As the war in Syria winds down, it is inevitable that its impact will be measured in terms of casualties. Numbers of dead and wounded are the conventional measure of conflict but it would be wrong to focus on them alone without considering the challenges that face the survivors, especially civilians living inside regime-controlled areas.
The fighting there has largely ceased but that does not mean the persecution has or that the danger has diminished. But instead of guns, the weapons are now the law and the courts. which the regime is employing to punish civilians who are, or were at some point, considered “problematic.”
The Damascus regime already stands accused of abusing the judicial system. Since the recapture of rebel-held areas, the number of arrests and prosecutions of opposition figures – both military and civilian – has soared. Civil servants living in former rebel-held areas have also been effectively barred from their jobs.
Now the regime has gone even further, issuing a raft of punitive laws that enable property to be confiscated without due process or compensation. Ostensibly, the new regulations are part of urban planning measures to rebuild war-damaged areas and supposedly will be applied only to so-called redevelopment zones. However, the criteria for designating such zones are unclear and certainly unpublicized, which effectively gives the regime carte blanche to apply the new rules wherever they want and especially against regime opponents.
Proving ownership of a property – which must be done in person – is all but impossible for Syrians living outside the country or in areas still held by rebels. This leaves the state free to seize their property and sell it at auction. For the thousands of Syrians living abroad as refugees but hoping to return, it means they will have nothing to come back to.
The regime is also using a counterterrorism law from 2012 to seize property belonging to alleged opposition activists and their families. Human Rights Watch reports that the law’s definition of suspect activity is so broad that even providing humanitarian aid, recording human rights abuses and engaging in peaceful dissent are deemed to be crimes. Decree 63 of the law also empowers the finance ministry to freeze assets pending investigation of such “crimes” even when no charges have been filed. Human Rights Watch says that the way the law is applied – in particular targeting the families of “wanted” dissidents – amounts to collective punishment and violation of property rights.
The regime is still systematically hampering aid deliveries to former rebel-held areas, especially those in southern Syria, by increasing bureaucracy and restrictions on independent movement, interfering with procurement procedures and imposing local “partners” on relief agencies. The organizations that in past years delivered aid in the south can no longer access the region and Damascus-based agencies are also denied permission to step in. Recent reports claim that hundreds of thousands of people living in areas recaptured by government forces in 2018 are being starved of basic aid.
These are just a few ways in which the Assad regime is using the law to discriminate against its own people. Opposition figures are arrested by government intelligence units but legal action is often initiated not by the state but by individuals bringing private prosecutions against other individuals at the behest of the state. Information from interviews I have conducted indicate that most of these private prosecutions have been brought by civilians against former rebel commanders and fighters who had surrendered. While there is nothing inherently illegal about encouraging one individual to sue another, it is another indication that the Assad regime has no compunction about abusing the law in order to persecute anyone it perceives as an opponent.
In contrast, supporters of the regime, both combatants and civilians, are granted full immunity for crimes committed both before and throughout the conflict and anyone trying to sue them is certain to be harassed, intimidated and even detained themselves.
The discrimination extends to thousands of public-sector employees in former rebel-held areas who were unable to work during the war and have been dismissed from their jobs – ironically, for failing to report for work. Some have been ordered to court to be fined or even imprisoned for up to three years. Again, all is done apparently in accordance with Syrian law, but that law appears to be most heavily applied to those living in parts of the country that used to be under opposition control. Meanwhile, schools and hospitals are struggling to function with acute shortages of staff and the people of Syria continue to suffer.
In counting the cost of war, those who paid with their lives should of course never be forgotten. But we should not make our calculations solely by looking through the lens of violence. There are multiple ways of crushing a nation without firing a single shot. In addition to the violence, the Assad regime is doing it with bureaucracy and the law. For the Syrian people, the dangers may have changed but they have by no means diminished.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.