Syria's Assad and His Legacy of War Crimes

Assad and his regime may never be prosecuted for the acts of terror he perpetrated against his own people during Syria's civil war. Scott Pelley reports on the effort to gather and maintain the evidence against Assad.


If you have children watching 60 Minutes tonight, that's usually a good thing, but this story is not for them. The images you are about to see are the honest evidence of the greatest war crimes of the 21st century. As we reported last winter, President Biden and his national security team face a horror that erupted when many of them were in the Obama administration. Last March brought the 10th anniversary of the popular uprising that began Syria's civil war. The Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has gassed the innocent, bombed hospitals and schools, and made thousands disappear. The evidence is hard to watch but it should be seen. Many risked their lives to tell this story so that, even if Assad is never arrested, he will be, forever, handcuffed to the truth.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did this. These are civilians of a Damascus suburb called Ghouta. In 2013, ghouta was held by rebels so the Syrian army shelled the neighborhood with internationally banned nerve gas. 1,400 men, women and children were exterminated. Assad had chosen to meet the popular uprising against him not with diplomacy, not with war among soldiers, but with terrorism without restraint.


Stephen Rapp: We have murder, we have extermination, we have torture, we have rape.


Stephen Rapp is helping to build cases against Assad and his regime. Rapp prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and Sierra Leone and served as U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues for six years, until 2015.


Scott Pelley: Will there be justice for what's happened in Syria?


Stephen Rapp: I'm an optimistic American. I've seen other situations that we thought were pretty hopeless, where nobody thought there'd ever be justice where we succeeded. The possibilities are there and one of the ways that we build toward that is get the solid evidence now.


Much of what he calls solid evidence was abandoned in the warzone. More than 900,000 government documents have been smuggled out and archived by the Independent Commission for International Justice and Accountability. The commission is funded, in part, by the U.S. and European Union. Stephen Rapp is the commission's chair.


Scott Pelley: Do the documents that have been collected so far lead all the way to President Assad?


Stephen Rapp: There's no question they lead all the way to President Assad. I mean, this is a top down, organized effort. There are documents with his name on it. Clearly he organizes this strategy. Then we see orders down through the system to pick people up. We see reports back. We see reports back about well, we've got a real problem here, there are too many corpses stacking up.


Among the corpses is Ahmad al-Musalmani, a 14-year-old who was last seen on a bus headed to his mother's funeral. His family told Human Rights Watch that Assad's military stopped the bus and found a protest song on Ahmad's phone. His family next saw his face, two years later, when an image of his tortured body was smuggled out by the man concealed in the blue windbreaker.


Caesar: Our job became solely to take photographs of the bodies of dead human beings that had been tortured to death or killed in the different intelligence branches.


The photographer's alias is "Caesar."


Scott Pelley: He was in the military?


We spoke to him with the translation help of Mouaz Moustafa, of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which works to protect civilians. Caesar had been a military photographer for 13 years. In 2011, he was ordered to make a record at morgues that received the dead from Assad's secret prisons. We added a masking effect because his images are too horrific for television. The reality of what he saw, broke Caesar's allegiance to the regime. To protect Caesar's identity, these are his words in Moustafa's voice.


Caesar: It was very clear that they were tortured, not tortured for a day or two, tortured for many, many long months. They were emaciated bodies, purely skeletons. There were people, most of them had their eyes gouged out. There was electrocution, you could tell by the dark spots on their body that was used there. There was utilization of knives and also big cables and belts that was used to beat them. And so, we could see every type of torture on the bodies of these individuals.


'Every type of torture,' but the depravity of the gouged eyes leaves to the imagination how maiming was calculated to coerce information. By 2013, the bodies overflowed the morgues and spilled across a parking garage at a military hospital.


Caesar: When I would take photographs, I would think, how can this government be capable of doing this to its own people? I would also have feelings of sadness and anger at what I've seen. And, at the same time, a feeling of fear, that at any single moment, there's no reason that I wouldn't face the very same torture and be photographed later.


Scott Pelley: How did you get the pho