Issue 131:2017 12 30: Robert Mugabe, Ratko Mladic… and President Assad?(Neil Tidmarsh)

30 November 2017

Robert Mugabe, Ratko Mladic… and President Assad?

A bad time for bad guys

By Neil Tidmarsh

Last week, Robert Mugabe was forced to resign as president of Zimbabwe; this week, Ratko Mladic was found guilty of war crimes at The Hague and sentenced to life in prison.  It seems to be a bad time for bad guys.  Who’s next, one wonders?

Mr Mugabe did not attend Mr Mnangagwa’s inauguration ceremony at Harare’s National Stadium last Friday.  He was expected to form part of the new president’s guard of honour (presumably to emphasise continuity, legitimacy and party solidarity in the transfer of power) but perhaps Zanu (PF) and the military ditched that idea once they sensed real and long-suppressed anti-Mugabe hostility behind the cheers and jeers of the populace’s widespread celebrations.

It’s highly unlikely that Mugabe will be forced to answer any of the serious allegations being made against him, however – it would be too risky for the party as a whole.  Zanu (PF) was anxious to force his resignation without going as far as impeaching him, and there are suggestions that he won’t even have to go into exile.  Not that exile would be difficult for him – he is believed to have a fortune of billions stashed away in Singapore.  The only difficulty would be deciding where to go – he has a mansion in South Africa and an apartment in Hong Kong, and there are claims that he owns property in Malaysia, Dubai and Singapore.

It’s even suggested that he will be allowed to hang on to his assets within Zimbabwe. The Mugabes are the biggest landowners in the country, and the family businesses include dairy farms and private schools.  They also run an orphanage.  There are rumours that his wife might be prosecuted – she has been expelled from the party and accused of appropriating power, hate speech and sowing division (she was Mr Mnangagwa’s political rival, after all, and is generally unpopular) but other rumours say that she will share freedom from prosecution with her husband and be allowed to manage the family businesses and found a university in her husband’s name.

His party still insists that he is a national hero, just as ultra-nationalists in Serbia still insist that Ratko Mladic is a hero.  But that didn’t stop justice being done at The Hague this week.  During the Balkan War in the 1990s triggered by the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serb general ordered the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital; for three years its largely Muslim population was shelled and terrorised by his forces – more than 11,000 people were killed.  He also ordered the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.  This week, however, those crimes caught up with him and he was sentenced to life in prison, having been found guilty on 11 charges including crimes against humanity, genocide, hostage-taking and forcible transfer.

His trial lasted four years and involved 300 witnesses and 100,000 pieces of evidence.  Following the trials of the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic (who died in 2006 while being tried) and the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic (found guilty last March of genocide and jailed for forty years), it brings to an end the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, which was set up specifically to prosecute war crimes committed during the Balkan wars.

Will such a tribunal ever be set up to prosecute war crimes committed during the current Syrian civil war? Could President Assad be next in line to receive a bad guy’s dues?

Such questions are academic while the war continues.  At the moment, the regime has secured the country’s main centres of population and communication routes, while rebels command four big enclaves and Kurdish forces hold more than a quarter of the country.  This week President Putin held a summit in Sochi with President Rouhani of Iran (his fellow supporter of Assad) and President Erdogan of Turkey (who supports the rebels), in an attempt to find a peaceful settlement.  With the complication of Isis largely removed from the situation, it seems that Putin hopes to implement de-escalation zones along the lines of the existing status quo, leading ideally to agreements which would bring the failed UN peace-process in Geneva back to life.

Assad’s future, as ever, remains a moot point in all this.  Rebel forces have always insisted that peace talks cannot take place while he is still president.  The backers of the rebel opposition held their own two day summit in Riyadh this week, and its draft statement confirmed its continued insistence that Assad must step down.

Assad himself, of course, is determined to stay in power, and moreover insists that he will retake all his lost territory.  He remains confident with Russian and Iranian support.  He felt secure enough to leave Syria last week to fly to Russia as Putin’s guest in Sochi two days before the summit.  Russian media, however, suggested that Putin warned Assad that further support was dependent on “a willingness to work with everyone who wants peace and settlement”, and a Kremlin spokesman said that Putin discussed “possible options for a political settlement” with Assad.

Although the Kremlin has always publicly opposed the idea of a forced departure for Assad and has stood as a guarantor for his future safety, Russia is the signatory of a UN resolution calling for a political transition in Syria, and Putin is asking for “compromise and concessions from all parties”.  Perhaps the time will come when even Russia loses patience with Assad’s unrealistic intransigence, and finally agrees that peace in Syria will not be possible without his departure.  Then it might be willing to consider a solution along the lines of the Mugabe model – a ‘voluntary’ resignation leading to a peaceful non-punitive retirement.

Only time will tell whether Assad himself would ever be prepared to consider it.  But the war can’t last forever, and as far as he’s concerned the Mugabe model must be preferable to the Ratko Mladic model which the rebel opposition – and much of the rest of the world – would prefer.


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