The legacy of chemical attacks and other atrocities won’t give Syria peace

Despite the normalisation efforts by Arab states, Syria will not be stabilised until there is justice and accountability.

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY People carry the body of a civilian on a stretcher after what activists say were a gas attack in the Ghouta area, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syria's opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of gassing many hundreds of people - by one report as many as 1,300 - on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world's worst chemical weapons attack in decades. Western and regional countries called for U.N. chemical weapons investigators - who arrived in Damascus just three days ago - to be urgently dispatched to the scene of one of the deadliest incidents of the two-year-old civil war. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) TEMPLATE OUT
People carry the body of a civilian on a stretcher after chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta area, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on August 21, 2013 [File: Reuters/Mohamed Abdullah]

The chemical attack by Syrian government forces on Eastern Ghouta ten years ago garnered international attention and raised the very real possibility of a military intervention by the United States. A year earlier, US President Barack Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a “red line”.

In the aftermath of the gruesome attack in which more than a thousand people are believed to have perished, Russian and American diplomats hurriedly negotiated an agreement for Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention that would involve the destruction of its stockpiles under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The US president stated at that time that the “opportunity to achieve our objectives through diplomacy” was preferable to military intervention but that the US remained “prepared to act” should Syria not comply.

Yet, Bashar al-Assad’s regime continued to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people frequently , facing no significant repercussions. By 2019, there had been 336 attacks, 98 percent of them committed by the authorities in Damascus and the rest by ISIL (ISIS), according to a report by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute.

There was no longer any rationale for foreign intervention to prevent chemical weapons attacks once the Russian-US agreement on Syria’s nuclear weapons was reached as all parties could point to the OPCW monitoring as a sufficient prevention mechanism. Although the US launched airstrikes against Syrian military facilities in 2017 and 2018 in retaliation for chemical weapons use, they did not curb Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.

No one from the Syrian regime has been held accountable for the Eastern Ghouta attack or any of the other ones, despite the use of such arms constituting a war crime under international law. This reflects the absence of any sort of justice or accountability mechanisms that could move the country towards lasting peace and help avert the relapse into a major war.

One of the main reasons for this sad state of affairs is the failure of the peace process which could have ushered in a transitional justice process – as has happened in other countries that have been ravaged by civil wars.

The US and other Western powers, which initially backed the Syrian opposition’s rebellion against al-Assad, quickly lost interest in pursuing any sort of diplomatic solution to the conflict through the United Nations-led Geneva Process. The UN initiative was wholly supplanted by the “Astana Process”, which was convened by Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, along with Turkey, to manage the Syrian conflict. This forum largely provided a buffer against international intervention into “peace” efforts and shielded the regime from any externally imposed peace process.

The Russian intervention in September 2015 decisively shifted the situation on the ground in the regime’s favour. Successive large-scale offensives against opposition groups and four “de-escalation” deals guaranteed by Turkey, Russia and Iran, allowed Damascus to recapture a significant part of territories it had lost. Although the intensity of fighting has diminished, conflict has lingered on in the northwest and northeast of the country, with al-Assad’s regime continuously targeting the civilian population and infrastructure.

Despite this violent reality, Damascus has declared that the war is over and that refugees can begin to return home.

In an abrupt policy shift reflecting the regime’s continued hold on power and the desire to repatriate Syrians and resume trade ties, Arab states readmitted Syria into the Arab League. The normalisation of relations has paved the way for much-needed reconstruction funds to support recovery.

But the transition that al-Assad’s regime has undertaken would not bring peace or stability to the country, nor would it create the social and economic conditions for large-scale refugee return.

The victor’s peace that is emerging in Syria is restricting any recourse victims and survivors have for emotional restoration or financial restitution.

The sidelining of the UN has meant that liberal approaches to post-conflict transition, such as transitional justice, are wholly absent in Syria.

Syrians are instead forced to look to European courts for their prosecution of individuals for their role in perpetrating torture and violence. These singular cases certainly do bring some closure for many, but they lack a national structure that could serve as a platform for all the conflict’s victims to seek forms of restitution. Moreover, they are not prosecuted under Syrian law by Syrian lawyers and judges, further diminishing the potential emotive and legal effects they could have for Syrians.

State-led narratives about the conflict have created a specific victim-perpetrator binary that absolves state officials and their allies of responsibility for any atrocities. They have also emphasised regime stability at the expense of national-level dialogue and reconciliation.

These narratives have been used to justify the passage of several laws aimed at appropriating the property and assets of those deemed disloyal. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians today are at risk of losing their rights to own property in the country, let alone live there. Furthermore, Syrians who do want to go back to their country face a “settlement” process that requires them to gain security approval before returning.

The absorption of the war’s logic into the Syrian legal system, aiming to punish the displaced and others who were deemed as disloyal during the conflict, will preclude the voluntary mass return of refugees to Syria.

How the Syrian conflict has panned out will have serious consequences regionally, if not internationally. It signals that the “doing nothing” approach to accountability and justice is the most politically expedient path to a post-conflict order in which regimes are normalised and reabsorbed into regional politics. This does not bode well for how future conflicts are fought or resolved.

The chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta raised the very real need, if not the possibility, of accountability for mass violence. Ten years on we are further away from such accountability than we have ever, as survivors are not afforded any mechanism for seeking justice.

As we know from countless other conflicts, including from neighbouring Lebanon’s, the failure to pursue any serious accountability for mass violence and the state-led construction of memory around conflict can create the conditions for the perpetuation of hatred among co-nationals that can serve as the breeding ground for future conflict.

The regime’s “victory” today comes at the expense of future generations of Syrians who will have to endure (and potentially relive) the traumatic effects of conflict and the failure to hold the perpetrators of mass violence accountable.

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