On May 7, 2023, the Arab League voted to reinstate Syria after a 12-year suspension. Syria’s return to the Arab League came without any preconditions—for example, on the release of detainees, investigations into the mission, on the future treatment of millions of Syrians displaced by the war. Less than two weeks later, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the Arab League summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, remarking that he hoped his return marked a new phase of peace and prosperity in the region.
The United Arab Emirates, Oman and Jordan have, for several years, sought to re-engage with the Assad government so as to encourage him to address transnational concerns, notably the situation of Syrian refugees and tackling narcotics trafficking in the region. It was, however, the urgency of the needed response to the devastating earthquake that struck south-eastern Türkiye and north-western Syria in early February 2023 that created the space for accelerating normalization.
The dire needs of the earthquake victims were quickly leveraged by the Syria government to re-engineer international sanctions and to thaw relationships with many of the countries in the Arab League. Despite the most gravely affected areas being under opposition control, the United Nations insisted on obtaining Damascus’ approval before bringing aid to those affected. This position, which seemed to give legitimacy to the Assad government, was met with a chorus of opprobrium by Syrian human rights activists and the political opposition.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia—key players in regional dynamics—provided aid in contravention of sanctions. On February 15, 2023, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told the Munich Security Conference that a new consensus was building in the Arab world that “the status quo” approach to Syria “was not workable.” Five days later, President Assad made an official visit to Oman for the first time in a decade.
The apparent creeping normalization of the Assad regime has caused—and continues to cause—outrage and distress. It has deepened the trauma of millions of Syrians, many of whom have family or friends who are still detained or missing. Wafa Mustafa, a Syrian activist, journalist and member of the Free Syria’s Disappeared coalition, has had no news of the fate or whereabouts of her father since July 2013 when he was abducted from the family home in Damascus by government intelligence agents. She has written, of the Syrian government’s nascent political rehabilitation, “I see the crimes that have befallen my family and millions of others being erased from history.” In May 2023, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf, said that the Assad government “deserves to be treated as the rogue that it is.”
Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011 following the Government’s violent crackdown on protesters who came out onto streets in March with initial demands for more expansive democratic rights and the release of political prisoners. By the time of Syria’s suspension, violence had intensified with thousands killed or disappeared. The United Nations established a Commission of Inquiry, the work of which is ongoing. By late 2013, in the aftermath of the Al-Ghouta chemical weapons attack, the Arab League urged the United Nations and international community to “take the deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for.”
Today, as Syria has been reinstated into the Arab League, Syria is a crime scene. The United Nations, international and national NGOs, and the media have chronicled the myriad of violations of international humanitarian law that quickly came to characterize the Syrian government’s conduct of the war. These include unlawful killings of civilians and hors de combat fighters; torture; rape and other forms of sexual violence; attacks on medical centers, schools, markets, water, and food sources; the use of starvation of civilians as a method of war; intentional attacks on civilians; indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks; and use of chemical weapons.
The government continues to commit crimes against its own citizens every day in Syria. Torture of detainees remains rampant as does the refusal to provide families of the disappeared, including the family of Syrian activist and torture survivor Mazen Al-Hamada, with information regarding the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. Hostilities, while more localized, are continuing, with civilians continuing to bear the brunt of the violence.
In a climate of creeping normalization of these crimes, accountability becomes all the more essential to establishing the truth about past crimes and stemming future abuses. The paths to trials at an international level are blocked or otherwise difficult to access. Syria is not a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court and any referral to the ICC by the UN Security Council is highly unlikely due to Russia and China’s veto. In theory, the ICC could use the 2019 precedent established for Myanmar to open an investigation into crimes that crossed over into a Rome Statute country, for example, an investigation into crimes committed in Syria that resulted in forced deportation to Jordan, but no such step has yet been taken. There is little political will or funding to establish an ad hoc tribunal, such as those established for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
However, in the more than 12 years that have elapsed since the Syrian Government’s first crackdown on protesters, a patchwork of accountability has come together. These efforts have been led by prosecutions in the national courts of third states, notably in Europe. Many of these are brought under the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which national courts may prosecute individuals for serious crimes against international law—such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture—based on the principle that such crimes harm the international community or international order.
While many of the investigations have focused on members of armed groups, notably ISIS, there have been successful prosecutions against members of the Syrian government. One milestone achievement came in January 2022, when a court in the German town of Koblenz put Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian intelligence officer, on trial where he faced charges linked to his position of responsibility in a notorious detention center in Damascus in 2011 and 2012. This included 30 counts of murder, 4,000 counts of torture, and charges of sexual assault. In more than 100 court sessions, five federal judges heard over 100 witnesses, including 50 torture survivors, to examine state-sponsored torture in Assad's Syria. Raslan was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity.
In France, where legislation allows for in absentia trials when the victim is a national of that country, the national war crimes unit is seeking to try three senior members of the Syrian regime—Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud—on allegations that they bear responsibility for detention, torture and killing of two French-Syrian dual nationals, a father and son. Efforts to bring a case against Syria (not against individual accused) before the International Court of Justice are also underway, with The Netherlands and Canada preparing to bring the first ICJ case against Syria for violations of the Convention Against Torture.
As the May 25, 2023 arrest of Fulgence Kayishema—indicted in 2001 for his role in the planning and execution of an April 1994 massacre of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide— attests: justice is often a marathon and requires perseverance.
The crimes of the Assad regime cannot and should not be erased, and it is integral that this understanding embeds itself both in the global approach to Syria and in a continued commitment to carving a path towards criminal accountability—for all perpetrators, but especially for those who bear the greatest responsibility.
Sareta Ashraph is a senior legal consultant with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.