The international community cannot save Syrians who have already died – but it can perhaps salvage some sort of protection for those who remain inside
Damascus' leaked wanted list shows the regime does not much care whether it kills Syrians quickly or slowly
What would a future with Bashar Al Assad back in charge of Syria look like? That question, always ruminated upon by Syria-watchers, took on a renewed lease of life this month as the seventh anniversary of the Syrian revolution passed. To mark the occasion, a Syrian opposition website released a leaked database of 1.5 million people wanted by the Syrian regime.
The database, which the site had made searchable, was allegedly based on a leak of intelligence material from the regime. Included were people with outstanding arrest warrants and interrogation orders, the sorts of warrants that, in the midst of a bloody civil war, could lead to detention, torture and even death.
The database was unverifiable and many media outlets refused to publicise it because it could expose Syrians outside the country to danger. The concern was that authorities in, for example, Turkey, Germany or elsewhere could use the information to block the asylum claims of Syrians who might have done nothing wrong. In the brutal war now taking place, it could easily have been an operation to discredit hundreds of thousands of civilians who had left Syria.
But the leak sparked a discussion about Syria's future, fuelled by an article, penned at the same time by the American author Max Boot, suggesting that allowing Mr Al Assad to win swiftly would spare the lives of many Syrians.
It is a perennial talking point. Whether Mr Al Assad winning would spare the lives of Syrians has been debated among journalists, analysts and ordinary Syrians at least since the erasing of Barack Obama’s red line in 2013.
Two years ago, on the occasion of the sixth year of conflict, I wrote in these pages that the world was sleepwalking towards an Assad victory. If it was true two years ago, before the entry of Russia into the battlefield decisively turned the tide, before the demise of ISIL and before the election of Donald Trump to the White House, it is definitively true now. An Assad victory is not a distinct possibility. Now it is only a matter of time.
The question, then, of what a Syria again ruled by Mr Al Assad would be like is not hypothetical. And the best answer to the question is provided by the leak. If it is as it purports to be – and the hunting of 1.5m citizens would not be unusual for a police state on the scale of Mr Al Assad's Syria – then it is obvious that a Syria with him completely in charge would be a recipe for even more repression and brutality. To that extent, the leak is a blueprint of the future.
Because the 1.5m on the list is the mere tip of the iceberg. The number must immediately be multiplied by two or three because the regime has no compunction in extinguishing the lives of brothers, fathers and cousins to get to those targeted. Millions would be subject to arrest and interrogation, merely because of proximity to those the regime considers suspicious. Millions more would be under surveillance. Indeed, the mere flight from Syria would be grounds for suspicion. Regime supporters would frequently ask those in exile why they left. “After all, if you did nothing wrong,” would run the accusation, as if the fear of sudden death from the skies were not justification enough. A Syria with the regime back in charge would be a republic of paranoia.
And that is, of course, if the exiles ever come home. For it is important to recognise that the Assad regime does not much care about the millions of Syrians abroad. Indeed, from its perspective, millions of Syrians languishing in the towns and cities of Lebanon, Turkey and Europe is preferable to millions of resentful, starving, desperate Syrians agitating in flattened towns and cities across Syria. The former option weakens neighbouring states and gives Damascus leverage in negotiations.
Repression inside and refugees outside: that would be the new Syria. The mere fact that this is what will almost inevitably follow a complete Assad victory is also the strongest argument as to why simply capitulating to the supposedly inevitable is a bad idea.
In the first place, it is not clear what this “realist” position would achieve. The barrel bombing, the starving of rebel enclaves, the fighter jets toppling buildings, the lonely torture of thousands – all of this would continue regardless.
Capitulation, then, would mean not merely allowing these things to go on – the world is, in any case, watching as they happen right now – but endorsing them through inaction.
The regime does not much care whether it kills Syrians quickly or slowly. Those who do not kneel immediately would be hunted down eventually. But for a watching world to accept that the war is over would mean losing the last scrap of leverage, feeble as it is, that the international community has.
It means that the details of any future relationship with Damascus are immediately brushed aside. The Geneva negotiations, the possibility of reconstruction contracts, the looming power of sanctions, investigations into war crimes – all of these tools of leverage, which could be used to pressure the regime to at least ease the repression on those civilians who remain, would vanish.
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Without a significant change in policy, the war in Syria will only end one way. That is a failure of the international community. But compounding that failure by simply walking away would merely allow the Assad killing machine to wage maximum war.
One realist position says that capitulating would save the lives of many Syrians. A more realistic position would be to recognise the reality of the regime and understand that a list of more than one million wanted Syrians is a true blueprint for the future. The international community cannot save the Syrians who have already died. But by remaining involved it can perhaps salvage some sort of protection for those who remain inside.