Assad oblivious to the shaky position of other Iran allies
The street protests taking place in Iraq and Lebanon appear to be primarily directed against Iran. They should sound the alarm for its allies and proxies in the region and encourage them to change their conduct. While some are taking notice, Bashar Assad seems quite oblivious. In words and deeds, he is sounding more belligerent and uncompromising, as if planning to stay in power indefinitely.
In a recent speech before the People’s Council (Majlis Al-Shaab) and in media interviews, Assad has lashed out against his enemies, saying that all American presidents were “criminals,” even when pretending to defend human rights, and describing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “thief” and a “bully.” He attacked the UN, questioning its role in Syria and casting doubts about the political process the world body is pursuing. He criticized UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, saying that he had no business discussing elections, claiming that only his regime is responsible for them. This is despite the fact that UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the basis for Pedersen’s mission, mandated such elections and a transitional authority to supervise them. Assad also denigrated the work of the constitutional committee meeting in Geneva under UN auspices, despite the fact that he had previously endorsed the panel and chose 50 of its members.
Russia is apparently concerned about its ally’s strident outbursts, as well as his policies. Russian media outlets, some close to the Kremlin, took exception to his anti-Erdogan rhetoric. They also criticized him for violently suppressing tribes and engaging in demographic policies that alienate Sunni groups, warning that such actions could feed the “fires” of civil war. They reminded Assad that he currently enjoys the support of no more than 20 percent of Syria’s population.
TASS news agency reported that Assad was trying to slow down the work of the constitutional committee because he does not want to get to the next step, which is a presidential election. TASS expected his protests to get louder as the prospect of that election gets closer. Russian media outlets have reminded Assad that his positions are at odds with those of Moscow, to whose intervention he owes his survival. Some warned that the current situation is Assad’s last chance to reach an accommodation with his opponents, and that he should take advantage of his privileged position thanks to the presence of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria and the US partial withdrawal.
Russia is apparently concerned about its Syrian ally’s strident outbursts, as well as his policies
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Notwithstanding Russia’s concerns, on the ground Assad is conducting a scorched earth policy. On Friday, UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a press conference in Geneva that more than 60 medical facilities had been hit in Syria’s Idlib province in the past six months, including four last week. Most, if not all, appeared to have been deliberately targeted by government forces or Assad’s allies. Since April 29, Colville said, 61 medical facilities had been hit, some several times. Colville said: “We can’t determine if every single attack is deliberate but the large scale of these attacks strongly suggests that the government-affiliated forces conducting these strikes are, at least partly, if not wholly, deliberately striking health facilities.” He told a reporter that “they can’t possibly all be accidents,” stressing that, if it is proven that any were deliberate, it would amount to a war crime.
UN reports have documented the scale of slaughter and devastation that Assad has wreaked upon Syria’s civilian population, the majority of which has now been displaced internally or dispersed outside the country. In excess of half a million have been killed, according to credible reports. Human rights organizations report that hundreds of thousands have been detained or forcibly disappeared. Tens of thousands have been tortured and thousands executed or died during torture.
Last month, a court in Germany charged two former Syrian intelligence officers with “crimes against humanity.” One of them is suspected of being involved in the torture of at least 4,000 people in 2011-12, resulting in the deaths of 58 people. This number does not include the thousands who were killed in jailhouse executions. According to a 2017 Amnesty International report, as many as 13,000 people, most of them civilian opposition supporters, were executed in secret at Sednaya Prison alone.
The two suspects were arrested in Germany in February and their trial is expected to start in early 2020. German federal prosecutors have ascertained that the men were members of Syria’s main internal spy agency, the General Intelligence Directorate, and that the suspects directed or engaged in the “systematic and brutal torture” of detainees, leading to deaths in some cases.
In addition to the two who have been formally charged, German officials say they are investigating “dozens” of other former Syrian officials. Germany is employing the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows any state to assume jurisdiction, regardless of where the crimes took place, over people suspected of committing “international crimes,” such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Invoking this principle, Berlin last year issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, accusing him of overseeing the torture, rape and murder of hundreds of people.
Assad appears unmoved by these developments and the censure he is getting from all sides. He is probably relying on support from Iran and its proxies to keep him in power. That may work for a while but, as we see in Iraq and Lebanon, that support may not be enough.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1