More than ten years after the Syrian Revolution, Syrians continue to live in a divided, polarized, highly securitized, and dangerous country, distrustful of those who govern them, distrustful of each other, and unable to find shelter, food and health care. Despite that, many countries, particularly Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt have, on multiple occasions, proved that they recognize the Syrian government as legitimate.[i] In November 2020, the Syrian government organized an international conference, inviting the millions of Syrians who had fled the country to come back home.[ii] A year later, multiple human rights organizations including, Human Rights Watch [iii] and Amnesty International, [iv] found that returnees continue to face abuse, torture and arbitrary arrest by the Syrian government and affiliated militias. After displacing, massacring, and assaulting Syrians, overwhelmingly those who live in rural and suburban areas, the Syrian government and its militias lost the most basic and ancient aspect of legitimate governance; that is, trust-building between the government and its people and, in turn, the trust among Syria’s peoples.
The international community must re-engage with the Syrian question through the lens of political legitimacy. Otherwise, we risk cementing the rule of a government that perpetuated the dire humanitarian challenges that Syrians face, polarized them into ethnic and religious segments, and hindered a political settlement towards legitimate governance to represent Syria’s political, ethnic and religious spectrums. Assad, his government, army, militias, and allies failed Syrians after committing crimes against them and polarizing them through targeting historically marginalized, impoverished, rural and suburban Sunni communities through massacres, chemical attacks, sexual violence, and demographic displacement. Both classical and contemporary political philosophy strongly suggest that the government’s sectarian policies and crimes strip Syrians away from their right to coexist peacefully in the future. Assad’s crimes against humanity are crimes against all Syrians, not just its direct victims. Those are crimes that uprooted our right to engage with each other politically, to solve our conflicts peacefully, and live a diverse and peaceful life that guarantees equality among the various religious and ethnic elements of our society. Those crimes, in short, are crimes against Syrian human plurality.
The Syrian Government’s sectarian actions: demographic displacement, sexual violence, and massacres.
Since the transformation of the conflict from peaceful protests to an armed revolution, the government has treated the rebels, the areas that those rebels control and, most importantly, the civilians inhabiting those areas as traitors to the nation. But those inhabitants were not just any Syrians, they were often Sunni, rural or suburban, and poor. They were attacked with chemical weapons, massacred, bombarded, displaced inside and outside Syria, sexually assaulted by government and pro-government militias, and their houses were demolished. Sometimes, those practices were clearly motivated by sectarianism. This is not to say that other areas of the country have not been affected by the conflict or that other parties to the conflict have not committed sectarian crimes against minorities, but the disproportionate concentration of the government’s crimes in those areas implicate the government in crimes of a sectarian nature.
Since the government’s recurrent victories over rebel-held areas began in 2015, it has perfected two strategies of demographic displacement: population swaps and redevelopment zones. The basic idea of population swaps is disarming the rebels, forcing them and their families, and sometimes all inhabitants of the areas they controlled, to leave to other rebel-held areas (often to Idlib), and giving civilians the “option” to leave with them. The most infamous agreement was “the four towns agreement,” where besieged Shia towns in Idlib, Kefraya and Foua were evacuated to regime-controlled areas in Aleppo and Damascus, in response to the evacuation of Zabadani and Madaya, two Sunni areas in Damascus countryside, to Idlib.[v] Over forty thousand individuals, mostly rural and suburban Sunnis, were evacuated in population swaps.[vi]
The Syrian government, moreover, has perfected the use of decrees to prevent refugees from returning to previously demolished areas, some of which were also targets of chemical weapons and massacres. The government established so-called “redevelopment zones,” giving property owners little time to legally establish ownership over their demolished property. Those laws include Law No. 10 of 2018[vii], which authorizes the government to confiscate property without due process or compensation in areas it designates as “redevelopment zones.” The government used this to target areas also affected by population swaps like Daraya in the Governorate of Damascus Countryside, and Al-Qaboun and Barzeh in suburban Damascus. [viii]
Sectarianism, moreover, was manifested in the most horrendous sexual violence practices performed by government officials in prisons. Female victims were unveiled, raped, tortured, and sometimes called, “dirty Sunni women”[ix] in Branch 215 in Damascus, for example. They were also often threatened with having their unveiled photos disseminated publicly. Male victims had their genitals mutilated so that they would not be able to parent “Sunni children who will kill Alawites.”[x]
Massacres committed by the government, whether or not accompanied by sectarian rhetoric, occurred in majority-Sunni areas sympathetic to the rebels. Karm Al-Zeiton, for example, is a mixed Alawite-Sunni town in Homs. In 2011, pro-government militias, known as the Shabiha, massacred nine families,[xi] including women and children, in a town known to the Shabiha as the “Sunni Market”, where they are able to seek compensation for their work through looting Sunni-owned houses.[xii] Such sectarian acts and policies affect the future of legitimacy of governance in Syria. I use Hannah Arendt’s concept of “human plurality” to justify this claim:
To be engaged in politics, people must feel free to speak, take initiative, and affect each other’s thinking, three elements of political life that Syrians have long been deprived of.
Hannah Arendt, the 20th century political philosopher and Holocaust survivor, explained this idea well in her book, The Human Condition. She posits that “human plurality” can be achieved through action and speech, two aspects that allow humans to insert themselves into the lives of other humans and make themselves comprehensible.[xiii] For her, every human has a unique life story through which they contribute to the world and affect the life stories of everyone they interact with.[xiv] For Arendt, moreover, human plurality has two characteristics: distinction and equality.[xv] The former signifies that every person, in a condition of human plurality, has a distinct way of contributing to the world through actions and opinions, while the latter means that everyone can contribute to the world and politics equally.
Therefore, the Syrian government’s crimes against humanity deprive certain groups of Syrians of the opportunity to contribute to politics and take part in Syrian human plurality.
In an essay titled, “International Law and Human Plurality in the Shadow of Totalitarianism,” Seyla Benhabib, a contemporary Turkish-American philosopher writing extensively on Arendt’s scholarship, centers perspectival politics in Arendt’s understanding of genocide. In the Convention on the Prevention and Punnishment of the Crime of Genocide, “genocide” refers to specific acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”[xvi] However, Benhabib argues that the Arendtian understanding of genocide is more universal. That is, it is a crime against all of us, against those who are victims and those who did not have the chance to be enriched by the victims’ perspective and contributions to politics, for when those who are so unlucky as to be born in the wrong group are deprived of acting, speaking, and contributing to the world around them, humanity in its entirety is deprived of the victims’ essential political contributions; in short, humanity is deprived of human plurality.[xvii]
This understanding of genocide, I argue, should be transferred to our understanding of sectarian crimes against humanity in the Syrian context. While the Syrian government targetted particular populations of Syrian society, those crimes against humanity are a crime against all Syrians, because it deprives the society from the contributions of one of its segments. Moreover, while various international tribunal documents each define crimes against humanity differently, a 1996 draft statute for the International Criminal Court captures an Arendtian understanding of human plurality, for it defines crimes against humanity as “persecution, whether based on laws or practices targeting select groups or their members in ways that seriously and adversely affect their ethnic, cultural or religious life, their collective well-being and welfare, or their ability to group identity.”[xviii] When crimes against humanity shatter, displace, massacre, and assault an entire group of people, those victims are pushed to the edges of politics, unable to contribute to politics. Our shared humanity therefore lacks their perspectives, falling short of achieving human plurality. This form of sectarianism, therefore, affects everyone in Syria, not just poor urban and suburban Sunnis.
Sectarianism in Syria deprives us, Syrians, from the ability to reason through our political reality, pushing us to extreme group identities, preventing us from the ability to act and speak politically and contribute to politics as a pluralistic nation.
In his The Impossible Revolution, the contemporary Syrian philosopher Yassin Al-Haj Saleh conceptualizes “reason” as the thinking performed by individuals living within certain social and political circumstances. The sources of one’s reasons are the state, institutions, the nation, people, class, constitutions, parties, and intellectuals. However, under the Assad government, Saleh argues, Syrians’ reason was converted into a penal code that pushed them to distrust state institutions, and prevented them from freely expressing themselves and forming collective demands to seek self-representation. Deprived of reason, Syrians reverted to “un-reason,” which is less inclusive forms of belonging, such as sect, clan, tribe, or ethnicity. This is mainly because, as state institutions are used to criminalize Syrians, they rely on alternative forms of registers that are beyond the state.[xix]
In a context where Syrians increasingly cling to sect as a form of belonging and protection, the Assad government has perfected a sectarian system wherein rulers maintain order through a patronage system that guarantees benefits to a group of diverse notables who control a divided and impoverished majority. The order is, therefore, maintained by keeping those at the bottom subordinate and distrustful of each other, while those at the top support the system and benefit each other. In these circumstances, Syrians are deprived of the ability to affect their country’s politics through civil action and speech. Instead, they defer to religious and ethnic belonging as opposed to inclusive institutions, universal laws, or political parties. Distrustful and divided, they lose important elements of human plurality that make them political beings. Their inability to trust each other is precisely what strikes through the legitimacy of the current government.
By committing sectarian crimes against humanity, the Assad government polarizes Syrians into group identities, and deprives them of the right to speak and act politically, two elements that are essential to the establishment of a government that legitimately monopolizes power over people.
In Thomas Hobbes’ 17th century work written during the English Civil War, Leviathan, people confer rights to their ruler through words and actions. That is, naturally, they have a right to be violent against each other. However, through speech and action, they can take part in social contracts that guarantee peace among them and set up a government that is able to resolve their conflicts. An essential element of holding this peace together is trust: that each party to the contract will not commit violence towards the other party and instead defer to the state for conflict resolution. When each party adheres to such a social contract, they form a collective, pluralistic narrative (consisting of words and deeds) that entrusts the government with their affairs concerning war and peace.[xx]
However, Hobbes’ most relevant laws of state is the equality of treatment of all those who conferred their right to be violent to the state. When such a condition does not exist, the state falls short of legitimately resolving conflicts between its people. In the absence of equality, therefore, the government becomes an illegitimate ruler of the people, morally incapable of keeping the peace among them, except through illegitimately inflicting terror and fear.
On top of a sectarian system of patronage, therefore, sectarian crimes against humanity inherently treats Syrians unequally, polarizes them, and deprives them of essential elements of political life, such as speech, reason, and action. Those crimes are against the plurality so inherent in Syria’s political and social fabric. Syrians have been deprived of those elements for long before the current government took hold, but the scale of violence against particular communities and assault on freedoms of speech and action is only a feature of the current regime. Stripped of this right to plurality, Syrians are unable to reason through their reality, express their opinions about this reality and act upon it. Through their sectarian nature, moreover, those crimes strike through Assad’s legitimacy to govern Syrians, becoming an unjust judge over Syrian affairs and conflicts.
If Syrians distrust the government to rule over them and resolve their conflict, and if the Syrian government, through its horrendous and unequal actions on its people, is illegitimate, there is no reason for us to believe that there will be any basis for and trust in Syria’s future under the auspices the Assad government. Where there is no space for political speech and action, society will be in a perpetual state of distrust and conflict. For Hobbes, with inequality, there is no legitimacy. For Arendt, with inequality, there is no human plurality. For Syria, therefore, when there is no human plurality, there is no legitimacy for the government. Only when others abroad recognize that the Assad government is so domestically illegitimate to govern Syrians because of its assault on Syrian plurality can we achieve a basis for peace and legitimacy in post-war Syria under a new government.
[i] “US does not support normalising ties with Syria, Blinken says,” Al-Jazeera, 13 October 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/13/us-blinken-normalising-ties-syria-al-assad
[ii] Hubbard, Ben. “Syria Seeks Return of Refugees, but They Fear Leader’s Wrath,” New York Times 12 November, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/12/world/middleeast/12syria-refugees-assad.html
[iii] “Syria: Returning Refugees Face Grave Abuse,” Human Rights Watch, 21 October 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/20/syria-returning-refugees-face-grave-abuse
[iv] “Syria: refugees face detention, torture and death on return – new report”, Amnesty International, 6 September 2021, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/syria-refugees-face-detention-torture-and-death-return-new-report
[v] “Two Years Under Siege and It Ends with Displacement,” 14 April 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/4/14/two-years-under-siege-and-it-ends-with-displacement
[vi] Safar Jalani, Marwan. “Crimes Against Syrian Human Plurality: Critiquing Legitimacy in Post-War Syria Under the Assad Regime,” Yale Law School Schell Center for International Human Rights. 2019
[viii] “Syria: Residents Blocked From Returning,” Human Rights Watch, 10/16/2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/16/syria-residents-blocked-returning
[ix] “’I lost my Dignity”’: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Human Rights
[x] “’The Soul Has Died’: Typology, Patterns, Prevalence and Devastating Impact of Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Syrian Detention,” Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights, 03/2019, http://ldhrights.org/en/wpcontent/uploads/2019/03/The-Soul-Has-Died-Male-Sexual-Violence-Report-English-for-release-copy.pdf
[xi] Anne Barnard, “Massacre is Reported in Homs, Raising Pressure for Intervention in Syria,” The New York Times, 03/12/2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/world/middleeast/death-toll-in-homs-rises.html?_r=0
[xii] Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Senses of the Syrian Tragedy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 232.
[xiii] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 178.
[xiv] Ibid., 183-184.
[xv] Ibid., 178.
[xvi] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 11.
[xvii] Benhabib, Seyla. “International Law and Human Plurality in the Shadow of Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin.” Constellations 16, no.2 (2009): 331 – 350.
[xviii] M. Cherif Bassiouni, Crimes Against Humanity: Historical Evolution and Contemporary Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 182.
It is worth noting that Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Therefore, the ICC has no jurisdiction over Syria, unless the matter is referred to the court’s Office of the Prosecutor by the United Nations Security Council. This prospect, however, has been blocked by Russia’s and China’s casting of veto to refer the Syrian government to the ICC (Asset Khattab, http://opiniojuris.org/2021/03/15/what-justice-can-international-law-bring-to-syrians/)
[xix] Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Senses of the Syrian Tragedy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 232.
[xx] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Penguin Classics, 1985.