President Assad spoke Sunday amid rapturous loyalists chanting their allegiance to him with "all their blood and soul." But from Syrian citizens, opposition groups, and the international community, Assad’s speech was met with a roar of protest and mocking contempt. This was the first public speech in six months from Assad, who, according to the opposition, lives in isolation unaware of the events going on around him.
For 99 minutes (exceeding Qaddafi’s last speech which lasted only 76 minutes), Assad spoke about almost everything. He threatened that "what we started will not stop," and demanded that regional and Western countries stop funding and arming the rebels trying to overthrow him. He mentioned ‘Arabism’ 40 times, ‘reform’ 35 times, the Arab League 28 times, ‘security’ 18 times, and ‘state of emergency’ 12 times. But one word was completely missing from his speech: justice.
Dictators do not believe in justice. In fact they fear it, as they are sure that justice will hold them accountable for all the injustice that has been committed during their reign. Justice will ask them about the public property they illegally appropriated and about the wealth acquired by their family members and close friends. Justice will ask about the people who were illegally killed, tortured, displaced, and detained for long periods, whose only offense was merely longing for freedom and dignity. So naturally, Assad the dictator is no fan of justice. He knows that he can manipulate democracy by naming it the ‘popular democracy’ and reducing it to supervised and rigged elections. Assad can also mold ‘patriotism’ and ‘resistance,’ as needed turning them into mere clichés set against ‘Zionism’ and ‘colonialism.’ As for justice: it has but one meaning. It is this meaning that Assad is trying to escape.
But Assad did mention ‘amnesty,’ though for him, amnesty comes not as an introduction to the political process, but rather as a result. In Assad’s approach to amnesty, regional and international forces must first stop supporting the Syrian people who are struggling for freedom and “armed elements” must stop their “terrorist operations.” Only after this happens will Assad’s army halt its military operations, though it still “preserves the right to respond in case the homeland, citizens, and public and private facilities came under any attack.” Next, the “current government” would call for a comprehensive national dialogue conference to reach a national pact. The pact would then be put to referendum and an “expanded government” would be formed. Only then would amnesty be granted.
This is not amnesty—it is revenge. Moreover, the Syrians have had a bad experience with Assad’s amnesties. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Assad has granted four general amnesties. Very few opposition politicians, however, benefited from them. The first amnesty, in fact, was meant to release vast numbers of ordinary prisoners who helped in creating chaos in Syria. Moreover, the amnesties have been clear in emphasizing that they do not apply to "terrorists," the term used by the government to describe the rebel insurgency and opposition in general. Human rights activists have registered their “justified skepticism” about Assad’s amnesty as “nothing he has announced in the past has ever been implemented."
It is now the opposition’s turn to prove that it is different from the Assad regime. The opposition has a historic chance to lead a real change, not only in the coming government but in the cultural structure of the Syrian way of ruling.
Justice is the key introduction to such a change. It is imperative that the opposition guarantees respect for justice in all the steps it is taking now and will take in the future. This applies to areas already under the control of the opposition groups, as well those secured in the coming months.
The opposition needs to make itself clear when pledging that the alternative to the Assad regime cannot be a similar one but will take a different direction. Therefore, it is an obligation now for the opposition to adhere to promises of not targeting civilians and taking efforts to avoid injury to all non-combatants.
During any period of governmental formation, forming a committee with broad support across different communities in Syria is needed to encourage open expression and the airing of grievances.
In addition, the opposition needs to make efforts to guarantee that no attacks on former regime loyalists will be conducted, while pursuing prosecution for the most egregious violators. The need to serve just punishments to those found guilty with crimes should be coupled with moving forward in the progress of national healing and institution-building. To do this, the opposition can seek to learn from other nations experiencing similar transitions in order to learn and adopt best practices.
Transitional justice is a worthy goal that the new Syria must seek. It is a comprehensive mechanism to reveal the truth, hold the wrongdoers accountable, compensate the victims for their losses, and also release victims and wrongdoers alike from the effects of lingering malice. A desire for revenge can generate a never-ending cycle of violence, trapping both sides in a painful and corrosive environment, hurting all those close to it.
Of course transitional justice is not a magic solution, nor is it an easy goal to achieve. It needs patience, wisdom, resources, and expertise. More pain, grief, and suffering will yet come to pass. Still, transitional justice is the best solution. Other approaches can offer revenge, but will not bring stability and reconciliation to Syria. Opening the door to transitional justice not only brings Syria dignity and prosperity, but also points the way to membership in the club of democratic nations.