Former US President Jimmy Carter penned an opinion piece in the New York Times recently in which he detailed how it would be wise for the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria to remain in power and how the West can slowly start to re-establish relations with it as a result of its military victories. The article generated much fanfare but, while this is not the first time that Carter has made his views known on a Middle Eastern conflict, his intervention is at best foolish and at worst malicious. His comments are, in fact, deeply unhelpful.
Over the past few weeks, the Assad regime has released death notices pertaining to former political prisoners stretching back to 2011. Thousands of men and women whose fates were unknown for years have been officially announced to be dead, most of them killed just a few days after being taken into government custody. Why has this been done now? Is Assad seeking to further terrorise into submission those civilians who won’t toe the line? Has he reached the position where he is so confident that the international community won’t hold him to account, and will accept his return to the fold, that he can act like this? Ultimately, it’s a sign from the Assad regime that it has almost won the war and knows that it won’t be held to account.
Last year, a report was published detailing the experiences of eight brave women who came forward and spoke of their ordeal in Assad’s prisons. “Voices from the Dark: Torture and Sexual Violence Against Women in Assad’s Detention Centres” made clear the horrific ordeal that these women had faced. Arbitrary arrest to terrorise their families and punishment for speaking out against the Assad regime resulted in the detention of scores of women in conditions reminiscent of the Middle Ages. They were subjected to unspeakable acts of torture and repeated rape and sexual assault, affecting them for the rest of their lives. The women who spoke out are but a fraction of those languishing in Assad’s jails, many of whom have been reported missing for months or even years. Saydnaya Prison in central Syria is particular infamous, having been mentioned in an Amnesty International report as the location where 13,000 prisoners were hanged. Furthermore, the army photographer and defector “Caesar” has published scores of photographs detailing the torture and systematic killing of tens of thousands of prisoners and the conditions they had to endure.
As much as the actions of the international community have had little positive impact for the Syrian people since 2011, with most foreign leaders paying lip service to human rights and abuses, the latest diplomatic shift still comes as a shock. The fact that Britain, the US, France, Germany and others are even looking to drop all pretence and admit that they will not bother to support the Syrian people even verbally and with financial aid is a huge concern. Syria’s is a regime that only four months ago perpetrated another chemical weapons attack on its own people, and its systematic targeting of hospitals and healthcare centres has shown no signs of stopping. The regime has strayed beyond the pale, but with the political backing of Russia and China at the UN and Iranian support on the ground, Assad shows no sign of backing down.
It is imperative that the international community does not give up on the Syrian people and keeps up the pressure on Assad himself. The crimes for which he is responsible suggest that he is beyond rehabilitation. The Syrian President cannot be spun into a Hirohito-like figure in a post-World War Two world where he stays on as leader as he was “unaware” of what his government was doing. There is evidence of a clear chain of command stemming from Assad himself. He has acted like an international pariah in his treatment of his own people, and so he should be treated like one. The so-called “Friends of Syria” set up back in 2012 have abandoned the Syrian people and been friends in name only.
Whenever we hear talk about genocide and crimes against humanity, the words “never again” always crop up. The horrifying siege of Aleppo in 2016 prompted the US Holocaust Museum to speak out about how the Syrian situation, in fact, began as a democratic uprising against a totalitarian regime as opposed to a multifaceted civil war. The seriousness of the situation was clear for all to see. However, when we say “never again” do we really mean it if the perpetrator of these crimes is accepted back into the international fold and goes without punishment?
The solution to the Syrian conflict is not a military one; it needs a clear political resolution to be found, and there will likely be a degree of compromise as Syria undergoes a transition to a democratic state governed by the rule of law. It will not be a quick process, but Bashar Al-Assad and his associates cannot be involved; there has to be a red line in this instance. A future Syrian state governed by Assad or one of his Baath Party associates will forever be stained in the eyes of the Syrian people, and will never have any legitimacy.
To return to the words of Jimmy Carter, an “ugly peace” is no better than war in the long term. An unjust peace breeds resentment and betrayal. The last “ugly peace” in modern history was just under 100 years ago within the Treaty of Versailles; instead of a stable, peaceful and prosperous Europe, it led eventually to the rise of a genocidal tyrant just over a decade later who used industrial scale methods to kill 6 million people, most of them Jews, in a deliberate act of genocide. Have we learnt nothing from the past?
Any political resolution in Syria must be fair; it must be just, and it must be enduring. The peace has to be won well; it cannot be ugly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.