Germany Gives Syria’s Victims Hope For Justice

The barely-noticed conviction in Germany last week of a low-level Syrian official poses serious questions about universal jurisdiction over human-rights abuses, and how the world should deal with the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. A court in Koblenz sentenced Eyad al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison, with credit for time served, for “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.”

Gharib is one of over a million Syrians who have sought refuge in Germany over the past decade of conflict in their benighted homeland. When the uprising against the dictatorship began in 2011, he was an officer in the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, the much-feared domestic security service. Gharib told German authorities that he and his colleagues were ordered to open fire on nonviolent protesters in a Damascus suburb that year, and that although he refused to shoot people, he did help round up protesters who ended up in jail, where they would be tortured and murdered.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have met that hideous fate in Assad’s prisons, which human-rights groups have described as slaughterhouses.

Gharib is also the key witness in the ongoing trial of one of his superior officers, Anwar Raslan, who is accused of participating in the systematic torture of approximately 4,000 Syrians that lead to at least 58 deaths. If convicted, Raslan faces a much more severe sentence.

These are the first two cases anywhere against the officials who have carried out one of the most brutal campaigns against ordinary people by their own government in recent decades. The trials of Raslan and Gharib represent important advances for the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

Both men made their way to Germany separately by 2014 and applied for asylum. Raslan was identified from accounts of regime abuses given by numerous other refugees, corroborated by documents he signed in his role as a colonel in the notorious Branch 251. Gharib was mainly implicated by the accounts he provided voluntarily to German authorities. By 2018 German investigations were well underway, and their joint trial began in April 2020.

But the crimes themselves, as well as the defendants and the alleged victims were not subject to German jurisdiction at the time they were committed.

Governments, including that of the U.S., are generally opposed to the concept of universal jurisdiction, regarding it as an unwarranted usurpation of national sovereignty. But, as these Syrian cases in Germany demonstrate, it can sometimes offer the only path to enforcing basic standards of human conduct.

There is no prospect of any Assad’s officials being held accountable in Syria for abuses — many of them against unarmed, peaceful protesters — committed in the preservation of his brutal dictatorship. Thanks to the intervention of Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, the regime has survived and now controls most of the country.

The conundrum facing the international community is how to deal with the dictatorship. Some countries that previously backed the opposition to Assad are now coming around to the view that the only sensible course is to engage with him. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, restored diplomatic ties with Syria, and Emirati officials have gone so far as to praise Assad’s “wise leadership.” Just last week, Iraq’s foreign minister called for Syria to be welcomed back into the Arab League.

For now, the U.S., Europe and Saudi Arabia are keeping their distance, reluctant to shake Assad’s blood-stained hand. For Washington and Riyadh, there is the additional consideration that acknowledging his victory would be tantamount to endorsing Iranian suzerainty over Syria.

It is conceivable that the Americans and Saudis may accommodate themselves to an outcome that leaves Russia as the main power broker in post-war Syria, so long as it pushes Iran out of the picture. This might also suit Assad, since Moscow has more limited goals — and will therefore make fewer demands on Syrian sovereignty — than Iran and its proxy militias. Syria’s other major neighbor, Turkey, which is also wary of Tehran’s influence on Damascus, will likely go along with such a modus vivendi.

Assad will seek to play these forces against each other, satisfying no one but buying himself room to maneuver.

But lost in the debate over rehabilitating Assad is the question of justice for his victims: Over 500,000 Syrians have been killed and 11 million displaced over the past decade. Credit is due to Germany for taking in many Syrian refugees and applying universal jurisdiction to a few human-rights abusers among them. The rest of the world should be especially grateful to Germany because no one else is likely even to try.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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