Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in the spring of 2011, humanitarian monitoring and documentation organizations have been active in cataloguing human rights violations and war crimes, regardless of who committed them.
As these organizations grew in prominence, they began to pose a threat to Syria’s warring factions. So various news outlets affiliated with parties to the conflict began media campaigns against these organizations, principally the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the “White Helmets.”
A recent episode of the Syrian television show “Contact” accused the White Helmets of fabricating accounts of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The episode provoked anger among Syrians and prompted its lead actress, Amal Arafa, to apologize to viewers.
The episode—aired on a pro-Assad station owned by Samer Foz, who is under U.S. and E.U. sanctions for financially supporting the Assad government—featured a comedy sketch in which the White Helmets floundered through a fake chemical weapons attack scene they were staging.
On June 10th, British journalist Vanessa Beeley accused the SNHR of promoting the “barrel bomb propaganda,” as well as “pushing the latest chemical weapons narrative.”
The SNHR has been documenting human rights violations during the recent government campaign in Idlib, including the targeting of medical centers in Hesh, a town in the province’s south, on June 15th.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, the director of the SNHR, spoke with Syria Direct correspondent Alaa Nassar, telling her that the SNHR has “recorded a wide range of violations over the past 8 years and has been able to build a very large database (…) since 2011.” These violations include killings that run contrary to international law, and massacres, which the SNHR defines as “5 or more people killed at once.”
But despite the presence of “thousands of pages” of investigative documents, the international community has not taken concrete steps to protect Syrian civilians from violence, inaction that Abdul Ghany largely attributes to Russia’s presence on the UN Security Council.
“The Security Council is actually an obstacle to investigating criminals in Syria,” he said, concluding that the sort of international intervention that occurred in Yugoslavia in 1999 “is the best option moving forward.”
“We invite similar allies, outside of the UN Security Council framework, to protect civilians in Syria. “
Nine years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the possibility of legal action with regards to the Syria issue seems remote, which makes Syrians feel that there’s a lack of justice in Syria. Do you have any comment on this?
Unfortunately, little action has been taken towards Syria until now, not just within [international] courts but on several different levels. For example, the UN Security Council has the ability to stop military operations that kill civilians [in Syria]. And Russia has played a large role in vetoing those security council resolutions.
We won’t deny that we have a problem with the regime and its sectarian, sadistic and violent tendencies, in addition to Iran’s sectarian presenceand its investment in the Syrian regime in order to reach the Mediterranean Sea, among other things. However, our number one problem is with Russia’s presence in Syria. Russia has played a huge role in protecting the regime. If Russia had not entered the conflict when it did, then the Syrian issue would have been referred to the International Criminal Court and perhaps civilians would have been protected. In the end, Russia’s presence prevented this.
Given the lack of accountability [in Syria], after committing so many crimes over the years, there is a lack of hope among Syrians that justice and accountability will ever be applied in Syria. In addition, many of those Syrians joined extremist groups as a result of the regime’s violence, as well as its sectarian approach and lack of accountability.
To be honest, achieving justice [in Syria] is not impossible, but getting to that point is difficult. We are currently advocating for justice and will continue to do so. I want to also make an important point: war crimes and crimes against humanity have no statue of limitations—they won’t be forgotten.
The law is on our side and the documentation is in our favor. However, political powers are against us, especially with regards to Russia. We just don’t know how to break this cycle and achieve justice.
We don’t want to give people false illusions, but today there are trials [of Syrian officials] ongoing in European courts. This is a good step, but it is not enough. There are no more than 50 individuals who are [currently] being tried examined in [European] courts.
There are still thousands of people who have committed crimes in Syria who still have not been brought to justice. We aspire to try them and stop those crimes from ever happening again.
From your present position, as well as given your international network, do you think that your work will bear fruit and you will see international legal action against Syria?
The purpose of my visits [to Europe] was to request an intervention from politicians in order to quickly protect civilians. Given that trials take a long time, we would rely on the documentation that we brought with us on those trips to push many of the [attending] parties to listen attentively to us.
Our speeches were made stronger by those documents.
Still, despite all of the documentation, I don’t think any sort of international legal action is near. We were always requesting legal action [to be taken] outside of the UN Security Council, so [now] the responsibility for action lies outside the Security Council.
After the UN Security Council failed to protect civilians in Syria for the last eight years, we asked ourselves if we wanted to continue trying to get the Security Council to protect civilians or if it was better to approach international allies outside the security Council to better help protect civilians.
This method [asking for humanitarian assistance from international actors outside the UN Security Council] is what needs to happen and is the best option moving forward. I’ll refer to the example of the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999. We invite similar allies, outside of the UN Security Council framework, to protect civilians in Syria.
A few days ago, you posted on the Syrian Network for Human Rights’ official account, saying that pro-Russia journalists are attacking the Syrian Network for Human Rights, accusing you of promoting “the “Barrel Bomb Propaganda.” Do you have the evidence to support your claim that you are facing barrel bombs, and would you be able to present it to the International Criminal Court?
As for barrel bombs, their use should be a clear condemnation of the regime. The Syrian regime is the only one [in the world] who owns these bombs, which they then drop from their warplanes. Further, there is no one else who makes barrel bombs except the regime.
The reporting on the crimes of the regime are not coming out of thin air; we have one thousand pages [of evidence] that document those incidents in which barrel bombs are used. We’re ready to present this [evidence] to the International Criminal Court, and to condemn the Syrian regime at the highest level for their use of indiscriminate weapons.
Legal action is being taken in German courts against several individuals who are accused of cooperating with the Syrian regime. Do you think that these legal actions will lead to a greater international movement to apply justice and accountability to Syria?
The movement towards bringing the criminals to justice did not start in Germany. It was preceded by [legal action in] France, Sweden, as well as in other countries, such as Austria. These legal procedures are under international judicial jurisdiction. They’re good procedures, and we support and contribute to them.
However, these [legal] actions are limited in scope and not enough. The nature of international jurisdiction means that those sentenced are accountable only within the state that sentences them. The German general prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Ali Mamlook and Abd al-Salaam Mohammed; however, neither of them are in Germany. So, the subsequent arrest warrant from INTERPOL was an important step, but it still was not enough.
Syria needs to create a private court, but first it has to have the blessing of the UN Security Council. This is why I always say that that the security council is actually an obstacle to investigating criminals in Syria. It has not played a true role in achieving stability, security, peace or human rights.
In your opinion, have politics influenced the decision of other states—including those friendly with Syria—regarding achieving justice there?
There is no doubt that politics influence the decisions of other countries, especially in preventing them from acting [to protect human rights]. For this reason, thousands of [human rights] violations were committed and a large number of people were killed in Syria, in addition to half of the Syrian people being dispossessed of their homes.
If concrete steps had been taken towards providing legal [and human rights] support [to Syrian civilians] then all the massacres and the destruction of the country for the sake of the interests of the regime would not have happened. Thus, we can see how politics influences the legal situation.
This was made clear during the Geneva convention, when the [U.N. Syria Envoy] De Mistura told [attendees] not to discuss or raise the issue of accountability [in Syria]. They were trying to delay or take the issue of accountability [of the regime] off the table entirely in exchange for the regime’s departure.
They didn’t mention any of Russia’s crimes during negotiations, nor did they bring up Russia’s support of the Syrian regime. Iran’s crimes were not even mentioned by the envoy [De Mistura] or the investigative committee.
Syria’s friends were also involved in this political process and affected [the international political debate] in the same way. They did not take any positive steps regarding human rights or accountability, with the exception of a few who insisted on accountability.