Mainstream reporting on Syria has relied heavily on the work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a Western government-funded regime change group whose investigators collaborated with al-Qaeda and its extremist allies to drum up prosecutions of Syrian officials
By Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton
Western corporate media reporting on the war in Syria has relied extensively on partisan and dubious research produced by a cottage industry of opposition-linked groups posing as neutral monitors.
In part one of this investigation, we explored one the key cogs in this disinformation machine: the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a foreign government-funded, pro-military intervention opposition front group.
In this installment, we will probe a group that has not only helped shape Western media reporting on Syria, but which is at the forefront of an emerging strategy to bleed the Syrian government even as the war comes to a close. It is called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, or CIJA.
CIJA is often presented as an “independent” legal group committed to dispensing justice for war crimes. Its work has been the subject of glowing profiles in The New York Times, NBC News, The Guardian, and The New Yorker.
A shocking report in May on “Syria’s secret torture prisons,” by the New York Times’ former Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard, was based heavily on documents and research provided by CIJA. Barnard described the organization simply as a “nonprofit,” with no further information.
In reality, CIJA is bankrolled by the very same Western governments that have fueled the proxy war against Syria, and was founded to supplement the regime-change operation that those states initiated in 2011.
CIJA’s investigators in Syria collaborated with and even paid foreign-backed Salafi-jihadist militias – including members of the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – to steal files from Syrian government buildings in areas that had been taken over by armed militants. These stolen documents are what lawyers hope to use in prosecutions of Syrian officials.
Indeed, top corporate media outlets like The New York Times have published major reports based on leaked Syrian government documents without disclosing the fact that these files were first stolen by Syrian al-Qaeda militants, and then handed over to a Western government-funded group committed to regime change.
Were this chain of custody publicized more widely, it would immediately call into question the reliability and veracity of the news reports that have relied on this group, and might even set off an international scandal.
But leading outlets have ignored CIJA’s methods of acquisition, depicting the group almost without exception as an impartial NGO whose leadership consists of noble humanitarians. A closer look shows the seamy side of this organization.
CIJA’s executive director operates a for-profit consulting firm that has raked in lucrative contracts in conflict zones, including through CIJA’s work in Syria, while advising mining companies in Africa. And the commission’s deputy director openly touts their work with the US Department of Homeland Security and FBI on border security.
CIJA is also closely advised by a former State Department lawyer who has helped oversee the so-called “Caesar file,” a deceptive operation aimed at proving the Syrian government guilty of mass extermination, but which involved further collaboration with extremist militias in Syria as well as extensive funding from Qatar.
As the following investigation by The Grayzone will show, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability is anything but an independent group committed to human rights above all else.
‘Transitional justice,’ the latest tool in the regime-change toolbox
The Syrian opposition and its supporters abroad have spent the past eight years doing everything in their power to lobby the United States to launch a direct military intervention to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. They have deployed red lines, White Helmets, and a constant stream of white lies to argue that the US military has a “responsibility to protect” Syrians from their government.
Despite billions of dollars poured into a cataclysmic proxy war, this monumental effort failed: Syria has largely been stabilized, and refugees are slowly trickling back in. In frustration, a motley crew of veteran regime-change warriors and lawyers are resorting to a new and largely untested strategy.
Their efforts amount to legal warfare, or lawfare, and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability is a key player in the new campaign.
Some describe the latest weapon in West’s regime-change toolbox as “transitional justice.” To others, it is referred to as the “Responsibility to Prosecute,” a play on the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, or R2P, that was applied with varying degrees of catastrophe by liberal interventionists in theaters from the former Yugoslavia to Libya.
Proponents of the experimental legal approach freely acknowledge that it involves the subversion of international law. As conceded by Oona Hathaway, a former counsel in the Defense Department and advocate of the newfangled legal tactic, “The need to prove that offenses have been previously ‘criminalized’ has produced inconsistent results and uncertainty about the corpus of war crimes.”
In other words, government actors could be prosecuted abroad if powerful Western states can establish the perception that they committed a crime, even if no such acts were previously proven. Under the new doctrine, the West’s designated enemies are guilty until proven innocent.
The “Responsibility to Prosecute” was conceived to address another obstacle in prosecuting Syrian officials: Neither the United States nor Syria is a state party to the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Today, the US government treats the ICC as a hostile institution, denying visas to its officials for investigating American war crimes in Afghanistan.
Under the novel doctrine, Washington could have its cake and eat it too, referring war crimes prosecutions of official enemies to friendly countries like Germany that accept universal jurisdiction without having to interact with the ICC.
“Domestic jurisdictions may in many cases be better placed to afford a measure of accountability, particularly in the context of Syria, and this approach allows them to do so for war crimes not reflected in those [Rome] statutes,” argued Hathaway, the former Pentagon lawyer.
Tim Hayward, a professor of environmental political theory at the University of Edinburgh and member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, is one of the few observers of the Syrian conflict to have cast a critical eye on the “Responsibility to Prosecute” campaign.
“There is a discernible aim here of redefining the rules of the ‘rules-based international order’, with particular relevance to who shall be permitted to govern a country,” Hayward explained. “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.”
Hayward concluded, “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.”
Possible targets of this new legal tactic lie well beyond Damascus, and in any nation judged to be excessively recalcitrant. Fernando Cutz, a former National Security Council advisor to Donald Trump who played a central role in devising the coup attempt that has failed to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, took to the New York Times op-ed section this June to recommend prosecutions in hybrid courts as a means “to bring down Maduro.”
Citing as precedent a series of unproven allegations and US sanctions measures applied against the Venezuelan government, Cutz argued that members of Maduro’s inner circle should be tried in Latin American countries that have signed on to the Rome Statute, thus enabling the US to remain outside the jurisdiction of the ICC.
But the strategy for applying the “Responsibility to Prosecute” against Syria’s government is far more developed than the one targeting Venezuela’s.
And the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) is hoping to pave the way for this novel form of lawfare.
Back in 2014, at the height of the Syrian proxy war, CIJA spokesperson Nerma Jalacic made the group’s intentions clear, boasting, “No organization other than the CIJA is in fact building prosecution-ready case files with evidence pointing to the criminal liability of high and highest ranking individuals within the [Syrian] regime.”
In an article for a legal website in March, researcher Melinda Rankin revealed that CIJA is the main non-governmental entity working with Germany to “fill the gap” in the absence of an ICC commission targeting the Syrian government.
Funded by the same Western governments that armed the ‘moderate rebels’
In its major May 11 report on “Syria’s secret torture prisons,” The New York Times noted that “there is a growing movement to seek justice through European courts” against top Syrian government officials. Reporter Anne Barnard, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that French and German prosecutors had issued arrest warrants against two top security ministers in the Syrian government, and had begun proceedings against several others.
What Barnard omitted, however, was that the sources that informed her article have been at the forefront of the legal campaign against the Syrian government, and have been supported with millions from the same Western and Gulf states that fueled an Islamist insurgency inside the country.
Barnard’s investigation relied almost entirely on two groups: the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the Qatari-based opposition front group exposed in part one of this investigation; and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA).
Barnard identified CIJA simply as a “nonprofit,” providing no further context on its background or political agenda.
But while CIJA may claim to be a non-governmental organization, it relies on governments for its funding. In a 2018 interview with a US government agency, CIJA’s director of investigations and operations said the group’s “current donors include the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway” — all countries that supported the opposition in one form or another in its war on the Syrian government.
These funding sources are far from hidden. The European Commission publicly lists CIJA as an “EU-funded project.” The European Union has allotted €1.5 million to the organization for work in the Syrian Arab Republic from 2016 to 2020.
Moreover, Foreign Policy magazine disclosed in 2014 that the US State Department had been funding CIJA to the tune of $500,000 a year. The US funding had been channeled through the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, a US-based NGO that was set up in 2012 at the prompting of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Incidentally, Clinton promoted Barnard’s article through her Twitter account, calling it “a remarkable piece of journalism.” The New York Times reporter effused, “This might be a first for me.”
In her first mention of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Barnard linked to a puff piece on the group by The Guardian. That article, authored by the reliably pro-opposition correspondent Julian Borger, reported in passing that the “independent organisation” received its “funding from Western governments.”
Borger noted that CIJA was founded in 2012, at the beginning of the war in Syria, and that “Initial funding came from Britain, the United States and the European Union.” In her own report, Barnard failed to disclose this critical detail.
CIJA is the organization that provided the New York Times with redacted documents that it claims were Syrian government intelligence memos, but which the public has yet to see. Indeed, Barnard’s report relies heavily on these files.
But how were these documents obtained from the Syrian government?
This is yet another major detail that the Times scandalously failed to disclose: CIJA gathered its documents from Syrian territory through direct collaboration with genocidal armed groups including affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS that had seized territory by force from the country’s government.
Collaborating with the al-Qaeda fighters of “grace and education”
The executive director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Bill Wiley, said in 2014 that his organization had worked with every armed opposition group in Syria “up to but excluding Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State” in order to compile a massive trove with 500,000 pages of Syrian government documents.
However, coverage of CIJA’s activities by even sympathetic Western outlets tells a strikingly different story.
In the Guardian’s puff piece, readers are introduced to a Syrian opposition activist identified solely as “Adel,” with no surname. Back in 2012, according to the Guardian, Adel “attended UK-funded human rights seminars in Turkey,” one of the primary state sponsors of the Syrian opposition, which later invaded northern Syria and recruited Syrian insurgents as Turkish army mercenaries. (Those “human rights seminars” were almost certainly conducted by Tsamota, the consulting and risk management firm of CIJA’s executive director, Wiley).
Julian Borger, the Guardian reporter, went on to casually reveal CIJA’s interactions with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Turkish government, describing how the CIJA chief investigator traversed ISIS-controlled territory in northern Syria, cruising through ISIS checkpoints and crossing over the Turkish border without a hitch.
With substantial Western government funding, Adel assembled a team of 50 investigators, junketing back and forth into Syrian rebel-held territory. The Guardian noted that “these smuggling runs through Tel Abyad in the first months of 2014 would prove to be the most fruitful.” It was during these trips in Salafi jihadist-controlled territory that Adel assembled “the greatest find of the investigation so far: a complete set of documents from the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.”
In Raqqa, according to The Guardian, “leaders of the local Salafist militia offered to help collect what Adel was looking for.” This happened to have been the militia would soon morph into ISIS, and which declared Raqqa the de facto capital of its so-called Caliphate. Thus CIJA’s chief investigator was collaborating directly with genocidal extremist groups to get his hands on Syrian government documents.
In Deir ez-Zor, which was encircled by ISIS for years, The Guardian said CIJA’s chief investigator “Adel” worked with Jabhat al-Nusra — Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, and the world’s largest affiliate of the extremist group since 9/11. Adel collaborated with one of al-Qaeda’s local commanders in Syria, complimenting the jihadist leader as a man of “grace and education.”
The Guardian noted that this al-Qaeda commander’s “fighters allowed Adel’s investigators to comb through the military intelligence building and sweep up the files and loose papers scattered around its deserted shell.”
The Guardian continued: “By January 2014, Adel’s archive had rapidly grown to fill a dozen boxes – about 150 kg of paper – which were stacked against the walls in a house he had rented in Raqqa.”
What The Guardian did not emphasize is that at this time, in January 2014, ISIS was solidifying its control over Raqqa.
On January 14, 2014, ISIS completely captured Raqqa. This was at the time the only provincial capital in Syria that the rebels had managed to take from the government. ISIS jihadists then proceeded to massacre Syrians from the Alawite and Christian minorities, ethnically cleansing Raqqa’s once substantial minority communities, demolishing Shia mosques and burning down churches.
While ISIS and al-Qaeda extremists were massacring civilians, CIJA’s chief investigator was living directly in their realm, and collaborating by his own admission with assorted militants including al-Qaeda to steal Syrian government documents, which would be given to Western journalists to publish.
CIJA’s executive director added, “We burn enormous sums of money moving this stuff.”
In other words, CIJA not only worked side-by-side with genocidal extremist groups – including al-Qaeda – to achieve the shared goal of collapsing Syria’s government; it even paid some of those militants to do its dirty work.
CIJA executive: ‘America has been an advocate of justice across the world’
The leadership of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability makes no effort to hide its support for US imperial might.
CIJA’s American director of investigations and operations, Chris Engels, exposed the group’s blatant political bias in a revealing 2018 interview with the US government’s Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).
Engels proudly touted his organization’s support for domestic policing. “CIJA has a strong relationship with U.S. law enforcement,” he said, commenting on FBI and DHS: “We are happy to work with them and believe it is our responsibility to do so. We received over 500 requests last year to assist in law enforcement investigations and the number is increasing this year.”
The CIJA executive went on to boast of his group’s work in border militarization. “In the United States, this work has a national security element as well,” Engels said, noting the group gathers “important data necessary to secure our U.S. borders against international criminals.”
Echoing “war on terror” fear-mongering, he added, “Regimes willing to engage in atrocities often become exporters of that terror to the United States and our allies at home and abroad.”
CIJA’s director of investigations and operations, speaking in an official capacity, even praised the US government and spoke as a patriotic American in the collective “we” (emphasis added):
“America’s leadership has promoted international justice from its earliest days. We were the engine behind the Nuremburg Tribunal and the other post-WWII prosecutions. We were a driving force for the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals. America has been an advocate of justice across the world and ready to stand up against dictators who were killing their people.This process is never simple; it’s often messy. But we as a people have pushed forward this sense of responsibility to protect others who cannot protect themselves. I believe that is a noble American trait that should preserved.”
While the notion of the United States promoting justice “from its earliest days” might rankle American Indians and descendants of Black slaves, and while many millions of people from Central America to the Middle East would undoubtedly scoff at Engels’ claim that Washington has been “ready to stand up against dictators,” this brazen brand of American exceptionalism speaks to the mission of CIJA.
But CIJA was not only created to function as a legal extension of US power; it is wholly dependent on Western military might to advance objectives that apparently include regime change and growing the corporate consultancy firm of its executive director.
A sham trial, conflict contracts and ‘money mining’
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability was founded by Bill Wiley, a Canadian lawyer who currently serves as its executive director. As a former prosecutor in the historical ICC ad hoc tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda, he carries a weighty reputation in elite legal circles that has been burnished by his effort to prosecute Syrian officials.
But as with CIJA itself, there is a sordid side to Wiley’s activities. While posing as a human rights crusader, Wiley operates a consulting firm called Tsamota that has advised Canadian mining companies involved in the plunder of Africa’s mineral wealth, trained Syrian opposition activists for CIJA investigations, and reaped contracts in Iraq after Wiley participated in the trial of Saddam Hussein.
Back in 2006, the Western coalition occupying Iraq had captured Saddam Hussein and put him on trial for crimes against humanity. The Iraqi High Tribunal that carried out Saddam’s trial was created, financed and advised by a so-called Regime Crimes Liaison Office that was run out of the US Department of Justice. This occupation entity hired Wiley to advise Saddam’s defense team.
For the Bush administration, ensuring that the trial resembled a legitimate proceeding was proving to be a challenge. Saddam rejected the court as an illegal body imposed on his country by hostile foreign occupiers, declaring, “Aggression is illegitimate and what is built on illegitimacy is illegitimate.” His lawyers boycotted the trial and even left Iraq to protest it.
Wiley’s job, as he seemed to see it, was to legitimize the court by essentially forcing a defense team on Saddam. He told the New Yorker that the trial was “about sending a signal to a conflict-affected society that, from here on out, this nation will be governed on the basis of the rule of law.”
Wiley did manage to compel Saddam’s lawyers to return to Baghdad — but after one attorney was gunned down, the others bolted again. So Wiley drafted the closing argument for Saddam, doing so against the jailed leader’s will, and had a court-appointed Iraqi lawyer read it out in court. By Wiley’s own telling, Saddam rejected the statement, protesting before the judges, “A Canadian wrote this closing argument. I know he’s a spy!”
On December 30, 2006, Saddam was hanged and decapitated by masked government executioners chanting Shia religious slogans, deepening Iraq’s sectarian post-invasion catastrophe. (Wiley later blamed the Iraqi government, not the US occupation entity, for manipulating Saddam’s prosecution and discarding due process).
Two years later, Wiley founded Tsamota and opened an office in Baghdad, cashing in through newly available contracts with the UN and Western governments – a windfall that would have been impossible without the Bush administration’s regime change operation.
In late 2011, opportunity knocked again when America and its regional allies initiated a multi-billion dollar campaign to arm and equip Islamist insurgents in Syria, escalating the country’s conflict and driving its death toll to new heights.
That April, then-Secretary of State Clinton called for “an accountability clearinghouse to support and train Syrian citizens working to document atrocities, identify perpetrators, and safeguard evidence for future investigations and prosecutions.”
Several months later, as Foreign Policy reported, the State Department helped set up the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) with $1.25 million in start-up funds. With Wiley as its director, SJAC became the channel for US funds to CIJA. (This was the operation that the New Yorker described as “independent.”)
Washington’s regime change operation against Syria was a cash cow for Wiley’s Tsamota. The Canadian lawyer set up shop in Istanbul, training Syrian opposition activists as investigators through his firm, which was enjoying new contracts with the EU and US State Department.
Both Tsamota’s document hunters and members of the White Helmets were comprised of Syrian opposition activists who operated alongside insurgent groups that had seized territory across the country. Tsamota’s trainees hunted for government documents under the watch of Islamist militias while the White Helmets functioned as the militias’ civil society arm, delivering dramatic footage of bombings and supposed rescue operations back to Western media.
While he constructed a case for prosecuting Syrian leaders for human rights violations, Wiley was quietly advising Canadian mining companies on how to avoid accusations of human rights violations in Africa. He and partners of his Tsamota firm have been listed as speakers at severalconferences of MineAfrica Inc., a consortium of Canadian mining companies extracting mineral wealth across the African continent.
At MineAfrica’s 2013 meeting, Wiley delivered a seminar entitled “Security and Human Rights, the New Frontier of Risk?” The talk was apparently devoted to warning mining companies about the tangible risks they faced under international criminal law, offering recommendations on how they could maximize their business without falling prey to prosecution for hypothetical abuses. Another seminar that day by Whittle Consulting, a firm that claims to help mining companies “survive market, technical, political and environmental threats and events,” was called “Money Mining.”
Meanwhile, in another conflict zone in Africa – the failed state of Libya that was violently destabilized and overrun by extremist militias thanks to a US-led military intervention – Wiley’s Tsamota moved in to reap contracts through a $2.5 million British Foreign Office general grant for police reform.
Wiley did not respond to questions sent by The Grayzone to his email at Tsamota.
The contradictions between Wiley’s public profile and his private business practices were left unmentioned in the New Yorker profile of CIJA. Instead, the New Yorker’s Ben Taub borrowed the language of corporate public relations to claim that Tsamota merely “assists Western governments and U.N. agencies in preventing war crimes in troubled countries by training police, as well as members of the military, security, and intelligence services, to act in accordance with international law.”
Taub also felt compelled to comment on Wiley’s pectoral prowess, writing, “At the age of fifty-two, he bench-presses more than three hundred and fifty pounds.”
While awestruck mainstream journalists painted Wiley as a human rights he-man, other figures affiliated with CIJA like Stephen Rapp advanced CIJA’s work through the State Department and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Through Rapp, CIJA helped oversee the promotion of one of the most significant – and suspicious – collections of documents from the Syrian conflict theater, spinning them into a weapon against Damascus.
Part three of this investigation will explore how photos promoted by Rapp and produced by a mysterious Syrian defector known simply as “Caesar” are part of a massive and highly deceptive regime change operation backed by the monarchy of Qatar.
Ben Norton is a journalist and writer. He is a reporter for The Grayzone, and the producer of the Moderate Rebels podcast, which he co-hosts with Max Blumenthal. His website is BenNorton.com, and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.