'Assad regime will be held accountable for grievous crimes against Syrians': An interview with Jonathan Hargreaves, UK special envoy to Syria

Jonathan Hargreaves
11 min read
20 March, 2022
In-depth: In this exclusive interview, UK special envoy to Syria Jonathan Hargreaves says his country will hold accountable Bashar al-Assad’s regime over ‘grievous crimes’ committed against Syrians in 11 years of war.

In an exclusive interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Newspaper, The New Arab’s sister Arabic site, the UK’s Special Representative for Syria Jonathan Hargreaves discusses his country’s position on Syria after 11 years of war.

The conflict, which began in March 2011 with peaceful protests demanding freedoms, and an end to unemployment and corruption, has left over half a million people dead, devastated cities and drawn in other countries.

Dima Wannous, who interviewed Hargreaves for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed from London, is a Syrian writer and novelist.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Dima Wannous (DW): This week marks the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution. How would you describe the last decade?

Jonathan Hargreaves (JH): There are no more words to describe the tragedy of the last 11 years in Syria adequately. Nor do the appalling statistics – of people killed, detained, missing, taking refuge, hungry – capture the human cost of the war and the crimes that have been committed. Even if military activity is mercifully quieter in most areas, the war and the behaviour of the regime has left an economy still in constant decline, millions still in need of humanitarian assistance and an entire society living in fear. It is far beyond time for this to stop.

DW: Do you think that the Syrians should wait another ten more years before seeing the change they sought?

JH: Ending the conflict requires real commitment to the UN-led political process. We welcome UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen’s intention to reconvene Constitutional Committee talks next week. We call on all parties to engage meaningfully in a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process. We realise that the parties’ positions are significantly far apart and narrowing their differences will inevitably be a difficult and slow process. Constructive engagement is needed from all.  If the regime and its backers want to avoid another ten years of conflict, they must seriously engage with the political process outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

DW: This year’s anniversary comes with a significant escalation in Ukraine. Now Russia is militarily involved in both Syria and Ukraine. How will the Ukraine war affect Syria?

JH: At the same time, Russia’s attack in Ukraine carries sickening echoes of the regime’s attacks, supported by Russia, on its own people. Just as we will not let Putin’s crimes in Ukraine go unpunished, and we will go after his supporters and backers, we will continue to do the same for crimes committed in Syria.

DW: What about a political solution in Syria? Do you see the settlement and a possible implementation of Resolution 2254?

JH: We know that many Syrians question the international community’s resolve in achieving peace in Syria. There is no military solution. Russian military aggression in Ukraine and the regime’s uncompromising support for it, do not provide a promising backdrop for political conversations. But a political solution is the only way forward, and UNSCR 2254 remains the only clear path out of Syria’s deadly conflict. SE Pedersen’s efforts to generate new momentum by seeking steps which could be taken to boost confidence in the process is also very welcome. We need to see some credible interest in these efforts from Assad’s regime, and some fundamental efforts to cease crimes against its own people. We are ready to respond if we see genuine intent from the regime to act in the interests of its own people.

"There are no more words to describe the tragedy of the last 11 years in Syria adequately"

DW: The Constitutional Committee will meet in Geneva next month. Are you optimistic about the achievement of a political breakthrough?

JH: We greatly appreciate the work of the UN Secretary General and UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen in their efforts to get the Constitutional Committee off the ground. The UK echoes UN Envoy Pedersen’s disappointment at the lack of progress at the last round of meetings of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva.

We commend the Syrian Negotiation Commission for their tireless hard work and good faith in coming to the table prepared and ready to work.  The regime must engage meaningfully with this process by putting something on the table, not just by making demands. We urge all parties, especially the Assad regime, to redouble their efforts to find a way forward. 

DW: What about EU, UK and US sanctions? The Syrian regime alleges that these have resulted in great suffering for the people of Syria. How do you respond to that?

JH: The Assad regime and Russia continue to blame western sanctions for the failing economy in Syria. This is just a smokescreen for them. UK sanctions target the Assad regime, not the Syrian people. The regime has devastated its own economy through cronyism, corruption and its brutal conduct of the conflict and must bear responsibility for this.

As you have seen on the UK’s response to Russia’s devastating actions in Ukraine, the UK will use sanctions as an accountability tool and will continue to hold the regime to account. The UK has imposed sanctions on the Assad regime to end violent repression of civilians in Syria, and to increase pressure for a political solution. UK sanctions send a clear message to the regime and its supporters, that we will not stand by whilst the regime continues to commit serious human rights abuses.  Our Syria sanctions carefully target specific individuals, entities and sectors.

The UK takes all possible steps to mitigate against the wider impact of sanctions on Syrian civilians. Getting international sanctions removed is within Assad’s gift: if he chose credible progress in the political process and a cessation of attacks on his own people the international community would be able to respond.

DW: Are you in favour of easing sanctions so that they do not affect the response to the Covid-19 epidemic? 

JH: We do not sanction food, medicine, medical equipment or assistance. Items required to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are not subject to direct restrictions on export, supply, financing or use in Syria. Humanitarian exemptions apply in relation to other equipment required by the Syrian pharmaceutical industry. We know we must do more to help humanitarian agencies have the confidence to work with impunity within the scope of these provisions.

"UK sanctions target the Assad regime, not the Syrian people. The regime has devastated its own economy through cronyism, corruption and its brutal conduct of the conflict and must bear responsibility for this"

DW:  What about cross-border humanitarian aid? How do you view the "early recovery"  plan in the UNSC resolution and EU conditions for reconstruction of Syria?

JH: The UK welcomed the adoption of Resolution 2585 allowing cross-border aid into north west Syria. Cross-border aid remains a tragic necessity and the Security Council must adopt a new Resolution in July which ensures at least as much access as now, including finding ways to increase aid access in northeast Syria.  Since the adoption of Resolution 2585 we have also seen serious efforts to increase the delivery of aid across conflict lines and to further increase ‘early recovery’ support, though much more needs to be done.

Cross-line aid is important but will never be sufficient to meet the current scale of need.  The UK supports improved access through all modalities to reach populations in need across all of Syria. Urgent work must be done by the international community to find a sustainable, long-term solution to aid delivery, into northern Syria. We continue to press at the UN for improved humanitarian access.

‘Early recovery’ assistance is a form of humanitarian aid which aims to support Syrians in making their own choices, developing their own livelihoods, and warding off vulnerability to future needs. It is an essential complement to emergency aid which responds to immediate needs. The international community already provides a lot of early recovery assistance, but we need to do it more and better in conjunction with our Syrian partners. Aid will sadly be needed across Syria for many years to come, and we aim to make this as dignified and empowering of Syrian people as possible.

DW: Arab countries have started to normalise with the Syrian regime. The EU remains committed to its conditions for normalisation. What is the UK’s position on normalisation? 

JH: Normalising or upgrading diplomatic relations with the Assad regime is not a route to improving the situation of people in Syria. The UK remains firmly opposed to normalisation & urges all states to consider the untold suffering that the regime has inflicted on the Syrian people. We understand regional frustration with the political process, but uncontrolled, ad hoc engagement with an unrepentant Assad will impede the reform process and will hinder efforts to bring peace.

This is not the time to give Assad legitimacy in exchange for nothing. For example, Syria’s eventual re-admission to the Arab League readmission should be the fruit of a productive step-for-step process, once Syria has shown that it is fit to rejoin the community of open societies and economies. The regime must show sustained and substantive commitment to the political process before we would support such a move. The regime has committed numerous heinous crimes and abuses, including the use of chemical weapons multiple times, and continues to utilise brutal repression against the people of Syria.

This is why strengthening political and economic ties with the Assad regime prematurely will undermine the political process, hinder efforts to bring a sustainable end to the suffering in Syria.

DW: The UK is leading in backing accountability for war criminals committed in Syria. What is the nature of this support?

JH: The UK will continue to hold the Assad regime to account for its grievous crimes against the Syrian people. We are delighted to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UN Independent Impartial and International Mechanism (IIIM) on crimes in Syria. This will ensure information can be shared between the UK and IIIM, and is a signal of the UK’s stance on bringing those who commit heinous crimes to justice.

We are the penholder on the Syria resolution at the UN Human Rights Council; we support the important work of the independent UN Commission of Inquiry. The UK has contributed over £14 million since 2012 in support of efforts to gather evidence and assist victims of abuses and violations, through the IIM and civil society.

Accountability is also needed for violations and abuses in Syria, including the fate of the missing. This is vital to ensure justice for victims, the prevention of future violations, and to bring about reconciliation and sustainable peace as part of the political process aimed at resolving the conflict. We remain committed to upholding the rules based international system, including the international taboo against use of chemical weapons. We support the Partnership against Impunity chaired by France, and welcome steps to hold those who use chemical weapons to account.

"Normalising or upgrading diplomatic relations with the Assad regime is not a route to improving the situation of people in Syria"

DW:  Asma al-Assad has a British citizenship and is on a sanctions list. Why doesn't Britain withdraw her citizenship? 

JH: We imposed an asset freeze on Mrs Assad in 2012, and a travel ban on other members of the Assad family and individuals linked to the Syrian Regime in accordance with EU sanctions.  Mrs Assad is now sanctioned under UK autonomous Syria sanctions. All British passport holders have a right of entry to the UK.

DW: There are national courts in Germany that try Syrians on charges of war crimes. Would the UK consider this route?

JH: The Koblenz trial, welcomed by the UK, was a landmark trial, showing the Assad regime was guilty of regime-sponsored torture. The recent signing of the MoU between the UK and IIIM we hope will lead to similar trials in the UK. There can be no impunity. It is critical that we continue to hold Assad’s regime to account for its grievous crimes against Syrian people.

The UK has also supported the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) since 2012 to document violations of International Criminal and Humanitarian Law (ICHL) in Syria and prepare legal cases for use in national and international courts.  UK support to CIJA has contributed to the first conviction of a former member of Daesh, and CIJA evidence was used in the Koblenz trial of Syrian official Anwar Raslan for crimes against humanity. 

DW: What about the violations committed through the use of chemical weapons and the methods of international accountability? 

JH: We are committed to upholding the rules based international system, including the international taboo against use of chemical weapons. We support the Partnership against Impunity chaired by France, and we will continue to work with our partners around the globe to uphold and protect the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) ban on the use of chemical weapons which seeks to keep us all safe and hold those who use them to account.

Our position on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is unchanged: we unreservedly condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which has had such devastating humanitarian consequences for the Syrian population. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited by the Convention and is a clear threat to international peace and security.

We have full confidence in the impartiality, professionalism, and integrity of the OPCW and its staff. We must work together to defend this organisation. Those who attack it have no interest in upholding the prohibition on chemical weapons.

DW: What is Britain’s detailed role in supporting the role of women in Syria?

JH: The UK is committed to supporting programming to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and to build women and girls’ long-term empowerment socially, politically and economically. We strongly advocate for the meaningful participation of Syrian women in politics, including the UN-led political process.

Since 2019 the UK has supported UNFPA’s Syria Appeal with £25.9 million, to strengthen the prevention and response to gender-based violence in Syria, reaching over 1.5 million people with sexual and reproductive health services such as vaccinations, family planning and post rape treatment.

Since 2018, we have supported the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom with approximately £2.5 million to support Syrian women-led organisations to strengthen women’s participation in decision-making at the local level, and gender sensitive transitional justice.

Jonathan Hargreaves became the UK's Special Representative for Syria in December 2020. Before that, he was Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa Division for the UK's Department for International Development (DFID).

Dima Wannous is a Syrian writer and novelist. Her latest novel 'Kha'ifoun' (The Frightened Ones) was shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and has been translated into English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Turkish and Norwegian.