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Syria: More than a decade of torture, murder, disappearances

July 9, 2023

The Syrian government, headed by dictator Bashar Assad, may be making a minor diplomatic comeback. But inside the country, human rights abuses and crimes committed by the government are business as usual.

A Syrian protestor burning a picture of Syria's President Bashar Assad
Anyone in Syria who opposes dictator Bashar Assad is in dangerImage: Khaled Elfiqi/dpa/picture alliance

Finally, at the end of February this year, the family of Abdullah Mohamed al-Razouki was able to ascertain what they had already suspected: Their relative was dead. He'd died inside the notorious Sednaya military prison near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Al-Razouki had been arrested five years earlier by government troops but officials had disputed the fact that the young man was even in the prison. Neither his lawyers nor his family had been able to establish any contact.

Did the Assad regime allow al-Razouki to die? There's no way of proving it, but it seems highly likely, the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, or SNHR, writes in its documentation of the case. But they believe that, like so many other Syrians, al-Razouki likely died as a result of being tortured and then having medical care withheld in prison.

No improvement in Syria

It has been 13 years since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, a conflict that started after a popular revolution was brutally repressed by the Syrian government headed by dictator Bashar Assad. The conflict itself is at a stalemate, but in terms of human rights abuses, nothing much has changed. During the first half of this year, the SNHR documented 501 cases of death by torture. The victims include 71 children and 42 women.

The Syrian regime's practice of "disappearing" people has also continued. For this year, the SNHR has so far counted 1,407 cases where people have been arrested and then were never seen again. The number of disappeared includes 43 children and 37 women. Since 2011, when the conflict began, an estimated 155,000 people have gone missing.

Women hold posters and photographs during a demonstration outside the courthouse
The trial of a former Syrian colonel in Germany gave an insight into the Syrian regime's brutal methodsImage: Bernd Lauter/Getty Images/AFP

"The regime's mentality is still the same," Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the SNHR, told DW. "It's behavior didn't change. He [Assad] couldn't care less about the suffering of the Syrian people."

Many ordinary Syrians feel they are living in a precarious situation. Another case documented by the SNHR shows just how precarious: On June 27 Khalif Homsi al-Sayed was shot dead in the town of Sabikhan in the Deir Ezzor district. The area is controlled by the Assad government and the SNHR is trying to find witnesses.

It is not just the Syrian government that is responsible for crimes in the country. The human rights group also documents crimes committed by other groups fighting in Syria.  For example, the SNHR says that, two years ago, 33-year-old Idlib man Abdul Karim Ahmad al-Shabib was abducted by the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls this opposition-held part of Syria. In March this year, the rights group received word that al-Shabib was dead, killed by a firing squad. 

Smoke rises after Russian airstrike on the De-escalation Zone in Idlib, Syria
Syria's Russian allies are still dropping bombs on opposition-held territoriesImage: Ä°zzeddin Kasim/AA/picture alliance

The SNHR also documents human rights abuses by Russian and Iranian forces present in Syria. But by far the largest fraction of crimes are committed by the Syrian government itself, the organization says. The SNHR calculates that of all documented abuses committed since 2011, the Assad regime bears responsibility for around 88% of them.

'Catastrophic' human rights situation

So it is hardly surprising that the German Foreign Office recently described the human rights situation in Syria as "catastrophic." The term was used in an internal document seen by German public broadcaster NDR.

Amnesty International agrees with the German government's assessment of the situation in Syria, confirmed Rebekka Rexhausen, an expert on Syria working for the human rights organization.

The Assad regime hasn't been forced to make any concessions.

"Bombings of civilian targets such as hospitals or schools, the continuation of forced recruitment, arbitrary arrests, torture and death sentences without prior trial are still the order of the day," Rexhausen told DW. "The countless disappearances are another example."

In Germany, the trial of two members of the Syrian military also shed light on the systematic torture under the Syrian government.

Rexhausen says that anyone critical of the Assad regime remains in danger. But even locals who are not political in any way live in insecurity and fear.

"For example, they face the threat of forced recruitment [into the Syrian military], as well as ongoing attacks on civilian targets and the Assad government's deterrence strategies — which manifest themselves in arbitrary detentions, for instance," Rexhausen said.

Returnees to Syria are in even more danger of being arrested, tortured or "disappeared," Rexhausen said. "Our research indicates that Syrian people who fled are categorized as opponents to President Assad or considered traitors, by the Syrian secret service," she noted. "This is just one reason why it's not possible to send refugees back."

Amnesty International has documented what refugees that return to Syria face. "Syrian security forces have subjected Syrians who returned home after seeking refuge abroad to detention, disappearance and torture, including sexual violence," the organization wrote in 2021, as it listed "horrific violations."

Creeping 'normalization' with Syria

All of these things are happening at a time when the Syrian government, a diplomatic pariah for over a decade, is creeping back onto the international stage.

Despite well-documented war crimes by its government, millions of people displaced, an estimated half a million dead and an unresolved and long-running civil war, Syria was invited to return to the regional cooperation body, the Arab League, in early May this year. It had previously been suspended from the body for over a decade. 

Syria's President Bashar Assad meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Arab League summit
The Syrian regime was accepted back into the Arab League after being suspended from it for more than 10 yearsImage: Al Ekhbariya Tv/REUTERS

It's frustrating, the SNHR's Abdul Ghani said to DW, because Bashar Assad has managed to get away with a litany of crimes against humanity. Assad's impunity only makes him want to carry on as he has done for years, Abdul Ghani said.

"[Assad] wants any remaining demands for democratic rights, freedom or free elections to end," Abdul Ghani explained. Assad's goal is to have his family continue to rule Syria, as his father did before him and, as he hopes, his son will do after him, the human rights activist said.

Amnesty International's Rexhausen largely agrees. The region itself is moving towards normalization and further afield, the international community does not seem willing or able to hold the Syrian government to account. Signals from Damascus indicate that the Assad regime doesn't feel any need to change.

This is something that has a significant impact well beyond Syria, Rexhausen argues.

"Perpetuating impunity [in Syria] not only emboldens Assad himself, it also encourages other autocracies around the world to use crimes against humanity as a means of repression," she concluded.

This story was originally published in German. 

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East