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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

We are witnessing the birth pains of a new and vile authoritarianism in Syria

The Syrian regime isn’t remotely interested in accountability or reconciliation. It looks for only domination and subjugation, without responsibility, writes HA Hellyer

The four-day Bloudan Tourist Festival began near Damascus on Thursday with the slogan 'loyalty to the leader of the homeland and the Syrian Arab Army'. Youssef Badawi / EPA
The four-day Bloudan Tourist Festival began near Damascus on Thursday with the slogan 'loyalty to the leader of the homeland and the Syrian Arab Army'. Youssef Badawi / EPA

It’s now 2018. More than seven years on from the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the counter-revolutionary forces within the Arab world and their backers outside it are all but crowing about victory. Nowhere is this clearer, nor more despicable, than in Syria itself, which has suffered the most devastating losses over the last seven years.

More than half a million people are dead, due to the Syrian regime, the region’s poorly calculated moves and global powers’ unwillingness to draw a line in the sand and declare that humanity cannot allow yet another preventable catastrophe. And the Syrian regime has learned a great lesson – one that autocrats and dictators will take heed from.

The reality on the ground: destroyed buildings in the opposition-held southern city of Daraa. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP
The reality on the ground: destroyed buildings in the opposition-held southern city of Daraa. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP

There is a type of opponent of the Syrian revolutionary uprising that clothes itself in the language of humanitarianism. It’s a very deceptive and deceitful approach. The argument deployed is quite simple: let us pursue "peace" at any cost, even if it means surrender to the Syrian regime, because surely that is better than the carnage that exists right now.

I say it is deceptive and deceitful because it isn’t actually humanitarian at all. Now that the international community has all but admitted that it is unwilling to hold the line when it comes to the Syrian regime and its allies, Damascus is emboldened in ways it never has been before.

Domestic officials' records in Syria are being updated and so many Syrians who have been worrying about missing loved ones are finally getting a bit of closure. But it is a bittersweet type of transparency – because the regime is declaring that many of those who were missing have actually been killed.

The Khoulani brothers - Mohammad, left, Majd, centre, and Abdelsattar, right, from Daraya, near Damascus, Syria, all died in prison in the conflict. Khoulani family via AP
The Khoulani brothers - Mohammad, left, Majd, centre, and Abdelsattar, right, from Daraya, near Damascus, Syria, all died in prison in the conflict. Khoulani family via AP

As one Syria expert, Dr Thomas Pierret, put it, there has been "bulk delivery of death notifications to families of Syrian prisoners" by the Assad regime. In other words, the Syrian regime is admitting, owning up to, and almost boasting about, how it killed scores of detained Syrians who opposed the regime.

Such a move doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Syrian opposition sources have also reported many new arrests of activists who chose to remain in formerly rebel-held areas like Eastern Ghouta rather than become refugees. The message is clear. The Syrian regime isn’t remotely interested in accountability, nor is it intrigued by the notion of reconciliation. It looks for only domination and subjugation, without responsibility.

It’s an important note at this time. Because for so long, apologists for the Syrian regime have been constantly pushing the idea that if the rebels would just give up, then the killing would come to an end. The oft-referred to "reconciliation" or "de-escalation" measures are very much a part of this framing.

But the reality is very different. It isn’t that the killing would come to an end – it is simply that destruction and wanton brutality would be left unopposed. This isn’t simply surrender. It’s the birth pains of a new and vile authoritarianism in Syria.

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We should make no mistake: Damascus is now building a new regime entirely. As an academic and analyst, I travel to various authoritarian countries on a regular basis. But Syria is looking more and more like it will be on a different level – where no accountability is called for domestically, because those who oppose the regime are either dead or in captivity, and where externally, the international community either outright supports the regime, such as Russia and Iran, or it coddles it by hiding behind the idea that it is "too complex" to do anything else.

The northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, the last of four "de-escalation" zones where the rebels still have a major presence. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
The northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, the last of four "de-escalation" zones where the rebels still have a major presence. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

And the birth of a new Syria is born. It’s a Syria where religious scholars will give talks and speeches about the glories of the Syrian regime and extol the virtues of its leader, joining the ranks of sycophants across the region who try to legitimise dictatorship and autocracy through a deformed reading of texts of ethics and perennial wisdom. A Syria where families mourn the deaths of their loved ones but must do so in private, for fear of being targeted further by an unrepentant, unforgiving and unimaginably inhumane regime.

It’s a Syria where, very soon, its representatives will strut confidently, like peacocks, in international arenas, triumphantly secure in the knowledge that the world’s leaders simply do not care enough about the abuses that they know have taken place and do take place.

The apologists for the regime will claim that this is the best outcome, bringing an end to the years of war that Syria has undergone. But history will undoubtedly tell a different story. It will tell of an uprising betrayed and a regime that took advantage of the threat of repugnant terrorist cults in order to carry out the vast majority of abuses seen in a war that lasted almost a decade.

Destruction in the opposition-held southern city of Daraa. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP 
Destruction in the opposition-held southern city of Daraa. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP 

But perhaps most poignantly of all – it will tell of a world that was not willing to do what was necessary in order to stop the carnage. And that the regime knew that and leveraged it – all against a massive price paid by ordinary Syrians.

History has a very long curve to it. But Syria’s conflict is likely to be a historically significant example of what happens when good people do nothing.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute