None of the Syrian opposition’s efforts over the last 11 years have achieved a breakthrough regarding one of the most pressing issues in the Syrian conflict – those jailed, missing, or forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime.
Syrian opposition delegations have raised the prisoner issue in all discussions and talks they have attended – such as in Geneva at UN-led negotiations and the Astana talks governed by the ‘guarantor trio’ of Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
However, although the latter made clear that one of its priorities would be to deal with the issue of detainees, all that has been achieved are limited and sporadic prisoner exchanges between the regime and various opposition factions.
Since the first days of the Syrian revolution, in March 2011, the regime pursued a policy of brutality against protestors. Scores were killed in Syria’s streets and squares, and the regime’s various security services arrested thousands.
During the ensuing decade, the regime imprisoned tens of thousands of Syrians, including women, children, and the elderly. Nobody was exempt from arrests and forced disappearances.
“Since the first days of the Syrian revolution, the regime pursued a policy of brutality against protestors. Scores were killed in Syria’s streets and squares, and thousands were arrested.”
A few days before the 11th anniversary marking the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Syrian activists and human rights defenders remembered the doctor, Rania al-Abbasi, who was arrested by the regime along with her six children (five daughters and one son) two days after their father was arrested in March 2013.
The fate of the family remains unknown to this day. The oldest of the children was 14 then, and the youngest was a baby, still breastfeeding.
Their case is just one of countless others concerning Syrians arrested by the regime’s security and intelligence branches. It is believed that many of the victims of these arrests later died from torture at the hands of the security services as the regime strove to put an end to the Syrian revolution.
At the start of 2014, 55,000 photos documenting the murder of 11,000 prisoners in regime prisons were leaked. Their corpses showed signs of torture by various means: electricity, excessive beating, broken bones, and strangulation, as well as different diseases, among them scabies and gangrene.
Among the dead were boys aged between 12 and 14, women, and elderly men.
A failure to act by the international community
It was anticipated that these shocking photographs would spur the international community to act, or at least put pressure on the Syrian regime over the tens of thousands of detainees in its jails.
However, it has instead been content with ‘media condemnation’, which has allowed the regime to plough ahead with its vicious campaign against the Syrian people.
Rights networks and organizations haven’t been able to obtain precise numbers of those arrested, forcibly disappeared or killed under torture.
As the numbers have mounted over a period of 11 years, it has been difficult to document every case, especially when many families refuse to verify the names of their detained relatives in order to avoid possible retribution by regime agencies against them or prisoners inside the jails.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) announced that the number of forcible disappearances between March 2011 and August 2021 at “the hands of parties to the conflict and the forces in control of Syria” reached 102,287.
The SNHR put the number of arbitrary detentions between March 2011 and March 2020 at 151,462. The network stated that the number of those tortured to death between March 2011 and March 2020 reached 14,664, among them 181 children and 93 women.
“The fate of 85 percent of detainees and the disappeared remains unknown”
The most painful issue
Chairman of the network, Fadel Abdul Ghany, told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication, that the topic of prisoners and those missing in Syria is one of the most painful issues for Syrians, describing it as a catastrophe which had befallen the people.
He added that the fate of 85 percent of detainees and the disappeared remains unknown, with their families having lived in a state of anxiety and fear for many years.
Abdel Ghany explained that the number of prisoners is “very high in terms of Syria’s population”, adding that Syria was the worst in the world in this respect and that, unfortunately, there had been no progress made on the issue at all.
The regime has still not faced any accountability for its crimes against millions of Syrians, with little pressure being put on Assad or his allies to release those detained.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross needs to be allowed, as a neutral party, to enter into the detention centres,” he said.
It is a duty of the international community to put pressure on the Syrian regime in a way that will draw a line under this catastrophe and crime against humanity, he added.
In mid-2016, Amnesty International released a report which documented the murder of 17,723 detainees during their detention in Syrian regime prisons between March 2011 and December 2015 – amounting to an average of 300 prisoners dying every month.
At the start of 2017, the organization reported that the regime had carried out mass executions by hanging – this had happened to 13,000 prisoners between 2011 and 2015, most of whom were civilian dissidents.
Ahmad Korabi, a researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Centre, explained that “the rights issue worries the regime more than any other issue, and one of the aspects of this is that of the prisoners and the forcibly disappeared”.
Korabi says that the regime “has dealt with the issue in two ways: the first is to enter into deals which make the Syrian opposition appear as though it is similar to the regime in this issue”.
He explained that all of the discussions on prisoner exchanges between the regime and opposition groups are conducted in a way to make the violations appear even. Furthermore, the regime is always eager for the number it releases to be equal to that released by the factions to give the impression that they are not imprisoning larger numbers.
The second method, says Korabi, is the regime’s total denial of the existence of prisoners in its jails. In fact, he says, it has gone even further than this by framing detentions as part of a campaign of “combatting terrorism”. He pointed out that the regime has tied everything that has threatened it to the issue of terrorism since the beginning of the revolution.
“Rights groups put the number of arbitrary detentions between March 2011 and March 2020 at 151,462, with over 14,000 tortured to death in regime jails”
“The regime refuses to take any steps to deal with the issue of the prisoners, the detained and the missing because it fears accountability and international legal action […]. The regime has practiced widescale violations of human rights and has committed war crimes in two key issues, which are prisoners and the forcibly disappeared, and the random bombing of civilians with all kinds of weapons”.
Korabi believes that “a large number of prisoners were killed under torture, or by large scale executions, and the leaked photographs confirm this”. In his opinion, the regime realizes that taking genuine steps to engage with this issue will torpedo its legitimacy.
However, the issue of those jailed or forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime continues to be one of the most impactful elements of the conflict.
It is essential, therefore, that the Syrian opposition raises it on every possible occasion in order to prevent the regime from resecuring any position of legitimacy in the eyes of the region and international community.
The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.