May 18, 2023

Seven reasons why normalizing with Assad is a shameful, terrible move

Re-admitting Assad into the Arab League amounts to whitewashing his crimes against humanity and sends a chilling message to his victims and citizens of the region

Earlier this month, the Arab League agreed to reinstate Syria’s membership 12 years after its suspension due to its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the Arab League summit on May 19, issued an official invitation to Bashar al-Assad to attend.

Ahead of Friday’s meeting where our social media timelines will inevitably be flooded by Arab rulers shaking hands with Assad, here are just seven reasons why normalizing with the Assad regime is a terrible, shameful move:

1. Assad is a war criminal. Nothing has changed.

The Syrian regime has murdered hundreds of thousands of Syrians and crushed all dissent through barbaric, illegal tactics such as the deliberate bombing of civilians, chemical weapons attacks, and the systematic torture and killing of men and women in underground detention dungeons. To this day, over 150,000 people are still estimated to be forcibly disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Syria and fear of detention overshadows every aspect of public life.  

These crimes are still ongoing, and have been extensively documented by the UN and reputable Syrian and international organizations. A court in the German town of Koblenz found two defendants guilty for crimes against humanity orchestrated by the Assad regime. Canada and the Netherlands are undertaking a joint effort to hold Syria responsible for gross human rights violations under the UN Convention against Torture. Syria remains heavily sanctioned by the US and the EU for Assad’s war crimes. Shaking hands with Assad amounts to whitewashing his atrocities.

2. A large segment of Syrians will never accept Assad and cannot return to Syria while he remains in power

In 2011, Syrians took to the streets demanding freedom and dignity after 40 years of the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him. The protests were met with brutal force, and over 14 million people have been forced to flee their homes, including 6.8 million people who are internally displaced. Returning to Syria carries a huge risk of arrest, disappearance, torture, and execution. The widespread bombing, theft, and seizure of properties by the regime mean many people, especially those who fled as children, have nowhere to return to.

3. Putting refugees at an increased risk of deportation

Many Arab states hope that normalizing relations with Assad will make it easier to force refugees to return to Syria. But international law is clear: It’s illegal to deport refugees to a place where they face persecution. Refugees in Turkey and Lebanon are living in a climate of fear as existing hostilities and xenophobic sentiments against Syrians have become even more pronounced, and thousands of refugees have been arbitrarily deported in recent months. There are numerous documented cases of returnees being subjected to horrific violations including rape, torture, arrest, forced conscription, and disappearance at the hands of the regime.

4. Peace is not possible without justice and political transition

Arab states are cynically pursuing their own political agendas at the expense of basic human rights. They are betraying victims of the regime’s war crimes and giving Assad a green light to continue committing crimes with impunity.

As Kim Ghattas noted in a recent article, the violence that erupted in Sudan should serve as a grim warning of the long-term consequences of compromising with tyrants without justice and accountability.

5. There is no hope for prosperity in Syria under Assad

Assad has proven time and again that he is incapable of fostering stability in Syria. The incompetence, economic mismanagement and corruption has pushed Syria into a severe economic crisis and people in Syria now struggle to even afford bread or fuel. Meanwhile, the Assad regime has turned Syria into a major narco-state where the manufacturing and illegal smuggling of the amphetamine drug Captagon has become a multi billion dollar operation.

6. Emboldening tyrants everywhere

Shaking hands with Assad instead of holding him accountable is not only a grave betrayal to Assad’s victims. It also sends a signal to authoritarians worldwide that they can brutally break every rule of international law and not face any real consequence, setting a dangerous precedent for humanity as a whole. Failure to hold Russia accountable for its crimes in Syria and elsewhere has emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine.

7. A bunch of authoritarian rulers will not decide the future of Syria. Syrians will.

All the reasons why people took to the streets in 2011 still plague everyday life. Syrians have endured 12 years of unimaginable suffering and have been utterly failed by the international community. But in the face of this failure, Syrian grassroots activists and civil society risked their lives to create meaning and resistance when hope felt impossible. They will not allow a bunch of authoritarian rulers to dictate their future. And we will continue to work hand in hand with them to shake the world’s consciousness into action and build a Syria for all Syrians without Assad, without dictatorship, and without extremism.