Behind the blitz of airstrikes and land battles in Syria, an unseen army is hunting for special spoils of war: pieces of paper, including military orders, meeting minutes, prison records and any other documents that could help build cases for future prosecutions.
Several Western governments, including those of the United States and Britain, are financing two separate teams of investigators searching for evidence needed to establish criminal liability in any future war crimes trials. It is important, diplomats say, that the teams and their local operatives search for documents while the conflict is being waged.
“Experience has shown that it’s important to move documents before they can be hidden, destroyed or tampered with,” said William H. Wiley, a Canadian and a veteran of international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. He heads one of the groups, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability.
Mr. Wiley says that his group, independent of any court, has been working in Syria since 2011, and that his investigators can operate more freely than those sent by war crimes tribunals. “We can work faster, we have a high risk tolerance and no cumbersome bureaucratic rules,” he said.
Inside Syria, local lawyers and law students have been recruited to scour prisons and government and military offices for papers revealing what Mr. Wiley calls “the three C’s” — the structure of command, control and communication. “We start with the organization, not the incidents,” he said.
Human rights groups and United Nations envoys have built a chilling inventory of killings, torture and sexual violence against civilians and opponents of the Assad regime during Syria’s three-and-a-half-year civil war. But war crimes experts say that in large-scale conflicts like Syria’s, documenting crimes is the easier part. Linking them to mid- or high-level commanders in court is much harder.
“There may be the bodies of the dead, but you need to know who gave the arrest orders, who was in charge of the prisons, questions that are vital in a trial,” said the United States ambassador for war crimes, Stephen J. Rapp, himself a former war crimes prosecutor. The United States has contributed $1 million to the commission’s $6 million budget for 2014. The other donors are Britain, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Switzerland.
A second team, working independently, received British and other European funds this year to focus on the organization of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. It started work in January, as the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was threatening villages in northern Syria and well before it seized a large stretch of territory in Syria and Iraq. The team’s chief investigator asked that the real names of staff members be withheld for security reasons.
The head of the team targeting the Islamic State is a former Western counterintelligence agent. His job, as he described it, is not to record the crucifixions, beheadings, executions or massacres of recent months but to study the organization and the underpinnings of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Continue reading the main story
“We need to understand their system, their techniques, their roles, so we can build the chain of command,” he said in a Skype interview during a visit outside the region. Planned violence is a central issue in war crimes. Experts say the organized and systematic nature of a group’s crimes can raise them to the level of crimes against humanity.