Germany has announced that it will be putting two Syrian defectors on trial for charges of torture. The two defendants, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, both worked for the brutal intelligence services of the Assad Regime before defecting and seeking asylum in Germany. Syrian refugees in Germany informed local police of Raslan’s past crimes. He evidently worked at the Al-Khatib prison in Damascus and is charged with having overseen the torture of 4000 people, in addition to 58 counts of murder and sexual assault. Similarly, Al-Gharib faces about 30 counts of torture from his time at the same prison, where it is believed he worked under Raslan’s department. He was identified after revealing extremely detailed procedures of Assad’s secret police to German authorities.
International actors as well as the outbreak of COVID-19 have made prosecuting the two men somewhat difficult. Just recently, Russia vetoed a motion by the UN Security Council to hold an international tribunal for the two. However, German authorities were still able to launch a trial using the clause of universal jurisdiction, which allows them to prosecute for crimes against humanity committed elsewhere. The prosecution plans to bring in several witnesses, including Syrian human-rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who was arrested by Raslan in 2006. According to Mr. Bunni, “It’s not work for me, it’s my life now for my family and the next generation,”, adding that he hopes the trial will, “encourage others to go forward in their investigations,”. Mr. Bunni has spent years accumulating evidence of human-rights abuses under the Assad Regime since escaping to Germany in 2014.
Whether or not these men will face punishment for their crimes is still up in the air. The pair allege that they left the Assad Regime of their own volition, something which may count in their favour in court. Regardless of the outcome though, the mere fact that this trial may finally bring Syrian War criminals to justice is a historic step. Thus far, very little has been done to curb the violence in the country and to hold those in power responsible for human rights abuses. The international community should take this as a signal that there needs to be greater prosecution of war criminals, especially those in Syria. Russia in particular, has used its substantial political clout to shield its ally over the past few years, such as in 2018 when it vetoed a UN resolution to investigate the usage of chemical weapons.
Yet they continue to prop up the Assad regime at the cost of fuel, bombs, and Syrian and Russian blood. Where conventional forces cannot be used, non-state actors such as Russia’s own Wagner Group (a private mercenary organization) are employed. These groups allow Syria and Russia plausible deniability but operate without accountability; in 2017, one of the mercenaries was filmed beheading a Syrian man and then setting his body aflame. These kinds of abuses are rampant and the international community needs to act to ensure that such acts do not go unpunished.
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 after government forces began cracking down on protesters demanding democratic reforms and an end to Bashar Al-Assad’s rule. A series of escalations followed until the conflict bloomed into a full-scale civil war between Assad’s government, U.S.-backed rebels, Kurds, and jihadist groups such as Al-Quaeda, Al-Nusra Front, and later ISIS. This is further complicated by a series of international players like Iran and Saudi Arabia that pour weapons and money into opposite sides of the conflict. This has resulted in a humanitarian disaster complete with heavy civilian casualties, ethnic cleansing, and the usage of chemical weapons. In 2015, Assad’s longtime ally, Russia, directly intervened on Assad’s behalf, further escalating the war. The Assad Regime was found guilty of war crimes by a UN inquiry in 2013. Violations of basic human rights continue under his reign but the perpetrators most often go free.
That any members of Assad’s war machine may face punishment, even if it is only two low-ranking jailers, should be counted as a victory. More civilians die everyday from bombing campaigns and crimes like those committed by the Wagner Group go unpunished. Declarations of solidarity against Assad give the impression of an opposition movement but at the end of the day, they accomplish nothing. If governments wish to curb the violence in Syria, then they must appeal to those that contribute to it such as Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. And failing that, the European Union should be more willing to take in the refugees that the Syrian Civil War created. The International Community helped fuel this crisis, now it must be willing to help end it.