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Rebuilding Syria risks ‘complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity

01 June 2018


A Syrian soldier kneels to pray in the Hajar al-Aswad district, south of Damascus, last week. The district has been largely destroyed

A Syrian soldier kneels to pray in the Hajar al-Aswad district, south of Damascus, last week. The district has been largely destroyed

THE ethics of reconstructing Syria, which is estimated to carry a $300-billion price-tag, were debated at Chatham House last week.

The event, organised by the Syria Legal Development Programme, featured two panels, consisting of barristers, academics, and civil society and development experts, who expressed unease about the likely beneficiaries of investment.

“I find it very difficult to reconcile, in my own mind, how we can support and fund the Syrian government, and those that have supported it, to rebuild what they have destroyed,” Toby Cadman, the head of Guernica 37, a chambers in London specialising in international law, said. There was a risk, he said, of being “complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

“Reconstruction is a real need, but we have to have the right conditions for it,” suggested Dr Maria Al Abdeh, executive director of Women Now For Development, the largest network of women-empowerment centres inside Syria. She called for “reconstruction for the whole of Syria and all Syrians”, and warned that concentrating on areas where the Syrian government had secured a military victory “means we are completely neglecting the political process”.

In April, the Syrian government passed a law under which certain areas of the country will be designated redevelopment zones. Everyone living in them will have to move out, and they will receive compensation for property only if they can prove ownership — a high barrier for many of the 11 million Syrians displaced by the war, and an impossible one for the tens of thousands who have “disappeared”.

The women of the disappeared or killed would struggle to claim property, Dr Al Abdeh warned: “They never forget the disappeared, and they will keep looking for them.”

Quoting from a report published in March by the UN Human Rights Council, which described rapes and other acts of sexual violence carried out by government forces and associated militias as “crimes against humanity”, Dr Alabdeh asked: “Are we funding the main perpetrators of human-rights abuse and sexual violence?”

The political officer on Syria for the European External Action Service, Jean-François Hasperue, articulated the position of the EU: a refusal to fund reconstruction until a political transition, negotiated by the Syrian parties, was under way.

“This regime cost too many lives for us to be in a position to have a political relationship at any level,” he said.

“We need to have the courage to resist the pressure of those telling us that the regime is winning the war. . . This military logic is not sustainable. What the regime is doing is the best recipe for a longstanding civil war for the next ten years.”

The reconstruction begun by the government was “based on social engineering and aiming at rewarding their supporters.” Humanitarian aid was “the best tool in our hands.”

Mr Cadman suggested that there was “not likely to be a political transition in the way that many of us would like to see”, but argued: “We cannot consider the reconstruction effort without putting justice and accountability at the forefront of these discussions. If you do not deal with these fundamental issues . . . you are putting a plaster over a very big crack.”

There was no likelihood that Syria would be referred to an international criminal tribunal, he said. Justice would fall to “future Syrian institutions”, who would have to spend “the next couple of decades” dealing with the crimes committed, trained and helped by the international community.

Wayne Jordash QC, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, disagreed “profoundly” with other panellists, arguing that, when it came to reconstruction, “the horse has bolted.”

The UN was already funding reconstruction, he said, “channelling money into projects which may be termed humanitarian, but are part of a reconstruction effort”. The “regime’s cronies” were already “milking the system”. It was important to look at reconstruction “through the lens of business and human-rights law”, he said. A framework existed for this, enabling due diligence to be carried out and consultation with communities.

The head of humanitarian policy, advocacy, and campaigns at Oxfam, Fionna Smyth, reported that many donors would not fund reconstruction, but that the war economy persisted, and there were already signs of the private sector moving in.

She said: “The question that we can pose is: What if there is never a situation that people are happy with?” When donors removed themselves from the conversation, “the conversation does not stop. . . Other actors will step into the vacuum,”

It was “critical” that donors funded the “very vibrant civil society” inside Syria and in the diaspora. “That is where the social contract will be built between the citizen and the state.”

The UN has estimated that Syria’s economy will take at least 30 years to recover. One third of the housing in Syria has been destroyed, and more than half of the population has been displaced or killed.



Churches continue to minister, despite the conflict. “BY THE grace of God we continue to survive here.” So said Alex Amaziah, the lay leader of All Saints’, Damascus, when I attended worship there a few weeks ago, writes Andrew Ashdown.

The church is situated in the suburb of Jaramana in south Damascus, a mixed area that includes Christians, residents, and thousands of internally displaced people. It is sandwiched between the districts of East Ghouta and Yarmouk, at the frontline of a brutal conflict. For­gotten by the outside world, the Anglican church remains a Christian presence.

The church, housed in an old apartment block, has been without a priest since the start of the war [the Revd Andrew Lake’s visa was not renewed (News, 5 August 2011)]. Mr Amaziah has led both the Sudanese and the Arabic congregations throughout. As well as regular worship, there are weekly Bible-study groups, prayer groups, and children’s and women’s fellowships. Despite almost no financial resources, and little contact with the outside world, the congregation’s ministry continues.

That inspiring witness continues throughout Syria, despite the devastating conflict. During my tenth visit to Syria in the past four years, I travelled independently and without official accompaniment throughout the country. In the village of Kessab, north of Lattakia and adjacent to the Turkish border, I visited the Armenian Evangelical and Armenian Catholic Churches. When “rebels” occupied the town in 2014, they desecrated the churches and smashed the graves. The churches have been restored, and the town is slowly recovering, but fear remains.

I asked the priest of the Armenian Catholic Church what he would like to say to Christian communities overseas who had been highly critical about church leaders in Syria. His reply: “You should come and see the reality for yourself. We live here. We know what we are going through. You should see the reality before making judgements.”

Last May, with a Greek Orthodox priest, I toured Christian villages to the south of Kessab which are near the border with Idleb province, in an area that had been occupied by “moderate rebels” in 2013. All the villages had been destroyed. The churches had been gutted; altars and fonts had been smashed, icons had been stolen or destroyed, and the walls had been daubed with Islamist graffiti.

From Aleppo, I travelled eastwards through territory only recently liberated from Daesh (Islamic State), to Deir ez-Zor, to see some of the remarkable work of the Syrian Orthodox Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee (EPDC).

Deir ez-Zor is a traumatised town. In a town where Christians and Muslims once lived side by side, there is now only one Christian resident remaining. The churches were destroyed by Daesh. Like other faith charities, the EPDC has numerous projects working with the most disadvantaged and most affected, and with internally displaced people throughout Syria. Their work is greatly disadvantaged, however, by the effects of international sanctions against Syria.

Throughout the Government-controlled areas, Christians are able to survive. Many have left, however, because of the conflict and Syria’s desperate economic situation.

The Revd Andrew Ashdown is undertaking doctoral research at Winchester University on Christian-Muslim relations in Syria. He was part of the group that visited Syria with Bishop Michael Langrish, Canon Giles Fraser, and Baroness Cox, and stayed on for an extra two weeks (News, 20 April). He writes: “My status once the delegation left immediately became ‘unofficial’. My visa was arranged by the Syrian Orthodox Church. My itinerary was completely designed by myself, and received the approval in its entirety by the Ministry of Tourism.”

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