making sense of the images. Moreover, they are protagonists of their own narrative and have remained in situ to cover continuing developments on the ground (even if they have had to move towns as battle lines have shifted). Their trustworthiness being necessary for the effect of their message, it has been vigorously defended even in the face of serious criticisms. So it is not so surprising, after all, that activists and publicists who have avoided getting drawn into discussion of the Caesar narrative stand firm in defence of the White Helmets narrative.
But if the preference for the White Helmets over Caesar is explicable in those terms, what then needs to be understood is why some other people have nevertheless so actively promoted the Caesar narrative. If the initial purpose of promoting it was to press President Obama’s administration to take a more active interventionist approach to Syria, then it had already failed, and Caesar was not in a position to produce any new evidence. In seeking an explanation it is worth reflecting on who has been most active and consistent in promoting Operation Caesar – from its inception to this day.
The lead author of the Qatari-commissioned Caesar report is David Crane, and he also leads the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP), which he founded some time prior to Caesar’s defection. SAP is said to be student-run and its clients include the Syrian National Council and US State Department. It also ‘works very closely with’ the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, which in turn is a conduit of US funding to CIJA. Incidentally, Rapp, Crane, and fellow Caesar Report author Desmond De Silva, were all previously successive holders of the same job, namely, chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The man who brought Caesar from his Qatari handlers to the West, and accompanied him on tour, even providing his voice, is Mouaz Moustafa. Moustafa’s constant companion on the tour – which has included visits to the UK Foreign Office – is Rapp. Rapp was also involved in founding the organisation supplying the documentary evidence that is a sine qua non for the legal effect of Caesar materials. Now known as CIJA, that organisation grew out of Wiley’s collaboration at ARK FZC with the UK FCO’s go-to contractor, the former diplomat Alistair Harris, who through his ARK business also founded the White Helmets and other Syria security and ‘stabilisation’ projects. Harris, a man of ideas and advocacy as well as action, was co-author with Cadman and Moustafa of a 2013 paper for RUSI urging that it was not too soon to start implementing transitional justice in Syria; and Harris’s ARK has been a conduit of funding – received from US as well as UK – for Moustafa’s organization SETF. As for the European prosecutions, and related initiatives pressing for ‘universal jurisdiction,’ Rapp is there too a constant and inspirational presence.
Rapp’s core ambition is not focused exclusively on President Assad. He advocates in more general terms a principle of ‘no peace without justice’, which he interprets as implying a ‘responsibility to prosecute’ whose ultimate implications would be to enhance the legitimacy of externally imposed regime change operations on any nation – not just Syria – whose leadership is deemed to be oppressing its people and standing in the way of democracy and freedom. It may be noted that Rapp has been part of on-going high level US deliberations about how to finesse that nation’s awkward situation of wanting to see other countries’ leaders prosecuted while not itself even signing up to the existing procedures that are provided by the International Criminal Court (ICC). This conundrum has exercised the American elite for some years, and Rapp appears committed to a solution that lies in promoting innovative jurisprudence and hybrid courts. It would be facilitated by the emergence of a principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’, a principle that has gained particular traction in Germany, and some in other European countries too, like Spain, France and Sweden, where the Caesar materials have apparently been deployed in courts.
In short, there is discernible an aim here of redefining the rules of the ‘rules-based international order’, with particular relevance to who shall be permitted to govern a country. This is to press for global rules that override the powers of nation-states – a development whose effects are akin to what is already being accomplished through trade and investment agreements like TTP and TTIP by imposing rules of corporate globalism on nations with compliant governments. Thus, from the standpoint of concern to serve US-based corporate interests, there is more at stake than the matter of who should be president of Syria.
Viewed from that perspective, Operation Caesar appears as a particular expedient in relation to a particular recalcitrant nation-state. The Caesar materials are likely to have little or no direct legal effect to that end, however, according to Wiley, and will not make a case against Assad in courts. What the images do is harness powerful human emotion to the case. And it is entirely fitting that great human emotion should be stirred by images of human atrocities, as it may also be fitting that justice and accountability should be sought. If war crimes are committed, justice arguably requires accountability for them, and so the value of evidence has to be assessed on its merits, and that means creating opportunities for such an assessment – even, conceivably, by deploying innovative judicial means.
I would just add that there are also other important considerations to keep in mind.
First, justice has to be assiduously sought by means that are rigorously directed to the pursuit of truth. This would be a sine qua non for just retribution. The pursuit of justice requires great scrupulousness of method and honesty of intent; it entails respecting the presumption of innocence, ensuring procedures are impartial and consistent, with due transparency and openness. These are qualities that need ensuring and cannot be assumed to follow from initiatives of ‘innovation’ that are pursued by special interest groups as is a concern about Operation Caesar.
Second is the need in due process to reserve judgement as to the honesty and intentions of witnesses to any alleged crime, pending their evidence being put to the test in a properly constituted hearing. For the purposes of justice it is never to be assumed that all people at all times act honestly and in good faith, for it is precisely because they do not that institutions of justice are required to provide a remedy. Thus a requisite degree of realism in retributive justice has always to attend to motivations, including thoughts about deterrents and incentives. As well as this general concern there is in the present context also a more specific kind of concern. It is a fact that deceptive events are sometimes staged, including by way of what are referred to as false flag operations. Regarding many of the various accusations of atrocity crimes levelled against the Syrian government there are reasonable grounds for doubt, and justice certainly requires that no blanket presumption be made about the dependability of testimony from witnesses like the White Helmets or Caesar.
Third, although the Caesar evidence, like that of the White Helmets, has never been tested in a properly constituted court of law, it has sounded very loudly in the media and has thus exercised a determinate influence on the ‘court of public opinion’. The media reports that shape public opinion, however, often appear to have scant regard for truth or accuracy, let alone justice. Insofar as promoters of prosecutions against state leaders are also seeking to use ‘innovative’ forms of justice effectively to lower the barrier to effective prosecutions, it could be perceived as extremely prejudicial that they are able to make their case so unrestrainedly to the wider public ahead of any properly constituted hearing.
Fourth, there is the distinct possibility that under circumstances where not only is public opinion manipulated but also political agendas are promoted, the communications can even provide incentives to stage harmful acts as false flag operations. Specifically, the pronouncement of red lines can favour this effect. There are strong grounds for suspicion that in practice this effect has operated from time to time in Syria, as elsewhere, and a simple logic of incentives does nothing to assuage such suspicions. It is therefore a matter of serious concern that the informal penumbra of ‘justice and accountability’ talk that goes to support the imposition of ‘red lines’ could be not only prejudicial to the trying of crimes that have occurred but potentially be used to support incentives for crimes to be committed.
The fifth point is the most important of all. Concerns about justice and accountability for war crimes are ultimately about acting on behalf of the moral conscience of humanity. If any given war crime shocks the human conscience, then so much more ought the very occurrence of war itself do so, especially when it is not clearly just or necessary. If war crimes have been committed in Syria it is because there has been a war in Syria – a war that need never have been but for the provocations and facilitations of external actors. If we truly want to hold people responsible for war crimes, then should we not attribute great responsibility to those whose actions are among the root causes of them? Let us bear in mind, for instance, that Qatar was the biggest supplier of funds and arms to the enemies of Syria’s government, and that the United States has been a major orchestrator of international collaboration to delegitimise that government. With such facts in mind, it can be argued that for agents of those states to be producing evidence to accuse Syria of war crimes is to add moral insult to injury. Had these states not promoted an armed insurgency in the first place, there would have been no war and thus no war crimes in Syria. They certainly have earned no benefit of the doubt regarding the anonymous, secretive and unverifiable testimony their agents jointly presented in Operation Caesar.
On this last point, it is further interesting to note that we in the West do not receive much unfiltered communication from the side of the defence to these attempted prosecutions. We hear that Syria, Russia, China and various non-aligned countries have forceful reservations but this is always attributed to pure political calculation on their part. ‘They’, it seems, are always subject to conflicts of interest whereas ‘we’, in the West, are concerned only with the pure pursuit of humanitarian justice. Just how far this might be from the truth is glimpsed in the reflections of former international criminal defence lawyer Christopher Black. His considerations of the modus operandi of prominent prosecutors like those pressing the ‘responsibility to prosecute’ as part of an ‘innovative justice’ agenda are sobering, to put it mildly. For present purposes, however, it suffices to have indicated the much bigger game that the Caesar testimony has played a small part in.
In conclusion, I would emphasise that it behoves us to try and be clear about the effects of Operation Caesar and learn lessons from the study of it. Having noted that even vocal critics of Assad and his government avoid appeals to Caesar, and given the serious criticisms made by others, we have good reason to reserve judgement as to its credibility. This means that those who have committed to accrediting it as wholly true have quite possibly disseminated a falsehood. With NGOs, journalists and even academics embedding in it lessons of that possible falsehood, the historical record may already have been distorted in ways that may not be undone. But a still greater concern is that further harms may be generated in the future not only as a result of misinformation but also as a result specifically of what the West’s legal innovators are seeking, which is nothing less than a change in the rules of the ‘rules-based international order’. We already find some scholars of international law viewing such changes as positive steps towards ‘global justice’. This is a matter about which more critical concern should be in evidence than has been to date.
To put bluntly this contextualised concern about Operation Caesar: not only may it already have altered the historical record, and not only may its effects have served to alter somewhat the course of history to date, but in serving to influence decision makers, it may contribute more indelibly to shifting the baseline of normative consensus in a direction favourable to ousting non-compliant leaders of sovereign states. That is effectively to bestow legitimacy on imperialist regime change projects.
What justice meanwhile requires with regard to the ‘Caesar’ evidence is genuine and impartial investigation into the truth about who died and at whose hands. The instrumentalisation of those terrible deaths for the purposes of further destabilizing a country ripped apart by violent forces that are aided and abetted by foreign states – including so-called liberal democracies – is itself an affront to the conscience of humankind.
Drawing on Larson’s study, Paul McKeigue has summarised what is not in dispute and what other factors should be borne in mind (personal communication) and I follow his advice in the summary that follows.
Not disputed:- The photos show the bodies of at least 5000 adult men at the Damascus military hospital, many of whom have been starved, over a period of about 8 months up to August 2013. Their identities are unknown, and the bodies have been labelled with numbers.
Other factors:- Some of them may be battlefield casualties, although most have no obvious external injuries. Some of them appear to have been gassed while hung upside down. From this, and the signs of prolonged starvation it is clear that most of them were captives. What is not known for certain regarding most of them is whether they were captured and/or killed by the government or by rebel forces (since the fact of being gathered for delivery to the mortuary could apply in either event. Some victims have tattoos indicating they are Christian, Shia or Assad supporters. The picture is further complicated by the fact that there were prisoner swaps between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and JAI in 2013.
Adam Larson (personal communication) adds that there is no semblance of a prison uniform evident in the photos, the men being mainly naked or in underwear, in street clothes or, in a few cases, still in their camouflage military uniforms.
For my part, I do not have the knowledge or expertise to offer an opinion as to the relative likelihoods of the two hypotheses. Nor does my argument depend on the likelihood of the JAI hypothesis being much greater than the official Western hypothesis, as Larson and McKeigue suggest it is. (Nor can some combination of those or other possibilities be definitively ruled out.) My argument relies only on the consideration that a self-consistent and materially possible explanation has not been ruled out while the accepted Western narrative has not been sufficiently established.
 Tim Anderson has commented that ‘we have no way of verifying in which year, circumstance or even which country the photos were taken. Those who finance and arm the sectarian groups have slaughtered hundreds of thousands in recent years, in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. There is no shortage of photos of dead bodies…’ (Tim Anderson ‘The Dirty War on Syria: Barrel Bombs, Partisan Sources and War Propaganda’ Global Research 7 October 2015). However, after a very close study of the photographs, Adam Larson believes that the photos were taken in the Damascus area and that the deaths occurred within that area, mostly in the period from mid-late 2012 to August 2013. This fact, nonetheless, does not make the Syrian government a more likely suspect for their murder than Jaish al-Islam. (Adam Larson, personal communication)
 Wiley interviewed in the Al Jazeera documentary Syria: Witnesses for the Prosecutionhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GGK4zrl7P0 ). Speaking at a conference organised by his friend David Crane at Syracuse University, Wiley is clear that for advocacy groups like Amnesty and HRW ‘the burden of proof for the sort of evidence they need for their reports, it is very, very low. … Oftentimes they do allege crimes, in my opinion, incorrectly, but they are just drawing attention to the suffering.’ (19.55) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enJvVvN8thU (Running for Cover conference, Syracuse, 2016)
 I stand to be corrected on this, of course, and I do note that Caesar has been referred to by Higgins, for instance, in the context of geolocating one of the photos, but without direct comment as to its significance.
 Beth Van Schaack (2019) ‘Innovations in International Criminal Law Documentation Methodologies and Institutions’, p.40.
 This information comes from an address delivered by Le Mesurier at The Performance Theatre in 2015 [links to the video recording of which appear to have been taken down].
 Ultimately, however, what is at stake affects the United States as a nation of people too, since what is driving it is a form of association that knows no national loyalties to any body politic but only to the interests of those with control of the world’s mega-corporations.
 I say ‘arguably’, since another view would take justice to have a more complex relationship with peace such as may find some place for the principle of amnesty – forgetting – but the present paper does not call into question the principle of punishing war crimes through due process.
A 30 page investigative report on the “Caesar Torture Photos” has been released and is available online here. The following is a condensed version of the report. Readers who are especially interested are advised to get the full report which includes additional details, photographs, sources and recommendations.
There is a pattern of sensational but untrue reports that lead to public acceptance of US and Western military intervention in countries around the world:
* In Gulf War 1, there were reports of Iraqi troops stealing incubators from Kuwait, leaving babies to die on the cold floor. Relying on the testimony of a Red Crescent doctor, Amnesty Interenational ‘verified’ the false claims.
* Ten years later, there were reports of yellow cake uranium going to Iraq for development of weapons of mass destruction.
* One decade later, there were reports of Libyan soldiers drugged on viagra and raping women as they advanced.
* In 2012, NBC broadcaster Richard Engel was supposedly kidnapped by pro-Assad Syrian militia but luckily freed by Syrian opposition fighters, the “Free Syrian Army”.
All these reports were later confirmed to be fabrications and lies. They all had the goal of manipulating public opinion and they all succeeded in one way or another. Despite the consequences, which were often disastrous, none of the perpetrators were punished or paid any price.
It has been famously said “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” This report is a critical review of the “Caesar Torture Photos” story. As will be shown, there is strong evidence the accusations are entirely or substantially false.
Overview of ‘Caesar Torture Photos’
On 20 January 2014, two days before negotiations about the Syrian conflict were scheduled to begin in Switzerland, a sensational report burst onto television and front pages around the world. The story was that a former Syrian army photographer had 55,000 photographs documenting the torture and killing of 11,000 detainees by the Syrian security establishment.
The Syrian photographer was given the code-name ‘Caesar’. The story became known as the “Caesar Torture Photos”. A team of lawyers plus digital and forensic experts were hired by the Carter-Ruck law firm, on contract to Qatar, to go to the Middle East and check the veracity of “Caesar” and his story. They concluded that “Caesar” was truthful and the photographs indicated “industrial scale killing”. CNN, London’s Guardian and LeMonde broke the story which was subsequently broadcast in news reports around the world. The Caesar photo accusations were announced as negotiations began in Switzerland. With the oppositiong demanding the resignation of the Syrian government, negotiations quickly broke down.
For the past two years the story has been preserved with occasional bursts of publicity and supposedly corroborating reports. Most recently, in December 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report titled “If the Dead Could Speak” with significant focus on the Caesar accusations.
Following are 12 significant problems with the ‘Caesar torture photos’ story.
1. Almost half the photos show the opposite of the allegations.
The Carter Ruck Inquiry Team claimed there were about 55,000 photos total with about half of them taken by ‘Caesar’ and the other half by other photographers. The Carter Ruck team claimed the photos were all ‘similar’. Together they are all known as ‘Caesar’s Torture Photos’.
The photographs are in the custody of an opposition organization called the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees (SAFMCD). In 2015, they allowed Human Rights Watch (HRW) to study all the photographs which have otherwise been secret. In December 2015, HRW released their report titled “If the Dead Could Speak”. The biggest revelation is that over 46% of the photographs (24,568) do not show people ‘tortured to death” by the Syrian government. On the contrary, they show dead Syrian soldiers and victims of car bombs and other violence (HRW pp2-3). Thus, nearly half the photos show the opposite of what was alleged. These photos, never revealed to the public, confirm that the opposition is violent and has killed large numbers of Syrian security forces and civilians.
2. The claim that other photos only show ‘tortured detainees’ is exaggerated or false.
The Carter Ruck report says ‘Caesar’ only photographed bodies brought from Syrian government detention centers. In their December 2015 report, HRW said, “ The largest category of photographs, 28,707 images, are photographs Human Rights Watch understands to have died in government custody, either in one of several detention facilities or after being transferred to a military hospital.” They estimate 6,786 dead individuals in the set.
The photos and the deceased are real, but how they died and the circumstances are unclear. There is strong evidence some died in conflict. Others died in the hospital. Others died and their bodies were decomposing before they were picked up. These photographs seem to document a war time situation where many combatants and civilians are killed. It seems the military hospital was doing what it had always done: maintaining a photographic and documentary record of the deceased. Bodies were picked up by different military or intelligence branches. While some may have died in detention; the big majority probably died in the conflict zones. The accusations by ‘Caesar’, the Carter Ruck report and HRW that these are all victims of “death in detention” or “death by torture” or death in ‘government custody” are almost certainly false.
3. The true identity of “Caesar” is probably not as claimed.
The Carter Ruck Report says “This witness who defected from Syria and who had been working for the Syrian government was given the code-name ‘Caesar’ by the inquiry team to protect the witness and members of his family.” (CRR p12) However if his story is true, it would be easy for the Syrian government to determine who he really is. After all, how many military photographers took photos at Tishreen and Military 601 Hospitals during those years and then disappeared? According to the Carter Ruck report, Caesar’s family left Syria around the same time. Considering this, why is “Caesar” keeping his identity secret from the western audience? Why does “Caesar” refuse to meet even with highly sympathetic journalists or researchers?
The fact that 46% of the total photographic set is substantially the opposite of what was claimed indicates two possibilities:
* Caesar and his promoters knew the contents but lied about them expecting nobody to look.
* Caesar and his promoters did not know the contents and falsely assumed they were like the others.
The latter seems more likely which supports the theory that Caesar is not who he claims to be.
4. The Carter Ruck Inquiry was faulty, rushed and politically biased.
The credibility of the “Caesar” story has been substantially based on the Carter-Ruck Inquiry Team which “verified” the defecting photographer and his photographs. The following facts suggest the team was biased with a political motive:
* the investigation was financed by the government of Qatar which is a major supporter of the armed opposition.
* the contracted law firm, Carter Ruck and Co, has previously represented Turkey’s President Erdogan, also known for his avid support of the armed opposition.
* the American on the legal inquiry team, Prof David M. Crane, has a long history working for U.S. Dept of Defense and Defense Intelligence Agency. The U.S. Government has been deeply involved in the attempt at ‘regime change’ with demands that ‘Assad must go’ beginning in summer 2011 and continuing until recently.
* Prof Crane is personally partisan in the conflict. He has campaigned for a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal and testified before Congress in October 2013, three months before the Caesar revelations.
* by their own admission, the inquiry team was under “time constraints” (CRR, p11).
* by their own admission, the inquiry team did not even survey most of the photographs
* the inquiry team was either ignorant of the content or intentionally lied about the 46% showing dead Syrian soldiers and attack victims.
* the inquiry team did their last interview with “Caesar” on January 18, quickly finalized a report and rushed it into the media on January 20, two days prior to the start of UN sponsored negotiations.
The self-proclaimed “rigor” of the Carter Ruck investigation is without foundation. The claims to a ‘scientific’ investigation are similarly without substance and verging on the ludicrous.
5. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is involved.
In an interview on France24, Prof. David Crane of the inquiry team describes how ‘Caesar’ was brought to meet them by “his handler, his case officer”. The expression ‘case officer’ usually refers to the CIA. This would be a common expression for Prof. Crane who previously worked in the Defense Intelligence Agency. The involvement of the CIA additionally makes sense since there was a CIA budget of $1Billion for Syria operations in 2013.
Prof. Crane’s “Syria Accountability Project” is based at Syracuse University where the CIA actively recruits new officers despite student resistance.
Why does it matter if the CIA is connected to the ‘Caesar’ story? Because the CIA has a long history of disinformation campaigns. In 2011, false reports of viagra fueled rape by Libyan soldiers were widely broadcast in western media as the U.S. pushed for a military mandate. Decades earlier, the world was shocked to hear about Cuban troops fighting in Angola raping Angolan women. The CIA chief of station for Angola, John Stockwell, later described how they invented the false report and spread it round the world. The CIA was very proud of that disinformation achievement. Stockwell’s book, “In Search of Enemies” is still relevant.
6. The prosecutors portray simple administrative procedures as mysterious and sinister.
The Carter Ruck inquiry team falsely claimed there were about 11,000 tortured and killed detainees. They then posed the question: Why would the Syrian government photograph and document the people they just killed? The Carter Ruck Report speculates that the military hospital photographed the dead to prove that the “orders to kill” had been followed. The “orders to kill” are assumed.
A more logical explanation is that dead bodies were photographed as part of normal hospital / morgue procedure to maintain a file of the deceased who were received or treated at the hospital.
The same applies to the body labeling / numbering system. The Carter Ruck report suggest there is something mysterious and possibly sinister in the coded tagging system. But all morgues need to have a tagging and identification system.
7. The photos have been manipulated.
Many of the photos at the SAFMCD website have been manipulated. The information card and tape identity are covered over and sections of documents are obscured. It must have been very time consuming to do this for thousands of photos. The explanation that they are doing this to ‘protect identity’ is not credible since the faces of victims are visible. What are they hiding?
8. The Photo Catalog has duplicates and other errors.
There are numerous errors and anomalies in the photo catalog as presented at the SAFMCD website.
For example, some deceased persons are shown twice with different case numbers and dates.
There are other errors where different individuals are given the same identity number.
Researcher Adam Larson at A Closer Look at Syria website has done detailed investigation which reveals more errors and curious error patterns in the SAFMCD photo catalog.
9. With few exceptions, Western media uncritically accepted and promoted the story.
The Carter Ruck report was labeled “Confidential” but distributed to CNN, the Guardian and LeMonde.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour gushed the story as she interviewed three of the inquiry team under the headline “EXCLUSIVE: Gruesome Syria photos may prove torture by Assad regime”. Critical journalism was replaced by leading questions and affirmation. David Crane said “This is a smoking gun”. Desmond de Silva “likened the images to those of holocaust survivors”.
The guardian report was titled “Syrian regime document trove shows evidence of 'industrial scale' killing of detainees” with subtitle “Senior war crimes prosecutors say photographs and documents provide 'clear evidence' of systematic killing of 11,000 detainees”
One of the very few skeptical reports was by Dan Murphy in the Christian Science Monitor. Murphy echoed standard accusations about Syria but went on to say incisively, “the report itself is nowhere near as credible as it makes out and should be viewed for what it is: A well-timed propaganda exercise funded by Qatar, a regime opponent who has funded rebels fighting Assad who have committed war crimes of their own.”
Unfortunately that was one of very few critical reports in the mainstream media.
In 2012, foreign affairs journalist Jonathan Steele wrote an article describing the overall media bias on Syria.. His article was titled “Most Syrians back Assad but you’d never know from western media”. The media campaign and propaganda has continued without stop. It was in this context that the Carter Ruck Report was delivered and widely accepted without question.
10. Politicians have used the Caesar story to push for more US/NATO aggression.
Politicians seeking direct US intervention for ‘regime change’ in Syria were quick to accept and broadcast the ‘Caesar’ story. They used it to demonize the Assad government and argue that the US must act so as to prevent “another holocaust’, ‘another Rwanda’, ‘another Cambodia’.
When Caesar’s photos were displayed at the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress, Chairman Ed Royce said “It is far past time that the world act.... It is far past time for the United States to say there is going to be a safe zone across this area in northern Syria.”
The top ranking Democrat in the House Foreign Affairs Committee is Eliot Engel. In November 2015 he said "We’re reminded of the photographer, known as Caesar, who sat in this room a year ago, showing us in searing, graphic detail what Assad has done to his own people.” Engel went on to advocate for a new authorization for the use of military force.
Rep Adam Kinzinger is another advocate for aggression against Syria. At an event at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in July 2015 he said, “If we want to destroy ISIS we have to destroy the incubator of ISIS, Bashar al-Assad.”
The irony and hypocrisy is doubly profound since Rep Kinzinger has met and coordinated with opposition leader Okaidi who is a confirmed ally of ISIS. In contrast with Kinzinger’s false claims, it is widely known that ISIS ideology and initial funding came from Saudi Arabia and much of its recent wealth from oil sales via Turkey. The Syrian Army has fought huge battles against ISIS, winning some but losing others with horrific scenes of mass beheading.
11. The Human Rights Watch assessment is biased.
HRW has been very active around Syria. After the chemical attacks in greater Damascus on August 21, 2013, HRW rushed a report which concluded that, based on a vector analysis of incoming projectiles, the source of the sarin carrying rockets must have been Syrian government territory. This analysis was later debunked as a “junk heap of bad evidence” by highly respected investigative journalist Robert Parry. HRW’s assumption about the chemical weapon rocket flight distance was faulty. Additionally it was unrealistic to think you could determine rocket trajectory with 1% accuracy from a canister on the ground. To think you could determine flight trajectory from a canister on the ground that had deflected off a building wall was preposterous.
In spite of this, HRW stuck by its analysis which blamed the Assad government. HRW Director Ken Roth publicly indicated dissatisfaction when an agreement to remove Syrian chemical weapons was reached. Mr. Roth wanted more than a ‘symbolic’ attack.
In light of the preceding, we note the December 2015 HRW report addressing the claims of Caesar.
HRW seems to be the only non-governmental organization to receive the full set of photo files from the custodian. To its credit, HRW acknowledged that nearly half the photos do not show what has been claimed for two years: they show dead Syrian soldiers and militia along with scenes from crime scenes, car bombings, etc...
But HRW’s bias is clearly shown in how they handle this huge contradiction. Amazingly, they suggest the incorrectly identified photographs support the overall claim. They say, “This report focuses on deaths in detention. However other types of photographs are also important. From an evidentiary perspective, they reinforce the credibility of the claims of Caesar about his role as a forensic photographer of the Syrian security forces or at least with someone who has access to their photographs.” (HRW, p31) This seems like saying if someone lies to you half the time that proves they are truthful.
The files disprove the assertion that the files all show tortured and killed. The photographs show a wide range of deceased persons, from Syrian soldiers to Syrian militia members to opposition fighters to civilians trapped in conflict zones to regular deaths in the military hospital. There may be some photos of detainees who died in custody after being tortured, or who were simply executed. We know that this happened in Iraqi detention centers under U.S. occupation. Ugly and brutal things happen in war times. But the facts strongly suggest that the ‘Caesar’ account is basically untrue or a gross exaggeration.
It is striking that the HRW report has no acknowledgment of the war conditions and circumstances in Syria. There is no acknowledgment that the government and Syrian Arab Army have been under attack by tens of thousands of weaponized fighters openly funded and supported by many of the wealthiest countries in the world.
There is no hint at the huge loss of life suffered by the Syrian army and supporters defending their country. The current estimates indicate from eighty to one hundred and twenty thousand Syrian soldiers, militia and allies having died in the conflict. During the three years 2011 - 2013, including the period covered by Caesar photos, it is estimated that over 52,000 Syrian soldiers and civilian militia died versus 29,000 anti-government forces.
HRW had access to the full set of photographs including the Syrian army and civilian militia members killed in the conflict. Why did they not list the number of Syrian soldiers and security forces they identified? Why did they not show a single image of those victims?
HRW goes beyond endorsing the falsehoods in the ‘Caesar’ story; they suggest it is a partial listing. On page 5 the report says, “Therefore, the number of bodies from detention facilities that appear in the Caesar photographs represent only a part of those who died in detention in Damascus.”
On the contrary, the Caesar photographs seem to mostly show victims who died in a variety of ways in the armed conflict. The HRW assertions seem to be biased and inaccurate.
12. The legal accusations are biased and ignore the supreme crime of aggression.
The Christian Science Monitor journalist Dan Murphy gave an apt warning in his article on the Carter Ruck report about ‘Caesar’. While many journalists treated the prosecutors with uncritical deference, he said, “Association with war crime prosecutions is no guarantor of credibility – far from it. Just consider Luis Moreno Ocampo's absurd claims about Viagra and mass rape in Muammar Qaddafi's Libya in 2011. War crimes prosecutors have, unsurprisingly, a bias towards wanting to bolster cases against people they consider war criminals (like Assad or Qaddafi) and so should be treated with caution. They also frequently favor, as a class, humanitarian interventions.”
The Carter Ruck legal team demonstrated how accurate those cautions were. They were eager to accuse the Syrian government of “crimes against humanity” but the evidence of “industrial killing”, “mass killing”, “torturing to kill” is dubious and much of the hard evidence shows something else.
In contrast, there is clear and solid evidence that a “Crime against Peace” is being committed against Syria. It is public knowledge that the “armed opposition” in Syria has been funded, supplied and supported in myriad ways by various outside governments. Most of the fighters, both Syrian and foreign, receive salaries from one or another outside power. Their supplies, weapons and necessary equipment are all supplied to them. Like the “Contras” in Nicaragua in the 1980’s, the use of such proxy armies is a violation of customary international law.
It is also a violation of the UN Charter which says “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other matter inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.
The government of Qatar has been a major supporter of the mercenaries and fanatics attacking the sovereign state of Syria. Given that fact, isn’t it hugely ironic to hear the legal contractors for Qatar accusing the Syrian government of “crimes against humanity”?
Isn’t it time for the United Nations to make reforms so that it can start living up to its purposes? That will require demanding and enforcing compliance with the UN Charter and International Law.