Skip to main content

Could Syria 'torture photos' be a game-changer for peace talks?

By Nic Robertson, CNN
January 21, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
A team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts has found "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the lawyers say.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>CNN was given these photos by the lawyers involved with the investigation, who received them from a defected Syrian military police photographer. A team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts has found "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the lawyers say.

CNN was given these photos by the lawyers involved with the investigation, who received them from a defected Syrian military police photographer.
HIDE CAPTION
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The new report accusing Bashar al-Assad's regime of torture may shift the focus of the peace talks
  • Syrians may question the authenticity of the photos, writes CNN's Nic Robertson
  • Organizationally, the Syrian opposition is a mess, he says
  • Robertson: No one is expecting any major breakthroughs during one day of talks

(CNN) -- The horrific new report accusing Syria's embattled regime of torturing and killing thousands of detainees in government custody may not be a game-changer for the peace talks set to open in Switzerland on Wednesday, but they may well shift the narrative -- if only for a day.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has played some powerful cards ahead of the Geneva 2 talks. He has cranked up the airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and one of the main flashpoints of the three-year civil war that has devastated the country. And he sent Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to Moscow last week to announce a cease-fire proposal in an attempt to set the stage for opposition groups to look bad if they don't agree to the deal.

But when Syrian officials step in front of the cameras in Switzerland this week, the questions won't be about ceasefire deals. They'll be about the report, first revealed by CNN and the Guardian in an exclusive on Monday, alleging systematic "crimes against humanity" being committed against prisoners in Syrian jails.

4 things to know about Syria

Syrian's reaction to torture accusations
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
Syria's alleged 'killing machine'

There may be moments of discomfort for Foreign Minister Moallem here, but they'll be fleeting ones. It would be quite normal for the Syrians to question the authenticity of the photos depicting torture and starvation of prisoners, to brush the issue aside or shift the focus to the atrocities they claim have been committed by rebels (or "terrorists," as they're known in government parlance). We certainly won't see the Assad regime admitting culpability over this.

And while the timing of the report's release clearly seems intended to push some much-needed wind into the sails of the groups opposed to Assad , it's hard to see how they'll benefit much from the new revelations. Organizationally, the opposition is a mess. Several of the largest groups, including the Syrian National Council, aren't even showing up to the talks. Rival rebel factions are massacring each other by the hundreds in the streets and alleys of cities across Syria.

Even worse, none of the politicians who make up the majority of the Western-backed Syrian opposition are in the country, so they aren't in control of the military forces battling Assad's troops on the ground. The U.S. State Department said they hope a few rebel army leaders show up to the talks, but again, who are they and what weight do they actually carry? The principal rebel commander the U.S. was backing, Free Syrian Army general Salim Idris, fled the country in December. The influence of the group is being increasingly diminished by Islamist and al Qaeda-backed militants who the U.S. does not support.

All in all, no one is expecting any major breakthroughs during one day of talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who will attend the first day of talks in Montreux before they move to Geneva over the weekend, has said in the past that negotiations to end the Vietnam war took years. The best case scenario for these talks is more talks -- and that none of the parties get up and storm out.

Analysing Syria's alleged torture report
Syrian opposition to attend peace talks

In terms of negotiations, when will we see some substantial compromises? Assad recently told reporters that we're still months away from him announcing a date for planned 2014 national elections. It seems increasingly likely that Assad will again run for president. But there's always the possibility that he could use the ongoing war to postpone elections altogether. Let's face it: how could you really hold elections when eight million people are displaced in Syria? The regime would control the balloting and accounting processes: who would provide security? It would be crazy to think international monitors could reliably observe national polls with a full-blown war happening all around them.

If -- and probably when -- Assad won an election, it is clear the opposition would simply continue to refuse to recognize him as the legitimate leader of Syria. But until the yet-to-be announced date for a poll approaches, we aren't going to get to a decisive moment in peace talks. It's too early to say, and we're still so far away from any compromise points.

EXCLUSIVE: Gruesome Syria photos may prove torture by Assad regime

READ: Syria peace talks: Russia criticizes rescinding of Iran's invitation

READ: Haunting images of Syria's abandoned homes

CNN's Nick Thompson contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
What caught our experts' ears was as much about what he didn't address as much as what he did.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
The three-year war in Syria has claimed 162,402 lives, an opposition group said Monday, as the raging conflict shows no signs of abating.
May 31, 2014 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
Official: The U.S. believes a jihadi featured in a suicide bombing video in Syria is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha who grew up in Florida.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
For the first time, Britain has convicted someone of a terrorism offense related to the Syrian civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT