Priority revenge

The question is often asked what an Islamist rebel victory might mean for Syria's minorities. But what about the acts of revenge that are to be expected from Bashar al-Assad? A commentary by Bente Scheller

By Bente Scheller

What happens if Assad falls? In discussions on this question, politicians and experts have occasionally raised the question of what an Islamist rebel victory might mean for Syria's ethnic and religious minorities and whether the Alawite minority – President Assad has an Alawite background – should then be protected from acts of vengeance.

A rarely posed counter-question

But unfortunately, the counter-question has been posed all too rarely: what about acts of vengeance carried out by the regime, should Assad win? Right from the outset, Assad's war against the protesting Syrian people has provided a foretaste of this. Long before it was clear how the conflict with the revolting Syrian population might end, the regime had already begun taking revenge. Whether it was the shots fired at peaceful demonstrators at the start of the conflict, the blanket deployment of barrel bombs, the massacres, or the arbitrary arrest of thousands still missing to this day, many of whom have been tortured to death: the violence of the Assad regime has targeted broad sections of the Syrian population.

The regime arrested those injured during the demos while they were still lying in hospital beds. It continues to pursue Syrian doctors who remain true to the Hippocratic oath and treat the wounded regardless of their political views, while also targeting hospitals. All of the hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been destroyed, without exception. At the same time, the regime has cut off hundreds of thousands of citizens from receiving any kind of supplies or treatment, as the Syrian and Russian air forces inflict an unrelenting bombardment on those left trapped in the city. The message "surrender or starve" became "give yourselves up or die".

The regime could not have made it much clearer that this was not about military gain and certainly not about tackling the much-talked about danger posed by the so-called Islamic State, but about teaching the civilian population a lesson that should be as painful as possible. That greater numbers of people did not give up as a result of the devastating conditions is because there was often no real choice: those who gave up risked being arrested or killed anyway.

Pro-Assad fighter in the rubble of Aleppo (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Razed to the ground: according to information provided by the aid agency Doctors without Borders, some 100,000 people remain trapped in an area of just five square kilometres in eastern Aleppo. The Syrian Monitor, which is fed information by a network of activists on the ground, claims that some 130,000 civilians have already fled the east of the city

This can currently be seen on a large scale in Aleppo. The regime arrested men fit for military service after their escape from eastern Aleppo and took them to camps. It is thought as many as 2,000 were captured in the first two days of the latest major offensive alone. The Syrian civil defence force reported 45 deaths, shot by the regime as they fled.

Helpless UN

It is therefore absolutely outrageous that Germany, among other countries, this year began granting only subsidiary protection to refugees from Syria – protection that is only valid as long as the general war situation continues – because those affected are not being "individually persecuted".

But it is clear that the regime does, if not exclusively, also pursue individuals. If your ID card states that you were born in a stronghold of the resistance this can be enough to get you arrested. Many are arrested to exert pressure on other family members – or simply, to give the regime more bargaining chips for a prisoner exchange.

The West is already not that interested in the minutiae of the horror machine. This is partially due to a deep-seated cliche here of what persecution looks like and the common misconception that threatened minorities are always the victims. But that a well-armed minority with massive troop and weapon support from Russia and Iran wants to bomb and murder into subjugation – this is a scenario we struggle with.

Bente Scheller (photo: Stephan Rohl)
Bente Scheller heads the office of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Beirut. Her book "The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game – Foreign Policy Under the Assads" was published in 2014

After all, while all this is going on, Europe's general line is (still) to demand Assad's resignation – and a helpless UN issues ever more urgent appeals to Assad and Russia to protect the civilian population. Geneva III, the international process to find a political solution, appears to have failed, as Assad and his allies are clearly pushing for a military outcome. But if the regime declares victory without negotiations, this will not be the end to violence in Syria.

Immense internal political pressure

The Islamic State group still exists and will continue to flourish in view of the fact that the West permits Assad to remain in power. And if the regime unleashes its power on those that have opposed it over the years, this could be far more deadly than a potential guerrilla war waged by the extremists.

Such a situation will not only affect those living in recaptured areas, but also refugees who are sent back to Syria. There are more than a million Syrian refugees stranded in Lebanon, who are tolerated but not recognised as refugees because Lebanon has not acceded to the relevant UN convention.

The internal political pressure to be rid of these people is immense. Should Assad declare the war at an end, this could serve as a welcome pretext for deportation – in Europe too. So Syrian civilians will continue to die. Just out of the public eye.

Bente Scheller

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon