There Will Be No Justice in Assad’s ‘Victorious Syria’

There Will Be No Justice in Assad’s ‘Victorious Syria’
A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Arabic that reads “Welcome to victorious Syria,” is displayed on the border between Lebanon and Syria, July 20, 2018 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).
The billboards that greet people crossing the border from neighboring Lebanon now read: “Welcome to victorious Syria.” It’s unclear if they’ve replaced the old signs inviting you into “Assad’s Syria,” which have adorned highways near Syria’s land borders and the Damascus airport for years. A decade ago, one of the many other pieces of pro-Assad propaganda lining roads and the sides of buildings across the country was a huge, backlit sign that guarded an entrance to Damascus’ Old City, abutting the medieval Citadel: “I Believe in Syria,” it read, next to a beaming, waving President Bashar al-Assad. The Associated Press noted the new welcome signs in a cautiously optimistic report from Damascus late last month, where “many of the checkpoints that for years have snarled traffic are gone.” The outlying suburbs held by various rebel factions, recently retaken by the regime at a staggering cost, are again connected to the city center. “There’s a new feeling of hope that an end is near to Syria’s seven-year civil war,” the AP explained. What does “an end”—not the end—mean? For one thing, it means that the government is issuing hundreds of death notices to families whose detained and missing relatives, it now says, have been dead for years. They are “the first public acknowledgment by the government that hundreds if not thousands of prisoners died in state custody,” according to The New York Times. Some of the notices suggest mass executions; others indicate torture in prison. The release of information has been unexpected and haphazard. “In some towns, the government has posted names of the deceased so their relatives can get death certificates,” Ben Hubbard and Karam Shoumali reported. “In other cases, families have obtained documents that attest to their relatives’ deaths. In some cases, security officers have informed families personally.” It’s an exceedingly grim and cynical attempt by the regime at closure. “The regime is closing one chapter and starting a new one,” Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Times. “It is telling the rebels and the activists that this chapter is gone, that whatever hope in some surviving revolutionary spirit has been crushed.” As Sam Dagher wrote in The Atlantic this week, reporting from Lebanon, many Syrians “believe the regime wants the lists of the dead to serve as a cruel, macabre epilogue for all those who rose up more than seven years ago.” He interviewed Syrian refugees from the town of Daraya, outside Damascus, who were starved and besieged until the rebels there surrendered in 2016. Dagher says the message to the survivors of Daraya from Assad “is loud and clear: You must lose everything for having challenged me. Nobody is going to hold me accountable for punishing you.”

“For Syrian society itself, there must be a reckoning with these abuses if there is to be any prospect of a stable future.”

There are other demonstrations of Assad’s renewed confidence and strength. In July, his forces, backed by Russia and Iran, retook the dusty town of Daraa, where the 2011 uprising essentially began, and the rest of southwestern Syria, which had been under the sway of different opposition and jihadist groups since the early days of the civil war. A new offensive looms in the northwestern province of Idlib, along the Turkish border. The last Syrian province outside regime control, Idlib has been, in the words of the United Nations, a “dumping ground” for rebel fighters and their families, given the terms of so-called evacuation deals imposed by the regime on Homs, Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and other devastated battlegrounds once declared “liberated.” There is nowhere else for the displaced of Idlib to go. In his big picture briefing for WPR this week on the current landscape of Syria’s war and what’s to come, Aron Lund explains why the fate of Idlib, like two other pockets of the country that Assad’s forces have not retaken, “is now in the hands of foreigners.” In Idlib, that means Turkey, which now has some 1,300 troops stationed in a dozen outposts on the edge of the province, and Russia. They have competing interests, between Moscow’s aim of eliminating the sizable jihadist presence in Idlib and Ankara’s worry of another exodus of refugees into Turkey if there’s a full-blown military offensive. “Some pieces of Idlib may be handed over to Assad,” Lund writes, “but if Russia then decides to put its thumb on the scale in Turkey’s favor, large parts of Syria’s northwest could be out of Assad’s reach for the foreseeable future.” “It wouldn’t be a clean end to the war, but does Moscow really need that?” Lund adds. “From Moldova to South Ossetia and eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin has a habit of letting messy situations linger to its advantage. As seen in Cyprus, Turkey is also no stranger to the concept of endless interim solutions.” The future of Syria, as the war winds down, could be a series of more localized, semi-frozen conflicts—a Turkish dependency in the northwest, and a Kurdish proto-republic in the northeast, tepidly backed by the United States. All this geopolitical wrangling, and how it may or may not be resolved, pushes other questions out of the picture, as the regime’s sudden release of death notifications makes clear. Four years ago, before Russia’s military intervention all but saved Assad, and at a time when a regime defector was sharing thousands of images in Washington of torture in Assad’s prisons, the question of accountability and justice—of a Syria without Assad—was at least open to debate. “If Assad stays in power, I don’t see a possibility for transitional justice,” Mohammad Al Abdallah, the executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center in Washington, told me in 2014. David Tolbert, the president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, added: “For Syrian society itself, there must be a reckoning with these abuses if there is to be any prospect of a stable future.” Four years later, a different future is here: an Assad victory, on his extreme terms, even if victory doesn’t guarantee Syria’s full territorial integrity. Frederick Deknatel is the managing editor of World Politics Review.

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