Edit Content

Look Beyond the Violence to Understand the Dangers That Remain

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

After nearly eight years of bloody warfare in Syria, it is understandable that statistics like the number of causalities are used to measure the impact of the war. However, as the conflict winds down, analysts should be cautious to not focus only on violence when analysing the dangers and challenges facing civilians, especially inside regime areas where fighting has largely ceased.

The regime is using a mixture of judicial regulations mechanisms to punish civilians who are, or were at some point, considered ‘out of order’. Paying more attention to such practices is increasingly important to have a better grasp of the various types of state-sponsored persecution that continue.

After the Damascus regime successfully regained control of rebel-held territories in Syria, the number of opposition figures arrested skyrocketed. Yet, most were not arrested on charges filed by the state, but rather on the basis of private prosecution charges – a judicial recourse in which, in this case, individual civilians supposedly seek justice from former rebels or activists for violating their personal rights.

While the process is entirely legal, many Syrians believe the regime is behind the private prosecution charges, abusing a legal loophole to go after its opponents. This is reportedly done by encouraging civilians to initiate private prosecutions and allowing charges to be filed without investigatory evidence-gathering in the first instance.

Information culled from first-hand interviews with the author suggest that most of these private prosecution charges were filed against former commanders and fighters who had surrendered, though some were civilians as well. The arrests were reportedly executed by political intelligence or air force intelligence forces, whose remit usually does not extend to criminal proceedings.

In contrast, supporters of the regime – whether combatants or civilians – are granted full immunity for crimes committed both before and throughout the conflict. Anyone seeking to bring a private prosecution charge against loyalist figures is certain to be harassed, intimidated or even detained themselves.

The return of government civil employees to their jobs remains a complicated issue. Throughout the conflict, thousands of public servants in rebel areas stopped performing their jobs for various reasons, including movement restrictions, political position or fear of persecution. Consequently, the respective authorities have issued judicial decisions dismissing civil employees in absentia for not performing their jobs.

But despite the change in control of those territories, the vast majority of the dismissed government employees have not been able to get back their jobs. As a result, many state institutions have been suffering acute labour shortages (namely hospitals and schools) which is increasing the suffering of civilians due to lack of basic services.

While such decisions are done in accordance with domestic laws and regulations, the expelled workers feel that they are being targeted because of where they are from. They argue that while such regulations may apply in times of peace, they should be revisited to accommodate the special circumstances that prevents them from carrying out their job as usual.

To that end, dozens of dismissed employees filed applications explaining their situation in order to get their jobs back, but their requests were turned down. On top of losing their jobs, some of the expelled workers were asked to attend a court hearing, which largely conclude with either monetary fines or prison sentences between six months and three years.

A massive arsenal of laws has been issued and used by the regime in order to punish its opponents by unlawfully confiscating their properties, the most problematic among which are Law No.10 and Law No. 3, which could result in the demolition and confiscation of the homes of thousands of displaced citizens. Similarly, the regime is using an ‘anti-terrorism law’, Decree 63 of the Counter-Terrorism Law of 2012, to seize properties of perceived opposition activists and their families, as it takes back control of areas that were held by rebel groups.

The regime is still systematically restricting aid deliveries to former rebel-held areas, especially in southern Syria. The unregulated relief agencies that worked for years through cross-border operations are no longer able to reach these, while the requests of actors operating from Damascus to step in have been largely denied. Recent reports state that hundreds of thousands in areas recaptured by government forces in 2018 remain starved of basic aid.

These practices are just a few examples of the various laws and regulations that are being used by the Syrian regime in a discriminatory manner against residents who are not aligned with the government’s political agenda. Syria analysts, therefore, should consciously move away from assessing the state-sponsored persecution through the lens of violence. Understanding these new tactics to target civilians with bureaucratic or legal means is crucial to grasping the dangers people in Syria now face.