European Union countries are currently taking part in the sixth Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria, during which they are addressing the Syrian conflict and its response to it, after more than a decade of conflict. Among the numerous topics on the agenda, they are discussing the humanitarian aid needs on the ground, but also the ongoing normalization that some countries have initiated with the Syrian regime. Most importantly, during these two days, the EU needs to address the new narrative promoted by the Syrian regime that the country is now entering a post-conflict phase. A comprehensive and clear response to this narrative will set the stage for the future policies of the EU toward Syria in relation to political normalization, refugees’ return, and the accountability and justice agenda.
In January 2022, the Assad regime took part in Syria’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a mechanism of the UN, created to examine the human rights record of all UN member states. This UPR of Syria was a critical opportunity for the Assad regime to consolidate its legitimacy within the international community in light of its recent victory in the 2021 elections, and the decrease of open hostilities—or at least the most visible ones—in the country. It may also help the regime present its own narrative of the situation on the ground, a drastic change from its second UPR cycle which took place during the military attack on Eastern Aleppo in 2016.
The UPR covered several issues: women and children’s rights, torture, enforced disappearance, and violations of international humanitarian law. However, there was one common thread reiterated several times during the review by the Syrian regime and by other states involved in the process: Syria was now entering a new phase, a post-conflict situation. For careful observers of Syria, the increasing insertion of the country as being in a post-conflict setting within a UN venue was not a surprise but rather the result of the regime’s efforts in the last few years.
The 2030 post-conflict strategy for Syria
As part of the UPR report, the state under review submits a national report; the Assad regime’s report contextualized the human rights situation in the country as being something intrinsically linked to terrorism, sanctions, and the occupation of Syrian territories by foreign powers. The narrative that the country was entering a post-conflict setting was supported with an annex—a 200-pages long document detailing the 2030 strategy for post-conflict Syria.
In that strategy, there was one section in particular which mentioned providing reparations to victims of the conflict; the Assad regime stated that it would provide assistance programs to rehabilitate victims of terrorism through different types of economic, social, and psychological support. This assistance would also be extended to affected families returning from asylum and displacement. The regime’s stated aim with these measures is to address displacement of the population and to solve any economic or social consequences caused by it.
The inclusion of these measures in the 2030 strategy for post-conflict Syria fits within a broader attempt by the Syrian regime to hijack transitional justice and human rights language for its own benefit; the concept of post-conflict situation is only the most recent example of that. For years, the Syrian regime has tried to present itself as already implementing measures that are in line with transitional justice mechanisms. For instance, it has advertised its rehabilitation services for soldiers injured by the conflict and compensation for families of soldiers killed or missing. Also, the regime has been working toward creating an oral history archive aimed at documenting the conflict, through an initiative conducted by the Watan Document Foundation, an organization led by Bashar al-Assad’s personal media advisor Bouthaina Shaaban. All these measures aim to consolidate the regime narrative that focuses only on the abuses that rebel groups and other opposition parties have committed, rather than implementing a real and genuine transitional justice process. There is no mention in this narrative that the perpetrator of the vast majority of the systematic and documented war crimes—indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances, among others—was the Assad regime itself.
This tactic is not new. Instead, it has been an increasingly attractive tool used by dictatorships and authoritarian regimes to push for their narrative through measures that, from the outside, may look genuine and progressive, when in fact, they are used to further regimes’ narratives. Another recent example of this strategy was the enactment of a new torture law in Syria in March 2022. Through this law, the Assad regime is, in theory, addressing the systematic torture perpetrated by security forces, by complying with the UN Convention against Torture. However, in reality, this law neither takes into account the context on the ground nor the measures encouraging impunity that are still in place within the domestic legal system. The law, as a result, is merely a tool to whitewash ongoing crimes and to further prolong impunity.
A post-conflict narrative as a normalization tool
The introduction of a post-conflict situation narrative is part of a decade-long propaganda by the Syrian regime and its main political backer, Russia. It aims at promoting the idea that the Syrian issue was a military conflict on its way of getting resolved, while turning the attention away from the ongoing authoritarian and repressive nature of the regime. As more members of the international community, including the UN, are following this narrative of a post-conflict situation, there is a heightened risk that the root cause of this decade-long violence and human rights violations will never be addressed.
The Assad regime has put on other great efforts to mend its image to the outside world. The Syrian leader’s trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last March, was his first official visit out of Syria since 2011. The UAE was not picked at random: It is a country that had been, for the last few months, steadily normalizing its relationship with Syria, by allowing businesspeople close to the regime to operate freely in the country, and by re-establishing political and diplomatic relationships which eventually led to Assad’s visit. Other countries paved the way before, such as Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, with the prospect of Syria’s return to the Arab League in the background.
European countries have also played a role in feeding into the Syrian regime’s version of events through their refugee policies. In the past year, some countries have decided to re-assess their policy by removing refugee protection, based on the decreasing military hostilities on the ground. This plays into the Assad regime’s narrative that the only problem Syria had since 2011 was a war, not the repression of an entire population.
A tool for de-prioritizing the Syria issue from the UN agenda
Another critical point of focus by the Assad regime is the UN and the international community’s scrutiny of its human rights situation. The argument used by the regime is that, since Syria is in a post-conflict situation, the country no longer needs the same amount of UN scrutiny—namely the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria—that the active conflict needed.
In this context, Assad’s allies at the Human Rights Council, particularly Russia and China, have opposed this commission, stating that its investigations on Syria were biased. Russia has also recently suggested that the commission may not be efficient in protecting human rights in Syria, implicitly suggesting that other processes and bodies, more easily influenced by the Assad regime, would be more equipped to do so. This would entail moving Syria from a country that requires the Human Rights Council’s special attention to a country that only necessitates the technical assistance and capacity-building of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, upon the state’s consent, just like Mali and South Sudan. If this were to happen, any international body aimed at investigating human rights violations would need the Syrian regime’s prior consent. It will also most likely face the same obstacles that have affected the work of UN agencies and others in Syria, including the need to coordinate with the regime and follow the restrictions imposed by it in their operations.
A victim-oriented parallel process
To counter the Syrian regime’s narrative, foreign policymakers should refrain from addressing Syria primarily through the lens of military hostilities and conflict, and this includes their policies on refugees. Indeed, while countries are against normalization with the Assad regime and have reiterated their opposition to the regime, addressing the refugees’ issue by focusing only on stability and safety, without addressing the root cause that led to this repression in the first place, is being complicit of this oppression. At the Brussels Conference, the EU should reiterate the findings of international human rights organizations that Syria is not safe as long as the Assad regime is in place, and to adopt a clear joint policy which considers the Assad regime as the main security criteria to assess the situation in Syria, rather than the mere existence of military hostilities.
Most importantly, any consolidation of this regime’s post-conflict narrative will dramatically affect Syrian victims, survivors, and their families in their struggle for justice, truth, reparations, and genuine guarantees of non-recurrence. Even though the regime’s victims have the highest at stake if Assad succeeds in enforcing his post-conflict narrative, they still have no direct access or role within efforts mediated by the UN.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria has recently announced his intention to address Syria through a step-by-step approach to break the impasse of the UN-led political process. This new process should ensure to incorporate victims, families, and survivors as equal parties. The Brussels Conference, which has already given important space to victims’ associations within side events and conversation about justice and truth, should advocate for the inclusion of victims as third-parties in any discussion on the future of Syria. Within this context, victims’ associations should be supported in creating a joint platform that would include victims from all parties, with the goal to create a genuine Syrian-led, victim-oriented strategy for the future of Syria. This way, Assad’s narrative can no longer take the Syrian people’s stories away from them.
Veronica Bellintani is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on victim and survivor-centric justice in Syria.