Yesterday, the Assad regime rained chemicals down from the skies—killing scores of civilians, including children, as it has been doing daily since it triggered Syria’s struggle by killing peaceful protestors in 2011. In six years of war, the Assad regime has committed countless atrocities: it has massacred civilians in Daraya, gassed Ghouta, set up a “human slaughterhouse” at Saydnaya Prison—where state-sponsored sadists have starved, tortured, and hanged thousands of prisoners in a series of weekly “parties.” It has routinely violated the laws of war and run roughshod over basic, cross-cultural tenets of our common humanity.
But the Assad regime seems set to evade justice—again. Indeed, the Assad regime has been evading justice for decades because of a culture of impunity in the Levant and the global geopolitics of law.
To be sure, proponents of truth, justice, and accountability have tried to present clear and convincing evidence of the Assad regime’s crimes. Syrian citizens have shared their horrors with the world through first-hand accounts posted on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Slicing through the fog of war, and the haze of apathy, journalists have painstakingly pieced together stories from areas controlled by the regime (and others). Lawyers have put together reams of paper—photographs, documents, and testimonials—describing the depravity. (Note: Being an efficient and effective killing machine, the Assad regime has documented its own crimes.) Legal foundations and non-profits have done their fair share, too. The Center for Justice & Accountability—an organization founded in 1998 to deter torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—has initiated US litigation against the Assad regime for its alleged assassination of journalist Marie Colvin. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center has planned post-conflict mechanisms for justice, accountability, and truth-seeking. Last week, a magistrate in Spain allowed lawyers—who had alleged that members of the Assad regime have committed state terrorism—to proceed to trial. And others, from Beirut to Berlin, are exploring whether and how to help Syrians cope with the consequences of conflict.
Even so, the Assad regime has been getting away with murder—figuratively and literally—for decades. Since the 1970s, when the late Hafez al-Assad began to consolidate power he had acquired in his “corrective” coup, the Syrian regime committed crimes in its bid to contain threats emanating from Lebanon and crush insurrectionists or dissidents in Syria. In 1976, the Assad regime invaded its smaller neighbor and began to battle the Muslim Brotherhood. By the time it left Lebanon in 2005, the regime—under Assads Elder and Younger—had killed, tortured, jailed, “disappeared,” and humiliated tens of thousands; besieged and bombarded cities, including bastions of minorities it now claims to protect; and muzzled or marginalized unpliant individuals from all walks of life. And it’s not as if the Assad regime put on velvet gloves at home. From 1976 to 1982, it indiscriminately shelled Syrian cities (most infamously levelling Hama in 1982); killed tens of thousands of innocent people; rounded up, jailed, and tortured dissidents in the decades sandwiching the Damascus Spring of 2002; and waged war against its own people since 2011.
In its neighborhood, the Assad regime has benefited from a culture of impunity—and, above all, the impunity of institutions that function as factional instruments as opposed to ultimate guarantors of security and justice—with deep roots in the Levant. As they have struggled to shape Levantine states and societies, they have accepted and indeed internalized violence as a tool of constitutional change, routine legal-political evolution, and political discourse. In Lebanon, elites have typically jousted—or, bickered and bargained—to shape an inter-communal structure. In questing for a structural solution, under which they perennially expect to unlock substantive issues ranging from individual rights to national security, they have shaped constitutional design through cycles of compromise, collapse, and conflict. In Syria, after two decades of post-independence coups and counter-coups, the Assad regime built and then deployed a strong state as an instrument to integrate communities—and of self-preservation. While segments of society never integrated as fully as the Baathist veneer suggested, they did submit to the state—and to the dominant faction—far more than the Lebanese did. As a result, the Assad regime was able to rely on the threat of force—and occasional, targeted application of violence—for much of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.
Although their states and societies have evolved differently, Lebanese and Syrians continue to share a culture of impunity: violence is part and parcel of politics; killings are messages sent by one faction to another; and communities must collectively pay the price of the actions taken by the worst elements among them. Worse still, Levantine elites have enshrined that impunity as a constitutional-political principle over the past quarter-century. After the Lebanese Civil War, for instance, Lebanese leaders and their Syrian overseers passed a universal amnesty law. Not only did they decline to tailor their amnesty law, but they made matters worse—for those seeking a just peace—by not creating mechanisms to mete out justice, seek and share the truth, and promote real reconciliation. Nor did they hold the national dialogue envisioned by the Taif Accord. Rather, these elites made do with reconstruction—much like the world seems primed to make do with Syria today.
On the international stage, the Assad regime will probably benefit from the geopolitics of law. America, the world’s preeminent power for seventy years, has typically seen the Levant as peripheral to US policy and national security interests. Despite the occasional adventure in Beirut, Americans have rarely identified deep interests in Lebanon. Moreover, much to the chagrin of pro-Western elites in Beirut, they have never behaved as if their interests in the small state were deeper than those of, say, the Syrian or Iranian regimes. Today, even after accounting for their interests in managing migrant crises and “countering violent extremism,” neither the Americans nor the Europeans identify interests in Syria as deep as those of Russia, Iran, or the regime itself.
Against that backdrop, America and its allies have not put their guns behind justice in the Levant. Unlike in Nuremburg or Tokyo, no international power or coalition will occupy Levantine states while working to bring war criminals to justice. Indeed, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia have already tried to substituted a legal initiative for a true strategy in the Levant. Although they created a court to bring the assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri to justice, these international powers never shaped the strategic environment to make such justice possible. Even as they go through the motions of supporting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon diplomatically and financially, they have undercut it with their broader policies—including successive rounds of engagement with the Syrian government conducted before the Syrian war erupted. Twelve years later, with an internationalized investigation and a hybrid tribunal that has cost more than a billion dollars, the Assad regime sits atop its perch on the outskirts of Damascus while Hezbollah works—at whim—outside, alongside, and within the Lebanese state.
Syria’s future may mimic Lebanon’s past. Absent a drastic change in Western policy, unlikely given President Trump’s disposition, the Assad regime will win the war, control the politics of peace, manipulate the post-conflict transition, and shape the postwar order. As Syrians began to rebuild their state and society, living amid a precarious and precious peace, they will leave bad enough alone. Levantine proponents of truth, justice, and principled peace will again find themselves holding gavels in a gunfight. They may expose the truth; they may secure a judgement here or there—as they should, to the extent possible. But they will not achieve accountability or administer justice. And they may soon find themselves living in another imposed, unjust—and hence untenable—peace.
Anthony Elghossain is a lawyer and writer based in Beirut. Follow him @aelghossain.