Against the backdrop of Syria’s impending return to the Arab fold, French judges this month ordered three high-ranking Syrian intelligence officers to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the deaths of a father and son who disappeared in 2013, paving the way for the first trial in France of a senior member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive apparatus. Indeed, the widespread and systematic arrest, detention, mass internment, and torture of civilians in order to suppress dissent have been a hallmark of the regime’s cruel strategy over 12 years of devastating and protracted civil war. The unknown fate of hundreds of thousands of Syrians has recently prompted the UN secretary-general to urge the creation of an impartial international body to clarify their whereabouts and provide support for the families of victims.
Meanwhile, with 500,000 dead, and with half of Syria’s pre-war population of 21 million displaced by war, the Assad regime remains firmly ensconced in power. There is little prospect for political settlement, the country is fractured by actors with incompatible interests, and civil opposition forces fighting for an inclusive Syria are eclipsed by extremist fighters operating as an insurgency. Arab states—including those that invested millions in backing the armed uprising against the regime—have begun, after shunning the regime for more than a decade, reconsidering their opposition. At the same time, the underlying conditions driving the Syrian conflict—political marginalization, extreme poverty, and intense socioeconomic grievances—persist. A massive earthquake in February that left over 7,500 dead in Syria and caused over $5.1 billion in damage has further fueled the despair of a people already afflicted by economic and humanitarian crises.
The State of Play
Though the Assad regime—backed by Russia and Iran—has recaptured most areas that were under the control of opposition forces, half of the Syrian population still lives outside the regime’s control in Kurdish and Turkish-held territories in the northeast and northwest. A separatist project in the northeast is governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is controlled by Kurds ideologically affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); Turkey sponsors a set of arrangements in the northwest ranging from direct control to questionable alliances with jihadist groups, and also supports the Assad-alternative opposition-led Syrian Interim Government; and the rest of the country is under the control of the dictatorial Assad regime. After years of bloodshed, the original opposition movement of 2011 has receded, and a staggering 150,000 Syrians—the majority of them activists, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders—remain missing, languishing in a maze of impenetrable prisons and secret detention centers.
The uneven balance of power in the country has enabled nefarious actors to flood the scene and advance their geopolitical interests.
The uneven balance of power in the country has enabled nefarious actors—from extremist groups to a panoply of foreign powers—to flood the scene and advance their geopolitical interests. Iran, perhaps the most sophisticated of the bunch, maintains a broad distribution of fighters throughout Syria and a heavy presence in Damascus, even relocating Shi’a Muslims and Shia militia affiliates to the homes of displaced Syrians. Turkish forces entrenched in northern Syria routinely target Kurdish elements of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a coalition of militias and rebel groups in the northeast—whom it considers terrorists. And Israel regularly conducts air strikes within Syria on Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah targets.
In northwest and northeast Syria, periods of escalation have alternated with tense standstills. Turkey, to prevent the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the SDF, from establishing an autonomous area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, regularly conducted military operations leading up to a 2019 offensive against the SDF and Russian-backed pro-government forces. This left almost a million displaced and led to the establishment of a six-kilometer-long security corridor on the Turkish border, jointly patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces. Ankara still retains between 10,000 and 15,000 troops in northwest Syria and is further entrenching itself in areas under its control (which span parts of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasaka provinces) by setting up local governments under Turkish military administration that oversee the provision of basic services and that have assumed the Turkish lira as the region’s legal tender. In May 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even announced plans to build homes in Turkish-held areas of Syria for one million of the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.
Syria’s Unholy Alliance with Iran and Russia
Iran has endeavored to keep Assad in power while retaining its ability to use Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests. It has deployed hundreds of military advisors, as well as thousands of fighters (including from the Syrian Army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and other proxy militias) across the country, which helped alter the course of the war in favor of the Assad regime. Until recently, it also supplied the regime with as much as three million barrels of oil per month (on credit), thereby keeping the economy afloat and staving off an energy crisis. Tehran simultaneously embarked on a steadfast and complex “Shia-fication’ strategy (converting Sunnis, establishing Shia shrines and religious institutions, purchasing real estate, and settling Shia from neighboring countries) to transform Syria’s social-cultural character and create even broader grassroots support that would enable its own entrenchment.
Since the onset of the civil war, Russia has similarly provided sustained military and political support to the Syrian government—escalating its efforts in 2015 to help tip the balance in Assad’s favor with the help of Russian airpower. Aside from arming the military, the Russians also helped buttress the economy by buying oil and providing loans to delay bankruptcy. Russia also helped protect the regime and prevent international retaliation for its Sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians in Ghouta in 2013. Moscow has, however, kept a lighter footprint in the country than Turkey and Iran, limiting itself to an air and naval presence viewed as critical for consolidating its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. While the Syrian conflict enabled the two powers to consolidate ties, the Ukraine war has solidified this relationship with far reaching implications, including, in the context of US disengagement, their triumph in the Syrian war.
The Fate of Syria’s Disappeared
The biggest tragedy of the Syrian conflict is the unknown fate and whereabouts of 150,000 Syrians. Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions targeted protesters at the beginning of the uprising, and then also spread to encompass activists and journalists as well. These people have vanished without a trace, and are likely being held in clandestine detention centers and custody facilities run by the regime, regime allies, and non-state armed groups, each one a black box for those outside seeking information. Many of the disappeared have likely been executed or died in detention as a result of torture or neglect, and they continue to die every day that progress to locate them is not made.
While the true scale of forced disappearances will only be fully grasped in the aftermath of the conflict, these need to be understood as a clear sign of the Syrian regime’s blatant disregard for the lives of its citizens. Its culpability has been well documented, even by the regime itself, the most prominent example being a case in which nearly 55,000 photographs were smuggled out of Syria in 2013 by a defecting military forensic photographer, code-named Caesar, whose job was to photograph (among other things) the bodies of detainees who died in custody. The images showed 6,786 people who died in detention or after being transferred to military hospitals, and demonstrated evidence of torture, starvation, suffocation, and blunt force trauma.
So far, the principle of universal jurisdiction has created a pathway for the pursuit of justice in European courts. Accordingly, the prosecution of serious crimes, regardless of location and nationality, was met with some success, most notably in cases filed in Germany, France, Sweden, and Belgium, some of which have accused high-level military and security officials, including the Syrian president, of crimes against humanity. There continue to be tens of open investigations in European capitals into Assad regime officials living in Europe who are suspected of either being affiliated with terrorists or who are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Koblenz trial, which in January 2022 convicted Anwar Raslan, a high-ranking Syrian security official who was head of investigations at the infamous Branch 251 intelligence wing, and handed him a life sentence for 58 murders, as well as rape, sexual assault, and the torture of at least 4,000 people, was unprecedented in taking on Syria’s state-led torture. This and other trials still underway show that efforts to give voice to those silenced by the regime are gaining traction and, while not offering full justice, remain a means of keeping the question of justice alive and building a body of evidence for use in future proceedings.
The Costs of Assad’s Normalization
With the US failing to play a role in finding a political solution for Syria, Arab states are increasingly moving toward a posture of greater normalization with the Assad regime. This includes US allies like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, who have reopened embassies in Damascus, restarted diplomatic talks, and signaled the possibility of economic cooperation. And in the wake of China-brokered Saudi normalization with Iran, as well as oil production cuts announced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, ties between Syria and the Gulf seem to be intensifying. One of the most prominent examples of Arab rapprochement with Damascus comes from the UAE, which, despite having armed the Syrian opposition and called for Assad’s ouster, reopened its embassy in 2018, and has since been driving efforts to accept the reality of Assad’s survival, recently welcoming Assad in a state visit.
Rehabilitating the Assad regime is only going to entrench and empower it, rendering any potential political settlement even more unlikely.
Similarly, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad traveled to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first Syrian foreign minister to publicly visit the kingdom in more than a decade. And on April 18, the Saudi foreign minister traveled to Damascus to meet with Assad. Though Saudi Arabia had been holding out against rapprochement, the currently abysmal conditions in Syria and recent geopolitical shift seem to give the kingdom reason to follow a policy of hedging and pragmatism, and to use this as an opportunity to influence the regime away from Iran. Recent Saudi-Syria talks in Russia, together with the Syrian foreign minister’s visit, are expected to lead to more than the resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries, but also to Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League. As such, rehabilitating the Assad regime is only going to entrench and empower it, as it continues to operate with impunity, rendering any potential political settlement even more unlikely.
The Struggle for Justice
The prospect for meaningful progress toward a resolution in Syria cannot discount what Syrians will still endure as the regime further cements its control and becomes rehabilitated by the international community—especially the vengeance that the regime will likely direct at opponents and dissidents, as well as at refugees and internally displaced persons who may eventually be forced to return. A lasting solution to the Syrian question must therefore prioritize tackling the unacknowledged fate of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have paid an enormous price in their fight against injustice. Thanks to expansive documentation by dedicated human rights and victim-led groups, ongoing transitional justice efforts represent steps forward in the wider struggle for comprehensive justice, independent of any political unfolding. But any new initiatives or schemes (including ones to set up accountability institutions, such as that proposed by the UN secretary-general), will need to take into account the fact that meaningful accountability is a long-term endeavor. And although the normalization of the Syrian regime cannot be stopped, it can be slowed down and problematized by ensuring that Syria’s dead and disappeared are not simply forgotten.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Twitter/Mohamed bin Zayed