Justice has finally caught up with Anwar Raslan, a former colonel in Syria’s intelligence service. On January 13, a court in Koblenz, Germany, convicted him of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Now 58, he supervised the murder, the torture and the sexual abuse of dozens of prisoners. Though only a cog in the Syrian regime’s machinery of oppression, he was doubtless a war criminal who richly deserves his punishment.
This was an important trial inasmuch as it was the first to prosecute state-sponsored torture and abuse in Syria, which has been embroiled in a civil war for the past decade.
And from the viewpoint of Syrian survivors and human rights activists, it was a landmark verdict in the quest to hold accountable Syrian government officials who have committed crimes since the outbreak of that conflict. In this respect, it was the first judgment handed down by a court calling out atrocities by a government still in power.
Stefanie Bock, the director of the University of Marburg’s International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials, believes that Raslan’s trial set a precedent. “There is no safe haven for war criminals,” she told The New York Times. “It’s a clear sign that the world will not stand by and do nothing.”
That may be true, but one should not lose sight of the fact that Raslan was merely a minor figure in a police state that suppresses genuine dissent and ruthlessly kills its enemies. The real murderers are top-level officials who formulate and implement policy under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the mantle of leadership from his father, Hafez.
Hafez Assad, Syria’s former minister of defense, ruled Syria with an iron hand from 1970 until his death in 2000. In 1982, he crushed a revolt in the city of Hama, leveling an entire neighborhood and killing thousands of civilians.
His son, unwilling to liberalize the country in any meaningful fashion or countenance peaceful demonstrations demanding change, ordered security forces to fire on unarmed protesters. Syria was thus swept into a spiral of bloodshed, which has consumed the lives of some 400,000 Syrians and left cities like Aleppo in ruins.
During the course of this destructive war, Assad has resorted to the most extreme measures to defeat the rebels trying to remove him. He has cold-bloodedly ordered the air force to bomb residential districts indiscriminately. He has imposed inhumane sieges on rebellious neighborhoods, resulting in mass starvation. He has deployed chemical weapons in the most egregious violation of decency.
In running roughshod over his people, Assad and his allies — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — have defied all international norms and flouted every human rights convention.
And yet not a single high-level perpetrator has been prosecuted. The reasons are clear. Syrian government officials do not usually leave Syria, fearing they will be arrested and put on trial. Syria has not been referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as it should be, because Russia and China have vetoed all such Security Council resolutions at the United Nations.
Raslan was apprehended because he left Syria in 2012, having grown disillusioned with the regime. After joining the Syrian opposition, he received a visa to enter Germany. Since 2015, the German government has admitted more than one million Muslim refugees, many of whom have been Syrian nationals.
Some of the Syrian migrants were instrumental in helping German prosecutors build a compelling case against Raslan.
Presumably, he will spend the rest of his days in a cell in Germany. But justice across the board will only be served after major Syrian perpetrators are punished.