The brutal killing of the prominent Syrian dissidents Dr. Orouba Barakat and her daughter Halla Barakat in their home in Istanbul last week is widely acknowledged to be the latest in a long line of assassinations by the Assad regime. According to media reports, Turkish police found the bodies in their apartment in the city’s Askodar district on Thursday night following reports from family and friends in Syria and Turkey who were worried after being unable to contact them for several days, knowing they had both been repeatedly threatened by the regime. Sixty-year-old Orouba, a renowned dissident known for her interviews with survivors of Assad’s prisons, and her 23-year-old journalist daughter who worked for the anti-Assad Orient News Network, had reportedly been strangled and stabbed in the throat, with the killers – who were obviously professionals – then dousing their bodies in lime and wrapping them in blankets to cover the smell of decomposition.
Many activists mourned the women’s deaths on social media. Shaza Barakat, sister of the assassinated activist, wrote on Facebook: “My sister Orouba Barakat and her daughter have been assassinated in their apartment in Istanbul by the hands of injustice and tyranny.”
The gruesome murders are not unusual for the Assad regime, which, like other dictatorships, has long viewed assassination as the ultimate tool of suppression and intimidation. The murder of and threat of murder against those who dare oppose the rulers’ authority is used with the intention of silencing dissent and quelling revolutionary uprisings. In both Syria and Iran, the political assassination of activists and dissidents is commonplace – both within the countries’ borders and abroad.
The Assad regime’s use of assassination
The Syrian regime has been using political assassinations as standard policy for decades. Most of the time, the exact identities of the perpetrators remain unknown and subsequently the crimes go unpunished. The Assad regime, both under Hafez Al-Assad and his son Bashar, has consistently used assassination and threats as a means to silence dissent and quash revolution. The regime’s brazenness in pursuing, killing and intimidating dissidents, both within the country and abroad, knows no bounds. Late president Hafez Al-Assad once said: “Whoever wants power, we will give it to him. And whoever wants celebrity, we will give it to him. But in case any of them refuse, seeking to gain more than both those things, he will be either killed or jailed.”
Such assassinations have generally been carried out by officers of the regime’s inner circle, especially those working for Al-Assad’s infamous Air Force Intelligence Directorate (AFID), due to their rigorous training. However, the regime also reportedly resorts to using allied militias, such as Hezbollah, to carry out assassinations outside the country. Current President Bashar Al-Assad has proven to be no different to his father in this regard, overseeing the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Syrians domestically and their assassination overseas. If anything, Bashar’s thirst for blood is even more unquenchable than his father’s.
The murders of Orouba and Halla Barakat are reminiscent of the killings of other prominent Syrian opposition figures in Turkey, such as Naji Al-Jerf and Zaher Al-Shirqat who were murdered in the city of Gaziantep close to the Syrian border. These are only the best-known Syrian dissidents to have been murdered in Turkey, with killings, abductions and threats by the regime and its affiliates against dissidents are routine, even though major world powers consider Turkey to be a “safe country” for Syrians.
“The regime has used its shabiha [armed militia] to terrorise and kill dissidents abroad for decades,” said a Syrian activist speaking with MEMO on condition of anonymity. “It’s their tool to silence others from speaking out, telling them, ‘No matter where you are we can get to you and this is what will happen to you.’ Or they’ll threaten to arrest, torture, and kill family members in Syria – and they do it too. Assad’s allies in Iran and Russia do the same. Dictators and repressive regimes create willing killers – that’s their specialty. And the leaders are always careful to give themselves deniability.”
Salwa Amor, a journalist specialising in Middle East affairs told MEMO: “The recent murder of two anti-Assad Syrian activists in their home in Istanbul, has sent ripples of fear and sadness amongst the hundreds of thousands of Syrian revolutionary activists residing in Turkey.”
“The mother, Ourouba Barakat, and her 22-year-old journalist daughter Halla Barakat were not considered to have been at high risk like other more known members of the Syrian opposition nor were they high profile enough to have had a true impact on the Syrian regime. At least not to warrant such a terrible end. But if indeed it is the mark of the regime, like all crimes committed by the Syrian regime and its supporters, it will be covered up, denied, blamed on the opposition.”
“According to unconfirmed police reports, the murdered bodies of the mother and daughter were covered in caustic lime, a substance known to disguise smells. It appears to be the work of a professional killer and as such no evidence was left behind leaving no clues or leads for police to follow,” she added.
“The murder of mother and daughter was instantly blamed on the Syrian regime by other activists as well as by the victims’ own family members.”
“However, no one is certain who the killer is, and the Syrian regime, as brutal as it has been, is yet to make a habit of murdering the opposition outside its own soil.”
Perhaps after six years of massacring and torturing half a million Syrians who opposed him while the world stood by silently, Assad has finally gotten the freedom he sought from other countries to do as he pleases with his own people not only inside Syria but also anywhere in the world. And why not? After all, who is going to stop him?
Al-Assad’s use of assassinations against his opponents is by no means a surprise, as he “seems to have turned his attention towards the Iranian regime’s bloody history”, Iranian political activist Seema Tabatabaei told MEMO.
“The current Assad regime subsequently adopted forms of killing and cruel treatment of political prisoners similar to the Iranian regime. One of the common threads between these two regimes is the way they delight in violence against civilians and make use of atrocious torture techniques in the hopes of spreading fear among the populous to ensure no one dares oppose the ruling system.”
They kill to secure their dominance, power, and immortality. Although each lethal leader may use different methodology to carry out their crimes, the end result is the same – the loss of lives.
What can be done about this problem?
When regimes such as Assad’s in Syria use assassination as a tool to silence dissent, and such murderous methods are largely met with a lack of condemnation from the international community, these regimes take this as tacit approval giving them carte blanche to continue their slaughter. It is imperative that international human rights organisations and governments not only condemn these regimes’ methods with their words, but also with real, decisive actions. Otherwise, the cycle of killings will not only continue, but escalate – in Syria and worldwide.