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Op-Ed: Releasing detained civilians should be a US Syria policy priority

“We want the detainees” is the most chanted and long-standing slogan in recent Syrian history, and should be a central focus of US policy towards Syria, writes Mansour Omari.

29 March 2023

For years, the United States has been accused of not developing a comprehensive strategy or policy towards Syria. Some have even described this US approach as a strategy of no strategy.

After the devastating Turkey-Syria earthquake in February 2023, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a document on US policy in Syria noting that the Biden administration “has identified four policy priorities to meet the US objective for a political settlement to the conflict as envisioned in UNSC Resolution 2254.”

These priorities are: “(1) sustaining the US and coalition campaign against the Islamic State; (2) supporting local ceasefires; (3) expanding humanitarian access; and (4) pressing for accountability and respect for international law while promoting human rights and nonproliferation, including through the imposition of targeted sanctions.”

On March 27, media sites reported that a group of experts and former US officials had signed an open letter to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken with a proposed policy towards Syria.

The group of nearly 40 Syria experts and former US envoys to Syria, as well as former State Department, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials called on the US government to adopt a comprehensive policy towards Syria, and suggested a new framework to end Syria’s crisis, according to Al-Monitor and Politico.

The policy letter included a number of important elements and specific policy suggestions, including that the US should work to return and repatriate IS prisoners and associated women and children detained in northeast Syria. The signatories also called on the international community to pass a resolution “mandating the long overdue international mechanism to clarify the fate of the more than 100,000 missing and disappeared Syrians.”

However, the open letter did not include a defining feature of the conflict in Syria that is among the most urgent and pressing issues for millions of Syrians: Releasing arbitrarily detained civilians, including children and women.

It is widely known and well-documented that the Assad regime’s practice of arbitrary detention of civilians was a major cause and driver of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and the later conflict. The call to release detainees became a demand that has been present in almost every demonstration and public gathering since then, including the biggest demonstrations. 

I contend that “we want the detainees” has become the most chanted and long-standing slogan and demand in recent Syrian history.

Any US policy or policy recommendation on Syria will be critically flawed if it fails to hear this slogan and demand which has been, and continues to be, made by millions of Syrians. The impact of this Assad-made disaster on tens of thousands of victims, hundreds of thousands of their families, the Syrian community as a whole and the path to peace, justice and an end to the human suffering and conflict in Syria, cannot be overlooked. Instead, it should be understood as an indispensable policy element.

The demand to release arbitrarily detained persons, including women and children, is backed by  not only one unanimously adopted resolution by the United Nations Security Council, but several, including:

  1. UNSC Resolution 2254 (2015) called on parties to the conflict to “release any arbitrarily detained persons, particularly women and children,” and called on ISSG states including the US to “use their influence immediately to these ends.” 
  2. UNSC Resolution 2139 (2014) demanded “the release of all arbitrarily detained persons starting with women and children, as well as sick, wounded and elderly people and including United Nations personnel and journalists.”
  3. UNSC Resolution 2191 (2014) also demanded “the release of all arbitrarily detained persons starting with women and children, as well as sick, wounded and elderly people including United Nations and humanitarian personnel and journalists.”

In her remarks at the UN less than a year ago, the US Representative to the UN, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said: “We have known for years that the only solution to the conflict in Syria is an inclusive political one, as the Security Council agreed in Resolution 2254. A durable peace and reconciliation in Syria is not possible with over a hundred thousand Syrians trapped in prisons….It is time to release those arbitrarily detained.”

The US has a responsibility to implement the resolutions it backed and agreed on, and its self-made commitments towards arbitrarily detained Syrian civilians should be part of its Syria policy. Accelerating the implementation and integration of the 2022 US Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent and Respond to Atrocities in regard to Syria would be a vital step in this direction.


This article is also available in Arabic.

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