Finding Syria’s Disappeared Requires More Than a New Institution

Faisal Al Yafai

Image courtesy of Louai Beshara / AFP

Since the Syrian uprising erupted more than a decade ago, tens of thousands of Syrians have simply vanished. Protestors arrested at checkpoints, men and women taken from their homes, regime opponents bundled into cars in the middle of the day. Perhaps 100,000 people – maybe fewer, maybe many times more – have disappeared, with their families having only the dimmest idea of where they are or whether they are even alive.

For the Assad regime, forced disappearance has become a weapon of war and a powerful one at that, inspiring fear, uncertainty and, for the families left behind, years of questions.

In trying to solve it, the United Nations is now reaching for a new tool, a new institution that would coordinate the claims of Syrians inside and outside the country. At the moment, questions and claims about family members inside the country – mainly held by the Assad regime, but also by a variety of groups operating on Syria’s territory – are filed with a variety of NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Some of these claims emerge when family members claim asylum abroad, or when they are processed in refugee camps. Some are filed by family members who are citizens of Arab or European countries.

Because of the haphazard nature of the filings, and because the Assad regime isn’t sharing information about who is in its prisons, there is no way to be sure who is missing, nor to offer families information and support, nor even to assemble sufficient information to be able to demand the Assad regime allows access to places of detention.

Yet while the idea of a new mechanism has been percolating through international institutions for some time, and while the idea now has support at the highest levels, with the UN secretary-general releasing a report putting forward the idea in August, and the UN Human Rights Council adopting a resolution on the mechanism just last week, it is still an idea whose time has not arrived.

Not because it would not inch forward the process of finding answers for the disappeared, but because it would still put most of the power in the hands of the regime.

Any such institution would only work at the whim of the regime. And for the Syrian regime, disappearances are a weapon it will not easily give up.

Enforced disappearances are not an oversight of a state fighting a war; they are one of the regime’s most powerful weapons for silencing opposition and dissent. The regime is not the only group on Syrian territory accused of enforced disappearances, almost every group from the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham to the Syrian Democratic Forces to, of course, ISIS have been accused of it. But the overwhelming number of those who have vanished have done so on regime-controlled territory.

The reason disappearances are so valuable for pacifying the population is that vanishing someone – say the father of a family – doesn’t merely impact that person, but has an impact on the entire family, who are dependent on the regime for answers. Without any answers or a body to bury, the family cannot move on – they cannot sell property, for example, or access insurance payments.

That is not a weapon the regime will easily give up, and certainly not if it means essentially admitting to crimes that may be prosecutable. This is where the major flaw with the idea of any new mechanism for disappearances becomes apparent. Because actually making the mechanism work will, in fact, be up to the regime.

Even the UN acknowledges this, noting in its report that, “until the new mechanism gains the support of the [Syrian government], it would be subject to similar territorial and access limitations as OHCHR.” This is a reference to the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, a UN body that is meant to report on and monitor the situation for human rights within Syria, but that is in fact confined to Beirut.

Indeed, not only would the regime have to comply with the new mechanism for it to work, but it would need to agree with the “international mandate” that the UN imagines this new mechanism would have – something that even countries not engaged in a war might baulk at, claiming an infringement of national sovereignty, given that all those involved are citizens of Syria.

Worse, the Syrian regime would need to sign off on whoever would lead this mechanism. The UN report doesn’t take a position on who should lead it (“or co-lead”) but it is impossible to imagine that the regime would accept anything other than Syrian control or the control of an allied country. Which puts the mechanism in the circular situation of the regime leading a mechanism meant to investigate the crimes of the regime – crimes which, by the way, the regime says didn’t happen.

Indeed, we can already guess how the regime would handle this new mechanism, assuming it doesn’t ignore it altogether. The Syrian government does work with outside bodies, for example the Red Cross – and while it has allowed humanitarian aid into the country, and allowed international groups to operate, the regime deals with them in a heavily politicized way, closing borders on a whim or turning back convoys at checkpoints. That is exactly how the regime would handle any new mechanism.

It is unsurprising, after so many years of war, that the international community is seeking any mechanism for bringing about some progress on the Syria file. But a new mechanism is not the panacea. A new institution for Syria will not bring answers to the thousands of disappeared. But a new government in Syria might.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai