Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad: Who's the bigger tyrant?

While war crimes experts have been noting the atrocities committed by the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, others say his brutality doesn't compare to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

'Nonsense' to suggest that while Saddam was brutal, he wasn’t as bad as Assad, analyst says

Foreign affairs expert Robert Kaplan writes that the total number of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's victims, depending upon how you count, may reach upwards of a million. (Nikola Solic/Associated Press)

Former war crimes prosecutor David Crane says the fullest extent of the brutality of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has yet to be uncovered.

“We were just given a tip-of-the-iceberg look of the horror,” said Crane, one of the authors of a report into the atrocities committed by the Assad regime.

The report, based on thousands of images of mutilated corpses provided by a former Syrian police photographer, found evidence of 11,000 people tortured and killed in three detention facilities in and around Damascus. And with 50 other such facilities unexplored, the total numbers of human casualties could be “astronomical and horrific,” he said.

Stephen Rapp, head of the U.S. State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice, recently said that those "images of individuals that have been strangled, and mutilated, gouged, burned, starved" is "solid evidence of the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis."

But Crane, who was chief prosecutor at the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal, also stressed that evaluating the brutality of tyrants, especially through death toll numbers, places the focus in the wrong place.  And it’s why he takes some umbrage with a recent column by foreign affairs author and expert Robert Kaplan comparing Assad to Iraq's former dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Some tyrants far worse

“Even among tyrants, there are distinctions,” wrote Kaplan, a chief analyst for the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. “Some tyrants are worse than others. It is important that we recognize such distinctions.”

Kaplan said it's "nonsense" for anyone to suggest that while Saddam was brutal, he wasn’t as bad as Assad.

He notes that while 160,000 have been killed during the three-year conflict in Syria, in the Al-Anfal campaign, Saddam killed an estimated 100,000 civilians alone. Kaplan adds that Saddam likely killed tens of thousands following the first Gulf War, and that he initiated the Iran-Iraq war which killed hundreds of thousands.

“The total number of his victims, depending upon how you count, may reach upwards of a million. Saddam was beyond brutal," Kaplan wrote. "The word brutal has a generic and insipid ring to it: one that simply does not capture what Iraq was like under his rule. Saddam was in a category all his own, somewhere north of the al-Assads and south of Stalin. That's who Saddam Hussein was.”

But Crane said that Kaplan's argument is somewhat misleading.

“I think you need to note what he says but also to really make the point that in reality it’s not about numbers, it's about human beings," Crane said.

'We were just given a tip-of-the-iceberg look of the horror,' said former war crimes prosecutor David Crane, one of the authors of a report into the atrocities committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)
“The fact that one [of the dictators] may have had different methodologies or had literally, by numbers, killed more than the other is frankly, in my opinion, not significant and actually can be misleading as to the intent," Crane said. "And that is the widespread and systematic destruction of their own citizens."

International law and war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni said it's difficult to compare tyrannical regimes and that it's not just a question of total people killed but also the impact those killings have on a country. 

“Every conflict is sui generis, every conflict has its own characteristics, has its own impact. And to try and quantify numbers in a given conflict and try to compare it to another is just totally impossible," he said.

But Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., agreed with Kaplan, noting a distinction can be made between Saddam and Assad. 

"The interesting thing in terms of comparison is that Saddam's system of brutality was one he instituted from the moment he came to power that was incessant, that was continuous. He ratcheted up when necessary but it was constant," Barkey said.

'Derived pleasure from killing'

"Assad, as much as he's a hoodlum, he's a two-bit dictator, did not engage in the kind of massive continuous stuff that Saddam has done. Saddam would kill just for the fun and pleasure of killing. He derived pleasure from the killing."

Assad's current behaviour, while horrible, is one of someone who is fighting for their life, Barkey said.  But in the case of Saddam, the whole system from the beginning was based on continuous violence against everybody — real and imagined enemies he said.

Barkey said one must also look at the two regimes during peace time and at war. During periods of conflict, both Saddam and Assad were equally brutal, using weapons of mass destruction, and engaging in indiscriminate bombing and shelling. But in non-conflict time, Saddam was far worse than Assad, he said.

Barkey also dismissed Rapp's comparison of Assad's regime to the Nazis, saying when the Kurds liberated the police stations and prisons in the north,"they found exactly the same thing — meticulous documentation on anybody who was killed, executed." 

"[Rapp] should know better. The moment you bring this comparison. First of all, you're cheapening the massive horrors of World War Two. We need to protect that in many respects.

"But factually he's not right. Saddam and the Khmer Rouge were worse. Even Rwanda, where 800,000 people killed in a matter of weeks, wasn't there a machinery there too?"

With files by Reuters


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.