Press release / December 21, 2021

2021 in Syria: Global indifference emboldens states seeking to restore ties with Assad’s brutal regime

Photo: members of the Truth and Justice Charter groups demand information about over 100,000 people who remain forcibly disappeared in Syria, on International Day of the Disappeared in August. They laid out hundreds of telephones on Bebelplatz in Berlin to represent the plight of families waiting for a phone call with any news about their missing loved ones. 

In 2021 Syria marked a key milestone: 10 years since Syrian men and women took to the streets calling for freedom and democracy. Yet a decade of war crimes, brutal repression and devastating civilian suffering has not deterred several governments from renewing diplomatic or economic relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past year.

Inside Syria, human rights violations have continued unabated: attacks by Syrian regime and Russian forces have continued to kill civilians, including at least 65 children in the north west where residents also battled a catastrophic wave of Covid. Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture have also continued on a mass scale.

Despite this, several Arab states – emboldened by silence from the US – sought to rekindle their relationship with the Assad regime. Interpol also welcomed Syria back into its international policing network. In a similar vein, Denmark intensified its cruel and inhumane policy to strip hundreds of Syrian refugees of their residency status after designating part of Syria “safe” for refugee returns.

Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign said:

“There is a real risk today that the ongoing horrors that the Syrian people continue to endure – and have done for the past 10 years under the Assad regime – are being forgotten. This is a regime that shot at peaceful protesters in cold blood, indiscriminately bombed its own people and deliberately used chemical weapons against them. Over the past decade the Syrian regime has committed countless war crimes and crimes against humanity with impunity. Any steps towards normalising ties with Assad will undermine efforts to hold the regime to account for its atrocities and will enable the Syrian authorities to continue to crush civilians and to commit rampant human rights violations.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) across Syria 1,202 civilians were killed throughout 2021 by parties to the conflict including 284 children (167 of them in unidentified attacks), and 1,976 people were arbitrarily detained in 2021.

Refugees who return to Syria continue to face arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence and other abuse. Yet despite this European governments are still turning their backs on Syrian refugees.

“The Syrian regime, facing a collapsing economy and stringent sanctions, is so desperate to end its diplomatic isolation that it has resorted to seizing assets of businessmen and has converted Syria into a narco-state by profiting from a multi-billion dollar trade in the illegal drug captagon,” said Laila Kiki.

“The narrative the regime is attempting to convey to the world that the war is over and Syria is safe for people to return could not be further from the truth. Assad’s regime and its allies continue to indiscriminately bomb civilian areas, dissidents continue to be arbitrarily detained, tortured and forcibly disappeared and more than 100,000 people are still missing.”

For 10 years the international community has shamelessly failed to take action to protect the lives of millions of children, men and women in Syria allowing horrific violations to continue with total impunity. Despite this Syrian civil society groups have continued their courageous struggle to ensure that those responsible for the atrocities of the past decade are held accountable.

“Looking forward into 2022, US and European leaders need to focus their efforts on halting the dangerous drift towards normalisation by taking a strong stand against countries cosying up to the Assad regime and supporting the efforts of Syrian civil society groups seeking justice and accountability, and those of families looking for answers about their loved ones. The Assad regime must not be allowed to whitewash its record by sweeping an entire decade of heinous crimes beneath the carpet. “

For more information or interviews with Syrian civil society groups, families of detainees, the White Helmets or others, please contact [email protected]

Syria welcomed back to Interpol

On 1 October Syria was readmitted to Interpol’s communication network, meaning that the Syrian regime could now have the power to issue “red notice” international arrest warrants to hunt down dissidents and human rights activists abroad. Interpol’s “red notice” system has been criticised for lacking oversight and accountability, leaving it open to abuse by authoritarian governments. Human rights groups also fear that reinstating Syria to Interpol could have a damaging impact on asylum applications and may hinder Syrian activists and civil society members from being able to travel freely.

Kholoud Helmi of Families for Freedom, a women-led movement of families of Syria’s detainees said: “The decision to reinstate Syria to Interpol is causing a great deal of fear for many of us Syrian activists because in many countries where we are refugees there is fear of the normalization with the regime or that they have already restored their relationship with the regime… At any moment we as activists at any airport could find ourselves detained by the Syrian regime with the help of Interpol. It is really scary.”

Refugee returns to Syria

The edging towards the normalisation of relations with Syria has coincided with a marked shift in European stances on Syrian refugees, fuelled by rising anti-immigration sentiment across the continent.

Denmark has led the way by stripping more than 100 Syrian refugees of their residency permits after taking a decision to consider Damascus and its suburbs to be “safe”. So far 850 refugee cases have been reassessed and the number is rising. This policy forces refugees to choose between “voluntarily” returning to Syria where they could face arrest, detention and torture or living in a prison-like deportation camp in limbo. It’s not just cruel and inhumane but a blatant violation of international law to force a refugee to return to a place where they would be at risk of human rights abuses.

This stance set a dangerous precedent for other countries and risks encouraging others to follow suit. It also emboldens countries such as Lebanon and Turkey who have already been deporting refugees to Syria.

This policy has been adopted despite mounting evidence of the risks faced by refugees who return to Syria. Recent reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and documentation from SNHR all reveal a clear pattern of refugee who return being subjected to arbitrary detention, rape, torture and other abuse.

Striving for truth and Justice

In March 2021 five survivor and family associations (the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison, Caesar Families Association, the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS (Massar), Families for Freedom and Ta’afi Initiative came together to launch the The Charter for Truth and Justice. They put forward a common vision on the steps needed to deliver long overdue justice and accountability, including calls to establish a mechanism to uncover the fate of the tens of thousands who remain forcibly disappeared or missing in Syria.

Diab Serrih from the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison said:

“Despite the fact that Syria has faded from international news headlines – arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture today continue to be used systematically by security and intelligence forces and these abuses are taking place on a mass scale. There are tens of thousands of people still missing or detained in Syria. Yet still we have seen an acceleration towards normalising ties with Assad’s regime ignoring the bloodshed and suffering of Syrian people and the fate of all those still detained or disappeared. The Truth and Justice charter aims to put forward a clear set of steps that must be achieved in order to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are held accountable and the fate and whereabouts of the missing is uncovered.”

Battling a devastating wave of Covid

In September 2021 a fresh wave of Covid struck northwest Syria with the Delta veriant spreading fast even among young people and children, killing more people than at any point since the pandemic hit Syria. Cases soared and hospitals became overwhelmed due to severe shortages in oxygen, medical equipment, PPE, vaccines and ICU beds. Just 3.8% of the population in northwestern Syria is vaccinated, according to OCHA. The World Health Organisation did little to respond to the surge in infections and urgent pleas from doctors for additional vaccines and oxygen supplies.

In response to the crisis White Helmets rescue workers redirected their limited resources to helping support the overwhelmed health sector and saving lives. Women volunteers carried out home care visits even in rural areas under attack and White Helmets ambulances transported patients – often long distances – to the nearest hospital or medical centre. The team also set up a PPE factory to provide protective clothing and delivered vital oxygen supplies to the area’s hospitals.

The White Helmets also assisted with burials of victims and organized public health awareness training sessions in schools, displacement camps and the community to educate people on how to reduce risk of infections.

Looking ahead to 2022 it is only a matter of time until the omicron variant reaches Syria causing yet another crisis.

Attacks on civilians

Throughout 2021 the Syrian regime, Russia and other armed groups continued to spread fear and target civilians in northwestern Syria on a near-daily basis. From the beginning of June until the end of the year there was a marked escalation in military attacks with an intensification of bombing in northern Syria causing an increase in casualties and deaths as well as forced displacement and destruction of infrastructure.

Between June and August the Syrian regime proved that it will always resort to violence and abandon agreements at any sign of resistance to its rule, by breaking the settlement agreement with semi-autonomous towns in southern Syria that had been in effect since 2018. The regime resorted to their well-known “surrender or starve” tactics: besieging the opposition stronghold of Daraa al-Balad and sparking an urgent humanitarian crisis. This was prompted in part by the refusal of Daraa’s residents to participate in Assad’s sham presidential election in May. The regime cut off vital aid to around 20,000 people leaving them unable to access food, clean water and medical supplies.

In 2021, the White Helmets (Syria’s Civil Defence) responded to more than 1,284 air, artillery and missile attacks on civilian homes and vital facilities in more than 169 different cities and towns in northwestern Syria. These attacks killed more than 224 people, including at least 65 children, 38 women. They successfully rescued 612 injured civilians including 150 children.

The White Helmets also responded to more than 177 incidents involving improvised explosive devices, including booby trapped cars – that killed at least 91 people including 15 children.

Three members of the White Helmets lost their lives in deliberate attacks by the Syrian regime and Russia over the past year. Four attacks struck their centres and 11 attacks targeted teams of White Helmets workers going about their work.

Raed Saleh, Director of The White Helmets said:

“2021 was a year full of challenges for us, with a new wave of Covid-19 sweeping through northern Syria in addition to a continuation in bombardment and death. Throughout this year the world continued to forsake Syrians, hundreds of innocent people lost their lives and thousands of civilians are continuing to suffer up until this moment. I hope the new year will bring peace and good will and the war that the Syrian people are living through ends and that we can stop calling for the world to end our people’s tragedy and we can focus on our successes and restoring lives after war.

Omar, a White Helmets volunteer in Jabal Zawiya, described how an attack by the Syrian regime and Russia struck his home, killing his two daughters, Nour and Iman and injuring him, his wife and son and destroying their house: “It was a very hard experience for me – as a rescuer- to suddenly find myself and my family as victims. For this coming year I hope there will be an end to the bombing and killing and that I can live in peace with my family and new baby daughter who i have named Nour al-Iman [in memory of her sisters].”

According to the White Helmets at least 65 children were killed in 2021 by Syrian regime and Russian attacks in northern Syria.

Layla Hasso of Hurras Network, an organization that provides psychosocial support to children in Syria, highlighted the devastating impact such attacks have had on children’s daily lives.

“2021 has been a very tragic year for children – more than 65 died from regime attacks. Our protection officers in Idlib are doing everything they can to help children cope with this trauma. Every time a child dies, they reach out to their friends at school to help them deal with the feelings of loss and grief, they try their best to protect the children.

“The Syrian regime and Russia’s goal is to terrify the half-million children who live in Idlib province and to send a clear message to their families that there is no future for their children here. It’s why civilians are being targeted at their homes, schools, hospitals and elsewhere. This is what I call terrorism and it has to stop! The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this horror.”

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact [email protected]