Arab states cannot whitewash Syria’s human rights record

Ignoring the Syrian government’s crimes will not help ‘end the crisis’ in the country.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad chats with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ahead of the Arab League summit
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad chats with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi before the Arab League summit, Jeddah, May 19, 2023 [File: SANA/Handout via Reuters]

“I fled the conflict in Syria to seek refuge in Lebanon… Now Lebanon deported me back to Syria where the same government I fled from continues to rule with an iron fist. I will either be arrested, conscripted, tortured, or starve to death. But it doesn’t matter [which one] because the result is the same – I am doomed,” Ashraf told me.

His despair echoes the sentiments of Syrian refugees across the world as they watch Arab states welcome back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League. Ashraf considers recent developments as the Arab world’s “grand betrayal” of the Syrian uprising.

Indeed, the rapprochement of Arab states with Syria is hypocritical, to say the least. After a decade of condemning the Syrian government’s crimes and violations against its own people, Arab leaders are welcoming it back, disregarding the criminal responsibility it still holds.

The speech of Jordan’s King Abdullah at the Arab League summit on May 19 is quite indicative of what Arab states seek to achieve. “The brotherly Syrian people paid a high cost [during the Syrian conflict] which had repercussions on us all. Today we welcome the return of Syria to the Arab League as an important step we hope will contribute to the efforts toward ending the crisis,” he said.

But no matter how much Arab leaders invest in rehabilitating the Syrian government’s image through invitations to global conferences and diplomatic overtures, they will not be able to erase 12 years of war crimes and crimes against humanity it committed.

It might seem naive to suggest that Arab states should be invested in the protection of human rights in Syria given that many have abysmal rights records at home. However, they do have a responsibility to ensure that the recent thaw in relations does not embolden the Syrian government to further trample on human rights.

Some Arab states, such as Jordan and Lebanon, have already started exploiting Syria’s return to the Arab fold to push for the return of refugees. Jordan is looking to garner regional support for its “voluntary return” scheme, while Lebanon has ramped up forced deportations.

Meanwhile, it does not seem that the Syrian government is interested in making serious political concessions or improving its rights record in order to “end the crisis”. Instead of taking steps to ensure refugees’ voluntary, safe and dignified return, Syrian authorities are using the refugee card to press Arab states for financial aid and support for reconstruction while continuing to inflict terror on returnees.

One refugee who had been sent back from Lebanon recently told me that he was arrested by the Syrian army and had to pay all his savings – about $1,500 – to be released. His friends who had also been deported with him are still being held by the Syrian army’s Fourth Division as they are unable to pay for their release.

I also heard about Lebanon’s recent arrest and deportation of four men, who had deserted from the Syrian army. Once on Syrian soil, they were transferred to the Palestine Branch, an intelligence division notorious for its use of torture and other ill-treatment towards detainees.

The detention and mistreatment of returnees are part of the Syrian government’s systematic violations, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, deaths in detention and extrajudicial executions following sham trials, which constitute crimes against humanity.

The scale of these atrocities, committed with full impunity, escalated after the onset of the uprising in 2011, but the Syrian authorities had been perpetrating them for several decades before that to stifle dissent. These crimes have not only devastated the Syrian population but have also produced multiple human rights crises, including the one with Syria’s more than 100,000 disappeared.

Since 2011, I have spoken to scores of women whose sons, husbands, brothers or other relatives have been forcibly disappeared for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, conducting humanitarian work or simply for being perceived as opposition sympathisers.

These women told me about the immense psychological toll that living in perpetual uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones has taken on them, as they have struggled with government denials and insufficient support from the international community. They – and Syrians in general – deserve better.

Arab countries have a responsibility towards the people of Syria they cannot continue to avoid. They need to publicly acknowledge the Syrian government’s terrible human rights record, end refoulement of Syrian refugees and call for accountability, an end to the use of torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearances. They should use their leverage over the Syrian government to ensure the safe voluntary return of refugees.

Further, the families of the missing and survivors are pushing the UN General Assembly to establish an independent body tasked with investigating the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared. They need the support of Arab states; it is crucial that, when the time comes, all Arab states vote in favour of creating this institution.

Anything short of that will be a message to the Syrian government – and to others in the region – that committing atrocity crimes on a mass scale carries no consequences on the world stage.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.