Germany has sentenced a Syrian colonel to life for crimes against humanity. Will others suffer the same fate?

Human rights activists applaud a German court conviction of a former Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for crimes against humanity committed at the start of the Syrian conflict.

A former colonel in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, Anwar Raslan, 58, has been found guilty of murder, sexual assault and torture of prisoners – the first-ever conviction of a senior regime official for atrocities during this war.

Now activists hope Raslan’s sentencing will pave the way for other bad actors associated with the Assad regime to be similarly punished. Our experts have weighed in on what Thursday’s sentencing means for that effort.

Europe is no haven for war criminals

The trial we have just witnessed is not justice, but a step towards another important concept if Syria is ever to stabilize: accountability. Impunity has been the only constant of the past eleven years – for enforced disappearances, sieges, torture, thefts, displacements and massacres. But Thursday’s verdict reminds criminals who have collaborated with or worked on behalf of such regimes that Europe offers them no safe haven and that they will never be safe from prosecution for their crimes., even a decade after they committed them.

Raslan fled in 2012 and was punished for his role in killing twenty-seven people and torturing four thousand others. But there are many like him, who have committed far more horrific crimes and are demanding prosecution. Truth, reconciliation and accountability are necessary ingredients for societies to overcome horrible civil wars. It is simply not a step that can be skipped if Syria is ever to experience peace and stability.

It is significant that Germany played a leading role in ensuring accountability for crimes in Syria, and this deserves deep respect. Many lawyers hope that France, Sweden and the Netherlands will also host national trials in the months and years to come for Syrian victims., given that the impasse in the United Nations (UN) Security Council currently prevents referrals to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The real heroes here are the Syrian victims who testified and put their lives at risk in the process, as well as the many Syrian lawyers (such as Joumana Seif, Mazen Darwish and Anwar Bunni, among others) who prosecuted these crimes and worked with victims to collect documents that met the standards of a court. Although these Syrians have been forcibly silenced in their own country, they are finally being heard in a justice system that offers them more opportunities to speak out than Assad’s courts ever had.

Yet, there is still a lot of work to do. Despite the refusal of Russia, Iran and other allies of Assad, the United States can and must continue to support the legal mechanisms of the United Nations, such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and reflect seriously to the creation of an international tribunal. devoted solely to crimes in Syria. It is in the interest of the United States to support accountability efforts, including evidence gathering, legal training, and diplomatic pressure, to ensure that violations committed during the Syrian conflict are addressed.

—Jomana Qaddour is Resident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center and the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

How to bridge the “responsibility gap”

Thursday’s historic verdict was as much about the sum of its successes as it was about the lessons it offers for the future.

First, the successes: the verdict was possible thanks to the determination and strength of victims and survivors, as well as the commendable efforts of investigators, prosecutors and NGOs. This shows what a dedicated and well-resourced war crimes unit can accomplish, not only in Germany, but in other national systems with the capacity to try crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction..

Now the lessons: Conviction represents only a fraction of the crimes committed during the Syrian conflict. While domestic courts have admirably attempted to fill the accountability void resulting from the inaction of the international system, more needs to be done to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure that victims and survivors are more included in the process.

First, justice-minded states must continue to ensure that other members of the Assad regime are held accountable for all crimes, including enforced disappearances, use of chemical weapons, deliberate bombing hospitals and health workers, etc. The role of other states in the violence – ranging from Assad allies Russia and Iran to Qatar and Turkey – also needs to be explored.

Second, states that can prosecute these crimes should ensure that all possible national legal obstacles are removed. The recent decision of the highest court of France– which considers that French courts cannot prosecute crimes against humanity committed in Syria due to the requirement of “double incrimination” – is a negative development for justice that should be reconsidered. Immunity claims by senior Assad regime leaders, as well as allied states that have perpetrated, aided or abetted attacks on civilians, should not be an obstacle to justice.

Third, efforts must be made to ensure that the justice process is accessible to affected communities. In the case against Raslan, for example, the lack of simultaneous Arabic translation for the general public meant that many could not meaningfully engage with the process. In future trials, victims and survivors should be encouraged to come forward and provided with adequate support and protections. The ongoing “normalization” with the Assad regime should not lead some European states to force Syrian refugees to return to Syria, especially when these same refugees could participate in these judicial processes and are at continued risk in their country of origin.

And finally, justice for harm is not a substitute for preventing harm in the first place. The crime of enforced disappearances was notably not charged in the case against Raslan, despite the widespread perpetration of enforced disappearances by the Assad regime in Syria. Energy and resources must be invested in a mechanism to deal with the fate of missing persons, alongside increased resources for national war crimes units, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism of the United Nations.

—Gissou Nia is the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project.

‘Syria fatigue’ threatens to derail justice efforts

This verdict is unquestionably a historic decision. Yet it also reflects the serious lack of accountability in the Syrian conflict. The fact that a colonel (who was neither a central regime figure nor a key decision-maker) was the most senior official to face prosecution in a decade-long conflict that has seen (and continues to see) some of the most heinous atrocities in modern history. history highlights the failure of international human rights law and justice.

Problematically, the verdict comes at a time when the international community is facing severe Syria fatigue. Several Arab countries have begun normalization efforts, Interpol has allowed Syria to join its network, and some European states, including Denmark, have revoked the refugee status of Syrians on the grounds that Damascus and its surrounding suburbs are safe enough to a return.

Given that Raslan defected in 2012, at the start of the conflict, one can only imagine the extent and depravity of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed since then. To date, more than one hundred thousand Syrians are missing with little or no information about their whereabouts or whereabouts. Countless reports, testimonies, and photographic and written documents revealed the widespread use of torture, sexual violence, bodily mutilation, and murder, among many other crimes.

While the international community tends to prioritize humanitarian efforts over political transition and human rights in Syria, Raslan’s verdict should be a stark reminder that the Syrian conflict is far from a humanitarian conflict. Until accountability and justice truly come first, Syria will never be safe enough for return.

—Reem Salahi is a non-resident fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs.

Further reading

Associate specialists:
Gissou-Nia,
Jomana Qaddour, and
Reem Salah

Image: Former Syrian Colonel Anwar Raslan arrives in court ahead of the verdict in his trial for crimes against humanity in Koblenz, Germany, January 13, 2022. Photo by Thomas Frey/Pool via REUTERS

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