The Syrian conflict has been at the center of a number of justice efforts in the past decade, leading to the creation of an international mechanism to collect evidence on international crimes and the opening of trials under the universal jurisdiction principle in European countries, in addition to a call for the establishment of an international mechanism for the disappeared.
The prioritization of international justice venues has been justified by the absolute resistance of the Syrian regime to address its crimes. Still, it has also led to justice actors overlooking domestic developments as irrelevant to the justice struggle. However, recent developments tell us that it is crucial to monitor how the Syrian regime is trying to insert itself within the transitional justice discourse for Syria in the international arena.
A good entry point is given to us by the regime with its response to the Tadamon massacre, in which a Syrian military intelligence member, Amjad Youssef, was recorded executing around 41 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Tadamon back in 2013. In May, reports from inside Syria disclosed that Amjad Youssef had been put under custody by the regime. The information available at this stage claims that Youssef has not been arrested according to a judicial warrant, nor was he referred to the judiciary, but he is detained with an absolute blackout of information on his case and status. While it is not sure whether Amjad Youssef will be charged with any crime in the long run, it is clear that the regime is interested in portraying itself as willing to hold perpetrators accountable.
Syria’s new post-conflict narrative
The alleged arrest of Amjad Youssef is only the most recent action taken by the Syrian regime to hijack transitional justice language and deploy it in an authoritarian context to further consolidate its power. While transitional justice is mainly understood within paradigmatic contexts of transition from conflict or authoritarian settings, it is not rare for authoritarian regimes to utilize the same language for their interests, ranging from regime consolidation to re-writing the country’s history to furthering the persisting impunity in the country.
In the case of Syria, the regime is hijacking transitional justice and human rights language to introduce and impose a new narrative about the Syrian case within the international arena. Since the beginning of 2022, it has continuously made reference to Syria turning into a post-conflict situation in its public statements. This trajectory had its peak during the recent Universal Periodic Review of Syria before the UN Human Rights Council in January, as the regime presented a national development plan for a post-conflict situation in Syria until 2030, which outlined a set of reforms aimed at supporting and empowering women, promoting gender equality, providing reparations and rehabilitation services to specific categories of victims, and rehabilitating child victims of recruitment.
The regime's imposition of this narrative and its restoration of control over most of the Syrian territory portends the imposition of the victorious justice model on Syrians through which it will not hold its ranks accountable but will retaliate against those who oppose it.
A anti-torture law for public relations purposes
While 2022 was the first instance in which the regime introduced the concept of “post-conflict” to characterize the present situation in Syria, it immediately took steps to portray a change in their heart, ranging from legislation reforms to amnesty for political detainees. These steps focused on addressing the key issues for which Syria has been under scrutiny: the widespread and systematic use of torture and arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance.
This new pathway of addressing the detainees and disappeared issue started with enacting the anti-torture law. For the first time in Syria, this law defined torture per the Convention against Torture and adequately criminalized acts of torture in domestic law. Or at least that is what the Syrian regime is trying to convey. On the contrary, while the law is on paper criminalizing torture, it is clear that its intended outcome is not what we would typically expect in a genuine transitional justice process. In truth, instead of leading up to ceasing the use of torture by intelligence sectors, guaranteeing its non-recurrence, and holding accountable state officials responsible for such acts, the law has been primarily enacted for public relations reasons and to further the branding of the Syrian regime as reforming.
Indeed, the new anti-torture law remains one of the many domestic laws that has no impact on the actions of the Syrian intelligence apparatus. The multitude of Syrian security sector forces is immune from investigations and prosecutions for acts committed while on duty, giving them the green light to commit international crimes. No investigation or prosecution can be initiated against any member of the military, police, or the many other security forces – including Amjad Youssef – without the approval of their superiors, including President Bashar al-Assad himself. Additionally, while state officials are immune from prosecution, the law criminalizes acts of torture committed by non-state actors and sanctions them with a more severe form of punishment. This discrepancy of scrutiny between state crimes and abuses by non-state actors sums up the regime’s policies on victimhood, where victims of non-state actors are given access to justice and remedy, while victims of the government’s crimes are prevented from doing so and persecuted for asking for fundamental rights.
In April, Bashar al-Assad issued Legislative Decree 7/2022, granting a general amnesty to detainees accused of terrorism crimes. The amnesty led to the release of around 470 individuals and was dangerously praised by the UN Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen for its potential. Through such amnesty, the Syrian regime is trying to convey that the detainees and disappeared issue has reached a turning point and is being solved.
For it to be a genuine amnesty decree aimed at remedying the unlawful detention and restoring the political and civil rights of these individuals, the amnesty decree should have covered all charges attributed to the regime’s opponents, in addition to annulling laws used against political opponents and leading to the unilateral release of all individuals arbitrarily detained and unlawfully convicted. Instead, the amnesty decree led to the release of only a handful of the tens of thousands of individuals still detained and disappeared by the Syrian regime and failed to cover all the other charges related to state security, usually used as legal weapons against political opponents.
The fact that the Syrian regime does not intend to genuinely address the unlawful, arbitrary detention of individuals has been confirmed by the recent reforms of the Cyber-crimes Law 20/2022 and amendments to the General Penal Code by Law 15/2022, which have received little attention amidst the exaggerated welcoming reserved to the anti-torture law and the amnesty. Instead, these reforms paint a clearer picture that the Syrian regime is in no way ready to ease its fist on political opponents. Indeed, the new laws have created new charges against individuals who, through their actions, aim to overthrow the regime or undermine its prestige and morale. Such charges have been purposely defined in a vague manner to guarantee the regime to deploy an array of charges and accusations against any person perceived not to be loyal enough to them.
The ongoing disdain for victims’ rights to truth, justice, and remedy
The recent steps taken by the Assad government confirm that any reform or action addressing human rights issues in Syria will continue to be in contempt of victims’ rights to truth, justice, and remedy. The ongoing impunity enjoyed by state officials, the lack of access to remedy through civil and criminal courts caused by the obstacles to investigating perpetrators, and the selective approach to victimhood by the regime remind us that none of its human rights actions, no matter how good on paper, will ever be taken in the interest of victims.
This approach has been once again demonstrated by the way the regime released detainees through the amnesty in May. The amnesty announcement and the release procedures only created more pain and confusion for families who have been waiting for more than a decade. Rather than releasing a public list of names of individuals to be released or informing family members, the authorities transported detainees to the middle of Damascus and left them there. The released detainees had no knowledge of how or means to contact their families, while families had no way to know if their loved ones were among the crowd of individuals dropped off in the capital city. It is clear that the amnesty was not the result of the Syrian regime’s intention to respect and fulfil the right to the truth of families but to score a point in its race to normalization and re-engagement with the international community. The announced arrest of Amjad Youssef must be viewed in the same light.
Veronica Bellintani works as Legal Officer/Victims' Rights and Participation specialist at the Syrian Legal Development Programme, an NGO. She is a former non-resident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Her main areas of expertise include victims' rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence, with a specific interest in the right to participation as an immediate form of remedy, enforced disappearance, torture, and sexual violence against men and boys. She holds an LL.M in International Human Rights Law and Transitional Justice from the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University in Belfast.