Raslan is behind bars for crimes against humanity, but the true architects of Assad’s regime remain untouchable
There’s no doubt that last week’s conviction of the Syrian war criminal Colonel Anwar Raslan in a German court has been one of the few positive outcomes of the Syrian civil war.
Raslan, the former head of the particularly brutal Damascus-based Branch 251 of Assad’s mukhabarat, or intelligence service, has been convicted of crimes against humanity. His conviction, rather remarkable given the sheer extent and brazenness of Assad’s atrocities for almost 11 years, marks the first time that crimes against humanity have been definitively proven to have been committed by the Assad regime in a court of law.
Like a rat abandoning what it thinks is a sinking ship, Raslan defected from the Assad regime in 2013, at a time when it looked like the international order might decisively turn against Assad over the Ghouta sarin massacre. Of course, military action against Assad (which Germany opposed) failed to materialise and the Assad regime went on to carry out its atrocities with no meaningful opposition from the democratic West.
As horrific as Raslan’s crimes were, and as good as it is for his victims that this torturer has faced justice, the reality is that “justice”, in the collective and total sense of the word, remains not just illusive for the millions of Syrians victimised by Assad, but entirely suppositious.
"While taking nothing away from the ramifications of Raslan’s conviction and the attachment of crimes against humanity to the Assad regime, the true architects of genocide in Syria are still at large"
While taking nothing away from the ramifications of Raslan’s conviction and the attachment of crimes against humanity to the Assad regime, the true architects of genocide in Syria are still at large. In fact, these perpetrators are seemingly untouchable and, in some areas, thriving.
The UAE, with the approval of Saudi, is successfully rehabilitating the despot in the region, not that his fellow MENA autocrats needed much persuading. Even in the West, the Biden administration has scaled down previous US attempts to isolate Assad, and seems to be, through a deal to pipe Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Syria, looking for ways to circumvent its own sanctions against Assad.
Most egregiously, this includes sanctions relating to the Caesar Act, an act named after the nom de guerre of a defector who documented the systematic extermination of tens of thousands of anti-regime Syrian detainees by the Assad regime.
The point is not one of contrived cynicism – it would be remiss of anyone who opposes Assad’s continuing crimes in Syria to ignore the perverse disjuncture between the conviction of one of Assad’s relatively low-ranking henchmen for crimes against humanity while those crimes against humanity are tacitly accepted by the world.
Today’s conviction of Anwar Raslan is a victory for tens of thousands of survivors, victims of forced disappearance & for human rights activists & family groups that have fought relentlessly for truth & justice for their missing loved ones.#koblenztrial https://t.co/8CeGj8E8aI— The Syria Campaign (@TheSyriaCmpgn) January 13, 2022
Far from heading to the courts, the ultimate criminals responsible for giving Raslan the power to oversee torture, rape and murder are being actively revered, whitewashed and thus enabled by key US and European allies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which are two of the worst human rights abusers and who are guilty of murderous atrocities in Yemen.
Raslan’s conviction did not come about due to some rejuvenated and, as has been claimed, special sense of virtue on the question of bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice by Germany and Europe.
Rather, it came about through the lens of a commendable bottom-up initiative by the victims of Raslan, with a German and European ruling class that is otherwise happy to ignore or aid some of the worst state criminals on earth.
As an example, Germany’s then Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Egypt in 2018 where, standing beside the dictator Sisi, she referred to him and his regime of unprecedentedly vicious torture, murder (including of EU citizens) and anti-human kleptocracy as a “role model of stability” and praised his “leading role” in combatting terrorism and illegal immigration.
Indeed, on the question of “illegal immigration”, which Merkel so tellingly rolls together with “terrorism”, we find another unavoidable double standard emanating from Europe relating to the conviction of Raslan.
Though Germany commendably decided to give amnesty to Syrian refugees, it not only shamefully abandoned and reversed this ‘safe haven’ policy, but it has stood by and done nothing as Syrians, among other refugees fleeing tyrannical horrors, have been herded into horrific refugee camps, such as Moria, described by Human Rights Watch as an “open air prison”.
Moreover, Germany has happily gone along with the racist Fortress Europe tactics employed by the EU that have seen well over 30,000 refugees die at sea and in camps across Europe. We’ve also seen numerous EU countries deport Syrians back into the hands of the many other Raslans – the legions of torturers and murders – of the Assad regime.
The true heroes concerning the conviction of Raslan are his victims who bravely stepped up to recount their own personal tragedies – if not for them, Raslan would still be walking free.
"The truth is that Raslan was bad enough and, more importantly, small enough to be convicted – the bigger monsters that roam our world have little to fear"
The point is never to take anything away from endeavours such as this. By ensuring Raslan’s conviction for crimes against humanity in Europe under the “universal jurisdiction” authority, they have delivered a warning to other Assad henchmen out there that they can be held to account for their crimes.
But it is important, in the name of justice for Syrians and all other victims of crimes against humanity, to point out that Germany, the EU and the so-called democratic West, as a powerful bloc, would not dare attempt similar prosecution of the bigger criminals in Syria or elsewhere. Can anyone imagine Assad ever facing such justice? Or Putin? Or Ayatollah Khamenei?
Less absurd, can anyone imagine even criminals of similar stature from Israel, China or Saudi ever being convicted in this manner in Europe?
The truth is that Raslan was bad enough and, more importantly, small enough to be convicted – the bigger monsters that roam our world have little to fear.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.