On 29th December 2016, days after the fall of the city of Aleppo -the once undisputable rebel bastion of the Syrian armed conflict-, Russia and Turkey acting as representatives of the two original sides of the conflict announced a ceasefire aimed at “reducing violence, preventing casualties among civilians and providing unhindered humanitarian access”.
The agreement covered three areas. First, it designed a proposal for a general ceasefire that began on 30th December 2016 and that applied on the one hand, to pro-regime forces: the army and intelligence and security forces; and on the other hand, to rebel groups inside the Free Syrian Army and the High Negotiating Committee. Nevertheless, the agreement does not include groups considered terrorist, particularly the Islamic State; and due to the fragmentation inside the rebel faction, the accession of other groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former al-Nusra Front), associated with al-Qaeda, or the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is highly doubtful.
The second part of the agreement deals with the commitment, undertaken by Russia and Turkey –the two guarantor countries— to establish monitoring mechanisms to supervise the ceasefire. Among these mechanisms, they agreed on the establishment of a joint commission tasked with the consideration of complaints, on the establishment of checkpoints in residential areas in order to guarantee compliance, and on the imposition of sanctions on parties that fail to comply with the conditions set in the ceasefire.
The third part of the agreement –more ambitious but even more necessary to achieve a meaningful peace in Syria— envisages the initiation of inter-party negotiations, once the ceasefire is consolidated. These talks aim at opening both a political dialogue between opposing parties, and a transitional process. In this vein, the government of Bashar al-Assad has promised to appoint a delegation that will work alongside representatives of the opposition in the city of Astana, Kazakhstan, with the participation of United Nations.
There is no doubt that the announcement of a ceasefire agreement is positive and brings hope. The UN Security Council immediately passed a new resolution 2336 (2016) on 31st December 2016 announcing its explicit support to these efforts and defining them as an “an important part of the Syrian-led political process and an important step ahead of the resumption of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva on 8 February 2017”.
Regrettably, however, neither this political commitment for dialogue, nor the creation of a commission of this nature are new. Nor is United Nations’ ineffective support. Already in 2015, the Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) called for the establishment of a political transitional process in Syria guided by the citizens’ yearning to put an end to the conflict. This resolution devised i) the establishment of a commission to guarantee peace and political stability; ii) the drafting of a new constitution, and iii) the organization of free elections. Syrian citizens have constantly demanded an additional objective, iv) ensuring truth and justice for the victims, although unfortunately this last demand does not seem to have acquired the same relevance.
The fact is that today, five years after the beginning of the indiscriminate and systematic attack against the Syrian civil population; five years in which thousands of Syrians from all corners of the country have been detained, tortured, kept in overcrowded cells, and executed in the detention centers controlled by the security and intelligence forces and the army; and five years after the relentless besiege and bombardment of the main cities of the country, which forced hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens to exile in a permanent exodus to Turkey and Europe that has thus refined these regions’ structural xenophobia and hate against migrants; today, five years later, it is difficult to maintain hope. It is particularly difficult to fight against the skepticism and the sense of unease with which Syrian people face this new negotiating process, with President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian State acting as a legitimate party.
The political situation in Syria is very fragile. Several actors in the conflict are not party to the ceasefire agreement. This reflects the fragmentation existing inside the opposition groups, and makes the ceasefire even more vulnerable. Although Turkey set that negotiations would begin at the end of January, the last days were filled with news of illegitimate attacks, which invited rebel groups to question whether they should freeze the preparation for the negotiations due to governmental actions in breach of the terms of the agreement.
In my view, if the Astana negotiating process starting this week does not begin with a parallel transitional process that includes minimum conditions of truth and justice, it will not succeed. It is not possible to sacrifice justice in the name of peace, or else it will not last. President Bashar al-Assad cannot be the institutional leader and a legitimate party to this dialogue and negotiation. And even if his participation were inevitable, it should be preceded by the approval of an urgent legal measure to free thousands of civilians that remain detained in the Syrian detention centres since March 2011, so the process begins with an honest aspiration of truth and justice. This honesty requires recognition that, in order to silence a potential Arab Spring in the country, Bashar al-Assad’s administration in its perverse intent to keep power, and jointly with the main representatives of the armed forces and the intelligence and security services, transformed the State and turned it into a criminal State. A State that has made use of all its institutions –and created new ones—with the objective of oppressing, silencing, intimidating and finally annihilating its citizenship.
There will be no peace without justice in Syria. Despite what was learnt during the conflicts that took place in the 20th century, the current internal conflict in Syria -which should have never occurred- overwhelmed and paralyzed all of us. The international political irresponsibility, once again, left all the work in the hands of victims. Although peace will be brought by a political decision, no peace will be guaranteed without the arduous work of victims, Syrian civil society and the international community to obtain justice.
Thousands of refugees now live in Turkey, Europe, Canada and America. Hundreds of them are survivors of the detention centres or have lost their family members in one of them, exposed to torture, illness or hunger. Many others fled to escape the bombardments and the besieges. In July 2013, a military police photographer who was instructed to take photographs of and register the mutilated and tortured bodies of Syrian men and children that died in the detention centres, made copies of these photographs and left the country, bringing thousands of these photographs with him. Nowadays, he is under protection outside Syria. His name remains a secret for fear of reprisals, but he is known by the alias “Caesar”. We cannot ignore the visual testimony of brutal repression that this photographic record represents. Contrary to what many prefer to believe, these photographs do not reveal details of an armed conflict or a civil war, but of the methodical and ruthless arrogance of power when it is at risk of being lost and everything must be made to maintain it, at any cost, even if it requires the destruction of its own citizens.
The equilibrium between peace and justice is delicate in any conflict or post-conflict situation, but the negotiating process that will be inaugurated in Astana cannot overlook the terrible international crimes committed by the Syrian State since 2011 and the will of the hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect victims of the conflict. It will be necessary to find mechanisms of transitional and transnational justice, so that despite the continuation of hostilities in the country and the current change of paradigms at international level, peace could be consolidated, justice guaranteed and victims able to recover their voice.
This piece is a translation of the article “Paz y Justicia para Syria” by Almudena Bernabeu, published at Al Revés y Al Derecho on 23rd January 2017.