It’s Time to Finally Address the Issue of the Disappeared in Syria

Destroyed Tanks in Azaz Syria
Credit: Christiaan Triebert / Wikimedia Commons

With approximately 102,000 people forcibly disappeared in Syria today, the issue of missing persons constitutes one of the most pressing issues stemming from the 10-year conflict. Yet, while the scale of the issue is staggering, it is also one of the more practical issues in Syria that can be resolved by world leaders. Against this backdrop, and as opposed to unilateral military and economic tools designed to induce a political transition in Damascus, the United States should lead a diplomatic mission that engages its allies and adversaries to locate and free the disappeared in Syria’s sprawling prison system.

Such an approach will be unpopular with those espousing the perceived morality of current interventionist policies. To date, roughly 900 U.S. troops are stationed in northeast Syria to fight the so-called Islamic State (IS). Washington’s sanctions regime limits most interaction with Damascus while the Caesar Act threatens secondary sanctions on non-U.S. entities, solidifying an economic blockade of the country. As a result, Syria is de facto partitioned by design, with no single actor willing or necessarily able to budge.

Such efforts are intended to pressure Damascus into capitulating on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 (UNSCR 2254), which reiterates support for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition in order to end the conflict.” The hope is that such tools can freeze the conflict and inflict maximum pressure on Assad to cooperate with the Syrian Constitutional Committee and a political transition. Further, the resolution calls for the release of any arbitrarily detained persons – a core component of the legally binding text.

Indeed, the issue of detained persons is crucial to any post-war context. Syria’s intelligence and prison system has an infamous history stemming back to Hafez al-Assad – the equally brutal father of Bashar – and intimately outlined by Sam Dagher’s book “Assad or we Burn the Country.” Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate (Mukhabarat) have been disappearing Syrians for decades – operating with unchecked brutality during today’s war. It is difficult to find a family not impacted by forced disappearances and the police state. Thus, the issue was central to the revolution and calls for reform.

Unfortunately, efforts to institute UNSCR 2254 have fallen flat. The Constitutional Committee has been ineffective, used by Assad as a stall tactic to hold onto power. Efforts to locate the disappeared have similarly fallen short. Instead of a Syrian-led and owned process, additional actors have involved themselves in the war since UNSCR 2254 passed. This includes Turkey, which invaded northern Syria in October 2019 to establish a buffer zone for the resettlement of Syrian refuges, violating non-refoulement principles. Truly, nothing has worked, with policy rarely considering the actual needs and desires of Syrians.

As a result of policy stagnation, the once unified anti-Assad coalition has fractured. The Gulf, arguably led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), openly expresses its support for normalization with Damascus and Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. Elements within Turkey, such as the Republican People’s Party (CHP), call for dialogue with Assad as they watch President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity plummet and eye upcoming elections in 2023 – a platform with increasing popularity in Syria’s northern neighbor. Most significant, however, is the recent push by Jordan’s King Abdullah re-ignite trade and border security cooperation between the two countries – a fascinating shift of course from a regional player often in lockstep with the West. Such a move, almost certainly implicitly allowed by Washington given the lack of public response, suggests major shifts are on the horizon for Syria and that former policies are being left in the past.

For these reasons, the international community must shift to a practical Syria strategy. Outside of humanitarian aid operations, this means transitioning from a political transition-focus to the disappeared. High-level diplomatic engagement between the United States and Russia is necessary, as well as a parallel track including Turkey, Qatar, and Iran – the latter of which may be difficult given the state of JCPOA negotiations in Vienna.

Russia, as a major backer of Assad, can pressure the regime to capitulate on the disappeared. It will require concessions from Washington, probably including at least a minimal military withdrawal from NES and sanctions relief for both Moscow and Damascus – options that should have been on the table years ago to end the conflict. Importantly, Moscow could get behind such an initiative as it wants to end the war and begin reconstruction efforts with the Gulf.

Any diplomatic effort should also include civil society organizations (CSOs) with expertise and data on the Syrian context. Many CSOs, such as the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), work tirelessly to document human rights violations, locate the disappeared, and advocate for victim-centered truth and reconciliation efforts that are pressing to Syrian families. Networks such as the Truth and Justice Charter raise awareness in many countries, recently calling for a mechanism limited to locating and freeing the disappeared, as opposed to allocation of accountability for crimes. These groups need recognition to better advocate for a position vastly supported by the Syrian people.

As SJAC correctly argues, the International Committee of the Red Cross can operate a mechanism to locate and free the disappeared. The Truth and Justice Charter argue for this or a UN-led process, although the latter is probably unfeasible because the Assad regime would view it as politicized. Still, supporting and listening to CSO entities in parallel with focused diplomatic efforts to engage the pro-Assad camp can produce results with the proper level of engagement and the necessary concessions.

To be sure, such an approach is not guaranteed to succeed and is not intended to suggest that support for a political transition should end. Assad could reject Russian demands, even if Moscow decides to operate in good faith. Further, even minimal cooperation in Damascus fails to address those arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, or executed by armed groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), let alone IS. Such efforts are admittedly daunting, and doubts are understandable.

Still, alternative approaches are unrealistic. The Constitutional Committee, while consisting of opposition and civil society components with admirable goals, has achieved nothing – nor has it met in nearly 10 months. The Kurds have not positioned themselves to make a strong argument for autonomy given severe governance shortcomings, internal strife, and blunt repression of Arab communities. Turkey cannot be expected to hold a buffer zone in the north indefinitely, especially given domestic political constraints, and its disdain for Syrian Kurd connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) complicate the situation while straining relations between Washington and Ankara. Worse, the continued razing of Syria only empowers Assad, his crony militias and powerful business partners, and Iran at the expense of Syrians by creating and empowering illicit trade and security networks that divert funds from humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts. None of this supports the wellbeing of Syrians.

Indeed, hard facts on the ground prove that the status quo is not only unsustainable, but harmful. U.S. forces in NES will not shift Assad’s stance, but have increased chances of war with Iran and bolster conservative hardliners in both countries. In parallel, sanctions without real diplomatic engagement will not prevent Assad and his cronies from war profiteering or brutally wrestling control of the country, but do starve Syrians and negatively impact medical services for children. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Committee will not produce the change rightly imagined in Syria, but bought Assad time to win the sham presidential election in May. These are facts – not false promises, feel-good policy announcements, or twisted spins that supposedly consider the average Syrian over western geopolitical interests.

Recognition of this observation can help Washington and the international community operationalize what they can realistically achieve in Syria, revealing alternative avenues for change in more practical forms that support the Syrian people – such as a focus on the forcibly disappeared. This is both morally just and within their interests given the situation on the ground. 

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.