While posing as a promising development, a recent detainee amnesty issued by the regime was heralded a disappointment by Syrians. Most of those released were arrested in recent years and included very few longstanding political prisoners. With thousands of Syrians deeply distressed by the lack of knowledge about their loved ones’ fates, a crucial requirement on this file is the issue of transparency, for the regime to offer some information to resolve the fate of the missing. On the political process, there is little optimism around the latest role of the constitutional committee at the end of the month—although there is some optimism around dialogue meetings in Stockholm between democratic groupings, with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) a leading component. This dialogue process hopes to lead to a conference in the autumn that should form a wider umbrella grouping for democratic groups and individuals. Such a development is badly needed with the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), recently dubbed a “walking dead body,” which has been rendered even more irrelevant after undergoing an internal crisis following “reforms” that backfired into a splinter movement.
On the 30th April 2022, the regime announced a general amnesty for those involved in “terrorist crimes,” the latest in a series of largely ineffectual, cosmetic amnesty decrees. Although this is the first decree in more than 11 years of conflict to cover detainees held on counter-terror charges, military and civil experts labelled this amnesty as “empty” and “disappointing.”
It is possible to gauge the implementation of this latest amnesty from some of the different profiles of detainees who were released after its announcement. It is estimated that a total of around 570 people were released as a result, although no lists of names of those released were published. A majority of those released were individuals from Daraa, Deir Ezzor, and Homs who had been arrested after the settlement deals or so-called “reconciliation” agreements of 2017 and 2018. At the same time, though, some of those released were only arrested last month; very few had been detained in the regime’s initial waves of arrests in 2011. Around 133 of those released were from Daraa province yet the decree has been received poorly there, attracting comparisons to the myriad other ineffective amnesties that have done little to reveal the fates of the tens of thousands of Daraa residents who were detained and forcibly disappeared after 2011. None of those who were released from Daraa have a political profile.
The language of this latest amnesty was brief and vague, whereas previous decrees had been more detailed. Apparently hastily written, the amnesty was likely a quick response to try to calm widespread shock and anger over the Tadamon massacre—a video of which was leaked and reported on by international media recently. This is the latest in a series of regime gestures that attempts to present a cleaner image of the regime in the eyes of the international community.
There are an estimated 135,000 Syrians who are documented as detained or arrested by the regime in addition to thousands more who have not been documented. The fate of all these detainees remains unknown, which is deeply distressing for the families involved. One senior political researched commented that “what this amnesty tells us is that those who were arrested over a decade ago were either killed under torture or were executed,” adding that it is impossible for the regime to release detainees who are most likely dead.
An essential step within the detainees file remains the issue of transparency; the regime should issue lists of those arbitrarily detained or arrested since 2011 with information about their fate and their whereabouts for families to have some resolution around their fate.
There is a buzz within Syrian policy circles following the latest in a series of meetings that was held in Stockholm on the weekend of the 14th May 2022 under the title: “Consultative Meeting for Democratic Powers and Figures.” This process, led by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), first began in 2018 and has produced a series of workshops held in European capitals since then.
The latest meeting focused on three areas: the current economic and social situation in Syria, Syria’s national identity, and the subject of decentralisation. The workshops in Stockholm were attended by like-minded figures of a liberal and secular background and included former representatives from the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), as well as leading SDC members. While the SDC is the driving force, the aim of the consultative process is to facilitate dialogue with different political constituencies within the opposition and the SDC. Some speak of a more ambitious aim of creating a new political body that includes a broad spectrum of political actors and includes opposition figures with the aim of creating an inclusive and legitimate body that is independent of both regional powers and Islamist actors. Representatives of western governments are interested in the development of these meetings, which offer some hope to better represent the Syrian people moving forwards.
In December, SDC head Ilham Ahmad said: “The Syrians are waiting for a glimmer of hope in the time Damascus has lost its public support. All the conditions across Syria are propitious for launching a democratic project.”
Much discontent is present within the SOC, after 18 of its members were expelled in early April. The changes were conducted under the banner of “reform”; SOC head Salem Muslet purportedly intends to replace departing members with representatives from local councils and Syrian organizations in Syria and diaspora—although a month on, these steps are yet to materialise. And while such reforms are arguably badly needed within the SOC, it was the way in which they were conducted that stirred such controversy—having occurred without transparency and very suddenly, leaving affected members surprised to discover they would lose their seats without warning. The SOC justified its tactic saying that this was the only way in which reforms could be made without encountering obstacles.
Changes were also made to the coalition’s by-laws that reduced the number of component groups within the SOC from 25 to 12. The Muslim Brotherhood bloc was reduced to two members with key Brotherhood figures Ahmad Ramadan and Nazir Hakim losing both their positions and their allies. The new by-law extended the term of the coalition’s president, the deputy president, and the secretary-general from one to two years, with the possibility to serve to consecutive terms. The SOC president will now also be able to nominate candidates to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)—previously the SOC’s general assembly was tasked with this job.
The departed members immediately formed a new bloc headed by Ahmad Ramadan which they called the “Syrian National Coalition – Reform Movement.” They described what had happened as a “coup” and threatened to expose corruption and other nefarious activities within the SOC. The Reform Movement (RM) has moved quickly on a campaign to set out their political platform, conducting visits to northern Syria to explain developments and reach out to the Syrian people for support. The SOC is seriously concerned about this break-away group, in particular their vigorous campaign approach and their outreach to the diplomatic community. Despite this vigorous initial campaign, without regional or international support, which looks highly unlikely, such efforts cannot be sustained.
ETANA conducted a brief online survey of Syrians’ views on this issue, targeting participants from civil society, intellectuals, and opposition backgrounds. The survey question was: “Do you follow what is happening with reform in the ranks of the Syrian opposition coalition?” Of 82 participants, 83% said “No, I am not concerned at all”; 17% said “Yes, to some extent”; and only one person (0.01% of all participants) answered “Yes, pretty much” while no one said “Yes, it matters very much.” A Syrian political expert commented on these results saying: “It demonstrates how Syrians pay little attention to the battles within the SOC; they see it as irrelevant. The representation the SOC claims is not real, it has zero legitimacy.”
The next round of the UN-facilitated constitutional committee process will be held on 28th May. There is little optimism about the coming round of talks—the eighth—since the regime delegation is still refusing to amend any texts submitted, part of a broader intransigent positioning from the regime’s side that is rooted in its refusal to give any legitimacy to the process in the first place.
The last round, held towards the end of March, was another disappointment. While all three of the delegations presented papers for discussion, the regime’s paper on “The Principle of State Symbols” was particularly controversial since it stated that symbols such as the Syrian flag would “not [be] subject to modification.” Since many constituencies within Syria see this flag as only representing the regime, this position proved highly contentious and was considered a provocative move from the regime. The opposition delegation meanwhile presented two papers on the “Basics of Governance,” containing notions on the system of governance such as the central importance of the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom of expression and political parties. The civil society delegation closer to the government (eight members) submitted a paper titled “The Identity of the State” that also stipulated basic features of the state such as its name (the Syrian Arab Republic) and its language (Arabic), while stating that Syria is a democratic Arab state in which the law guarantees political pluralism.