Can Europe bring Syrian regime officials to justice?
In late March, French judicial officials decided to move forward with having members of the Assad regime’s security forces stand trial in absentia.
Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud are accused of being responsible for the disappearance and deaths of two French-Syrian nationals, Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh.
The Syrian regime has long relied on the mukhabarat, the secret police, to enforce the Baath Party’s power over the country, protect the interests of the Assad family, and eliminate all political opposition.
"We hope to see an arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad. What's happening in Ukraine is reminding the European and democratic countries about the same things that happened in Syria on a very large scale"
International justice vs future diplomatic relations
For European countries, justice, rule of law, human rights, and transparency are paramount given the history of war on the continent and the omnipresent threat of authoritarian oppression globally.
Germany, especially, has its own national psyche embedded with the trauma of the years of the Gestapo during the Nazi period and the East German Stasi of the Cold War.
“I do not see any problem for these countries to do so, except that bringing forward charges does not mean that the persons accused of committing war crimes will ever be brought to justice,” Nikolaos van Dam, the former Dutch Ambassador to Iraq, Egypt, Germany, and Indonesia, and author of the book, ‘Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria’, told The New Arab concerning European efforts to secure convictions for regime officials accused of war crimes.
“Ali Mamlouk is responsible for carrying out the regime’s campaign against the Syrian people. He has a history as Bashar al-Assad’s consultant and the head of the Baath Party’s National Security Bureau,” Joumana Seif, a Legal Advisor with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, told The New Arab.
“Even his during position as the head of the security branches before the revolution, this history has included torture and sexual violence in the detention facilities,” she said.
On 8 June 2018, the German federal prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, who remains at large.
In 2019, Germany issued a request for Beirut to extradite Jamil Hassan, who was reportedly receiving medical care in Lebanon. However, due to the influence of the Assad regime’s allies in Lebanon, Amal and Hezbollah, it was unlikely Beirut would agree to extradite Hassan.
The fact that Assad is likely to stay in power hangs over Western countries as they work to hold the Syrian government accountable for the brutal crackdown that followed the 2011 Syrian uprising.
“It may also make it more difficult for the European countries involved to reestablish diplomatic relations with Damascus,” said van Dam.
As he explained, “The chance that the Syrian regime would ever extradite people who have committed war crimes under its authority is next to nil, if only because extradited persons might reveal details on the regime which it does not want to be disclosed. The regime would have nothing to win from it; rather the contrary”.
Still, the convictions of members of the mukhabarat have gone forward in recent years.
"It's important for the European countries to take action. Even though the criminals or suspects may never be extradited. The arrest warrants are very important to prove what happened in Syria and the crimes committed by the Assad regime"
Eyad al-Gharib, a Syrian intelligence officer, was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2021 and sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment in Germany. In January 2022, Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian colonel in the General Intelligence Directorate, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life in prison in Germany.
The event was widely celebrated by globally displaced Syrians who have long sought justice and accountability.
“It’s about the implementation of the investigation. It’s about having the technical and resources for the investigation. Collecting evidence, investigating, and determining how to implement the case,” said Seif.
“Jamil Hassan was the head of the Air Force Intelligence until 2018. The Caesar photos proved that Air Force Intelligence was the security branch responsible for targeting protesting civilians in Daraa, Damascus, and all over Syria since the beginning of the revolution. We know what kind of crimes they have committed.”
Universal justice in an age of realpolitik
However, the European Union (EU) now faces the prospect of the Middle East normalising ties with Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has now visited the United Arab Emirates twice, with his most recent trip taking place in March. Saudi Arabia is reportedly preparing to invite Assad to an Arab League summit in May.
“It’s not surprising. We know that from the beginning, the Arab countries were not really supporting the Syrian Revolution,” Seif said, regarding the likelihood that the Arab League will restore ties with Syria.
“It’s important for the European countries to take action. Even though the criminals or suspects may never be extradited. The arrest warrants are very important to prove what happened in Syria and the crimes committed by the Assad regime,” she added.
Van Dam remarked, “As a matter of principle, the EU countries' position is that war crimes should be punished, and its perpetrators brought to justice and be made accountable, at least where Syria is concerned, but not equally so when it is about countries which are considered as friends and allies”.
This diplomatic trend will unfold against the backdrop of continued trials and investigations into the crimes committed by various current and former Syrian officials.
“I do not expect this to prevent European countries from eventually reestablishing diplomatic relations with Damascus. It will just be a matter of time; for some countries it would take much longer than for others,” van Dam said.
"EU officials will have to reckon with restoring ties with the Assad regime in order to advocate for their interests in Syria, as well as pushing for political reforms"
“Some European countries, like the Czech Republic, never closed their embassies in Damascus. The Czech Republic was represented at the ambassadorial level,” van Dam noted.
“Other EU countries have been represented at the level of Chargé d'Affaires, like Bulgaria and Hungary. Some EU countries have reestablished diplomatic relations, like Greece and Cyprus.”
He said, “It is much easier to break off diplomatic relations than to reestablish them, particularly in the case of Syria, because of the many atrocities that have taken place during the Civil War that started after the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011”.
EU officials will have to reckon with restoring ties with the Assad regime in order to advocate for their interests in Syria, as well as pushing for political reforms.
“In my view it was a mistake to break off diplomatic relations, because it impeded the possibilities to communicate with the Syrian regime about a political solution. Breaking off relations has not brought anything positive,” van Dam said.
“It turns out that in the end realpolitik is bound to prevail over wishful thinking,” said van Dam.
Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has reopened questions about the EU’s future actions towards Damascus.
Syrians and Ukrainians, who have both suffered from the consequences of Russian military interventions, are on a quest for justice. The West has been the subject of comparisons of double standards.
"The Syrian regime has long relied on the mukhabarat, the secret police, to enforce the Baath Party's power over the country, protect the interests of the Assad family, and eliminate all political opposition"
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for illegally deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. This has many Syrians hoping that Bashar al-Assad could face an arrest warrant and could someday be put on trial.
However, unlikely as it is for the Syrian leader to end up in a French, German, or Dutch courtroom, it is not entirely unthinkable.
Other heads of state, such as former Liberian president Charles Taylor, have been convicted and imprisoned in the UK for war crimes. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević was on trial in The Hague for war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo until his death in 2006.
“We hope to see an arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad. What’s happening in Ukraine is reminding the European and democratic countries about the same things that happened in Syria on a very large scale. This is what we are struggling for and I hope we will see some changes in the future,” Seif said.
Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris