Assad’s invitation to COP28 must be rescinded, here’s why…

Assad’s invitation to COP28 must be rescinded, here’s why…

Ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are warming. A meeting with the UAE Foreign Minister last March, the nations return to the Arab League, and the ramping up of bilateral diplomatic relations indicate that the Assad regime is re-entering the international fold 12 years after the beginning of its brutal civil war. Yet, the decision to invite Assad to the COP28 conference at the end of the year is still a disappointing surprise. 


The regimes horrendous abuse of its own civilians are still an unresolved and continuing issue. The world was shocked by Assad’s widely reported use of chemical weapons on it’s own citizens and the indiscriminate dropping of nearly 80 000 barrel bombs over 11 years, killing some 11 087 people including 1 821 children, indicates a complete lack of regard for human life. 


Although the civil war has reduced to a simmer, the Assad regime still disappears and targets it’s own civilians to achieve political gains. impACT urges the UN and relevant international bodies, including those expecting to attend the conference in November, to consider Assad’s continuing abuse of civilians and reject his invitation. 


Here are a number of unresolved issues beyond the indiscriminate attacks on civilians that indicate Assad’s horrendous treatment of civilians and disingenuous attempts to foster a more favourable external view of his regime.


Disingenuous Anti-Torture Law


In 2022, the Syrian regime passed an ‘anti-torture’ Law No. 16, supposedly criminalising torture. According to the Syrian President’s Facebook account the was issued in compliance with “constitutional obligations of the Syrian State, which prohibit torture” and with the related Convention against Torture of 1984 to which the Syrian Arab Republic acceded on the 19th August 2004. Through international law, the current Syrian government is compelled by the Convention to continue to abide by it as a signatory state. 


Though the law was finally introduced, some 18 years later than expected, it does not deal with the decade of abuse of civilians and rebels that have been tortured in various ways by the Army and security agents. The law mentions no repercussions for any state personnel responsible for torture, which was widely reported throughout the civil war. Amnesty International accused the Assad regime of “whitewashing” decades of violations, illustrating it’s lack of compliance with international human rights law as it does not ensure that the “perpetrators of torture, cruel, inhuman or other ill-treatment face justice in fair trials before any civilian courts”. If the Assad regime was truly serious about stopping torture in their country, it must reconcile with horrendous treatment of its own civilians in a satisfactory manner to those who had experienced abuse at the hands of the state. 


impACT International, like Amnesty International and many other human rights advocacy groups, implores the Syrian state to face up to the violations of human rights that it carried out during the civil war and ensure those who sanctioned or carried out such acts face proper justice in compliance with international human rights. 


Weaponising ISIS 


The weaponisation of terror groups is not a totally unfamiliar tactic used to silence dissent under the Assad regime. According to Charles Lister, a senior researcher at the Middle East Institute, Assad and his late father have a record of exploiting morally questionable actors for his own political aims. In 2011, after the break out of protests, the regime released several jihadists from prison to silence dissent, including Amr al-Abdi, who later became a senior ISIS official.


In 2014, a former member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate stated


“Releasing terrorists from Syrian prisons was not something I heard rumours about, I actually heard the orders, I have seen it happening. These orders came down from Headquarters in Damascus”


At various points in the war, Assad’s Regime refrained from attacking IS positions, even appearing to collude with them and goad them into attacking rebel positions rather than the regime. There are various incidents of clashes between the Regime and IS, but these became less frequent after 2013 as the terror group gained territory. Favourable military positioning also indicates collusion, like in July 2014, when IS forces withdrew from the Northern suburbs of Aleppo as the Regime was attempting to outflank the Free Syrian Army. US embassy tweets from June 2015 even indicated that Regime air-strikes were actually positioned in order to aid their advance on Aleppo. In Eastern Hama, a region that had been free from IS activity since a deal was struck with the regime in 2017 that allowed the free movement of militants towards Idlib where rebel forces were stationed.


In January of this year, a senior ISIS commander admitted in a video to tracking targets who were on a hit list created by Assad’s security services. There are well founded and widespread fears, particularly in AANES and other rebel held areas, that Assad will sanction further operations carried out by terror groups to silence remaining opposition groups. 


Targeting Civilians 


The targeting of civilians has long been a feature of Assad’s attempts to hold on to power. Amnesty International reported that, in 2022 alone, the regime launched a number of attacks that either indirectly killed civilians, or “intentionally targeted objects indispensable to the survival of the population”. For example, in early January, an airstrike targeted the Arashani water station that serves the city of Idlib, it injured a civilian and temporarily cut the water supply to 300 people. The next month, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that there “were reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian government had conducted chlorine attack on Kafer Zita, a town in the Hama governate in 2016. Then in March, after this discovery, Russia vetoed a US-sponsored resolution at the UN Security Council that would have sent OPCW inspectors to investigate, which certainly suggests regime culpability. In November, in a series of artillery attacks and air strikes that targeted the IDP camp in Kafr Jallis in Northwestern Syria,  four people were killed; three children, a woman and injuring more than 70 others. 


These were discoveries from 2022 alone, it is vital to remember the outrageous statistics that suggest indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and other aerial bombardments, chemical weapons, and the regimes complete disregard for the lives of it’s population.


Blocking COVID-19 Humanitarian Aid


The manipulation of international aid is another tactic used by the regime to squeeze an already battered population into accepting the Syrian government as the only political authority in the country. During the early stages COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the regime looked to redirect international aid in order to supplement areas under its control but leave those in rebel areas without access to testing or vital medications to fight the spread of the virus. Human Rights Watch reported meagre access to testing equipment in the Northeast, indicating that a tiny portion of completed tests returned from the region whilst the majority came from Damascus.


Air shipments in March and April 2020, faced a prolonged bureaucratic process just to reach its intended target areas. The aid equipment landed in Damascus in a timely manner, but agencies faced a drawn out process to get it’s equipment to Qamishli, it’s intended destination. The refusal to enable aid workers access to the Northeastern areas of the country was clearly intended to prolong the suffering of those in nongovernment areas. UN Security Council Resolution 1265 of 2014 reflected that the “arbitrary and unjustified withholding of consent to relief operations and the persistence of conditions that impede the delivery of humanitarian supplies to destinations within Syria” was a clear tactic of Assad’s regime long before the pandemic. The WHO and UNICEF sent numerous medical supplies to Qamishli, however, a little over half reached nongovernmental areas. 


Blocking Earthquake Humanitarian Aid


Though the Earthquake in February this year largely impacted people on the Turkish side of the border, Syrians were still deeply impacted by the catastrophe. With over 7 000 people dying in Syria, aid was vital to preventing further chaos in the region. Houses and infrastructure damaged by war was far more likely to collapse during the quake due to sustained structural damage. The regime deployed a similar approach to aid delivery as they did throughout the civil war and pandemic. Amnesty International, in March, accused the government of “obstructing and diverting humanitarian aid aimed at alleviating the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians”. In February, the government blocked at least 100 trucks carrying essential aid to Kurdish areas of Aleppo. Rebel-controlled areas were less impacted by the quake, AANES, local and international humanitarian organisations aimed at sending aid to citizens in the worst affected areas. Four people interviewed by Amnesty confirmed that the Syrian National Army refused to allow at least 30 trucks carrying vital equipment to pass numerous checkpoints. With a humanitarian worker stating that “the obstruction of aid is purely political”, it is clear that the regime refused the aid from rebel groups in order to prevent the increase of sympathies for non-governmental groups in Syria. The trucks waited at the check point for a week, then were sent back. Worse, independent and local media sources indicated that the Syrian government allegedly stole aid that was sent to survivors. On at least six occasions, armed groups associated with the state redirected aid to their own families and relatives. A Kurdish man in Afrin stated that unless one had connections, it was incredibly difficult to obtain any resources, many had to resort to buying aid tents, despite them being sent for citizens directly. 


Assad must be uninvited to the COP28 Conference


It is clear that Assad carries an absolute disregard, even distain for the lives of Syrian citizens. Using political, climate and viral events to further his political goals. Whilst, certainly, other invitees to the conference in Dubai have dubious records, allowing Assad to re-enter the political fray poses a threat to the legitimacy of COP28. Whilst a spokesperson for COP stated that the event is purely to find “transformational solutions” to the climate crisis which requires “everyone in the room”, relying on Assad looks rather pointless and immoral. This should be seen as nothing more than an attempt to re-legitimise his despotic rule in Syria.


impACT implores COP and other invitees to oppose his appearance in Dubai in November this year. 


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