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Assad on trial

Syrians in exile are fighting to hold Bashar al-Assad’s regime to account on an international stage.

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In a few months, Syrians the world over will commemorate a grim anniversary. The 15 March will mark ten years since demonstrators marched against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo and Damascus. The date is now generally seen as the beginning of the Syrian Civil War; a conflict which over a decade has dragged in interventions from half a dozen external powers, seen the rise and fall of Islamic State, and the migration of millions out of Syria, mostly to neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon but also to Europe.

Ten blood-soaked years after it began, the Syrian Civil War is – militarily – all but over. The Assad regime, propped up by military intervention by Russia, appears to have won on the battlefield. It controls the vast majority of territory in Syria and is not directly at war with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which control most of the rest.

Yet many Syrian exiles in Europe – most of whom fled Assad – have not accepted defeat. Some continue to oppose the regime, scarred by the brutal methods it employed to cling on to power, including torture on a mass scale and the use of banned chemical weapons.

A small network of Syrian exiles is fighting to hold regime officials accountable in European and international courts. Their painstaking fight could have repercussions on world politics for years to come, determining whether the Syrian regime is readmitted into the international community – or whether Assad remains an international pariah.

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At the forefront of this effort are two men, Mazen Darwish and Anwar al-Bunni. Both are lawyers who fled Assadist Syria after 2011.

Darwish, 46, speaks in a soft voice, his tone occasionally turning more strident when a topic animates him. He has dark, heavy-set eyes and chain smokes. We meet in the plain offices of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, an NGO he heads, on a quiet residential street on the northern edge of Paris.

Darwish was born to a family of the political opposition. “Both my father and my mother visited [Assad’s] security services and prisons,” he remembers. “When you come from an opposition family, you become part of a special society. Stories about prison visits, torture, kidnappings, who is arrested and released this week become part of your daily life.

“But when I went to university, I began to feel like a member of a bigger society. It showed me that we were not just a small group.”

He trained as a lawyer and was jailed several times for his activism, born out of his belief in the values of human rights and democracy. “Nobody – not even such a dictatorship – has the right to prevent people existing as human beings and not as slaves.”

In 2012, he was arrested and spent almost three years in prison, suffering torture from which he still bears the psychological scars today. “Torture has always been used as a tool to collect information in Syria. But at that time, it became torture for revenge, torture for the sake of torture, torture to kill.” He adds that there was one six-month stretch when he was tortured daily. His tormentors never asked him for any information.

Darwish fled Syria in 2015, settling first in Berlin and then Paris. From exile, he has been working closely with an informal network of Syrian émigrés fighting to ensure that the Syrian regime is held to account for its well-documented litany of crimes against humanity, even as it closes in on victory.

One of those men is Anwar al-Bunni. I met al-Bunni, a wiry man with a bushy moustache, on a cold afternoon in an ex-industrial area of the former East Berlin. He works in a plain office in the same building as a casting company, with smiley twenty-somethings in bright sweaters milling in the corridors.

Al-Bunni was born in 1959 in Hama, eastern Syria, to a Christian family of dissidents. He grew up in Baathist Syria under the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez. Like Darwish, al-Bunni trained as a lawyer, working on the virtually hopeless cases of dissidents prosecuted by a totalitarian regime. “There wasn’t room for the work of a lawyer, but my purpose was to expose what was happening.”

In 2014, Al-Bunni fled to Germany, where he founded the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research. He has been preparing legal efforts to hold Assad regime officials accountable ever since.

[See also: Syria's war without end]

At the forefront of these efforts is a landmark trial in Koblenz, a small city in western Germany at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers known for its medieval fortifications and a monument celebrating German unification. Here, for the first time since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, alleged former Assad regime officials are being tried in a courtroom. Al-Bunni and Darwish, who have not been called to the bar in Europe, are not acting as prosecutors in the case, but have been instrumental in putting it together.

The Koblenz trial, which began in 2020 and is expected to deliver a verdict this year, has seen German prosecutors accuse two men of torture and murder in Al Khatib branch, a prison in a suburb of Damascus. Anwar R, the primary defendant, is accused of complicity in the torture of some 4,000 detainees, while Eyed A, a subordinate, is suspected of having been a member of a police squad which brought prisoners to the branch. Anwar R is charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and 58 counts of murder, as well as rape and sexual assaults. Eyad A is accused of lesser charges, including aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. Both men have been charged under universal jurisdiction, a concept in German law that allows some crimes against humanity committed anywhere to be tried in Germany, even if they were not committed in Germany or by Germans.

The trial has heard gut-wrenching testimony from Syrians allegedly tortured at Al Khatib. One witness testified that he had been ordered to bury hundreds of corpses a week. He reported seeing a woman holding her child in her arms among the bodies. 

It has also brought up difficult moral questions regarding defection from a tyrannical regime. Both defendants were arrested in Germany, where they had been living for years after defecting from Assad’s government. They were open with German authorities about their past working for Assad, including in the security services, having assumed that defection and cooperation with the opposition would protect them from prosecution. Because the Syrian security services operated with complete impunity, according to Darwish, they may have become accustomed to not fearing being held accountable for their actions.

But the trial is about more than two relatively low-ranking men. Documents presented during the proceedings indicate systematic repression, going up to the highest echelons of the Syrian regime. “The prosecutor wants to be able to prove that these individuals’ acts were part of systematic and widespread attacks against the civilian population,” Fritz Streiff, a human rights lawyer who hosts Branch 251, a podcast covering the trial, told me. “This is a trial dealing with allegations of crimes against humanity perpetrated not just by the accused but by the regime as a system.”

Darwish’s testimony at the trial helped bolster this case. His experience of opposition in pre-revolutionary Syria helped him argue that the Assadist system was totalitarian in its ideology and brutal in its methods, which ramped up after the civil war began. Al-Bunni has likewise mobilised his extensive network of Syrians living in exile to build cases against alleged former regime officials, of which the trial in Koblenz is the first manifestation – though not, he hopes, the last.

There are problems with the trial. It could discourage Assad regime officials from defecting in fear of prosecution in the future, thus, perversely, shoring up the regime. It is taking place in Germany, far away from most Syrians, who cannot follow it in detail in their home country. And while the two men were high-ranking security officials, they were not among those at the top giving orders.

Nonetheless, Koblenz is a landmark moment in the fight for accountability in the Syrian Civil War. Most war crimes trials have historically taken place against defeated countries after the end of a war, such as in Nazi Germany – but in this case, former officials of the victorious party are being held to account.

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The Koblenz trial could turn out to be a significant factor in how the Syrian regime is treated by the international community, as might similar regimes that Darwish and al-Bunni hope to prosecute.

Some countries, which severed diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime at the onset of war, have since accepted the reality of Assad’s victory and are working on re-establishing relations with the regime. As Assad’s position becomes ever more consolidated within Syria, pragmatists in governments across the world are likely to argue for engagement with a regime unlikely to go anywhere for years to come – especially one closely allied to Russia. The election of Armin Laschet, who has a history of pro-Assad public statements, as leader of Germany’s ruling CDU in January is an example of how prevalent this strain of thinking is in some circles.

“Some European states will see the need for a greater degree of pragmatism in terms of dealing with Damascus as a de facto authority but that doesn't mean that they're going to embrace the regime with open arms and decide to turn the page on the last ten years. [Assad] is always going to remain essentially a pariah in European eyes,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East & North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, told me. “Europe faces the dilemma of a regime that survives but a country that is collapsing.”

But the crimes uncovered by the Koblenz trial – and crucially the systemic responsibility they imply  could complicate such efforts, leading to political and legal pressure to limit international recognition of the Assad regime. A judgment from an independent and fair judiciary will also lend legitimacy to the charges against Assad, which could make removing sanctions on the Syrian regime and its top officials more difficult. “I am attempting to prevent [Assad’s] return to the international community in any way I can,” al-Bunni told me. “Now they are suspects, in a legal, not a political sense.”

More cases against other alleged war criminals may follow. Al-Bunni receives dozens of tips a day from Syrians living in exile about the locations of their former tormentors. He works on a shoestring budget to piece together cases against former regime officials who have been living as refugees in Germany for years. “It's not easy to find witnesses. The witness could be here in Germany and the suspect in Sweden,” he adds, highlighting the difficulty of cross-referencing between national borders and legal systems.

Darwish also hopes that similar cases will come to trial in other European countries. “This is not a Syrian issue, but a European issue.” If the thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe, most of whom fled Assad, begin to lose faith in accountability and start to believe that “justice is fake" and nobody cares about their suffering, then "they will easily turn to extremism”.

Both men, when asked if they expect to ever return to Syria, reply in the affirmative. If that were to happen, it would have to be to a democratic, post-Assad Syria, however  a prospect which looks very distant indeed.

[See also: Assad's slaughter in Syria has made a mockery of the West]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

He co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.