Around 100 people were injured in a toxic gas attack in late November in the government-controlled city of Aleppo, according to Syrian state media. The attacks and the seeming reappearance of chemical weapons onto the Syrian battlefield shot the country back into the headlines after several months of relative quiet.
Yet this quiet has been an illusion and whilst the narrative of a conflict winding down and coming to an inevitable end continues to dominate, the reality is both more insidious and deadlier. Indeed, what is happening in the shadows of Syria beneath the murky veil of a complex fog of war is revealing as to the Damascus regime’s continued preferences for authoritarian tendencies and what that means for the future of the country.
The assassination of a prominent civil rights activist in Idlib last week reminded the world of Syria’s very much unresolved conflict. Yet whilst we are not in a phase of major urban battles, we are witnessing a trend of assassinations in opposition-controlled zones and disappearances in ‘reconciled’ areas.
As the media site Syria Direct described, “as large swathes of the country return to Syrian government control, hopes for free and independent Syrian journalism inside much of Syria have become increasingly improbable.”
Raed Fares used videos, skits and protest placards to criticise the Syrian military, jihadists and Western leaders he felt had failed to stop the violence that tore his country apart. Fares knew the regime and its methods well, telling reporters that he remembered as a child watching security agents kill his neighbour.
One of Fares’s films reminded watchers that ‘death is death, regardless of the way it was done’, a reference to the differing standards between the international community’s view of mass killings with conventional versus chemical weapons. The Syria Campaign described Fares as an “iconic leader of the Syrian uprising and a legendary teacher in nonviolent activism.”
Yet it was violence that took him, and he joins a long list of the Syrian dead. This list grew longer as since this summer the regime has been more forthright about the fate of some of the 82,000 people who have disappeared into the country’s dark and deadly prison system. That the regime is confident enough to announce these deaths is part of an attempt to reimpose the culture of fear that was such an essential ingredient of how the country was governed prior to the 2011 uprising.
This culture of fear tolerates little in the form of dissent and there was always a risk that those opposition fighters who accepted the variety of reconciliation deals were leaving themselves vulnerable in the long run.
Tragically, this predictable outcome seems to be coming true, albeit in a manner that is hard to track or monitor. Yet the reports are consistent that large numbers of civilians, ex-rebels and former opposition members, in the south particularly, have gone missing after accepting offers to return to the 'nation's embrace'.
So much of the conflict has been typified by mass displacement or mass killing. The movement of millions, half of the country, from their homes to the uncertainties of internal displacement or to life as a refugee. The number of dead that has peaked in the hundreds of thousands, killed in their dozens as high explosive meets the soft unprotected underbelly of people’s homes.
By contrast, the targeted deaths of individuals pales in comparison. Bodies are found on the sides of the street or abandoned in rubbish dumps or on the edge of rivers. Yet there is a trend towards ex-Free Syrian Army fighters, or police, or activists, being the ones who manage to find a bullet as a police state looks to restore its balance of terror.
Researchers now claim to see a rise in the numbers of particularly young men who are either arrested and disappear into a Kafkaesque prison system, or who just end up dead, often with the scars of torture on their broken bodies.
There has been little public talk of the real meaning of the ‘reconciliation’ part of the various deals that have, bit by bit, brought peace to many parts of Syria. Now perhaps we see what reconciliation looks like in the glare of an assertive, confident regime. This looks eerily similar to how Syria was ruled prior to the uprising of 2011 and it bodes ill for the future stability of the beleaguered country.
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