Since earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, claiming the lives of more than 5,900 people across Syria and exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crisis, several Arab countries have rushed to further normalize ties with the government of President Bashar al-Assad. And they are doing so without pressing for accountability for the crimes that the Syrian authorities have committed or the critical reforms necessary for durable peace and a prosperous postwar Syria. Arab states seeking to normalize relationships should recognize that the Syrian government in power today is the same one that has forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of people and other serious human rights violations against its citizens even before the uprisings began. During 12 years of war, it has committed countless crimes against humanity and forced millions into displacement. And it continues to weaponize humanitarian aid, diverting it from populations that oppose Assad’s rule. While war crimes have decreased in recent years, they still continue: in November 2022, Syrian government forces dropped banned cluster munitions on camps for the internally displaced in northwest Syria. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and even Turkey, previously vehemently opposed to the Assad government, are starting to hint at a willingness to have closer relations with Syria, despite widespread and systematic human rights abuses, and little or no accountability for the litany of crimes that have been committed. Others like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates already have. Without genuine accountability and reform there is very little reason to believe these practices will stop. On February 19, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said that isolating Syria was not working and that a new approach was needed. But any new approach needs to have at its center commitments by the Syrian government and its allies to the Syrian population.
They should take concrete measures to ensure refugees and displaced Syrians are protected from retaliation and have a home to return to; unconditionally release wrongfully held prisoners and disclose the fates and whereabouts of the forcibly disappeared; and reform the Syrian state apparatus, particularly the security and justice systems, to respect the rights of Syrian citizens and hold those responsible for abuses to account. Without pushing for these reforms, Arab states risk endorsing and supporting the Assad government’s widespread abuses.
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