Less than 10 years ago, the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, spoke up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for massacring civilians.
In November, he hugged him.
The embrace — on the first visit of an Emirati official to Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution — felt like a blessing of the al-Assad regime’s atrocities and a stab in the back for those of us who suffered war and displacement.
Though many of us Syrians watched the hug with a sense of betrayal, we were not surprised: It’s just the latest in a wave of international moves to rehabilitate relations with the al-Assad regime.
In June, the World Health Organization appointed Syria to its executive board. Interpol readmitted Syria to its network in October. Algeria and Egypt have pushed to reinvite Syria to Arab League membership, and other Arab nations have gestured toward a rapprochement with Mr. al-Assad. And throughout, Mr. al-Assad’s relationships with Iran and Russia appear to have deepened.
These international bodies and nations appear to have either forgiven, forgotten or chosen to ignore the reasons Syria was cast out from their community. But in doing so, they normalize the atrocities committed by or on behalf of Mr. al-Assad’s regime and risk emboldening other leaders to act without fear of major censure or retribution — as we are seeing with the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
By dangerously conferring legitimacy back to a regime that the United Nations in 2013 linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own people, the international community is shattering the norms and customs that hold our world together. Western and Arab powers must keep the al-Assad regime in isolation and pressure any nations and organizations wavering on that commitment to do the same.
We are a long way from where this started. For at least a short period, the world seemed to be on our side.
I was 13 when protests erupted in our eastern Damascus neighborhood of Al-Qaboun, back in 2011. I remember feeling hopeful watching Syrians call for a country free of the al-Assad family, which had ruled us for 40 years. When the regime violently cracked down on protesters, countries severed ties with Mr. al-Assad and froze his regime’s assets abroad. The Arab League suspended Syria from its membership.
My neighborhood, Al-Qaboun, experienced heavy fighting between rebel forces and government troops in mid-2012. Government helicopters dropped bombs nearby, reducing buildings and our reality to rubble. We feared our house would be next.
After surviving a two-month-long siege, my family and I left the country. We packed our memories in suitcases, dragging them on the broken asphalt past the fresh bullet holes on the walls of our neighborhood. A year later, the government reportedly was dropping rockets containing chemical warheads on suburbs of Damascus, including Jobar — just a few miles from our home.
Back then, I felt betrayed by the al-Assad family, who we’d long been told was Syria’s protector. Now, nine years after fleeing my home, I feel betrayed by an international community that is inviting Mr. al-Assad back into its fold.
Normalization, though, has implications far beyond the borders of Syria. It reshapes and rewrites international standards of how state actors may treat their citizens.
Accountability mechanisms like special courts and norms around punishing crimes against humanity were ushered in after World War II through the 1945 signing of the London Charter, the Nuremberg Trials and the special tribunals of Rwanda and Yugoslavia. They were put in place to prevent another mass murder of civilians, to show dictators and war criminals that they cannot get away with atrocities or use state armies to lethally and systematically suppress dissent.
Yet what has happened in Syria exposes the deep contradictions and flaws within the international human rights system.
There is ample evidence that the al-Assad regime committed egregious crimes, most notably the use of chemical weapons. That act alone requires the international community to intervene, following the United Nations’ principle of the responsibility to protect. But Russia’s and China’s veto powers on the United Nations Security Council have prevented the U.N. from intervening to save Syrians under bombardment or end the bloodshed in Syria.
The recent moves by the U.A.E. and others to normalize relations with Syria go even further. They show that with the passage of time, dictators will be embraced again if it suits countries’ national interests.
Arab nations might be embracing Mr. al-Assad for a number of reasons. It could be an attempt to counter Iran’s economic and political influence in the region. Or they see him as a lesser evil when faced with Islamist militant groups like ISIS. Or U.S. hesitance to unequivocally support its authoritarian allies is pushing Gulf countries to seek common ground with other powers like pro-Assad Russia. Or they’ve decided the potential economic opportunities — like investing in Syria’s reconstruction projects — are too great to forgo.
But the costs of legitimizing an accused war criminal are much higher than any far-fetched economic or political benefits.
A regime that has been known to bomb hospitals cannot be a member of the Executive Board of the World Health Organization. A regime that tortures and tracks its dissidents at home and abroad through intelligence services must not regain access to Interpol’s databases.
Mr. al-Assad’s regime has not shown a willingness to change. This month, in the world’s first trial prosecuting state-sponsored torture in Syria, a German court convicted a former Syrian intelligence officer of crimes against humanity. The regime continues to be accused of human rights violations — including against Syrians returning to the country.
International bodies must not give Mr. al-Assad something for nothing. They must pressure him to stop human rights abuses. They must develop and apply mechanisms, like the principle of “universal jurisdiction” — as Germany recently did in the landmark case — to seek some measure of justice.
The United States, France and Britain stress that they are against normalizing Mr. al-Assad, but shy away from urging allies and international organizations not to do so. This issue should be high on — if not at the top — of their foreign policy agenda, because the rehabilitation of Mr. al-Assad poses a direct threat to the post-World War II order — which already faces challenges on other fronts, such as the recent Russia-Ukraine tensions. This issue is an easy one to take a stand on. Syria is not a nuclear power or the regional power it once was. Nor is it a major energy supplier. Standing firm against his rehabilitation does not cost much.
If governments and international organizations normalize relations with the al-Assad regime, Syria’s story risks replicating elsewhere and the ruins of Al-Qaboun risk becoming our new norm.
Marwan Safar Jalani (@MarwanSJalani) is a Rhodes scholar from Syria, researching post-conflict stabilization and recurrence of war at the University of Oxford. He was a human rights scholar at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School, focusing on the post-conflict legitimacy of the Syrian regime.
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