Coronavirus quarantine centers for Syria, like the detention centers where citizens are persecuted and left to die, remind us of the staying power of a brutal dictator so desperate to hold onto power that he would kill his own people. The revelation of more than 200 United Nations workers infected with the coronavirus in Syria has shattered the myth of a pandemic under control in a country with a decimated health infrastructure. The outbreak in Syria, unacknowledged by Bashar Assad, is the latest scourge afflicting its citizens, and is misused by the regime to consolidate power.
If the dead could speak, they could tell the story of brutality in a regime responsible for violence, many disappearances, and the largest refugee crisis in history. As many as 128,000 Syrians, mostly activists or human rights defenders, are missing in a maze of prisons and secret detention centers. While cruelty is not new, when Syrians revolted in 2011, no one could have predicted the greatest calamity would ensue. The reality of what can assist the country must involve measures that document this tragedy and lay the ground for future justice and accountability.
Prospects of the peaceful transition to democracy are more unlikely than ever. Years of war, fueled by foreign powers jockeying for influence, have left Syria badly fractured. The country is effectively split into a separatist project in the northeast, controlled by the Kurdistan Workers Party, and a set of disparate arrangements sponsored by Turkey across the northwest, ranging from direct control to shaky alliances with extremist groups, plus areas held by the regime that are infiltrated by Iran and Russia.
Syria has unfortunately become a wild west of vile forces that compete in influence and power. The most sophisticated of such forces is Iran, which maintains a broad distribution of fighters across the territory and a heavy presence for Damascus. The regime has used the pandemic by besieging civilian areas outside its control, bombing medical facilities and blocking humanitarian aid. The original democracy movement in 2011 as a result is little more than a distant memory with its core now destroyed.
The opposition is weak, but so is the regime. A collapsing economy, with devalued currency, rampant inflation, and 80 percent of Syrians living in poverty, could take more of a hit while the regime seizes private assets to fund the state after more Caesar Act sanctions. This was illustrated by the dispute by the regime over money with Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and an inner circle member. Protests are springing up across the country, even among citizens in loyalist communities, directing blame toward the regime as a sign that Syrians simply cannot take it anymore.
What is left is the dispersed activist movement in Syria, border countries, and Europe trying to seize any chance to create positive change in Syria. They stay invested in bolstering local communities, mending the broken social fabric, and confronting crimes of the regime, its allies, and several extremist groups. An illustration is the trial of two former regime officials in Germany over crimes against humanity, started by Syrian activists and lawyers, themselves regime victims living outside the country today, but tirelessly searching for ways to bring perpetrators to justice.
The 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly that starts this week can be an opportunity for the world to reaffirm the commitment to genuine peace and stability in Syria. Instead of inaction, the international community can bolster the resilience of the remnant opposition activists in view of a time when the regime weakens because they have the role to play in the configuration of a future Syria. This can start by helping them forge a cohesive identity and ensure representation in the constitutional process. But only by confronting the past and releasing the thousands of dead Syrians from silence can rights be vindicated and trust restored for institutions that consistently fail the citizens of this country.
Prosecutions in courts outside Syria have become the transitional justice mechanism of choice for the pursuit of accountability, due to conflict or weak local institutions. However, the documentation of violations shows the centrality of local actors in the future transitional justice process. To have the issue of justice stay alive, such documentation can prevent the erasure, not just of evidence, but of memory. An immediate goal should be for the international community to ensure that Syrians remain on this path that offers them a reason to hope for a better future.