September 30, 2015 marked a transformational point in the evolution of the Syrian revolution that began in March 2011, as Russia intervened militarily in Syria to prop up the Assad regime.
On the eve of Russia’s intervention, the Syrian government was just “two or three weeks away from collapsing,” according to the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Since then, Russia’s political and military support has enabled Syrian government forces to recapture the previously opposition-held areas in the northern, central, and southern Syria and Damascus is now seeking to take control of the last Syrian opposition stronghold in the northwest province of Idlib.
As such, the international community has started to consider the idea of negotiating with Bashar al-Assad despite his human rights violations, among them war crimes and the use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians.
In this series, Syria Direct addresses several dimensions of the Russian military intervention in Syria, including the history of Russia’s political actions in the Syrian revolution, the pretext Moscow provided for the intervention, the tools it used to change the trajectory and outcome of the war, Russia’s conception of a political settlement to the conflict, and the Syrian opposition’s position on Russia.
AMMAN—Russia’s media and politicians have recently ramped up their coverage of the potential for a political settlement in Syria meant to guarantee the end of the war that has raged on for more than nine years.
Following its military intervention in Syria, Russia established the “Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria” to accelerate negotiations between the government and the opposition, as well as to sponsor several reconciliation agreements between the government and the opposition following intensive government military campaigns.
However, many of the reconciliation agreement’s terms have yet to be fulfilled or are actively being violated by Damascus. Services and infrastructure have still not been returned to the areas now under government control and little progress has been made in returning employees to their jobs and releasing detainees.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin insists that “the political solution is in progress.” Thus, as Russia represents an exceptional case in its unwavering support for the crimes of Bashar al-Assad against his people throughout the revolution, it seems to have a different understanding and vision of the political settlement in Syria.
The most likely result of such a settlement according to the Russian vision is, simply, the return to pre-2011 Syria where tyranny and corruption were the norm.
Continuing arrests in ‘reconciliation areas’
The Syrian government has instituted a requirement that all residents of areas that were under opposition militant group control must “settle their status” at security centers in order to be granted a “pardon.” The process was described by official media as “simple and safe,” even for those who took up arms against the government and its allied militias.
However, settling their status has not protected former opposition members from the government security services, who have prosecuted, kidnapped and assassinated “pardoned” opposition figures.
Government forces and security services are actively arresting opposition members in raids, as well as at security and military checkpoints spread throughout Syria.
According to statistics by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), between May 2018 and the beginning of September 2019, there have been 1096 arrests, including 30 women and eight children, in areas where there are reconciliation deals in place. These areas include Daraa, Quneitra, East Ghouta, northern Homs countryside and Hama countryside.
Omar al-Hariri, an employee of the local Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, which documents arrests, assassinations and other human rights violations in Daraa province, estimates there to be 1144 arrests in the province since August 2018.
In Daraa specifically, the arrests have targeted former members of the opposition armed groups, heads of former local councils, members of the opposition-Syrian Interim Government and volunteers with the Syrian Civil Defense (the White Helmets).
All of the detainees have officially settled their status and some have even joined the government forces, according to the director of the Detainees Department of SNHR, Nour al-Khateeb.
According to pro-government media, the arrests were carried out as a result of lawsuits filed by other citizens. Al-Khateeb, however, said that the “arrests and investigations” were “carried out by the security services and the 4th [Armoured Division] of the Syrian army, without the involvement of the police who are supposed to carry out these [arrests] and take the defendants to the [courts].”
As a result, the areas undergoing reconciliation have begun to resemble a “black box,” and documenting human rights violations has become more difficult, according to two human rights activists who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Returning refugees facing arrest
In July 2018, Russian Special Envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, urged Syrian refugees to return to their home, affirming that they “will not face any threats” from the Syrian government or security services.
Also, in February 2019, Bashar al-Assad called on Syrian refugees to return to their country, saying that Syria “is in need of all its people,” while accusing host countries of obstructing their return and adding that "setting up refugee camps began a year before the war to create human suffering and condemn the Syrian state."
In contrast, SNHR documented the arrest of at least 1,916 citizens returning to Syria between the beginning of 2014 to June 2019, including 219 children and 157 women.
Of those detaineed, 1,132 were released, 15 people died under torture, and 638 persons are considered forcibly disappeared persons, according to Nour al-Khateeb. "After being released, the Syrian regime detained them once more and forced dozens of them to join the military," she said.
Russia does not appear to be playing an "adequate" role in releasing detainees or even halting arrests, particularly in areas where it has sponsored reconciliation agreements with the Syrian opposition.
SNHR has not documented cases of releases via Russian negotiation or mediation in areas undergoing reconciliation with the exception of Daraa province, according to Hariri. The Office for the Documentation of Martyrs in Daraa estimates that 239 of the 1,144 people detained in the province since reconciliation last summer have been released.
Formidable role of the security services
The arrests of residents in reconciliation areas and those returning to Syria reveal the enduring role of government security services, whose actions led to the Syrian revolution in the first place. They were primarily responsible for the brutal suppression of popular protests, the forcible kidnapping of Syrians and the torture of detainees in their centers.
Over the past months, there have been reports of the dismissal of prominent officers in the security services, as well as of their replacement by Russia-affiliated officers.
General Ghassan Jaoudat Ismail was hired to head the Air Force Intelligence Unit as a replacement for general Jamil Hassan after his retirement. General Hussam Luqa replaced general Deeb Zeitoun as the head of general security.
Zeitoun was rumored to have replaced general Ali Mamlouk as head of the National Security Directorate while the latter became vice president, though there has been no official confirmation of this shift.
While some interpreted the changes among security service leaders as a Russian attempt to pave the way for a political solution and rebuild the structure of the security services, others saw the changes as a maneuver to avoid international prosecution, especially as most of the sacked officers are tied to war crimes.
Absence of Basic Services
Contrary to Russia's promises and its Foreign Minister's statement last month that “the war in Syria is over, [and] it is slowly returning to normal peaceful life,” most reconciliation areas, such as Eastern Ghouta, are still buried under rubble and lack basic services, particularly water and electricity.
Residents of southern Syria have also been forced to pay for the rehabilitation of services in their municipalities. To circumvent corrupt and inefficient government institutions, residents have created new types of local governing bodies and administrations.
Will the constitutional committee be able to achieve real reform?
In addition to its military role in Syria, Russia has been able to steer the international political process regarding Syria. It has been able to reduce the UN’s efforts to a mere modification of the Syrian constitution via a committee comprised of representatives of the Syrian government, opposition and civil society.
This has meant, according to Syrian opposition members, the abolition of UN Resolution 2254, which called for a ceasefire and a political settlement in Syria.
Resolution 2254, which was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council members in December 2015, stipulated the formation of a transitional government, UN-supervised elections, a political process to form a credible governing body and the drafting of a new Syrian constitution.
During a visit by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Asghar Khaji, Assad commented on the formation of the Constitutional Committee, stating that "Syrian-Iranian-Russian coordination led to the realization of the committee for discussing the constitution despite all obstacles and hurdles that other sides which support terrorism tried to impose, reaching the final formula for the committee’s work mechanism."
Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition-affiliated Syrian High Negotiations Committee, called the formation of the constitutional committee "a victory for the Syrian people and part of Resolution 2254."
While some opposition parties, as well as the government, see the creation of the committee as a victory, they continue to disagree over the committee's work. The Syrian government insists that the purpose of the committee is to only discuss the existing constitution of the 2012 constitution that gave Bashar al-Assad absolute power to control the legislative, executive and judicial powers.
In addition to that, Russia insists on what it calls Assad's right to run in the upcoming presidential elections, which will be held under the control of his security services and Iranian-backed militias. If the constitution is amended, Assad will, as before, claim his right to run for two new terms. This would extend his rule, which began in 2000, for an additional 14 years.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh, Will Christou, and Calvin Wilder.