To torture and be tortured: Syrian Gulag takes a comprehensive look into Assad's imprisonment system of terror
“By now, the Syrian Gulag is a global phenomenon: Its victims are spread across the world and its perpetrators are being indicted in Europe. Indeed, they are everywhere among us.” This ominous statement is a grim reminder that the violence inflicted and perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad will continue to shape our reality long into the future.
Syrian Gulag Inside Assad’s Prison System by Jaber Baker and Ugur Umit Ungor is the most comprehensive and systematic single-volume book on Syria’s imprisonment system of terror.
"Syrian Gulag charts the regime’s repression from 1970 until the 2020s"
Years of research — which included combing through human rights reports, memoirs, notes, victims' testimonies, the Syrian regime’s intelligence files and interviews with both the victims and the perpetrators of torture — Syrian Gulag charts the regime’s repression from 1970 until the 2020s.
Everything is covered from prisons belonging to different intelligence services, military prisons and civilian jails.
The book opens with the story of two young Syrians of the same age, Akram and Amjad, who meet in Syria’s prison system.
Akram was arrested for liking a social media post criticising the president and Amjad was his interrogator and torturer. Amjad joined the Air Force but failed to make it as a pilot and so ended up in the intelligence section.
Amjad enjoyed and excelled at his work, “Whenever he was not in sessions when he hanged, whipped, beat, burnt, electrocuted, and strangled countless victims like Akram, he passed his long days and often long night shifts by smoking cigarettes and drinking mate or whisky with his colleagues at the branch, which was like a second home to him.”
The violence he inflicted never troubled Amjad, he never really thought about the people he hurt except one person, a former classmate who ended up before him, but in general, his attitude was they deserved it.
The thing about Akram and Amjad's story is that it is not unique, it represents the way many Syrians learn to relate to one another, to torture and be tortured.
"Assad’s cruelty is replicated throughout the system he put in place and it finds itself everywhere, including in the interrogation room where Akram is being beaten by Amjad"
This relationship is not a natural outgrowth of Syrian society, which has a much longer history of tolerance, respect and dignity, but an outgrowth of a paranoid leader who thinks he is Syria.
Assad’s cruelty is replicated throughout the system he put in place and it finds itself everywhere, including in the interrogation room where Akram is being beaten by Amjad.
The book is not an easy read as we learn the details of murder, rape and torture being inflicted upon the detainees. Personal stories and accounts offer a humanising view of those being abused.
But the Syrian Gulag is also a necessary read as it both educates the lay reader and informs the scholar. The book offers a detailed breakdown of Syria’s different intelligence agencies, military units and prison networks they operate.
The prison system operated by the security services and the military is also compared to the civilian prison system, which makes for fascinating insight.
Torture and horrific living conditions are generally absent from Syria’s civilian prisons and prisoners live in comfort compared to those who end in the security forces prisons.
The difference lies in the nature of the crime being committed, general crimes from burglary, and fraud to violent offences such as murder, will mean the individual will be sent to a civilian prison, whereas a ‘political crime’ even something as small as liking a social media post will see the individual end up in dungeon run by either security forces or the military.
The Syrian Gulag presents a compelling case for accountability in Syria and this is something that should not be overlooked as we see attempts to rehabilitate the regime and normalise relations with Damascus.
"The political prison will be abused, humiliated and starved day in and day out. If they survive and have the body in working order, it would be a truly miraculous thing, something which the violent criminal does not have to worry about"
Intuitively, I feel the book forces me to reflect upon what kind of values are being propagated by Syrian society under Assad’s thumb.
Syria is a country where someone who commits a violent or serious offence such as murder, rape or burglary that person is treated better than someone who likes a tweet criticising the president.
The common criminal will be sent to a civilian prison where there is no real torture, sleep in comfortable beds, get regular well-made and nutritional meals every day, be allowed recreational activity and be allowed to see loved ones.
The political prison will be abused, humiliated and starved day in and day out. If they survive and have the body in working order, it would be a truly miraculous thing, something which the violent criminal does not have to worry about.
Reading the gruelling details of the treatment of political prisoners, you also get a sense that much of the abuses perpetrated by the Islamic State group were learned behaviour from the likes of the Syrian regime. These are the two things I felt engaging with this text.
The last few years have been truly terrible as Baker and Ungor state, “This catastrophe is an unprecedented scale in Syrian history: never before have so many people been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed in prison as the past half-century in general, and the past decade in particular.”
Let us hope something is learned from the Syrian Gulag so the next decade is not as terrible.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt