It takes decades for a country to recover from war, generations to lay bitter memories to rest. What hope for Syria?
The Syrian government and Bashar al-Assad are accused of crimes against humanity. There is little doubt that the accusations are true. This is the regime that Russia and Iran are propping up, laying the ground for deep-rooted resentment and further bloodshed. According to Time (22 September 2015):
- Russia wants a military alliance and to guarantee access to a deep-water port in the Mediterranean – Tartus, on Syria’s west coast.
- Iran is worried that Syria will fall to rebels backed by Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s rival in the region.
- ISIS controls large parts of Syrian territory. The Western powers are taking a divide-and-conquer approach to ISIS, causing further divisions by allying themselves with Iraqi Kurds but not with Syrian Kurds.
- Al-Assad is being touted as the lesser of two evils, a compromise to avoid another disaster such as befell Iraq and Libya after regime change.
Commenting on Russia’s military strikes on Aleppo in “What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future” (The Guardian, 5 February 2016), Natalie Nougayrède writes:
“The defeat of anti-Assad rebels who have partially controlled the city since 2012 would leave nothing on the ground in Syria but Assad’s regime and Islamic State… Russian military escalation in support of the Syrian army was meant to sabotage any possibility that a genuine Syrian opposition might have its say on the future of the country. It was meant to thwart any plans the west and the UN had officially laid out. And it entirely contradicted Moscow’s stated commitment to a political process to end the war.”
Meanwhile, Syria’s thugs are carrying out their grim “business as usual”. According to a recent report of the UN Human Rights Council “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic”:
“Through its widespread conduct of mass arrests, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearance, victimising the general civilian population living in restive areas and persons otherwise perceived to be in opposition to the Government, and the ensuing ill treatment and killing of those detained, Government forces have engaged in the multiple commissions of crimes, amounting to a systematic and widespread attack against a civilian population.”
The report is explicit in its denunciations, but it stops short of naming individuals – not even al-Assad – or assigning individual criminal responsibility. In the absence of real options, the UN Security Council is being asked to impose sanctions against Syrian officials in the civilian and military hierarchy responsible for, or complicit in, deaths, torture and disappearances in custody. If the Security Council debates such a motion, it will be vetoed by Russia.
There is evidence that tens of thousands of detainees are held by al-Assad’s government at any one time, and thousands more have “disappeared” after being arrested by state forces or have gone missing after abduction by armed groups. State forces have “engaged in the multiple commissions of crimes, amounting to a systematic and widespread attack against a civilian population.” The UN Commission has concluded that the Syrian government, “has committed the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, torture, rape, sexual violence, and outrages upon personal dignity.”
One day, those responsible for this tragedy – the military commanders, state functionaries, civic leaders and ordinary people who took advantage of mayhem and terror – will meet with justice. Among them Bashar al-Assad. Sadly, that is unlikely to be the end of the story.
Like a coal seam fire, revenge burns slowly, insidiously, and for a very long time. When the civil war in Syria ends, millions of people will have to come to terms with loss and betrayal, with grief and desolation, with lives blighted. The final reckoning may be the whirlwind yet to come. Whirlwinds know no borders.