It was a moment deemed nearly impossible after a decade of impunity: a senior Syrian intelligence officer sentenced to life in prison for helping lead the horrors of one of modern history’s most brutal wars.
But when Anwar Raslan, a former colonel in Bashar al-Assad’s forces, bowed to his fate, the survivors of the barbaric torture regime he helped lead finally had something to cling to.
The clinical tranquility of a German courtroom could not have been more at odds with the former empire of Raslan, Syria’s terrifying dungeons, which harbored death and suffering on an industrial scale during a conflict still feared for its unbridled brutality. . But as the verdict was read, victims and family members felt a rare moment of justice — a concept so elusive in Syria, it had almost become obsolete.
The ruling marks the first time a senior member of Assad’s security state has been convicted of wartime atrocities and follows a series of failed attempts to do so by relatives of tens of thousands of missing persons and an international community unable or unwilling to to take up the matter. more prominent targets.
For victims and their families, the symbolism was powerful, as was the precedent. While Assad and his inner sanctuary remain well out of the reach of international justice, the verdict complicates the Syrian leader’s crawl toward normalization with a world that had largely exiled him.
Assad and his accomplices have so far averted a myriad of crimes: using poison gas on their people, inflicting famine, and forcibly displacing millions, among other charges of war crimes. Throughout it all, Syria’s infamous prisons have been at the center of systematic suffering and even extermination.
But Raslan’s conviction, as well as a year ago of a man believed to be a security officer, Eyad al-Gharib, paves the way for greater accountability. It also adds to evidence painstakingly built by international bodies and non-governmental organizations, who refuse to let Syria’s atrocities disappear without recourse.
The regional states of Jordan and the UAE, long-standing pariahs, have taken recent steps to reinstate Assad. This week came a new suggestion to allow Syria back into the Arab world — a move that heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Egypt are known not to oppose.
Raslan was tried under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of crimes in one country, even if they have taken place elsewhere.
It was no coincidence that the trial took place in Germany; Raslan had applied for asylum there after fleeing Syria via Jordan. Germany, unlike many other Western states, has shown a rare enthusiasm in trying alleged perpetrators of international crimes against humanity on its territory, including cases against members of the Islamic State who committed genocide against Yazidis, as well as cases in the aftermath. of massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
But between the aspirations of prosecutors and family members seeking to reach Assad’s inner sanctuary are the cold realities of global politics. Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court, and its allies, Moscow and Tehran, have covered Assad for the UN Security Council, preventing him from being referred to The Hague.
With Syria in ruins and both Russia and Iran looking to take advantage of the huge sums they have invested in protecting Assad, it seems unlikely for the time being that he will let him go or expose senior officials to global justice. A fundamental shift in the position of either Vladimir Putin or the position of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be necessary to force Assad out of power, and even then his fate would likely be a life in exile under protection, rather than of a European court.
However, among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Europe when the Syrian state collapsed and the Islamic State conquered parts of the country, are other protagonists and keepers of the regime’s darkest secrets. A Syrian doctor and regime official will also soon be on trial in Germany. Other officials are still being questioned. This rift in Assad’s armor of impunity may not be the last.