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Syrian women hold pictures of relatives who died, in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany From left, Syrian women Samaa Mahmoud, Mariam Alhallak and Yasmen Almashan hold pictures of relatives who died in Syria, before the verdict in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany, Jan. 13, 2022 (AP photo by Martin Meissner).

A Conviction in Germany Brings Limited Justice for Syrian Victims of Assad

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022

The conviction by a German court last week of Anwar Raslan, a Syrian intelligence officer who oversaw the torture and murder of detainees in that country during the early years of its civil war, represents a high-water mark in the ongoing quest for accountability against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the difficulty of securing a war crimes conviction for even a mid-level bureaucrat like Raslan also underscores the difficulty of pursuing accountability for Assad himself. If it’s a long shot to prosecute a low-level perpetrator like Raslan, then how likely is it that Assad will ever be brought to justice for his crimes?

The landmark case was heard not by an international tribunal or a Syrian court, but by a court in the German city of Koblenz for a variety of reasons, all of which help explain the desultory state of accountability for war crimes, whether in Syria or more generally.

Assad held onto power in large part through a scorched-earth campaign against his own citizens, a point underscored by the motto of his partisans: “Assad, or we burn the country.” They meant it, as did Assad. Today, he rules over a war-torn country controlled through the use of brutal force and a nationwide gulag of interrogation, torture and detention centers that remains largely intact.

The Assad regime’s victory erased the revolution’s early hopes for lustration—or the removal from roles of responsibility of those guilty of crimes and abuses—and reconciliation in a new, inclusive democratic Syrian state.

Recourse to an international body has been equally elusive. The International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia—the United Nations-backed Hague tribunal that tried war criminals from the former Yugoslavia, including former President Slobodan Milosevic—were born out of a post-Cold War period of idealism in the 1990s. At the time, proponents of pursuing accountability believed in the promise of internationally backed trials to mete out something other than victor’s justice, while further deterring future war criminals.

The United States, however, never really committed to the idea of such an international approach to transitional justice, which inherently conflicts with Machiavellian statecraft and power politics—and neither did other major powers. 

Without an adequate constituency among these powerful governments to support them, international war crimes trials have lost momentum. In the Levant, there’s the glaring, dispiriting example of the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was created with the intention of bringing the assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to justice. Evidence aired by that tribunal pointed to Assad and his allies in Hezbollah as the culprits. But the tribunal labored under incredible strain. One of its key investigators was murdered. Many other witnesses, supporters and employees of the tribunal faced threats or were attacked. Sixteen years later, Hariri’s killers remain free. And more depressing still, despite all the facts and connections the tribunal weaved together and exposed, there still remains no commonly accepted narrative about who killed Hariri.

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Assad learned from that experience that he could wait out international justice efforts, coming to believe that as long as he held onto power, he’d be spared any accountability, whether domestic or international.

Hence the trial at Koblenz. Using the concept of universal jurisdiction, litigants in Germany can bring cases against alleged war criminals deemed to have violated international laws to which Germany is party. And because Germany admitted more than a million displaced Syrians during the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, the country is home to a critical mass of people who can credibly bolster war crimes prosecutions with their testimony, something international investigators can’t access among Syrians still in their home country. By contrast, Syrian investigators, lawyers, activists and witnesses living in Germany are willing and able to assemble the evidence needed to bring cases before a court. And they can do so in relative safety if they have acquired German citizenship, although Syrians who resist the regime even in exile risk reprisals against their relatives and friends who remain in Syria.

Many of the perpetrators of war crimes live in Germany as well, where they can be arrested and brought to justice, although some reportedly enjoy protection from intelligence services and have been able to evade accountability.

For those of us who dream of justice and accountability for war criminals, Raslan’s conviction is a welcome but almost minimal step toward accountability. Although Raslan defected from the regime and joined the Syrian opposition in 2012, he is a serious criminal who deserves the sentence of life imprisonment handed down to him. So do many others responsible for torture and death in Assad’s Syria. But it’s discomfiting that only a small portion of the alleged criminals, and only those at Raslan’s relatively low level, are likely to face justice—and then, obviously, only if they have ended up in Germany. 

Meanwhile, Syria’s political leadership is enjoying a rapprochement in relations with its neighbors and with the international community more broadly. Geopolitics moves on, and as long as Assad remains in power, many of his former detractors will invariably find ways to deal with him.

That’s more or less par for the course in the Middle East, where accountability for dictators and war criminals has historically been in short supply. Even the occasional exceptions haven’t established a foundation for norms of accountability. Saddam Hussein was summarily hanged to a chorus of sectarian chants, at the beginning of what was intended to be a long series of cases designed to expose his manifold crimes and create national unity in Iraq. Moammar Gadhafi was executed by militiamen who caught him hiding in a ditch. The rest of the region’s despots who were toppled in the past decade continued to live in privilege, sometimes in exile or sometimes in their own country, like Hosni Mubarak. None faced an accounting for their crimes.

More broadly, too, impunity remains the order of the day. Some powers, like Israel and the United States, claim to believe in moral rectitude and forswear war crimes, while hypocritically shielding their military forces from accountability, even by their own domestic courts. Others, like Russia and China, openly oppose even the theory of international accountability altogether, advocating for the right of sovereign national governments to do as they please within their own borders or spheres of influence.

In other words, the dreams of just 20 years ago, when Milosevic was tried by a credible international panel of judges, are now almost fully extinguished.

The Koblenz verdict offers some cause for muted satisfaction—justice was served against one Syrian war criminal. The case brought some truth about the Assad regime’s horrors to public light and honors the losses sustained by all the Syrians who have been subject to violence and repression by their own government. But the verdict also raises an important question about why so little is left of the cause of universal justice for war criminals.

Rights Roundup 

One of Egypt’s oldest human rights organizations, The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, announced that it was ceasing operations after 18 years. The Egyptian government has subjected human rights defenders in the country to unrelenting harassment, frequently bringing cases even against the lawyers who defend arbitrarily detained activists. Cairo recently released activist Ramy Shaath after more than two years in detention, but the ANHRI’s suspension of activities is a reminder that the conditions of political freedoms and civil liberties continue to decline inside Egypt.

Iraq Politics Roundup 

Now that Iraq’s government negotiations have begun in earnest, a flurry of national and regional diplomacy is underway as the clock ticks down toward the deadline for forming a government. The president must be selected by Feb. 8. Then the president must name a prime minister within 15 days, by Feb. 23. And finally, the prime minister must name a cabinet 30 days after that, by March 25. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Gen. Esmail Qaani, visited Iraq on Sunday, reportedly to deliver a message from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei urging Iraq’s fragmented Shiite factions to create a united front. Meanwhile, the Kurds have nominated multiple contenders as candidates for the country’s presidency, which has unofficially been reserved for them under the consociational system that has taken shape since 2003. Under this system, the speaker of parliament goes to a Sunni Arab, while the most important office, prime minister, goes to a Shiite Arab. The day-to-day drama of political negotiations underscores the dysfunction of an approach that requires each identity group—Shiite, Kurd and Sunni—to reach an internal consensus before negotiating with the other groups, essentially prioritizing ethnic and sectarian patronage over the significant, more critical political and policy differences that transcend the country’s identity groups. In other words, muhasasa, as the system is known, is still ascendant.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international policy program at The Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions,” and four edited volumes about politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book about the Iraq war’s global impact. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.
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